An audacious Pablo Fornals chip in the 87th minute led Villarreal to a 1-0 win over Real Madrid on Saturday at the Bernabeu.
For the Yellow Submarine, it was their first ever victory at the home of the European champions, another unwanted record for manager Zinedine Zidane on a day where many people were quick to point out a number of unfortunate stats accrued by Madrid’s 2018 vintage at almost the halfway point of the La Liga season.
Los Blancos have lost consecutive home games for the first time since May 2009, when a certain Juande Ramos was in charge, they have dropped 22 points in La Liga this season – more than the whole of the last campaign and Rafa Benitez, the man who Zidane replaced in the job, collected 37 points at this same stage of his sole half a season in charge before getting sacked. Zidane’s men have earned just 32.
The 16-point gap between them and Barcelona looks totally unassailable, and now the Champions League last 16 tie against PSG becomes all the more crucial – but that is still a month away, and questions over whether or not Zidane will still be in the job seem perfectly valid, especially considering the manner of their concession of a point on Saturday.
Fornals, arriving at Villarreal from Malaga this summer, is a player who typifies everything Madrid aren’t at the moment: a creative, attacking force at the tip of Javi Calleja’s midfield diamond. He has evolved his game this season into a confident playmaker, seeming certain to add to his one Spain cap in the buildup to this year’s World Cup.
His marauding, prodding play is almost an exact mirror of Isco at the peak of his powers last season as Real won the title and defended their European crown, but those qualities that Fornals has brought to a revitalised Villarreal are sorely missing from Madrid at the moment.
Their attacking strategy always seemed to smack a little of relying on the natural flair of their most in-form attacker. Isco, in many ways, may have spared the naive Zidane’s blushes last season, as the lack of a form forward has crudely exposed Madrid’s tactical weaknesses this season – and especially in recent weeks.
Going forward, the only game plan seems to be to feed either Dani Carvahal or Marcelo the ball deep from midfield and attempt to cross as soon as possible. When this doesn’t work, say, from the boot of Marcelo on the left, Real will try the same move on the right and continue to rotate throughout the game.
Much has been made of the ineffectiveness of Cristiano Ronaldo in games this season, but Madrid are not playing to the strengths of their star man, nor are they helping out his main strike partner, Karim Benzema. Two players who enjoy having the ball fed to their feet, with Benzema having a particular preference to collect the ball deep, are being forced into dual target man roles to which neither are suited. The dual slumps of Isco and Toni Kroos, as well as a lack of natural width in Real’s tight midfield diamond, have only forced this issue to the forefront quicker.
Fornals’ goal also spells bad news for Real in terms of how they’ll match up defensively against PSG. With Carvahal and Marcelo having to patrol the entire wing by themselves, but with neither having exceptional work rates, spaces behind the full-backs are guaranteed to open up for the explosive combination of Neymar and Kylian Mbappé to exploit.
Marcelo’s general lack of defensive effort, highlighted by the recent “more there than here” video that spotlighted his lack of puff (well worth a watch, a brilliant piece of unintentional footballing comedy) can only serve to inspire confidence in the French force.
Of course, Real have had to deal with these exact same issues all throughout Zidane’s tenure – but there was always a hero to come along and save the legendary figure from criticism and help deliver them success. Casemiro’s otherworldly defensive efforts at the base of Zidane’s midfield have more often than not covered for the deficiencies out wide, but the shuttling Brazilian is not Superman and has seen his influence wane this season. Much like Sergio Ramos, Ronaldo, Benzema, Gareth Bale (that one can be mostly attributed to injury), Isco, Marcelo, and until recently, Keylor Navas this season.
Even with all these players falling out of form Zidane always had a wealth of talent in reserve to call upon, but Real’s desire to cash in on their bench last summer, allowing the likes of Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez to leave, alongside an evident distrust of the new recruits by Zidane, have seen them shorn of arguably their greatest X factor.
Not that it would seem like they would make much difference at the moment either, as Zidane has fallen into Martin O’Neill levels of comic substitution predictability. Lucas Vazquez in the 70th minute, on to get more crosses into the box, of course, is becoming just as much a tradition at the Bernabeu as winning European Cups and breaking world transfer records.
Real are just another team at the moment, and just another team has never been good enough in the Spanish capital. What once worked is not now, and, although Zidane still commands massive respect at the club where he became a god as a player and delivered two Champions League titles on the bounce, he is caught in serious trouble seemingly without the tactical nous or top level experience to get him out. Madrid still have outstanding individuals who can be moulded into a great team, but a reliance on ‘heroball’ is no longer cutting it for Los Merengues.
Their basic attacking plan has been found out. Their defensive frailties are obvious and glaring. All their star men, save for Navas and Luka Modric, are out of sorts. Their world-beating bench isn’t there to get them out of the messes they themselves have created. And they have a manager who, short of building a Pep Guardiola-like dynasty at the club, has swiftly and mysteriously gone from resembling Sir Alex Ferguson to a David Moyes doppelgänger in the space of a few months. Even then, West Ham could well stand a chance against Real Madrid at the moment.
Take one look at the Marcelo video and notice how long it takes for Zidane to adapt and send him assistance in the form of a deeper-lying Kroos to cover his attacking runs. Is this plain stubbornness, or a lack of experience from the man in charge of one of the biggest clubs on the planet?
Whatever the answer may be to Real Madrid’s problems, Zidane must find them quickly because his side are on a collision course with a Champions League favourite perfectly suited to exploit their biggest weaknesses, and a loss to the Parisians, in the competition that made him, could be what breaks Zidane in the eyes of president Florentino Perez.
Alex Dunne, Pundit Arena