When Zinedine Zidane took over Real Madrid in March last season he had 11 games left to lift the club and lay the foundations for this coming campaign.
He was unable to do so. There were five wins, two draws and four defeats, and never any clear sign of the direction he wanted to take.
His record was worse than his predecessor Santiago Solari, who during 17 games in charge, won 12, drew one, and lost four.
This pre-season Zidane has taken charge of seven matches and Madrid have finished the summer with a worse ‘points’ ratio tally than any of the 20 clubs set to kick-off the new La Liga season this weekend.
Arguments can be made to defend him. Bad pre-season results, so what? And in the last third of last season there was nothing but pride to play for so it was hard to motivate the players.
But it’s being whispered around the corridors of the Bernabeu now that nothing has improved since he came back and, if anything, things have got worse. On four fronts – youngsters, signings, big-name players and tactics, he is coming up short.
Madrid’s Talented Youngsters
The three bright lights of last season were the youngsters Vinicius, Sergio Reguilon and Marcos Llorente. Zidane has moved two away from the club and shown an obvious lack of confidence in the other.
Left back Reguilon has moved on loan to Sevilla and midfielder Llorente was sold to Atletico. Suspicions that Zidane was not as enthusiastic about the raw but obvious talents of Vinicius were aroused last season when he gave him only one start in the final three matches of the campaign after he returned from injury.
This pre-season – even with Marco Asensio injured and Gareth Bale excluded – he has barely featured. He is a work in progress, but Zidane doesn’t seem too interested in being the coach who moulds the magician into a player.
‘You don’t want me, don’t worry I don’t want to work with you, he was reported to have said to the coach before he left.
Zidane won an incredible three Champions Leagues and one La Liga in less than three complete seasons but he did it by skillfully managing a very good squad that he inherited, already well-drilled by his predecessor Carlo Ancelotti.
This summer was to be his turn to build his own side. Developing youth does not seem to be his strength so what about new signings?
When he returned last March he had his shopping list of players ready for the president Florentino Perez. He wanted Eden Hazard, Paul Pogba, Sadio Mane and Ferland Mendy. Two were impossible, two were signed.
Hazard has had a flat pre-season. He scored one wonder-goal against Salzburg but there have been no signs yet that Zidane has a clear plan on how to get the best out of him.
Mendy has been injured, although even if fit he might not have featured too much because Marcelo is one player Zidane does seem to have a lot of confidence in and he has so far repaid it.
Instead of Mane, Real Madrid signed Luka Jovic but Marca cited two Serbian papers on Wednesday saying they had published stories suggesting Zidane has not been overly impressed by the forward and wants to loan him out.
Instead of Pogba the club has so far signed no other midfielder.
Handling The Big Ego’s
Zidane’s great strength in his first spell as coach was to make the players want to play for him. Even those that were playing less seemed to be happy with him.
But that is no longer the case. The big names have been handled as badly as the kids. James Rodriguez, back from a two-year loan at Bayern, has also been left out of squads and made to feel unwanted.
Bale, who he clumsily told in front of the world’s media should leave the club and the ‘sooner the better’, is currently fit and therefore to any neutral eye ought still one of Madrid’s best players.
In the last friendly of the summer he was the third change of the game, given half an hour and one of the penalty kicks in the shoot-out that Madrid lost.
It’s been pointed out by more than one supporter that Bale and Rodriguez could be put to good use by Zidane were he not so hell-bent on seeing them gone.
Tactics Not Working
That final friendly against Roma rang another warning bell. Zidane started the game with three centre backs and two wing-backs and then changed it at half-time trying several more systems in the second period.
Arguably it’s a formation that could work for Madrid but to start playing it so late in pre-season – when the club only have four centre backs – seemed to underline his lack of direction.
Does all this point to him not lasting long this season? Real Madrid sacked Julen Lopetegui in October last year.
One theory among Madrid watchers is that the 47-year-old coach never really wanted to come back. He was convinced by the promise of building a team in his own image but Madrid no longer rule the transfer market as they once did and it has not been possible to keep those promises.
Another theory suggests that Zidane – with the brilliant Cristiano Ronaldo flying for him – was the right man at the right time during that run of three Champions Leagues. But now the team needs rebuilding, he is the wrong choice.
If both theories prove to be well-founded then it really could be a short season for one of the legends of the club and the game.