It’s early in the season and Real Madrid have been playing poorly. And even though he has only been in charge for a few weeks, having inherited a seemingly impossible situation, their manager is under heavy pressure.
We are, of course, talking about Zinedine Zidane, who has been facing a mountain of criticism since his team’s dreadful performance against Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday night and who is now largely regarded as lacking sufficient credit to survive many more serious setbacks.
But we could just as easily be talking about Julen Lopetegui, a former coach of Real’s B team, who was in a very similar situation this time last year after taking from over from Zidane and finding himself unable to give the team a coherent way forward.
Lopetegui eventually lasted until the end of October, when a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Barcelona was enough to seal his fate. Within hours, he was fired and replaced by former B team coach Santi Solari, who in turn was also unable to stem the tide and was duly replaced by yet another former B team coach…yes, Zidane.
So much symmetry. It is, therefore, more than a little ironic that the two men will go head to head on Sunday night as Zidane’s Real travel to face Lopetegui’s Sevilla, who are the early-season table toppers in La Liga with three wins, one draw and just one goal conceded from their first four games.
Just as Zidane is at his lowest ebb, he is forced to confront the man who replaced him, and who was ultimately fired after failing to solve the exact same problems which are still highly evident 12 months down the line.
Those problems were evident to a startling scale during Real’s 3-0 defeat in the French capital on Wednesday night, when the manner of the team’s performance – mustering no shots on goal for the first time in more than a decade – was even more concerning than the result.
For the vast majority of the non-contest, Zidane’s men appeared to not have any real idea of how they were supposed to be playing. Formation? Well…2-2-1-1-1-3…does that count? Defensive cover? Nah, not for us. Pressing high? Not really our scene. Low block? Hmm, what’s that now?
It was a total mess, with the consequence that PSG could have quite easily strolled home with a six or seven goal winning margin if their finishing and final ball into the box had been better.
It wasn’t so much that the individual players performed poorly – although few of them emerged with credit – but that the whole shape of the team was lacking. In fact, especially from a defensive perspective, there wasn’t a shape.
Zidane’s immediate reaction after the game was to point the finger at his team’s lack of ‘intensity’, which is a handy way of passing the responsibility back onto the players by suggesting that if only they had run around a bit more, everything would have been fine and dandy.
Intensity doesn’t help much, though, when the opposition is able to counter-attack by running unhindered into a 50-yard gap between your defence and attack, as happened with alarming frequency in Paris on Wednesday.
A boost in intensity wouldn’t have helped Ferland Mendy much as he faced wave after wave of PSG attacks down his flanks with nobody to help. Intensity wasn’t Karim Benzema’s main issue as he waited patiently for the ball, or any of his teammates, to come anywhere near him.
‘Work harder’ is a very useful piece of advice, and can go a long way towards mending all manner of shortfalls in any walk of life. But ‘work better’ is often an even more valuable mantra, and Real Madrid’s current problem is not a lack of effort, but a lack of clarity in their ideas.
Reminder: Real Madrid's next game. Sunday night. Sevilla away. La Liga leaders. Ramos. Lopetegui. Reguilon.🔥🔥🔥— Andy West (@andywest01) September 18, 2019
A certain somebody knows just how Zidane feels. A certain somebody encountered exactly the same problems at the Bernabeu. A certain somebody was not given sufficient time to find the answers. And on Sunday night, Zidane will meet him face to face.
This time last year, ‘a dead man walking’ was the phrase habitually used to describe Lopetegui as he laboured through the task of attempting to give Real Madrid a convincing collective structure but never really looking like he would succeed.
And now it applies with equal vigour to Zidane. Unless he turns things around soon, he won’t even be walking.
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