If Zinedine Zidane’s managerial career at Real Madrid could be condensed down into one line from a classic film, it’d probably be good-guy-gone-bad Harvey Dent’s warning in The Dark Knight.
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
The major difference between Batman and Zizou, however, is that the former knew when it was time to scarper, and the latter remains intent on sticking around and waiting for the hungry pack of dogs to devour him.
He’s morphing into a bit of a Joker, come to think of it.
Zidane has brought great glory back to Santiago Bernabeu over his two spells in charge, winning two league titles and three (consecutive) Champions League trophies. His latest achievement was to knock Barcelona off La Liga’s perch, clinching success by five points. How he must wish he’d walked off into the sunset then and there.
Since that moment, things have gone south for Los Blancos. Struggling for goals and clean sheets, they sit fourth in La Liga, seven points off the top. And Tuesday’s horror 2-0 defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk, which has thrown Madrid’s European ambitions into complete jeopardy, has brought the axe ever-closer to falling on the coach.
it has to be said, we kind of saw this coming, right?
After all, each triumph Zidane has enjoyed has continuously declined in quality and lacked as much merit as the previous accolade. His first league title was won with a whopping 93 points, fighting off a superb Barcelona side that collected 90 of their own. One hell of a battle.
This time round, his adversary was a wounded animal, who managed to get their paws on a gun and consistently shot themselves in the foot, time and time again. Not quite the same level of opposition, then.
So, crashing out to Manchester City in the Round of 16 last season, and now sitting on the brink of an utterly humiliating group stage exit (and the even more embarrassing prospect of competing in the Europa League) shouldn’t come as that much of a shock.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not crediting all of Zidane’s success down to luck and weaker opponents – no one possess enough fortune to win five major trophies in such a small timeframe. But, whatever breaks did paper over the deficiencies and cracks have well and truly evaporated.
All that’s left is abject mediocrity – and Zidane has to shoulder the blame.
Watching Madrid in recent weeks, there has been a distinct lack of a plan going forward, and absolute chaos at the back. Individual mistakes have haunted Los Merengues, with the previously dependable Raphael Varane performing as successfully as a cardboard cutout of himself against Shakhtar.
It’s not only down to the individuals, however. Watch some highlights of Madrid’s 2-1 defeat to Deportivo Alaves, and count the number of times the visitors escaped behind their opponent’s defence with a simple ball over the top. It’s frightening, and for that to be allowed to happen without intervention, it should count as a dereliction of duty from Zidane.
Tactically then, nothing is working. The balance to the side has disappeared, and the sturdy defence which allowed them to win by one-goal margins on 12 occasions in the league last year is a shadow of its former self.
Add to that a bunch of strikers who struggle for service and goals, and you’ve got yourself a losing recipe.
On the other hand, Zidane will feel extremely let down by his bosses, and rightly so. The lack of spending in the summer has obviously caught up with them, and having squeezed every ounce out of this squad last year, the coach cannot inspire the likes of Karim Benzema and an injury-riddled Sergio Ramos to repeat their supernatural heroics.
Perhaps Madrid are also one of the worst-placed clubs to be dealing with this current pandemic and subsequent clogged fixture list in all of Europe. Once again, their manager has played his part in this disaster zone, too.
Zidane proved with his treatment of Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez that he has and will always have his favourites, and there are those who he simply doesn’t fancy. He managed to ship that pair out, but there are plenty around the club who have failed to gain his trust.
Isco and Luka Jovic seem to be wasting their careers in the Spanish capital, and their coach is showing no signs of really placing his faith in them from the first minute of matches. Reserve forward Mariano Diaz just isn’t up to it as a suitable backup to Benzema, either.
Out wide, young Brazilian starlets Rodrygo and Vinicius have demonstrated flashes of their brilliance, but kids that age need the trust and belief of their coach, and the pressure on Zidane may have resulted in their minutes being restricted.
On top of that, you’ve got the sick list.
Injuries to key defenders has left the French boss scratching around for a solution, to which he decided to play winger Lucas Vazquez at right-back on Tuesday night. That certainly is not the answer. Don’t even get me started on Eden Hazard, either. But these issues highlight another topic of controversy within the squad.
Zidane has tried rotating his starting lineup each week in order to save tired legs, but this decision has come under some serious scrutiny – mainly because the alternative starters are not up to the level of their superiors.
So, why bother freshening up the team if it severely weakens it? Well, the players which the boss hangs his hat on are nearing the twilight of their career, and there is no way they can maintain an elite standard with the demands that have been thrust upon these teams by the coronavirus outbreak.
The likes of Benzema, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Ramos and Marcelo, who were the lynchpins behind Madrid’s success in the past, do not have the legs to carry a title charge under these conditions. Can we blame them?
These guys are serial winners, but every superstar has their limit. Perhaps the hunger for constant success has waned, just a touch. It all feels like the title glory of 2020 sapped all the energy and ambition from this ageing, depleted squad, and their manager is now unable to rouse them from their coma.
Could a new man make a massive difference to the fate of this season? Possibly. Probably not. Additional faces with genuine world-class ability are needed to raise Madrid back to the heights they once achieved, but a fresh start under new guidance for the social pirañas in the team could go some way to propelling los Blancos back into title contention.
Zidane has proven himself as an accomplished, competent tactician, and within the right environment and the right group of players, he can really grind out results. Those specific conditions may have passed him by in Madrid, and it could be time to escape into the dark night.