MADRID, Spain — Zinedine Zidane is facing his first real crisis since taking over as Real Madrid manager two years ago. With his team now 16 points behind runaway La Liga leaders Barcelona, Real Madrid have slipped far off the standard which saw them complete the Champions League and league double last year.
Here are five things Zidane must do quickly to stop the season from sliding off the rails, and to keep his job safe.
1. Not drop any more points in La Liga
Madrid’s huge gap to leaders Barcelona has been headline news all week. Less talked about is how Zidane’s side have now fallen to fourth, a full seven points behind Atletico Madrid, and five adrift of third-placed Valencia, albeit with a game in hand on both.
Crazy as it sounds, Marca has been warning this week about Real Madrid falling out of the Champions League places, and if Sevilla and Villarreal put runs together, a real battle for fourth could begin.
More realistically a few good wins on the bounce is needed just to lift spirits. After Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo, Zidane pointed out his team has not been playing well for a full 90 minutes. They need to start putting together consistent performances and start rolling again — especially ahead of next month’s Champions League round of 16 tie with Paris Saint-Germain.
Conversely, a slip at Valencia in a fortnight could be very dangerous. Failures to win in January at Mestalla did serious damage to both Zidane’s predecessors Rafa Benitez and Carlo Ancelotti. A battle to even qualify for the Champions League is not a good place for the Frenchman to find himself in.
2. Sort out the Ronaldo problem
Four goals from 83 shots in 13 La Liga games so far in 2017-18 is a pretty disastrous return from Madrid’s record goal scorer and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo.
Early season dips in form have become common as Ronaldo’s career has gone on, but by this stage he was usually back firing again as normal.
The Portugal captain has so far reserved his best showings for the Champions League, and also grabbed the spotlight with the winner in December’s Club World Cup final.
This suggests that, perhaps subconsciously, the 33-year-old has been saving himself during less high profile outings so far this season. A contract impasse with club president Florentino Perez may also be having an impact.
Many times in recent years, goals from Ronaldo have resolved problems caused by issues elsewhere in the team. Zidane needs to convince the superstar that they need him back fully focused right away.
3. Find defensive balance
Much of the focus so far this season has been on misfiring forwards, but Madrid have often looked in a complete shambles at the back too.
While Zidane has lamented individual errors this season — Marcelo in particular has been woefully out of form — the problem is more systemic. The current diamond midfield leaves the full-backs to cover the entire flank, and also asks Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to get through a huge amount of work. The Galacticos in attack don’t help much either.
The result has been the team getting cut open way too easily on the break, with even Segunda side Numancia scoring a quite straightforward counter-attack goal in Wednesday’s Copa del Rey visit to the Bernabeu.
Tightening up tactically should be a priority for Zidane now. If this means upsetting one of his big name attackers to add another midfielder to the mix, then so be it.
4. Get the kids plugged in
A lot of Madrid’s success last season was down to how the “reserve unit” led by Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez kept the team hurtling towards the La Liga and Champions League double.
This year’s backups have yet to spark at all. Starlet Marco Asensio is seemingly suffering from “second season syndrome,” while summer signing Dani Ceballos has not yet impressed Zidane, and was not even in the matchday squad last weekend.
When Zidane has rotated, the collective showings in the Copa del Rey against Fuenlabrada and Numancia were uninspiring, with a pair of 2-2 home draws against lower division opposition testing the patience of even the team’s most hardcore fans.
Asensio, Ceballos and the other talented but under-appreciated kids need to feel they have a real chance to displace more experienced teammates. Or they will fade even further out of the picture.
5. Change the narrative
Zidane’s increasingly strained media appearances are not helping matters. His insistence that the only thing needed is “more hard work” frustrates those who wonder whether he can see his team’s clear tactical issues. His public nixing of any plans to reinforce the team in January annoyed many around the club, reportedly as far up as club president Florentino Perez.
The Frenchman regularly saying he knows he might not even be coach after the summer is admirably honest and realistic, but also adds to the feeling he is just resigned to his fate either way.
Some spark is needed to reignite their season. This could be publicly calling out a big name player, shaking the team up tactically, or changing tack and bringing in a new high profile player in during the transfer window.
This would give the Bernabeu something different to talk about in the build-up to PSG’s visit on Feb 14. At the moment the narrative is all about a need for change being resisted — something Perez will be especially sensitive to.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan