Real Madrid: Is Zinedine Zidane struggling second time around? – Guillem Balague column
At the press launch of a TV series about himself last week, Sergio Ramos joked with journalists: “I have more seasons now with Amazon than I do with Real Madrid.”
The Spain centre-back has two years left on his contract at the Bernabeu but his club are not looking to renew it.
And while Ramos has been a constant presence at Real for 14 years, the uncertainty surrounding his future only adds to the increasing sense of instability around a club which has won four of the past six Champions Leagues.
Since Zinedine Zidane returned as manager towards the end of last season, his win percentage is below 50% and there has been little to suggest improvement since the start of this season.
Real still look unsettled and they are still inconsistent, worrying signs as they enter a two week-period in which they will face Paris St-Germain in the Champions League, as well as leaders Ateltico Madrid and Champions League qualifiers Sevilla in La Liga.
Moments such as these are nothing new at Real Madrid, a perennial soap opera providing tales of conspiracy, intrigue and passion and never failing to serve up one cliff-hanger after another, both on and off the pitch.
But as Europe’s perennial winners get their latest European campaign under way, is Zidane struggling to make the impact this time around, and is there a danger the Frenchman might not even be there come the next Champions League final?
Never go back? Zidane struggling to inspire on his return
Zidane wrote himself out of the Real Madrid storyline when he quit after somehow winning the Champions League at the end of the 2017-18 season – his third title in a row. He felt there were big changes to make at the club and that he was not going to receive the backing he needed to implement them.
He might have chosen this time of self-imposed footballing exile as an opportunity to reflect on a fine career as both a player and a coach. He probably didn’t come across the words of poet Felix Dennis:
Never go back. Never go back.
Never surrender the future you’ve earned.
Keep to the track, to the beaten track.
Never return to the bridges you burned.
Nor did he take similar advice from people close to him. In March, he returned at the request of president Florentino Perez, who had previously tried to entice Mauricio Pochettino from Tottenham and the unemployed former Chelsea manager Antonio Conte.
Zidane took the job before the end of last season because they told him that, if he didn’t, Jose Mourinho would be the chosen one (more on that later). He was also promised he would be a major player in deciding who came in and who left. And that there would be plenty of changes.
There needed to be. Zidane’s last Champions League success flattered to deceive in a season when his side finished 17 points behind La Liga winners Barcelona.
But things have not improved. Since coming back, he has won seven of 15 league games, a win rate of 46.7%. Santiago Solari, the man he replaced, won 22 out of 32 games in charge, a win rate of 68.8%. That was significantly higher than Zidane’s but not high enough to earn the president’s confidence and the Argentine was dismissed after just four and a half months.
Key injuries to vital players such as Marco Asensio and Eden Hazard, a summer signing who found himself sidelined before kicking a ball for the club, have played their part in the lacklustre start.
But so have Zidane’s changeable tactics.
Only left-back Ferland Mendy, who joined from Lyon, looks to have hit the ground running. Luka Jovic – who arrived from Eintracht Frankfurt, where he was scoring for fun – has not looked like he has the quality to be an automatic starter. At least not in the opinion of Zidane, who has started him only once and then replaced him with midfielder Luka Modric after 68 minutes.
Real also signed some youngsters for big money – Eder Militao, 21, (£42.7m from Porto) and 18-year-old forward Rodrygo (£40.2m from Santos). The latter has been injured since pre-season, while the former has yet to feature.
Why Zidane appears to be losing his trump card
Zidane has never been considered a footballing Einstein as a coach, but his trump card at Real Madrid has always been the relationship he has enjoyed with his players. It is perceived by many as a rosy, peaceful, harmonious co-existence.
But there are signs those relationships are crumbling.
In deciding who should stay and who should go, the 47-year-old has not endeared himself to many of the Madrid faithful. They will see the sale to Atletico of Marcos Llorente, the nephew of the great Gento and a Blanco to the bone, as a sort of betrayal.
They will also be unimpressed with the loaning out to Sevilla of Reguilon, another product of the La Fabrica academy who could have slotted into the position held by Marcelo, who was 11kg over his optimum weight last season and has been struggling on that front ever since. And then there was the loan departure of Dani Ceballos, who could certainly be doing a job for the club in midfield, to Arsenal.
Zidane’s obsession with bringing in compatriot Paul Pogba has not been pretty to witness, not least because Manchester United never had any intention of selling him and Perez never seemed that keen on actually buying the 26-year-old.
The club had agreed terms with Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen and Ajax’s Donny van de Beek, but Zidane stopped the moves because Pogba was the midfielder he wanted.
The reality is that Zidane and the club were hoping to sell Isco, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez, but no offers were forthcoming. For many, his use of those players is little more than a stick he is using to beat the president with by saying, basically: “You didn’t get me the player I wanted so now I’m going to have to use the players you wanted.”
Bizarrely, Bale’s lack of rapport with the manager has provoked precisely the kind of reaction that Zidane would have hoped for, with the Wales forward putting in some “I’ll show you” performances that have brought him two goals and one assist in three games. The downside is that it has also earned him a red card – thanks to two yellows collected in less than two minutes – and a one-match ban.
And finally, the club’s decision to sell goalkeeper Keylor Navas to Paris St-Germain was never something Zidane wanted either.
The general opinion at the Bernabeu is that the relationship between Zidane and Perez is not the best. A division between them is being created by their differences on Pogba and Navas, by the club’s failure to get rid of players the Frenchman did not want, and by the confusion over tactics – with the team lining up for one game with three at the back, the next in a 4-3-3 set-up and another as a 4-4-2.
Perez is frustrated at the lack of game time for some big-money signings and, for the first time in a while, the president feels he is not in complete control and the manager is not doing as he would like.
Zidane cannot be happy either, now finding himself with a squad of veterans combined with players untried at this level.
As a consequence, the Madrid media close to Perez are beginning to make mischief with criticisms of the coach.
When that happens, Zidane should know drastic things can happen.
Mourinho waiting in the wings
The name of Mourinho, who has rejected at least one big offer from China, has inevitably re-emerged in relation to the Real job.
Around the end of 2015, just as Rafael Benitez was struggling to win hearts and minds at the Bernabeu and before Mourinho joined Manchester United, Perez spoke to him with a view to discussing a return to the club.
Iker Casillas, one of the previous thorns in the side of the prickly Portuguese coach, was already gone. The goalkeeper was a sacrificial lamb, unceremoniously given away to Porto after a career that had, until then, been dedicated to two sides – his club and his country.
Only two problems remained: Cristiano Ronaldo and Ramos, the two players Mourinho blamed for his departure from Madrid.
Get rid of them, he told Perez, and we can talk.
Ronaldo is now at Juventus. One down, one to go.
I would not wager much on Ramos receiving a contract extension any time soon.