It seemed like there was nowhere left to go but down following Real Madrid’s three Champion League crowns in a row under the stern but just hand of Zinedine Zidane. Once a legend on the pitch for Los Blancos, the French manager took major steps towards becoming the very same thing on the sidelines, rewarding Florentino Perez’s faith with unprecedented glory. Even for their incredibly high standards.
But it was not all sunshine and rainbows for the biggest team in Spain since then. Zidane left the team at their very peak – both physically and mentally – and what followed was a collapse not many could’ve predicted. Coaches came and went as Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari both experienced what it’s like to fail the Kings.
Both managers were sacked in less than a season and Perez didn’t hesitate to pick up the phone and dial the only number he knew would somehow get him out of the gutters he quickly found himself in. Zidane obliged, saying he couldn’t say no to the team he loves. His damsel was in distress and that was the only thing that mattered so he rushed head-on into the chaos his predecessors left for him.
The start was not pretty at all – Real Madrid powered through the rest of 2018/19 scrapping like a wounded beast that had to retreat and lick its wounds. The agony continued into the pre-season of 2019/20 and culminated with a devastating blow from their city rivals as Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid seemingly put the finishing touches on the sinking ship, knocking them down into the abyss with a 7-3 hammering across the pond in the International Champions Cup.
“Atletico enter seventh heaven against Real Madrid” read the title from Marca following that humbling defeat, “a result that sent global shockwaves” claimed AS. Needless to say, the panic button was well and truly struck and questions over Zidane’s future and his ability to get them back on tracks quickly arose.
But fast forward a couple of months into the future and you’re looking at a completely different team and symbolically enough, it was the clash against Atletico Madrid that might’ve proved it in the end. Real hosted their city rivals at the Santiago Bernabeu and after a rather lacklustre first 45 minutes of the clash where the Rojiblancos looked the better team, Los Blancos shifted into second gear and took home all three points following a narrow 1-0 victory.
It was Zidane’s stroke of brilliance that saw him sub off Toni Kroos and Isco at half-time, shifting his formation that included five midfielders and adding some width to it with Vinicius Junior storming down the flanks. It was the young Brazilian that added vigour and pace into their steps and it was he who started the action that led to the only goal of the night.
A 1-0 victory doesn’t seem as impressive but it was a statement and a clear sign of progress from that 7-3 fiasco that ensued during the summer. Now, the Whites sit top of the table in La Liga while Atletico are languishing down in sixth, struggling to break into the top spots and emulate that pre-season mentality.
Zidane has always been a slow starter in his coaching career and then he would suddenly go headfirst into his opponents, taking them down with force – no pun intended.
If we look at his past seasons, he could never muster more than 21 points in the first nine games played in the campaign – 21 in 2016/17, 20 in 2018/19 and 18 in 2019/20. Now, more than ever, this Real Madrid feel like a process and as the campaign unfolds, so do their strengths. Zidane showed that he’s also learning on the job as well.
The game against Atletico proved as much – he’s evolving as a manager together with his squad, tactically, mentally and emotionally. Basically the same thing was seen at the Camp Nou in the first Clasico of the season – not a goal-fest or even close to that as the teams shared the spoils in a goalless draw, but with the Galacticos dominating their opposition in their own backyard. That’s progress if you’ve ever seen one.
What seemed a rather big but largely unbalanced squad now looks like a well-oiled machine that’s playing well but is not at the peak of its powers just yet. And that’s the thing with Zidane’s prophetic return to the managerial role at Madrid.
The messiah has landed from the pantheon and is ready to prove all the doubters wrong. Of course, they are still nowhere near where they want to be. The Copa del Rey elimination at the hands of Real Sociedad and orchestrated by their loanee Martin Odegaard proved as much. This Real Madrid needs a lot of work.
But this Real Madrid is also miles better than the one from the early season, and galaxies away from the one we saw early in the summer of 2019. All thanks to the coach who was always perceived as a great motivator but was never held in high regard for his tactical and pure coaching prowess. But you don’t get where Zidane was and is right now without being a great coach.
It was easy to laugh at Perez’s desperate move to call in the saviour but that’s exactly what happened and it seems to be working so far. Even though we all thought his job in the Spanish capital was done and dusted, the ‘Zidane signal’ is still on and is shining brightly into the night.
And just like a real hero, he’s going to swoop in and save the day. Because that’s what heroes do.