Following Real Madrid‘s 2-0 defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League on Tuesday, Zinedine Zidane says he won’t resign. Despite their fifth defeat in their last 11 outings. Despite the very real risk of the team exiting the Champions League in the group stage for the first time in the competition’s history. Despite the fact that right now, this group appears as tough as wet tissue paper… and about as useful, too.
That matters because conventional wisdom is that Zidane won’t be fired. Or, at least, there are several more circles of hell into which this team has to descend before that happens. Like whiffing badly against Borussia Monchengladbach next Wednesday — a win guarantees qualification, a draw will be enough if Shaktar lose to Inter — while screwing up their next two Liga tests, this Saturday against Sevilla and the following weekend in the Madrid derby. Even that might not be enough for Real Madrid president Florentino Perez to pull the trigger.
Why is Zidane so rooted to his job? It’s not just the nearly two decades at the club as player, coach and assistant. Or even the three Champions League titles and two Liga crowns in five years. It’s the fact that current results aside, Zidane suits Real Madrid perfectly. He doesn’t cause controversy. He doesn’t badmouth the club in public, and he doesn’t moan to friends in the media in private. He doesn’t annoy the star players. He doesn’t pick fights with other managers. He doesn’t harass referees. He doesn’t demand the club embark on an expensive rebuilding process. He hasn’t lost his cool since that night in Berlin in July 2006.
Zidane is easy and manageable, and that’s what Florentino wants and needs right now. That won’t change unless, as we said, matters degenerate badly. Really badly.
What could change, however, is that Zidane walks away. He’s done it before, after all, and you can envision, perhaps, a moment where he asks himself if his message is getting through to this crew. If he feels he can no longer get them to perform. If this job is too stressful and not rewarding enough.
The thing about a guy like Zidane is that he’s not defined by his career as a manager. Not just because he was one of the greatest footballers of his generation and his managerial achievements may never match that, but rather because, unlike other ex-footballers, this isn’t somebody who was burdened with a burning desire to coach the moment he hung up his boots. A full seven years passed from the day he retired to when he became an assistant coach. He doesn’t need this — not financially, not emotionally — and when he feels he’s no longer the best guy available for the job, he’ll walk away.
That’s my reading, anyway. The inscrutable stone face will decide when his time is up.
So: should that time be now?
There’s a school of revisionist thought that, above all, blames the front office. It maintains that, since Toni Kroos‘ signing in 2014, the only legitimate superstar to arrive that contributed in any significant way was Thibaut Courtois — a goalkeeper. Instead, Real Madrid got a pricey, permanently injured $140m dud (Eden Hazard, who has two league goals to his name in 16 months) while spending another $120m on a promising but frustratingly raw Brazilian kids (Rodrgyo, Vinicius) and a further $70m on a striker who rarely plays and rarely scores (Luka Jovic, who also has two goals to his name).
Real have spent a further $350m over the past six years on a gaggle of players — Eder Militao, Ferland Mendy, Alvaro Odriozola, Mariano Diaz, Theo Hernandez, Brahim Diaz, Dani Ceballos, Alvaro Morata, Mateo Kovacic and Danilo — who have either come and gone without leaving much of a mark, or are so pedestrian that they likely never will. Some were sold at a profit and some have done well elsewhere, but the point is that, apart from Ferland Mendy (and you wonder sometimes if he only looks good because the alternative is Marcelo) few will be remembered fondly at the Bernabeu.
The problem with this logic is that it ignores the fact that Real Madrid won significant silverware during this period: three Champions League crowns and two Liga titles. And no, it wasn’t solely down to riding the Cristiano Ronaldo bandwagon either. He left in 2018. They won a Champions League and league title in the past two years, without him, but with Zidane at the helm.
A more apt criticism might be that the club didn’t do enough to refresh the side in terms of adding youth. Here, the additions have been hit (Fede Valverde, Martin Odegaard, Mendy), miss (Jovic, Odriozola, Eder Militao) or the jury’s still out (Vinicius and Rodrgyo who, lest we forget, are still 20 and 19 respectively). What has really hurt them is injuries, like the ones that stalled the growth of Isco and Marco Asensio. And, of course, they never got the lift Hazard was supposed to provide, both in terms of goals and stardust.
Now, all of the above is not an exoneration of Zidane this season. These are merely mitigating factors that make Real’s post-lockdown run to the title, in which they gained 31 of 33 points in La Liga, that much more remarkable. And it raises the question: why could they do it six months ago, but not now?
Injuries (Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal, Valverde and, until Tuesday night, Karim Benzema) offer a partial explanation, but only a partial one. They don’t explain why Raphael Varane, who is 27 and a World Cup winner, should suddenly play like Rafael Benitez (who is 60 and only going to win a World Cup as a manager or if he buys a plastic replica). They don’t explain why this team continually makes foolish mental errors. They don’t explain why, as they did on Tuesday, they can go out, come close to scoring a couple of goals and then go limp as a rag doll.
A clue might come from the numbers. Real Madrid’s attacking output in the league and Champions League the season is virtually identical to last season’s as measured in Expected Goals: 1.53 to 1.52. Defensively they’re worse, conceding a 1.00 xG compared to 0.83 last year, and they’re especially worse compared to their post-lockdown Liga xGC, which was 0.70.
There’s no point in looking at numbers on their own; best to combine them with the “eye test,” and what this suggests is two things. One is a team that plays in spurts, sometimes doing enough to get the upper hand, sometimes not and then suffering for long stretches. That was likely true last season, too. The other is a side that concedes too much and too many high-quality chances in particular. Why? Partly because of systemic failures up the pitch, but largely because of individual errors at the back.
And this brings us back to Zidane. This is a crisis he need to coach his way out of on the training pitch. Both in practical terms — defending better as a unit, so that when mistakes happen, there’s a fail-safe — and, perhaps primarily, in mental terms, knowing which players aren’t right and when (yes, I’m talking about Varane) and installing the sort of calm and preparation you need to ride out games at this level.
The question about whether he sticks around is simple. Barring a cataclysm, the job is his for as long as he wants it and, from what we can tell, he’ll want it for as long as he feels he has the right message for the players and for as long as he feels that he can get it across to them.
Short-term, that’s how Real Madrid gets fixed. Long-term, it will take investment and planning and patience and health.
So, Zizou, it’s on you. Do you feel you’re up for it?