Zinedine Zidane with Food for Thought as Real Madrid Hit the Wall

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Zinedine Zidane with Food for Thought as Real Madrid Hit the Wall
Paul White/Associated Press
Saturday's Madrid derby defeat has given Zinedine Zidane plenty to think about

A first defeat of a fledgling coaching career shouldn’t lead to the subject questioning his very future. Zinedine Zidane, however, is no normal greenhorn and Real Madrid not your average club.

The end of the new coach’s unbeaten run in Saturday afternoon’s derby, against Atletico Madrid, threatens to throw the baby and his rubber duck out with the bathwater little more than a month into his tenure with the senior team.

This is the way that things are at the Bernabeu. Let’s go back to December 2008 and the appointment of Juande Ramos. The former Sevilla coach narrowly lost El Clasico in his first league game in charge (forgivable, even at El Real, as he’d only been in charge for five days), before going on an astonishing run, collecting 52 points from the 54 available over the next 18 games.

It kept Los Merengues on the tails of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona, which was an incredible feat for a coach picking up a squad midseason containing the likes of Christoph Metzelder, Royston Drenthe, Miguel Torres and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar—all decent players, but hardly bearing the hallmarks of assimilating into Bernabeu legend.

That good run came to an end with a jolt at the beginning of May, when Barca recovered from an early Gonzalo Higuain goal to steamroller their hosts 6-2 in the return Clasico at the Bernabeu. Just like that, all Ramos’ fine work counted for naught.

There’s a lesson in there. There have been plenty of enjoyable moments since Zidane took the helm of the first team, not least the stylish 5-0 win over a vastly improved Deportivo La Coruna that started it all off. Yet success in charge of Real Madrid is about a mastery of defining moments.

A couple of dropped points at Betis or a struggle to win at Granada can quickly be turfed out into the rubbish chute of history; losing the Madrid derby is not so easy to sweep away.

At a club obsessed by its position in history, it has hardly gone unnoticed that Atletico’s win meant they became the only team in La Liga history to win their fixture at the Bernabeu in three successive seasons.

That it hurt so much is, to a degree, an indicator of how far El Real have fallen, as well as a marker of Atleti’s beefed-up status in recent seasons. The derby might mean the world to the Rojiblanco half of the city, but the same has not always been true on the Paseo de la Castellana. Atleti have become a frequent irritant for El Real, but defeat to their neighbours should never and will never hurt—in a sporting, financial or philosophical sense—like it does losing to Barcelona.

Going back to Zidane’s predecessors, the appointment of Jose Mourinho back in 2010 was perhaps the ultimate admission of that by president Florentino Perez. Barca couldn’t be matched for style, so Perez was prepared to do whatever it took—absolutely whatever it took—to get the better of them. It worked for a bit, too.

Defeat to Atleti all but confirmed that by the end of this campaign, the title that Mourinho won in 2012 will be the only that Real Madrid have managed in eight seasons. Even for a giant that bases its identity so strongly on European success, that’s hard to accept.

It is clear that heads will roll; the only question is who those heads belong to. As the fallout continued in the Spanish dailies on Tuesday morning, Marca suggested here (in Spanish) that James Rodriguez and the popular Isco are likely to be the fall guys on the playing side.

Zidane conceded after Saturday’s game that he could be in line for the chop, as reported by ESPN FC’s Dermot Corrigan. Though it’s easy to make a case that his name got him the job given his lack of top-level experience, he would be unfortunate to take the fall for El Real’s failure. He was playing catch-up from the beginning after inheriting the squad from Rafa Benitez. Changes were only ever likely to be cosmetic, even if his arrival appeared to lift spirits in the dressing room.

Even if Zidane has exuded a necessary calm since taking over, it’s becoming clear that he thinks there should be changes to the playing staff. His irritation with his current charges was clear in that post-game press conference, when he talked about his team having “lacked a bit of everything.”

Oscar del Pozo/Associated Press
Atletico's togetherness only underlined the fractious nature of Zidane's current charges

Cristiano Ronaldo’s now-infamous post-match comments (reported by El Mundo, via the Guardian) may have been ill-timed, but they also struck a chord. Others at the club shared the feeling that the squad could have done with freshening up last summer, but it didn’t happen. Now, El Real are paying the price.

What would really benefit the new coach is a bit of support. Another former Bernabeu coach, Leo Beenhakker, told AS on Tuesday (in Spanish) that he can’t understand why there’s no proper football management structure at the club. Realistically, this is the sort of system that would allow Zidane to focus on the coaching, and make the most of his ability to relate to elite players.

It is not, however, the way that Real Madrid works—at least not at the moment. The president calls the shots, and the coach (even Mourinho, in his time) has to wear it. The problem for Perez is that by appointing Zidane in a populist move, he has left himself wide-open to closer scrutiny. The current shortfall is not down to the coach, and he needs help that isn’t there.

The bad news for Zidane is that if Perez was to go, a decade after his first spell as president ended, he would be unlikely to survive in the top job either. It would not fatally damage his reputation as he seeks to forge his coaching career, even if it would hurt.

El Real could still go on (at least theoretically) and win the Champions League, of course, which would surely preserve the status quo for president and coach. Yet Saturday’s loss was a huge reality check—not just in terms of their current standing in the Spanish capital, but a reminder of the unity and cohesion that they lack and that Atleti have in abundance.

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