Getty Images

Zinedine Zidane

Real Madrid, 2016-2018; 2019–

It was only 10 months after his resignation that Zinedine Zidane returned to manage Real Madrid. He first stunned those at the Santiago Bernabéu when he departed only five days after leading them to a third successive Champions League title in May 2018, having excelled since succeeding Rafa Benítez. Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari then had short periods as the club’s manager before Zidane returned again, in March 2019, and restored a much-needed sense of stability.

He returned, however, to a squad weakened by Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus, and where instead of managing a fine collection of players at their peak, he is now being asked to oversee a period of transition and to develop a younger team. “The best manager in the world has rejoined the club,” Real’s president Florentino Pérez said, upon his return. “It has been difficult from the outside looking in,” Zidane said. I want to put this club back where it belongs.”

With his team securing victory over Villareal in their penultimate league game of this strange season, and with a 34th Spanish championship, the Frenchman has done just that.

Playing style
Consistent team selections and performances inspired so much of Real’s success during Zidane’s first period as their manager. For both of the 2017 and 2018 Champions League finals, for example, he used an identical starting XI; a more central role for Isco in 2018 was their only change. Even if his team evolved from using a 4-3-3 formation to a four-diamond-two during that period, their personnel remained similar.

It was also significant that they posed a balanced attacking threat. From goals scored in the Champions League, the competition that has long defined Real as a club, and which they dominated under Zidane until his resignation – 16 assists came from the left side of their attack, 16 came from central positions, and 18 came from the right. Support offered by advancing full-backs Marcelo and Dani Carvajal invited Ronaldo, Isco, Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio to drift inside from wide starting positions when they were organised into a 4-3-3, and when that 4-3-3 became a four-diamond-two they became responsible for providing Real’s width.

Zidane also prioritised playing his best players in their most natural positions for as long as possible. Ronaldo was perhaps the finest player in the world inside the penalty area for the period Real were managed by the Frenchman, and he was therefore moved from his a role as a left-sided forward who cut inside to shoot to a permanent central position alongside Karim Benzema.

Benzema also thrived from that change. His off-the-ball movements – particularly when withdrawing away from opposing central defenders – offered Isco freedom from his role as Real’s number 10 that the Spaniard regularly used to combine with those positioned out wide, often giving Ronaldo increased room (below) in the areas in which he was so influential. That also contributed to increased numbers in wide areas, leading to Real dominating in the territory their manager values.

Since Zidane’s return that desire to make the wide areas a priority has continued. Ronaldo’s departure has contributed to Benzema being given a different role, and again within a 4-3-3 (below); he occasionally still withdraws from his starting position to link with those in midfield, but often remains more advanced than he did alongside Ronaldo. Many of those recruited – Eden Hazard, Rodrygo and Vinícius Júnior among them – are often at their best attacking around the outside of opponents, and combining inside with attacking full-backs Marcelo, Carvajal and Ferland Mendy.

The demands on their central midfielders have also subtly changed. Two of Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric usually form a double pivot, as an alternative to the occasions Kroos and Modric operate in front of Casemiro – as they did when winning three successive Champions Leagues. Federico Valverde’s emergence and deployment in those positions also offers further support around Benzema, and has contributed to Isco adopting a wider position, as he did before Real moved to their four-diamond-two in midfield. Those operating from central midfield are encouraged to advance into the penalty area regularly, most commonly through the inside channels, between Benzema and those either side of him in their front three. That goals are being scored more evenly throughout Real’s squad perhaps owes to that increased flexibility; there no longer exists the focal point that Ronaldo once was.

Pressing and defending
The extent to which Real’s full-backs are encouraged to advance places an increased importance on their defensive balance (below). If Kroos, Modric and Casemiro so often excel in feeding those further forwards, when attacks break down they combine impressively in front of the central defenders to negate attempts to attack on the counter.

When they adopted their four-diamond-two, Kroos’ positioning towards the left and Modric’s towards the right meant that further diamond shapes existed among those attacking. Kroos and Modric were at the base of those diamonds which were led by the relevant striker and featured an overlapping full-back to one side and Isco to the other; the two midfielders, supported by the disciplined Casemiro, defended effectively on the occasions an opponent advanced. With two advanced full-backs contributing to the pressure being applied further forwards, and two strikers positioned to attack, Real were similarly effective when reorganising into a reserved 4-4-2.

Their return to a 4-3-3 has ultimately contributed to a change in their counter-pressing approach. Real continue to press as intensely and as often, and still start doing so with a unit of five. Their full-backs are less advanced than they were required to be when playing behind a diamond midfield, so opponents are likelier to play longer passes, leading to Real regaining possession in deeper territory when they once would have done so close to their opponent’s goal.

Through their wide forwards forcing the ball into more central areas, those in central midfield advance through the inside channels as a second wave, when previously that second wave was formed by their advanced full-backs and number 10. That they therefore also retain four in defence means that passes are often effectively negated, contributing to attempts to resist the pressure Real apply – often through rushed clearances – and the numerous regains made by the players Zidane selects in central defence.

Zinedine Zidane


José Mourinho

José Mourinho organised Inter Milan to overcome Barcelona and Lionel Messi en route to winning the Champions League. He revisits the occasion
Vanderlei Luxemburgo

Against the clock

Vanderlei Luxemburgo talks openly about the challenges involved in working at Real Madrid, the world’s most demanding club

Manuel Pellegrini

Manuel Pellegrini exclusively revisits Manchester City’s impressive victory over Manchester United, then managed by David Moyes