In an era when managers are more disposable than ever before and chairman and fans alike demand results from the get-go it’s vital to hit the ground running. Nowhere is this truer than at the Bernabeu. No club in the world has higher expectations than Real Madrid. They get through managers like they’re going out of fashion and settle for nothing less than winning and winning in style.
So it’s just as well that Zinedine Zidane has made arguably the most spectacular start to a managerial career in history. His appointment in January 2016 was met with a lot of raised eyebrows and many put his first season success down to his status as a club legend galvanizing the team. now 18 months into his tenure, Zizou has brought Los Blancos their first land La Liga title in five years and became the first manager to successfully defend the Champions League ensuring his and to Madrid places in the history books forever.
Initially perceived as being weak tactically, it’s now clear that Zinedine Zidane is anything but tactically weak. One player has become vital to him above all others. While the normal suspects continued to grab the headlines, Casemiro has been the glue that’s held the whole operation together. Unfancied by Rafa Benitez, the Brazilian has become indispensable since Zinedine Zidane took charge. He has been touted as the man to finally replace Claude Makelele almost 15 years after he left for Chelsea. At the time Zidane described the decision to bring in David Beckham but let Makelele go as putting another layer of gold paint on the Bentley but losing the entire engine.
So perhaps it’s not so surprising that a side has been built around a solid defensive midfield base. Zidane has switched things up from the 4-3-3 Madrid usually play. He employed a narrow 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation with Casemiro sitting in front of the two centre backs.
With Cristiano Ronaldo’s years starting to catch up with him slightly, he’s been taken off the left and played in a more traditional centre forward role with Karim Benzema towards the end of the season. This has also taken the pressure off him to defend in bigger games and allowed him to wait for the ball on the counter conserving his energy.
It worked too – with seven of his record 10 Champions League knockout phase goals this season coming while playing as a central striker.
Playing two up top means there’s not much room for wingers. And that’s bad news for Gareth Bale. The role he played in the 2013-14 Champions League win and last season success are chalk and cheese. With his influence diminishing and injury problems racking up, it’s no surprise that he’s been linked with the move away from the club.
Width has instead come from a roaring full-back Danilo, Danny Carvajal, and Marcelo. The latter made a great contribution to the course last season chipping in with six goals and 14 assists in all competitions. Marcelo also completed 29 dribbles in the Champions League this season. Only Neymar, Dembele, and Lamar managed more. Safe in the knowledge that Casemiro will cover them and put out any fires, the Brazilian won 48 tackles in the Champions League this season, 12 more than any other player. The full backs are free to bomb forward to their heart’s content.
When attacking Real Madrid can end up in a 3-3-4 for formation. Casemiro’s inclusion has largely come at the expense of James Rodriguez, another galactico signing who has been sidelined for the greater good of the team. James really had a tough season and even when another attacking option was needed, it is Marco Asensio who came with the goods than James.
With Tony Kroos and Luca Modric pulling strings in the middle, Isco has been left to float around in the hallways. This had a real influence racking up 11 goals and eight assists. The last term and for the first time in their history, Real scored in every Liga game they played netting 106 goals over the course of the season.
Zidane’s incredible start to life as a manager has already got those who labelled him as another Roberto Di Matteo eating their words. The only question is whether he can get anywhere near to maintain the high standards he’s set so far. Pretty much all managerial career ultimately finish in failure. But even if it all ends in tears, Zinedine Zidane has already achieved much more than most managers could ever dream of.