As each Champions League edition comes to an end with a new champion crowned, fans and pundits alike start debating whether there can really be another “Sacchi’s Milan” among Europe’s elite—the team that lifted the Big Ears two years in a row. Little did they know that one man had what it takes to conquer Europe back-to-back after more than two decades since Sacchi’s incredible Milan team achieved the feat; that man is none other than the legendary Zinedine Zidane.
Widely known for his artistry touch in the heart of midfield, Zidane always had the mentality of a coach. His ability to dictate play and create chances for his teammates during the game made him the leader on the pitch as well as off it. If you can’t recap what Zidane used to do in the field, just watch the 2006 World Cup Quarter-final match between France & Brazil; it’ll show you a charismatic bald player dominating the entire star-studded Brazilian roster.
After Benitez’s forgettable stint with Real Madrid, Florentino Perez took the daring decision to call upon Zidane from the Castilla team to manage the team. A decision that spurred some criticism initially, much of it being that Zidane lacked “managerial experience”. Yet those who closely followed Zidane’s footsteps in the football world knew that he had what it takes to steer Los Blancos’ ship back to its true path; the path of winning.
Establishing team harmony and calmness:
Image credits: Marca
Zidane’s status as a footballing icon served him extremely well in overcoming the locker-room challenge and ensuring that there’s solidarity between each and every member of Real Madrid. This held true to not just the players, but the staff as well. It’s safe to say that Zidane learned a lot from Ancelotti in this aspect; simply because the Italian is the master in maintaining optimal relationships among players.
This in turn reflects on the field in the form of admirable team spirit and hard-fought victories. Many times, we’ve seen Real Madrid coming back from behind in tough matches—fitness definitely plays a huge part, yet players’ psychology has its weigh-in on the matter as well. Their desire to prove themselves to the man on the bench, to the legend; this idea in itself gives birth to a huge morale boost among the players.
Rebuilding fitness levels:
Image credits: uMAXit Football
Complaints were raised during Benitez’s reign that the players’ fitness levels were extremely low. Zidane managed to temporarily fix that in his first season but not to full effect due to a weak pre-season. But in the summer preceding the magnificent 2016/2017 season, Antonio Pintus (pictured above) was hired from Olympique de Lyon as the fitness coach. It wasn’t a random decision, Pintus was Juventus’ fitness coach from 1991-1998; coinciding with Zidane at that time.
During pre-season training, Pintus would divide the players in groups and conduct different athletic exercises; seems normal doesn’t it? How about if each session must end with a 30-minute run? That’s why we witnessed the amazing comebacks Real’s players were capable of producing whenever they needed, simply because they had more in the tank than the rest. It was not just the half hour runs but extremely well-tailored regimes that helped build the fitness of the players.
Another reason for Real’s great run towards the end of the season was their bench strength. But it would have counted for nought if it were not for Zidane’s excellent man management of the players. Glorified substitutes like Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez played when the ‘BBC’ had to be rested or if any player was injured.
This bench strength was also instrumental in Real’s scoring towards the end of the games as Zidane was almost always able to make a telling impact on the game by making substitutions. The quality of the players in the bench was vital and this helped in resting key players during the rough run of fixtures towards the end of the season.
Implementing a style of play that suits the players:
It goes without saying that Real Madrid boast the “Gala XI”. Each player has many years of experience at the top-level as well as huge talent. However, talent and experience without coordination and identity can’t win you silverware; as we’d previously seen under Benitez.
Zidane knew how to use his players’ strengths to create a way of playing that assures success. To offer a better insight on how Real Madrid played over the past two seasons, I’ll divide the tactical analysis into two sections. The first being the second half of the 2015/2016 season and the second being the 2016/2017 season.
With Benitez, Real Madrid was an unbalanced team, a formidable force in attack yet extremely vulnerable in defense. Zidane wanted another “Makelele” to protect the backline from counter-attacks, and in Casemiro he surely found one. Positioned as a pivot behind Kroos and Modric, Casemiro’s influence on the field grew stronger with each game thanks to his sheer physicality and ferociousness. It was not just this but Casemiro’s intelligent reading of the game which enabled him to stop a lot of counterattacks at the bud.
Made using TacticalPad
As shown in the animation above, the Brazilian’s positioning between the center backs allows Marcelo and Carvajal to push up and remain as wide as possible. This movement is extremely important for the team since both of them are considered among the world’s best in their respective positions; they can cross, shoot, dribble, and pass with ease.
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This animation shows how Ronaldo and Bale move towards the box where Benzema is located and wait for the cross from either full backs. If the cross is coming from Carvajal, mainly Ronaldo and Benzema position themselves on the far post with Bale around the penalty spot. If it’s from Marcelo, Bale and Benzema are the ones to attack the far post with Ronaldo roaming in the box.
However, switching positions between the trio inside the penalty box is highly encouraged in order to lose their markers. All three of them are brilliant in heading the ball as we’ve seen many times in previous matches. Furthermore, the midfielders occupy the penalty box arc to get the second ball to either retain possession or shoot.
With the 4-3-3 explained in the animations above, we notice how a movement from one player triggers a movement from another, like a perfectly rehearsed chain reaction. It’s worth mentioning that Real Madrid became the top European club to score from headers in the past two seasons, clearly coinciding with Real’s emphasis on crossing the ball.
With the 11th Champions League title in the cabinet, Real Madrid had set their sights on the league title that evaded them for a long time. Zidane finally had his chance of starting the season with the team and what a huge difference it made. The season started well and a hot prospect in the name of Asensio was stealing the show with his accurate left foot.
But then, Bale’s injury happened. Many considered Real as a weaker side without the Welshman, yet what we witnessed was a stroke of genius from Zidane; the image below shows the new formation he opted to use:
The lineup portrayed above was used in the 2017 Champions League Final vs Juventus that ended in a comfortable 4-1 victory for Madrid. Isco replaced Bale in the team but played in a different position where he had the freedom to roam behind the strikers, link up play, and keep hold of the ball to open up spaces for his teammates. Four players in midfield plus the aggressive positioning of the two full backs made Real unplayable throughout the season.
This tactical switch done by Zizou was nothing short of peak foresight. In his midfield he had a defensive tank responsible for all defensive duties (Casemiro), a controller responsible for recycling possession and controlling tempo (Kroos), a needle player responsible for moving the ball into advanced positions using his close ball control (Modric), and a trequartista responsible for playmaking and joining the attack as well as overloading a certain side of the pitch (Isco); as a side note, Modric can do all 4 roles seamlessly as we’ve seen countless times. The above midfield role combination is essential to any team aiming to win trophies consistently.
The 4-3-1-2 by its nature keeps the wings free for the full-backs to occupy, something Marcelo and Carvajal prefer as I explained before. But the beauty lies in the how the ball is played from the back to reach either fullbacks in a dangerous position. Before explaining in detail, below is a video showing how a typical Merengues’ attacking play is performed:
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The ball advances from the back making its way mainly through the right side towards the Carvajal-Modric axis. Casemiro, Isco, & Benzema join their teammates positioning themselves in different passing lanes yet more prone to the right.
Due to Real’s huge presence on one side, the opposition is now forced to commit numbers to that particular side to ensure adequate defensive coverage.
Meanwhile, Kroos & Marcelo are on the opposite wing with the Brazilian positioning at the same vertical line with Carvajal; both of them waiting the switch of play towards their underloaded side.
When the switch happens and the ball is in mid-air, Benzema and Ronaldo attack the far post mainly moving on their markers’ blind side followed by the lateral movement of Isco and Carvajal in the form of a “second wave”.
Marcelo receives the ball and ensures he crosses as quickly as possible to catch the defenders off-guard.
As a safety-net, Casemiro is behind Kroos and Modric who are in their respective half-spaces, forming a defensive triangle with the aim of blocking any counter-attack attempt.
This strategy still has crossing as its main weapon, but when the team came across others who were well rehearsed in defending crosses, different ideas had to be implemented. That’s where Isco really shined. One might ask why; here’s why- Madrid tried to mix it up using cut-backs, through balls, long shots, or dribbling instead of crossing, but to do that, the team definitely needed an extra man in midfield to gain numerical advantage or to use him as a dummy runner to open up space for others. With that player being Isco, Zidane hit the jackpot.
The ‘midfield diamond’ is still the ‘go-to’ tactic used by Real, especially in their Champions League matches where they are able to overcome top European opposition through their manipulation of the opponent with their midfield control. The presence of top players in those positions combined with Zizou’s effective tactics has propelled Madrid as the team to beat in Europe.
Being an ex-player with huge experience, the Frenchman knew how important it is to vary his team’s attacking ideas while focusing on the strongest play that suits his team. To conclude, take a moment to observe the system explained above, that’s a guaranteed-goals-system my dear readers. For a team to reach a stunning record of 73-game scoring streak playing in the toughest level of football is something worth appreciating and applauding. His biggest challenge this season is one coaches have to deal with properly; keeping the players hungry for more titles.
Will we see another record breaking season for Los Blancos or does football have its own narrative to tell? While the start to the season has not been the best for Zidane’s men, only a fool would write them off this soon, especially having seen them play over the course of the last season and half. One thing’s for sure, the man with the artistic touch on and off the field is cementing his name as one of Madrid’s best coaches ever, if his start to his managing career at the club is anything to go by.