Zidane managing Real Madrid

Image: Francisco Seco / The Associated Press

Zinedine Zidane wasted little time scrapping Rafa Benitez’s restricting 4-2-3-1 and resetting Real Madrid to a more fluid and attack-oriented setup. The early changes are hard to argue against. Madrid have played two and won two under their new manager, scoring 10 goals and conceding only one, playing with the kind of efficient savagery that was a highlight of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign.

How has Zidane put Madrid back on course? To put it simply, he has reverted them back to one of the basic setups Ancelotti often used in his time there, particularly when they were playing against difficult opponents.

Madrid’s set up under Zidane has been a mix between the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3. In defense, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Isco make up the the midfield four, while Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema are up top as the two strikers. By doing this, Zidane greatly reduces the amount of defensive running Ronaldo has to do, puts him in a more advanced position to lead counter-attacks, and also gives more support to Modric and Kroos, neither of which are defensive midfielders. Madrid’s workrate in defense has markedly improved, especially in their willingness to press teams. Make no mistake, getting Madrid to work harder defensively is an important early victory for Zidane, as it is not something a team full of superstars is apt to do.

In attack, Zidane has given his collection of world class talent the freedom to express their virtues. Bale pushes forward along the right wing while Ronaldo and Benzema often occupy a more central location in the pitch, giving left back Marcelo freedom to play on the left wing.

A noticeable pattern in Madrid’s attack has been that Benzema is often pulling off towards the left wing with Marcelo, allowing Ronaldo to play through the middle. At age 30, Ronaldo is edging towards the point when wide players start to lose the quickness and bursts of speed that they rely on through much of their careers. In preparation for this, Ronaldo and Zidane are making a conscious effort to play Ronaldo in a more central role, reducing the amount of running he has to do while playing towards his extraordinary finishing ability and intelligence of movement that will prolong his career outside of the wide forward role.

In Benitez’s desire for order and control at all times, Madrid often looked like a thoroughbred who was never allowed to do more than gallop. Madrid is a team full of players with very instinctual attacking habits. Benitez, in his determination to always be in control of the situation, seemingly tried to dull these instincts and in doing so handicapped the biggest strength of his team. Zidane, so far, has done the opposite. In reverting to Ancelotti’s patterns of play, Zidane is getting Madrid back to the exceptional displays of attacking force they showed under their former Italian manager.

Zidane playing for Real Madrid

This is not surprising. After all, Zidane, one of the best attacking players of the modern era, understands well the desires of forwards and attacking midfielders. This gives him an extra sense of credibility with his players, who, unlike with Benitez, are looking at someone whom they consider to be their equal. He knows what it is like to feel the pressures of performing at the very highest level of competition and what needs to be said to his players and when, much like Ancelotti.

It is too early to draw any conclusive opinions about Zidane’s Madrid, with the true test of a Madrid manager being European competition and the matches against Barcelona and Atlético Madrid. It is only then when we will see a true test of his tactical thinking, and if he has yet developed the ability to change games when his team is under pressure. However, what we can deduce from this early period is that Zidane has a very practical approach to his management, choosing not to over-complicate things and instead simply reverting Madrid back to a very successful winning formula. At the very least, this shows that he is a practical manager with common sense, a trait very undervalued in managers, it seems. It also seems self-evident that he has the respect and trust of his players, an achievement that should not be overlooked at the drama that is coaching at Real Madrid.


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