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.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has insisted that Los Blancos must recover their hunger for winning.
The Spanish capital side went without a major title last season and have experienced a rocky start to their 2019/20 campaign. Madrid could only manage two wins in four games in La Liga and struggled to get all three points against Levante on Saturday.
Perez is confident that his side will recover and get back to winning ways soon.
“It wasn’t the season that we wanted,” Perez said, according to Marca.
“We have to understand that this team came from winning everything, but it’s true that we’ve lacked the intensity we needed to maintain our level.
“I’ve no doubt that we’ll change that. We have to make the necessary changes and our challenge is to keep winning in an increasingly complicated and competitive situation.
“We have to recover our hunger for winning.”
Perez defended his players, who have been criticised for their poor performances during the last year.
“We’ve made a great effort to construct a winning squad,” he explained.
“On September 23 the [Best FIFA Football Awards] gala will be held, and we’ll have nine players from our current squad nominated for the best team.
“We have players who have won a lot, who have won everything, and they deserve our love and respect.”
A sodden Santiago Bernabeu witnessed a curious 3-2 victory for a zestful Real Madrid against Levante.
In the absence from the start of any summer signings, although €100 million Belgium winger Eden Hazard was fit enough to finally debut off the bench, several familiar faces came to the fore. The unplayable Karim Benzema – a post denied him a magnificent hat-trick before the hour-mark – headed in the 25th-minute opener and then soon slotted home the second after a one-two with the recalled James Rodriguez, moving onto four goals in four La Liga games this term.
A high-energy first-half display in their 4-3-3 formation was symbolised with the third. New Brazil cap Vinicius Junior was played into space on the counter and supplied a perfect centre for rampaging compatriot Casemiro to convert from close range on 40 minutes.
Madrid loanee Borja Mayoral provided hope with a tap-in just after the interval and Castilla youth product Gonzalo Melero’s 75th-minute header at the back post increased the threat of a third-successive unbeaten trip to the Bernabeu. Portuguese centre-back Ruben Vezo then directed a point-blank header at Thibaut Courtois during injury time as Madrid, just, held on.
Here are the talking points:
PICKING UP THE PACE
Incessant late summer rain was not the only dampener present.
An unfamiliar 13:00 (UAE 15:00) kick-off, patchy attendance, consecutive dropped points, presence of six pre-season additions in the dugout, an early injury crisis and Wednesday’s looming trip to Paris Saint-Germain combined to generate a subdued build-up. This maudlin mood was not aided by the fact unfancied visitors Levante came in one point, and one place, above their vaunted hosts, while only last October they’d won 2-1 on the same turf.
But this negativity was swiftly blown away by Los Blancos’ best sustained period since the first half of the opening day 3-1 triumph at Celta Vigo.
The forced break-up of the Toni Kroos/Luka Modric axis in centre midfield handed opportunity to Rodriguez. Wales forward Gareth Bale’s suspension also granted the exuberant Vinicius fresh chance to impress.
Rodriguez’s dynamism highlighted the worth of a proper No10 in a 4-3-3. Vinicius’ first assist of 2019/20 and luminous display showed why he should not, necessarily, make way when Bale and Hazard are ready for launch.
Lively Madrid had 17 more attempts (25/8), made 308 more passes (632/324) and enjoyed 66 per cent of possession. It really should not have been this close…
LESS IS MORE FOR LEVANTE
Levante are hindered by finance and history.
The budget for 2018/19 was €500m less than Saturday’s opposition and their return to La Liga from 2017/18 has delivered successive 15th-placed finishes.
Paco Lopez’s men, however, embrace their limitations. They roll with the punches offered up by a – hopefully, for them, profligate – attack and prepare counter strikes of their own.
Evergreen skipper Jose Luis Morales was a threat and almost caught out Belgium No1 Courtois at his near post in the 94th minute, while three attempts on target from seven produced an economical two goals. The spurned third of these, Vezo’s header, was, in truth, the easiest.
7 - Levante’s Borja Mayoral has scored seven LaLiga goals, three for Real Madrid and four as a Levante player, six of them away from home. Guest. pic.twitter.com/FKkNRmHYKf— OptaJose (@OptaJose) September 14, 2019
Minus a nervy second-half injury time, they were distinctly second best to Madrid. Preceding victories against Villarreal and Valladolid were similarly fraught.
Yet their durability and contentment with hanging on the ropes evidences why they could survive, while greater-resourced rivals flounder.
This was the moment the Madrid faithful had been waiting for.
Hazard’s recovery from a pre-season thigh injury was rewarded by a 30-minute cameo. Attacking menace was, naturally, exuded by the ex-Chelsea magician.
A trademark dart towards the edge of the penalty box and firm low shot required Levante goalkeeper Aitor Fernandez to be alert. He also helped win the ball back in the build-up to Vinicius’ disallowed goal.
Hazard also, impressively, completed all 18 passes and was fouled a joint-most three times.
Head coach Zinedine Zidane now has a bold call to make. Does he throw his latest superstar straight into the Champions League fray this midweek and alleviate a growing injury pandemic, or take a patient approach?