Six months is a very long time in football. Last summer, it seemed as though everything Zinedine Zidane touched turned to gold. By winning La Liga and a second straight Champions League, the legendary ex-Real Madrid player had confirmed his place in the pantheon of great Real Madrid managers.
Fast-forward to January, and things are not quite so rosy. Zidane was whistled by his own fans during Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat to Villarreal, and the reigning champions now sit 19 points behind league leaders Barcelona.
The reversal of fortunes has been so dramatic that Real Madrid have now dropped more points than in the entirety of 2016/17, and they’re not yet halfway through the season.
The home side managed 28 shots versus Villarreal, but didn’t hit the net once. It has been a theme of their season, afflicting Cristiano Ronaldo in particular. They have taken 348 shots in their 18 league games, but have only managed 32 goals. Ronaldo has been responsible for 94 of those shots, and just four of the goals.
Not for the first time this season, Zidane was cursing his luck after the game, saying that the “ball didn’t want to go in”. But there must come a point when he accepts that such a consistently poor conversion rate cannot solely be down to bad luck, but must be symptomatic of a wider problem.
The fact is that Zidane has stubbornly refused to make the changes necessary to kickstart Madrid’s season, instead blindly hoping that his players start to click and the ball suddenly wants to go in. He has persisted with the same ineffective tactics, underperforming personnel and predictable formation that have let him down all season, and the fans are beginning to tire of it.
When Zidane first took over as Real Madrid manager after Rafa Benítez’s sacking, he picked players on form rather than reputation. This brought him a great deal of early success, but he is now showing far too much loyalty to the players who helped him get there, irrespective of their form.
This loyalty is partly enforced by a lack of squad depth, which precludes Zidane from being able to mix things up in any meaningful fashion. Borja Mayoral is their only available back-up striker, but he still remained on the bench against Villarreal even as Los Blancos searched for a late equaliser.
The lack of depth can be put down to a certain degree of transfer market hubris in the summer. Fresh from winning the double, amid all the talk that the era of Barcelona had passed and the age of Real Madrid had arrived, they failed to strengthen their squad, and allowed it to be weakened by the departure of game-changing squad players such as James Rodríguez and Álvaro Morata.
Despite the obvious need for an injection of new blood into his team, Zidane has insisted that he doesn’t want to sign anyone in the current transfer window, instead challenging his current squad to return to form. It is a risky tactic – surely he would be better served bringing in some new faces to increase competition for places and to boost the fans’ morale.
But personnel aside, the way in which Zidane’s side is set up and the tactics they employ have also become stale. Any guile or attacking verve has been thrown to the wind, and the prevailing tactic is to get the ball wide and put in cross after cross, which is as easy to defend against as it is predictable.
Being so far adrift of top spot would normally cause club president Florentino Pérez’s trigger finger to itch, but Zidane’s legendary status has caused him to hold fire so far. It is worth noting that when Zidane’s predecessor Benítez was sacked at this stage of the season two years ago, he was 15 points closer to the top of the table than Zidane is now.
It looks as though Pérez will allow Zidane to ride out the rest of the season, in the hope of an upturn in form and a potential defence of their Champions League title. But if the poor form continues, the rumblings of discontent in the crowd could turn to outright revolt, and Pérez’s hand could be forced.
The poor results are bad enough, but it’s Zidane’s stubbornness and refusal to try anything different that is causing Real Madrid fans to turn on their manager. The whole footballing set-up is crying out for change, but Zidane is unmoved. There is a phrase in Spanish, ‘renovarse o morir’ – renovate or die. Zidane needs to adopt that mantra now before it’s too late.