Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid to-do list must start with midfield
On Tuesday afternoon, Zinedine Zidane gave his first press conference as Real Madrid coach. Never the most articulate of speakers and inherently shy -- during his first season with Real Madrid Castilla he did not face the press one single time -- the Frenchman made it clear that at least he knows what the club supporters want to hear: offensive football, fast ball circulation and never giving up in any match. Those were all were key parts of his speech and sounded like pillars of his football philosophy.
The Madrid media have reported profusely about Zidane's first two training sessions, making a point of mentioning the high intensity of the exercises and the constant use of the ball. The players have posted a few welcome messages for the new coach, conspicuously forgetting to bid their farewell to Rafael Benitez. In this respect, their behaviour speaks volumes, especially compared to their reaction after Carlo Ancelotti lost his job at the end of the previous season.
Zidane can indeed count on most players in the squad to be on his side. The strongest voices inside the dressing room know him well and respect him after his job as a link between Ancelotti and the squad three seasons ago, a job for which the Italian coach thanked Zidane several times publicly. On top of that, the players will feel an even higher pressure to perform at the Santiago Bernabeu, now that Benitez is not an excuse anymore.
A more motivated squad will no doubt help Zidane in his first month, and with the amount of talent this team possesses, that should be enough to navigate a mild calendar that will bring three teams to Madrid (Deportivo de La Coruna, Sporting Gijon and Espanyol), with only one trip, to Seville, to face Betis. That said, one more mistake could be the end of Real Madrid's hopes for the La Liga title.
But the real aim of Zidane during the next few weeks must be to fix the various tactical riddles that the immensely talented, but obviously out-of-balance team need to answer in order to win matches against top-level opposition -- something they were unable to achieve consistently during the whole year 2015.
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During his press conference, the Frenchman unequivocally stated that he would play with Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo -- the already famous BBC -- so long as they're fit. That presents a few challenges to keep the balance of the side. For starters, it demands a fundamental change of all three forwards in the way they defend, an attitude similar to what they showed last weekend in the first half in Valencia, but lasting for a whole match, and not only for 35 minutes.
But starting the BBC also puts pressure on the rest of the team. In 2014, Ancelotti was able to sustain an impressive run of positive results by riding Toni Kroos' and Luka Modric's best shape ever in Madrid, and also counting on Sergio Ramos' impeccable form. The two midfielders were instrumental in recovering the ball quickly up front and feeding the strikers nonstop. The centre-back pushed the back four almost to the centre of the pitch, shrinking the available space for the opposition and reducing the impact of the front three's erratic defensive job.
The current squad have more options off the bench than Ancelotti's squad, but Kroos, Modric and Ramos are far from their peak and have no comparable substitutes. For all the midfield riches, promising players such as Carlos Casemiro and Mateo Kovacic are not yet at the level of 2014 Kroos or Modric, and the remaining midfielders, such as Isco Alarcon or James Rodriguez, feel more comfortable in more advanced positions.
At the back, Ramos is a far cry from the player he used to be, especially in his speed, and none of the other centre-backs -- Pepe or Raphael Varane -- have the experience or skill to push the team forward the way the skipper did.
Assuming he follows suit with his statement about the BBC, Zidane has two options. The first one, a rendition of Ancelotti's 4-3-3, would need a quite strong defensive midfield that would necessarily include Casemiro and the two players in best shape out of Kroos, Modric or Kovacic.
This team would also have to move their defensive four at least ten metres forward from where they've been playing under Benitez, which demands a huge amount of synchronisation. In the last few matches, the back four looked out of synch too often, not only pushing the line, but also in their positional discipline. The sight of both full-backs attacking at the same time, something we saw in Valencia or Villarreal, tells a story of poor organisation and excellent counterattacking opportunities presented to the opposing side.
The second option, a 4-2-3-1 formation, would feature Casemiro and another midfielder -- Modric, Kroos or Kovacic -- at the holding positions, rarely venturing forward, and one offensive midfielder such as Isco or James in a line of three behind Benzema. This second option heavily trusts this additional midfielder to track back and help the line of two, and also demands similar discipline by the back four, pushing the line and keeping their position as often as possible.
Any lineup with the BBC enjoys the talent of three fantastic forwards, but demands not only their total defensive commitment, but also the structuring of the rest of the team so that balance is maintained as often as possible. On top of that, Zidane will have to leave out at least one of Isco and James, if not both, something that he'll have to address with tact inside the dressing room.
His first chance to show his preferences will come on Saturday afternoon, versus the quite improved Deportivo of former Real Madrid player Victor Sanchez. Time to shine for the great Zizou; this time on the bench.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.