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Confusion of Real Madrid's Playing Style Being Progressively Worse Under Zidane
Fabio Capello could tell some stories about his time in football, it's fair to say. After his time—playing and managing—at three huge clubs in Italy, the seven-time league winner as boss has also been in charge of Real Madrid, his only foreign club, and two overseas nations, England and Russia.
While the international stints might not have proven successful, at club level there were few more highly regarded than Capello when he took over at the Santiago Bernabeu, and he duly won La Liga in 2007, his last act as a club manager as it happens. For he was, soon after that title triumph, relieved of his duties, with the trophy-lifting football deemed not attractive enough, not exciting enough, not galacticoenough for a side filled with megastars and huge-money signings.
Capello could impart much wisdom and tales on younger bosses, but perhaps being sacked for being successful didn't sit well with him and that's why he has since turned his back on club football.
He's not the only one to have been dealt with in such fashion by Real Madrid, despite those managers winning silverware, and as Los Blancos head into the international break plagued, as it were, by a good points tally and mediocre performances, perhaps that's one storyZinedine Zidane would deem worth listening to.
Zidane inherited a team from Rafa Benitez which was getting reasonable-to-good results, but clearly had dressing room issues, wasn't always attractive and, ultimately, were undone in the biggest games. Zidane quickly solved at least one of those issues and lifting the UEFA Champions League ticked another box, but there was little tactical alteration between the two bosses.
At the start of this season, with players missing or injured after Euro 2016 duty, Zidane did delve into his own tactical box to come up with solutions.
There was a foray in pre-season with 4-4-2 in the expectation of pairing Karim Benzema with Alvaro Morata, which has rarely happened competitively, but perhaps the best—most balanced—football of Zidane's reign so far came early in the campaign when the side set up in a clear 4-1-4-1 system.
With Casemiro as the anchor, the midfield line both attacked and defended as a seamless unit, providing cover for the defence and support for the attack, mixing tenacity with technicality and sharing the goalscoring burden around the team. It was a team without Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema and one or two others at the time, but enough star quality remained to make a good start to the league season and win the UEFA Super Cup.
Since the front trident returned to fitness though, 4-3-3 has reigned supreme once more.
Accommodating the best players into a team structure has long been an issue, not just for Zidane or at Madrid but in world football in general; where to draw the line between making the most of individual brilliance and team cohesion?
Zidane has clearly hung his hat on trying to get the front three being the focal point of his side, but the divisions between that line and the rest of the team are currently greater than ever. It doesn't help, also, that two-thirds of that BBC attack have been so far below their usual standards in the 2016/17 campaign.
A recent switch to play with Isco as a genuine 10, a link between the forward line and midfield, has helped build-up play somewhat, but there's still no absolute method to Madrid's attack, no sustainable approach to creating chances, no identity of the team which fans can recognise on the pitch and relate to, game after game.
Results or form?
Real Madrid were languid, unsure and stilted in their performance against Leganes. They won 3-0.
They were far from scintillating against Real Betis, for the most part. That was a 6-1 win. A lethargic performance against Las Palmas, being second-best from start to finish in many areas of the pitch against Villarreal and throwing away a two-goal lead against Legia to be 3-2 down with less than 10 minutes on the clock—none of those matches ended in defeat, either.
Somehow, irrespective of under-performance and cohesion, Real Madrid haven't lost a single game this season, in any competition. They are top of La Liga, and are unbeaten in 28 matches in all competitions dating back to early April of last season.
At any other club, that position, that run, would be deemed groundbreaking.
At Real Madrid it's merely confusing and lacking in giving confidence.
The team should be getting better and better the longer they stay under Zidane's coaching, or at least so says conventional football wisdom which suggests coaches need time to implement ideas. This Real Madrid team is going in the opposite direction with the tempo of their play, the exchanges of possession between midfield and attacking lines, and in the front players working together with positional rotations, creating chances for each other and, perhaps most worryingly, in any kind of defensive resilience.
And yet they keep winning. Their bad patch was a run of four draws.
Injuries and absences can contribute in part, and Luka Modric's long lay-off is now over—but Toni Kroos will be missing due to a broken metatarsal, per the club's official announcement on Tuesday.
After repeated warnings about Madrid's overuse of Kroos—now up to 9,732 minutes on the pitch since he signed for the club in just two-and-a-half years—it can't be a surprise that the German is due some enforced down time.
Without him, Real Madrid need to keep the results coming, yet also up their in-game performance level, and his absence couldn't have come at a worse moment.
There is every possibility that Real Madrid's 2016/17 campaign is facing its defining run of fixtures after the international break.
Between mid-November and the winter break, Los Blancos face 10 games which will go a long way toward showing whether Zidane's side are relentless, rugged and determined pretenders to all thrones, or whether the lack of a team identity is serious enough that they'll merely be also-rans.
The derby against Atletico Madrid, along with El Clasico at the start of December and away to Valencia before Christmas, are telling fixtures in La Liga. In the UEFA Champions League, the last two games are the hardest, away to Sporting CP and home to Borussia Dortmund. Will it be group-topping results, or will a draw in Poland cost dearly? Could the unthinkable even happen and Sporting beat Madrid in Portugal, ramping up the nerves ahead of the final matchday and a potential group-stage exit?
It seems ludicrous to think so just a few months after Madrid won the entire competition, but Sporting have won five out of six at home domestically and saw off Legia Warsaw with ease, while losing only 2-1 at home to BVB.
There's also the FIFA Club World Cup to watch for, a tournament Real Madrid should win with ease, but so too should they have won against Las Palmas, Legia, Eibar.
Ten games to decide the course of a season, if not it's fate outright.
Zidane could head into the new year with three pieces of silverware in his year-long stint of coaching at the top level, and top of La Liga to boot...or there could be the first serious mutterings of a bounce effect having contributed toward La Undecima, of a great player who was hampering the team as a manager, and who for all his status, isn't able to harness the qualities of those now under his charge.
There have been times in the past, plenty of them, when results—and even titles—was not enough.
Zidane will only be the latest of several big names to find that out along the way if performances do not become more cohesive, more impressive, more worthy of the stellar cast of names on the team sheet.
And doing so during the tough run of fixtures will only be more difficult now without Kroos in the control room.