Zinedine Zidane’s abrupt, stylish exit from Real Madrid highlights exactly how much work the Spanish giants need to do over the coming seasons to remain at the top of European football.
Zidane’s run of three Champions League titles over 2.5 years in charge of the club is remarkable. That success has also served to obscure the challenges ahead for the team he’s now leaving. For the last three seasons Madrid’s approach to squad building has been a healthy dose of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. And it really wasn’t broke. Now, things may have to change.
Despite Madrid’s Champions League victory, the team really did suffer a decline in performance this season. The obvious indicator is finishing third on 78 points after finishing first on 93 the year before and second on 90 in Zidane’s first half-season in charge. The year over year decline is due primarily to two different things, each of which is readily apparent in all sorts of public data. The first is a return to earth for their stratospheric finishing numbers, and the second is a slowly eroding defense.
Madrid’s underlying attacking numbers didn’t change all that much year over year. During their 2016/17 title winning run they scored 106 goals, but public xG numbers only had them around 91. This season they scored 94 goals while, again, being right at 91. Looking at open play numbers exaggerates the problem even further. In their disappointing season they scored 65 goals from open play while their open play xG total was 71. In their dominant year they scored 78 despite an xG of 70.
In particular, Karim Benzema had an incredibly disappointing finishing season. His five goals were largely the result of coming in well behind his almost 14 xG. The season before he scored 11 and had an xG of 13.5. These are generally not the types of changes that are alarming. Large swings in goals with smaller changes in xG are mostly not the kinds of thing that persists. All things being equal, Karim Benzema should be fine next year and rebound to score more goals than the measly total he ended up with this season.
Defensively their worries are more real. The decline isn’t just a finishing issue. Their xG conceded this season was just over 45, as compared to 37 the year before. The change didn’t come just from the volume of shots they were conceding, although it jumped from 663 to 700, but also from the quality of shots. When they won the title Madrid conceded shots that averaged .09 xG per shot from open play, .07 from corners and .08 from indirect free kicks. Last year those numbers jumped to .11, .11, and .14. That’s a real decline in defensive efficiency.
Take all the numbers together and what it presents is a team whose variation in attack can be fairly easily explained. They weren’t quite the unstoppable attacking juggernaut they seemed to be when they won the title, but there probably aren’t major underlying problems either. The concern is that to produce roughly the same output this season as last it seems like Madrid began to take more risks. Those risks destabilized their defense and left them more vulnerable than they had been before. Chasing the attacking dragon is a real temptation. And it might be justified if they were putting up underlying numbers that matched the top line performance of 16/17, but given that the underlying numbers they’re chasing are a little bit more modest, it creates the kind of issues that can result in a disappointing third place season even while winning a Champions League title.
So, why exactly did Madrid have to get defensively less sound simply to keep relatively equivalent levels of attack? One possible answer is that they’re getting older. It’s hard to fault Madrid’s recent habit of continuity. For a team with a history of tinkering, buying and selling stars just because they can, winning a lot and then not changing anything is a welcome change of pace. But, eventually, father time puts a cap on exactly how many times you can just run it back.
Over half of Madrid’s starting lineup is on the wrong side of 30. Some of those players are in more forgiving positions. Keylor Navas isn’t going to suffer much at keeper for being 31. Sergio Ramos is 32 but still managing at center-back just fine. Cristiano Ronaldo is 33 and a striker, but he seems to have cracked the god code of immortality. He’s Ronaldo. You don’t prepare for him getting old, you deal with it after it happens. That still leaves a lot of other players whose performance is going to keep getting worse, not better.
Luka Modric is 32 and has to do a tremendous amount of midfield work to keep Madrid functioning right. His midfield partner Toni Kroos is 28 so he doesn’t make this list, but he’s also right at the cusp of flirting with the downside of his career. Benzema is 30. Marcelo who provides a tremendous amount of attacking creativity and thrust from his fullback spot is also 30. Gareth Bale isn’t a regular starter, but he’s going to turn 29 this summer (and he may not be around with Madrid much longer anyway).
Madrid’s collective age is a ticking time bomb. It didn’t quite go off this season, but whoever was trying to defuse it sure seemed like they cut the wrong wire and sped up that countdown clock. It’s easy to read this season’s third place finish, as well as their struggles against Juventus and Bayern Munich in the Champions League as warning signs. Age eventually comes for us all, and it’s coming for a bunch of Madrid players at the same time.
Ideally as players age there are already replacements ready to step in and take over. Very few of those exist at Madrid. Isco has come into his own as a playmaker and is already a superstar level contributor. But otherwise, the cupboard is fairly bare. Mateo Kovacic is the next midfielder up. He’s certainly been a capable backup over the years, but he plays differently to Kroos and Modric. He’s less of a pass first ball mover, his skills lie with bringing the ball forward at his feet. Should he step up and exert more influence at Madrid they’ll have to change how they play to accommodate him.
In the front line, Marco Asensio has been adequate. Asensio is young and still might develop further, but for now he seems like a slightly less comprehensively gifted Isco rather than a possible shot generating monster who can play across from Ronaldo and generate goal scoring opportunities for himself. Isco, Asensio, and to a certain degree Lucas Vazquez, are all well rounded attackers, but none take more than 2.75 shots per 90 and all average 0.30 xG per 90 or less. All of the younger attackers on Madrid were molded by playing a complementary role to the front three of Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema. Those who weren’t, like Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez were shipped off (although Rodriguez is technically on a two year loan).
Whoever ends up taking over the reigns at Madrid will have to hope that the team is committed to restocking. They need attackers who get shots, midfielders that progress the ball and defenders who get away with attacking without conscience like Marcelo does. That means finding extremely talented players with the potential to be superstars who can play all over the place. In attack, midfield and defense, the team needs younger legs who can generate attack without having to sacrifice defensive commitment.
Zidane picked a smart time to hang it up. Not only did he accomplish everything he possibly could with this group, it’s probable that this group has peaked, and in order to keep winning things some drastic changes are going to have to come.
Images provided by the Press Association