Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane's Champions League to-do list
In the next two months, Zinedine Zidane's coaching career could start to approach the level of excellence of his playing years, or he could become another victim in President Florentino Perez's race to nowhere.
Most top-level clubs bring a coach glory or indignity in the final months of a season. In the case of Zidane, whose promotion to the top team was rushed by the circumstances of Rafa Benitez's departure, a good run of results could earn him the seal of quality that only a few coaches possess. However, a disappointing end to the season could have a damaging impact on his reputation, his position in Real Madrid's bench and his future job options.
So what does Zidane have to do to improve his chances of a successful end to this season? Here are five suggestions that would make his life easier:
1. Trust his bench
This is a lesson he should learn from his predecessor, the apparently Newcastle-bound Benitez. Forced by an endless injury plague at the beginning of the season, Benitez had to trust some players that at first looked like sideshows, such as Casemiro and Lucas Vazquez. Even though they delivered in tough scenarios, Benitez decided to defer to the still-ailing stars in big matches, especially the Clasico at home, with disastrous results.
After an initial period in which he favoured more established players, Zidane has started to test different lineups, modifying his midfield and his back four. The comeback of both Casemiro and Vazquez to the side, and the frequent participation of Mateo Kovacic, have brought a different dynamic to the team, who are now playing with more intent in both offense and defence. The Frenchman should not lose his faith in these players now that the biggest matches of the season are nearing.
2. Do not throw away La Liga
It's obvious that the only option for Zidane to make his mark this season is the Champions League title. However, the Frenchman should not forget that with any Real Madrid defeat comes the possibility of huge media storms and deafening noise. Whatever decisions he makes in regards to rotating his players, he should not give any La Liga match away.
The visit to the Camp Nou in the first weekend of April is an obvious example, but even a defeat at the hands of Union Deportiva Las Palmas this coming Sunday could generate thousands of "crisis" columns. In these two months, no mistakes are allowed, even if they look of minor importance in the big scheme of things.
3. Work on the team's transition to defence
If there is something this Real Madrid side does terribly, it is the way they track back to defend after they lose the ball in attack. Who is actually playing does not matter much: most players take too much time to recover their positions, assuming they in fact do.
When the opposition have a player with the speed of, for example, Roma's Mohamed Salah, that could mean two or three one-on-one chances for the opposition in any given match, and you can't always count on goalkeeper Keylor Navas to come through every single time, can you? Professional fouls, defensive helps and, of course, starting the fittest players should turn around this issue quickly.
4. Cover the defensive hole on the left side
Back from injury and obviously far from his best shape, Marcelo is tracking back even less than usual. His lack of defensive discipline last Tuesday against Roma shocked even those fans used to his offensive eccentricities. Coupled with Sergio Ramos' current form, impacted by an endless array of injuries, it's evident that Ramos can't effectively cover the Brazilian's frequent forays. If that was not enough, this season Ramos has struggled to perform when he's played every three days.
Zidane does have some options to choose from: he could play Marcelo as a winger with Danilo behind him, or use Lucas Vazquez on the left wing, as the 24-year-old is probably the winger in the squad with the biggest discipline to help his full-back. Zidane could also rest Ramos, playing him only once a week. Any of these options is significantly better than lining up Marcelo and Ramos in their current form with Isco in the left-midfield position.
5. Train to develop match-managing skills
It is flabbergasting that a team with such an array of good passers is unable to play "keep ball" to preserve a positive result. Although this deficiency was seen under former manager Jose Mourinho, the coaches that followed the Portuguese in Real Madrid's bench -- Carlo Ancelotti and Benitez -- also failed to address the issue. When the Madridistas have the ball, they try to score, which sounds sensible, unless the result is already positive and you put victory at risk by losing the ball in dangerous areas.
Any formation featuring the BBC -- Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo -- exacerbates this characteristic, but even when Zidane fields four theoretical midfielders, as he did against AS Roma on Tuesday, the team keep trying to score, no matter the result. Keeping possession can be a very powerful weapon when it's used in the right situations, and Zidane knows that well.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.