Empowered Zinedine Zidane Looks to Be Challenging Real Madrid to Change

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2016

Real Madrid's French coach Zinedine Zidane sits during a press conference on March 7, 2016 at Real Madrid Sport City in Madrid on the eve of their UEFA Champions League football match Real Madrid CF vs AS Roma  / AFP / JAVIER SORIANO        (Photo credit should read JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images)

Zinedine Zidane wasn't holding back, and nor should he have done. 

For 93 minutes at the Estadio de Gran Canaria on Sunday night, he'd watched his Real Madrid players listlessly trudge through their encounter with Las Palmas, their intensity almost non-existent, their performance starting poorly and getting progressively worse.  

"I'm worried about our second-half performance," said Zidane after his team's 2-1 victory that flattered them and in which goalkeeper Keylor Navas was again the standout player.

"We'll look back at the game tomorrow, but our second-half display tonight bothers me. If we are hoping to be playing for something in the future, we have to play much better than this. That is obvious. Playing like we did tonight, we're going nowhere."

Though Zidane was frustrated and stern-faced, he was in control, and that's important here. This wasn't a Jose Mourinho-style rant or a Paco Jemez-style outburst. Instead, this was thoughtful and considered. His words were carefully chosen and said with a quiet authority, their message important, the identity of the man they were coming from even more so. 

Madrid had been woeful. 

Zidane, composed but not holding back, was taking a stand. 

LAS PALMAS, SPAIN - MARCH 13: Head coach Zinedine Zidane of Real Madrid CF encourages his team during the La Liga match between UD Las Palmas and Real Madrid CF at Estadio de Gran Canaria on March 13, 2016 in Las Palmas, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo M
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

That he needed to do so was not overly surprising. This has been Real Madrid's way all season: up, down, up, down; fearsome at home, lifeless away. But even in victory, thisfrom a purely performance sensefelt like a new low.

"A Real-ly spiritless display of disarray," said Marca. "Casemiro prevents the ridiculous," it added.

Over at AS, the headline to the match report read "Las Palmas played the football, Real Madrid won the game," while editor Alfredo Relano went with "Keylor Navas and 10 passengers."

As reactions go, this was savage, a recurring theme of the season.

And yet there was something new here too: the manager agreed.

It hasn't always been this way. Before Zidane, both Rafa Benitez and Carlo Ancelotti had typically deflected criticism and defended those around them.

For Benitez, there was no choice; he lacked the popularity and authority to challenge his club and do things his way. For Ancelotti, it was more about why he'd been brought to the Bernabeu in the first place.

In the wake of Mourinho's tumultuous final season, the Italian was hired not only for his strong continental record but also for his diplomacy and for his ability to play the pacifist. Putting out fires and overseeing internal calm was his remit after president Florentino Perez had been stung when ceding more control to the Portuguese than any other manager. Pointing the finger inward, then, wasn't the play. 

But for Zidane, things are different. 

VALENCIA, SPAIN - MARCH 02:  Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane looks on prior to the La Liga match between Levante UD and Real Madrid at Ciutat de Valencia on March 02, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

In January, the sacking of Benitez and appointment of Zidane was a way to quell the fury that had been building. For Perez, the move represented a certain kind of idealism, but it was also the only move he had left; appointing the former France international was, in a way, an act of self-defence. 

That strengthens Zidane's position. It empowers him. And it looks as if he's recognised it. 

In stating with authority and conviction that, continue like this and "we're going nowhere," the new boss has separated himself from his predecessors, using his greater power to show he won't be a mouthpiece for his club and president, and that he will be himself: strong-willed, intensely competitive, full of clarity in his purpose.

On Sunday, his criticism was forthright, challenging not so much his players' quality but their intensity and application, which is a stronger charge. There was also a sense that "going nowhere" didn't just refer to this season and to this team, but to the club as whole. 

Before Madrid travelled to Gran Canaria, Zidane, when asked about summer signings, responded with "I don't know if I'll still be here." It wasn't the first time he'd said it and it hasn't gone unnoticed, the words striking as criticism of the club's impulsive method that strips away managerial and squad continuity and stands at the heart of its ongoing malaise. 

Zidane looks to be challenging Madrid. What he sees he evidently doesn't like, but in contrast to others, he has the authority and strength of position to say so. To make himself heard. To be himself. 

Change for the better at Real Madrid might hinge on his ability to continue doing so.


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