Just what is going on behind the expensively crafted walls of the Santiago Bernabeu and Valdebebas?
Its almost unthinkable that at the helm, Zinedine Zidane – club legend and hero, who has just led the famous European and World giants to a record five trophies in a calendar year – is having his position questioned by many.
Even by Real Madrid standards, famous for sacking managers on a whim – the infamous Vincente Del Bosque story immediately springs to mind – this on the surface seems almost ludacris, but when delving a little deeper, the cracks may have appeared as far back as last summer.
Madrid’s recruitment policy of snapping up the best youngsters and adding them to a back-to-back Champions League winning side had many looking on in envious fashion, but on the flip side,look who departed and what they took with them.
Alvaro Morata was never going to hang around to be a bit part striker; Pepe ran down his contract; and James Rodriguez moved to Bayern being in a similar position to Morata.
This mini exodus saw arguably the strongest squad in Europe lose valuable and vital experience which looks to be causing harm to Real Madrid’s title challenge, trailing way behind arch rivals Barcelona by an incredible 16 points with just over half of the season played.
Yes, Los Blancos brought in some fantastic younger talent – for example, Dani Ceballos and Theo Hernandez – but there seems to be an intensity lacking from the first choice eleven players who seem to have their positions set in stone regardless of form and, in some cases, fitness.
They don’t have the pressure of such experience on the bench pushing them to perform that extra 10% required to get late goals and win games late, synonymous with Real Madrid last season.
Taking the point that Zidane’s talented squad are constructed and conditioned to come strong in the second half of the season, as seen in last seasons blisteringly fast paced finish to the season becoming the only team to retain the Champions League in its modern format.
The counterpoint to the argument this season is that, unlike last season, the squad has been rarely rotated unless injury came banging on the door like an unwanted visitor at Christmas.
For example, take a look at the hugely talented line-up of Dani Ceballos (186 mins); Mateo Kovacic (156 mins); Marcos Llorente (237 mins); Jesus Vallejo (270 mins) and Theo Hernandez (297 mins).
Consider that some are not even making the match day squad and a picture is beginning to be painted that maybe boss Zidane doesn’t fully trust what he has in reserve or has blind loyalty to some of his underperforming stars.
Lack of rotation aside, ‘Zizou’ did little to keep the wolves from the door and dispel any doubts of his management with the most recent El Clasico team selection, opting to leave a fit Gareth Bale, Isco, arguably their best player over the previous 12 months and wonder kid Marco Asensio watching from the sidelines.
Heads were left scratching amongst the Berbabeu faithful when Casemiro and Kovacic, the latter making his first start of the season, were selected as a holding midfield pairing.
The Croatian midfielder was handed the unenviable task of trying to man mark an on form Lionel Messi, which was seen as totally against the Real Madrid’s nature and D.N.A.
As solid and competent as Barcelona had been this up until then in the league, such an array of attacking world class talent that had been cast aside surely could have put an end to the unbeaten run and maybe have gotten their finger tips on the coat tails of the rampant Catalans.
Instead, substitutions were hesitant and made too late and coupled with an incredible Messi second half performance saw Barca run riot in a 3-0 victory.
Zidane looked on helplessly from the side as Ernesto Valverde’s men inflicted of the unwanted record of Barca making it three wins in a row on the hallowed Bernabeu turf for the first time in history.
Then came last weekend’s fixture, a home tie versus Villareal and a ‘usual’ home banker to relieve some of the pressure.
But, much like Real Madrid’s season domestically, nothing went to plan. Twenty eight shots on goal and 59% possession to the home side counted for nothing in a shock 1-0 defeat thanks to Pablo Fornals wonderfully delicate and delightful chip following a tidal wave counter attack in the 87th minute.
This result basically relinquished any hope or touch they may have had on their La Liga crown as, following Barcelona’s 4-2 win away at their bogey ground the Anoeta, saw Los Blancos sit closer to the relegation places (16 points) than top of the table (19 points) and throwing up some interesting statistics:
- The first time in their illustrious history that no player has scored more than four league goals at this point of the season.
- Eight years since they have lost consecutive home league games.
- A massive 12 years since failing to score in consecutive home league games.
- Only 12 points taken from the last 27 available.
- First time since 2008/09 season they have last three home defeats in the league, and its only January.
Its almost surreal to question such a great of the game, a man who has just about won it all as a player and a manager including steering his troops to the prestigious honour of becoming the first team to retain the FIFA World Club Cup, but unfortunately that is the nature of the beast in modern day football, especially at the unforgiving mercy of the white handkerchief waving supporters who demand perfection.
This is undoubtedly confident exuding, softly spoken at times Frenchman’s biggest test in his relatively short managerial career as the blade of the infamous Florentino Perez guillotine looms over head.