So, it happened. Rafael Benitez is out of Real Madrid, sacked after a terrible recent run of seven wins in his last nine games, and Zinedine Zidane has been promoted from Castilla to the senior side as head coach.
While there will be nobody—Benitez aside, according to Marca—who is surprised at the outcome, the issues for the new head coach to sort out remain numerous and problematic, especially with regard to his attacking triumvirate: Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The BBC attack of Real is prodigiously talented and guarantees goals, but Benitez failed to keep its players (and others) happy and has paid the price. Zidane needs to do better in that regard to even get the chance to be considered a success, and he seemed to start off on the right foot when his unveiling saw him answer, per Marca, "The idea is clear: to play with all three," when asked who would feature in his attack.
Admirable and no doubt well thought out, but Zidane's words ultimately gave him an immediate problem to solve that Benitez didn't manage to get away with: Who, then, drops out? And which system can both accommodate the attackers and yield fluid, attacking football that wins matches?
Fending off Inevitabilities
The questions aimed the way of the new manager—and indeed the old one on a repetitive basis—were as predictable as they were lacking real understanding. Time and again, the focus on Real Madrid is on which stars and big names are going to be the favourites and which are overlooked rather than which groups and partnerships can actually provide the balance and platform required for the world-class talents to thrive.
Marca has quickly published a stream of Zidane pointers and ideas, including one that outlined the manager's main plan: "Reinvigorate spirits in the dressing room and get along with everyone...and use his man-management skills and charm to bring James [Rodriguez] and Isco back into the fold."
The piece goes on to suggest "the challenge will be to find a way for [Isco and James] to dovetail with Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and the BBC without sacrificing the team's balance."
And that's kind of the point. Benzema, Bale, Ronaldo, Isco, James, Modric and Kroos is seven players already, all of whom fill primarily offensive functions and all of whom are demanded to be included as often as possible. Add in the goalkeeper, and that leaves three places for defenders. So, it's either shift Kroos back even further to play as a sweeper or perhaps finally accept that someone has to yield their place with regularity.
It will be decidedly interesting to note the reaction toward Zidane the first time he leaves out Isco or James or subs off Benzema.
BBC, Egos and Systemic Problems
Benzema, Bale, Ronaldo. All want to play, none want to come off ever and all guarantee goals. The French striker makes the other two more effective on a regular basis—there should be little doubt about that at this point. His running is selfless, his movement intelligent and he has a fine finish on him when in the mood.
The other two bring the pace and power and have the bigger price tags, though, and both can fire in the goals with consistency too. In a 4-4-2, it's possible for Benzema to be dropped, allowing James and Isco to play from the wider midfield areas, but in a 4-3-3, BBC finds each in a natural role with plenty of interchanging of positions.
Zidane's first tactical choices will have the knock-on effect of his personnel decisions, and you can bet the first big ego left on the sideline will have a stony look on their face on the subs' bench.
Getting on with all players, not just the forwards, is important but Zidane has already had to face questions about Bale in particular. He told Marca:"I understand that Bale may be upset over Benitez's departure. I'm going to treat him really well so he keeps playing as well as he has been." But that hasn't been enough to stop the situational analysis, with the Independent suggesting Bale was "less enthusiastic than his team-mates" on meeting Zidane.
The Ancelotti Effect
It's briefly worth considering the previous manager—no, not that one, the previous previous manager, Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian didn't just go all in on BBC, he essentially had a selected XI and stuck with them for every single possible match, barring injury or the odd surge of form elsewhere.
It created disillusionment among some of the fringe players and naturally left plenty lacking in match sharpness and game time, and it's probable a few Real Madrid players used less under Rafa Benitez would have been hoping to hear Zidane say everybody started on the same clean slate.
Not so, in attack at least, and now they know if you're battling for a place alongside Benzema, Ronaldo or Bale, you can look forward to the rest of the season on the bench.
If Zidane wants to get on with everyone in the dressing room, that's probably not the best way to start—especially in January, when a few might now be thinking of asking for a loan move away or something more permanent.
The Outsider Coming In
Those referred to are the likes of Denis Cheryshev, Jese and Lucas Vazquez, though it applies elsewhere too; nobody wants to hang around if they know there's no chance of them breaking into the team regardless of how much effort they put into training or how well they perform off the bench.
Or, indeed, how professional the front three are in their approach and how good (or poor) their form is.
The final aspect of squad building Zidane may look to make use of and get the best out of a new face from is the "you're my man" technique—someone who featured less under the previous boss is essentially told, "I trust you. I know what you're capable of."
Vazquez was essentially that for Benitez, given starts and plenty of minutes off the bench in a variety of roles. It's usually a squad player or someone of lesser ability, but improbably, could James be Zidane's? He's a truly top-drawer talent, but there was clearly a divide between how he was used and how he wanted to be utilised.
If that's the case, Isco better get used to life on the bench again, but the quick call-ups from Castilla for Borja Mayoral, Martin Odegaard and Marcos Llorente perhaps indicate Zidane has already decided to look elsewhere.
It's Real Madrid: Wins, goals and entertainment are required as standard. They are guaranteed with a happy BBC, so it's not a big surprise the new manager is being effusive in revealing his intentions to play them.
Zidane has a head start simply because he's not Benitez to an extent, but it's worth noting well over half of Real Madrid fans didn't want Zidane appointed in the first place, a whopping 57 per cent, according to a Marca poll of nearly 100,000 fans. So although the goodwill might be there initially, legendary status isn't going to earn him unlimited time.
Already there are dissenting voices from outside the club suggesting there are concerns over Zidane's credibility, or viability, as boss; former GM Jorge Valdano said Zidane is a "risky choice" and Ottmar Hitzfeld was far more blunt, suggesting Zidane was "living off his fame as a player" and saying the choice to install Zizou as coach was "insane."
The Telegraph, meanwhile, reported Cristiano Ronaldo is set to leave the club this summer in the wake of Zidane's appointment.
Usually, when a new managerial appointment divides opinion in such a manner, the response is to say results will tell. As Benitez proved, that's not the case here in the slightest—relationships, perceived attacking intent and favouritism with players, fans and media alike will all play a huge part.
Zidane's first nine games feature six Real Madrid would, in usual circumstances, expect to waltz through: Deportivo La Coruna, Sporting Gijon, Real Betis, Espanyol, Granada and Athletic Club, though the first and last of those are set to be tough even so. After that it's Roma, Malaga and Atletico Madrid.
Benitez won seven of his last nine matches in charge, which wasn't enough to prolong his tenure. Will Zidane get off to as good a start as his predecessor finished with in terms of results? And will it even matter?
First things first. With BBC guaranteed to be on Zidane's teamsheet, he now needs to arrange the "other eight" in a fashion that lets the front three flourish, as that's where he has already clearly laid out his intentions to return Real to the top.