Saturday’s clasico will set the tone for Zinedine Zidane’s reign, writes Graham Ruthven. Survive, and he will have the political capital to transform the club.
Until just a few months ago Zinedine Zidane had only ever coached in Spain’s third tier. As manager of Castilla, media scrutiny was sparse and not especially scathing. But despite such a forgiving managerial induction, Zidane has already mastered the art of deflection and dismissal as football’s easiest target – Real Madrid boss.
Derby defeat to Atletico Madrid last month should have unleashed a barrage of disparagement, which until that point had been held back on the basis of Zidane’s legendary standing at the Santiago Bernabeu. Real Madrid turned in arguably their worst display of the season, allowing Barcelona to stretch their lead at the top of La Liga to nine points. Under normal circumstances the Madrid press would have savaged whoever oversaw such an indignity.
Instead Zidane gave them a new target. “Next year there might be changes, players and coach,” he candidly admitted, putting blame for the result and the trajectory of Real Madrid’s season at the door of club president FlorentinoPerez. The hammering on that door has never been louder.
The former Ballon d’Or winner also pointed out his side’s more demanding fixture schedule, bemoaning the loss of Karim Benzema at half-time to injury, but it was his comments concerning imminent change and current instability that proved most compelling. He only just stopped short of explicitly citing Perez as reason for the club’s plight.
Zidane might not be able to deflect and dismiss for much longer, though. At present he is viewed as a possible antidote to the problem, rather than part of it, by the club’s supporters, but that could quickly change with defeat to Barcelona on Saturday. Losses aren’t tolerated so well when they come in El Clasico.
Whilst Zidane’s appointment might have changed the politics of the capital club, not much has changed on the pitch. Real Madrid, for the most part, are the same team they were under Rafael Benitez. In fact, their records as manager can hardly be split, with Zidane only boasting a marginally better win percentage than his predecessor.
Consider that Benitez was sacked with Real Madrid only four points short of La Liga’s summit, while Zidane has seen them drift 10 points behind, and things appear to have only worsened as a consequence of the switch.
Of course, Zidane might point out – as he has done before – that changes are in the offing and that the final few months of the 2015/16 season must be considered something of a transitional stint. But nonetheless, Real Madrid have a much better squad than they are currently showing. Humiliation at Camp Nou this weekend (a distinct possibly given the way Barca are playing in 2016) could prove a watershed moment for Zidane.
Real Madrid are a fundamentally broken team at the moment with their problems most blatant away from home. Between December and the end of January Zidane’s side suffered a slide which saw them claim just one win from four games on the road. At the Bernabeu, fortune has been a little kinder, even taking into account the derby defeat to Atletico.
And it is a home win – against Sevilla two weeks ago – that could give Real Madrid a template to follow against Barcelona on Saturday. With Benzema back in the side and Gareth Bale fully fit for the first time this year Zidane’s side were dynamic, rapid on the attack and ultimately irrepressible as they blew awayUnai Emery’s team.
The result was a good one, but the manner of Real Madrid’s performance was even more significant. This, perhaps for the first time, was Zidane’s team. His philosophy as a football coach was evident. Real Madrid had an identity again.
Real Madrid boss – AFP
Against Barcelona the temptation is to sit deep, absorb and plug the gaps. To do anything else can be reckless, but Real Madrid don’t have the players, the strategy or the discipline to pull off such a tactic. They must stay true to what they discovered against Sevilla, playing to their prowess on the attack; not the counter attack, but the sustained attack. Zidane must be bold enough to give his players almost complete freedom in the way Benitez never did.
Saturday’s match has the potential to set the tone for his tenure as Real Madrid boss. A positive performance and result could set a precedent for him, proving to Perez that the former World Cup and European Championship winner can indeed be trusted with leading essential change at the club next season.
Zidane’s appointment was demanded in part because he is seen as the only man who could possibly stand up to Perez. He has the political power to bring about change at Real Madrid, but only if he makes it through the Clasico this weekend.