In November 2015, Real Madrid suffered one of their most humiliating defeats for several years as Barcelona – lacking the injured Lionel Messi – waltzed into the Bernabeu and cruised to a 4-0 victory.
Predictably, that game proved to be the point of no return for Real boss Rafa Benitez, who was sacked amid scenes of sad inevitability six weeks later.
His replacement was club legend Zinedine Zidane, who immediately effected a remarkable turnaround which saw the steadied ship surge to a strong finale to the campaign, concluding with the European crown thanks to a penalty shoot-out victory over local rivals Atletico Madrid in the Champions League Final.
How did Zidane do it? What kind of sweeping changes must the Frenchman have instigated to transform the team from their Clasico capitulation into continental kings in such a short space of time?
Well, in truth, hardly any. Ten of the eleven players who started in that defeat to Barcelona continued to start under Zidane, whose only real innovation was the introduction of Casemiro in place of James Rodriguez to add more muscle into the midfield.
Other than that, Zidane maintained more or less the same tactical approach and the same personnel that had been employed by his predecessors Benitez and Carlo Ancelotti, with his main impact limited to the realm of psychology: using his charisma and authority to bring together a collection of vast egos and keep them fighting towards a common goal.
The same group of players also marched to a convincing league and European double the following season, with Zidane doing a wonderful job to keep all his stars aligned but, again, making few tactical interventions other than the implementation of a midfield diamond with Isco at the tip and Gareth Bale relegated to substitute status.
Throughout that first managerial spell at the Bernabeu, Zidane oversaw a process of gradual evolution, taking the outstanding resources at his disposal and molding them into a Europe-conquering collective by instilling an atmosphere of mutual respect and giving them the freedom to play.
This time, however, the nature of his task is completely different.
Rather than tweaking and nudging, Zidane is facing the challenge of commanding a full-scale revolution. Cristiano Ronaldo is gone, Bale will probably follow, Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo are fading forces and several more – including 2017’s star man Isco and once-golden boy Marco Asensio – face uncertain futures.
Replacing them, the welcome mat is being hastily rolled out for a new wave of Galacticos, whose role in the team must now be defined by Zidane.
Best of luck for defenders trying to keep these two quiet next season 😳⚽️ pic.twitter.com/5IMXAoQOhQ— Sport360° (@Sport360) June 8, 2019
First and foremost among those, of course, is Eden Hazard, and the arrival of the gifted Belgian has already set pulses racing among Real fans who are dreaming that this could be the year for their team’s great revival.
Indeed, the prospect of Hazard unleashing upon La Liga his thrilling dribbling skills and his ability to create and take chances is a tantalising one, and it’s easy to envisage him enjoying a fruitful partnership with the unselfish and silky link-up play provided by Karim Benzema.
If Hazard and Benzema are the new front two, though, where does that leave another costly summer import, Luka Jovic?
Maybe Zidane is planning to use the Serbian frontman alongside Benzema, with Hazard roaming free in front of a solid midfield trio of Casemiro, Modric and Toni Kroos. But what then for the squad’s wingers, such as Isco, Asensio and rising star Vinicius Junior?
Or, if Zidane plumps for a 4-4-2 formation with a pair of those wingers included, what does that mean for Jovic and the midfield trio? Not to mention this summer’s other signings Eder Militao and Rodrygo, and any others who may yet follow (Paul Pogba? Kylian Mbappe?).
In truth, even Zidane probably doesn’t yet know exactly how he will employ all the weapons at his disposal. The coach can only properly start to plan after the summer transfer window has been closed and all the ins and outs have been completed.
The question of how a batch of highly talented new imports can be assimilated alongside an equally gifted group of current stars is a problem that any coach would love to have, but this is the busiest Bernabeu summer for a decade, and Zidane’s managerial abilities will be tested to the full as he attempts to assemble all the pieces of his jigsaw.
If he gets it right, the results could be truly spectacular.
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