Former Real Madrid President Ramon Calderon: Why Zinedine Zidane's Team is in Trouble

After the defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium earlier this month, Cristiano Ronaldo, the indisputable leader and star of the Real Madrid team, shared a comment that could be considered representative of the dressing room's opinion.

"The players who came in summer are good and have potential, but they are young and inexperienced. Pepe, Morata, James, Danilo, Coentrao, the ones who were transferred [away] in June, made us stronger," Ronaldo said.

It was a clear and blunt complaint of poor planning for the new season—words, by the way, that were not well received by the board—as his explanation for the recent run of bad results.

If we bear in mind the statistics, arguable he's not wrong: The six new signings—Jesús Vallejo, Theo Hernandez, Marcos Llorente, Achraf Hakimi, Dani Ceballos and Borja Mayoral—have not played much. They have contributed only three goals, while the six who left have scored a total of 23 goals for their new teams, with Alvaro Morata and Mariano Diaz exceeding at Chelsea and Olympique Lyons, respectively.

But, taking into account that only a few months ago Real was celebrating a second successive Champions League victory and one La Liga title, can the planning be the only reason for the drop in results. Can it really justify that, after only 13 matches played in La Liga, Real is eight points behind Barcelona, four behind Valencia, fourth in the table, and finished second in its Champions League group?

To understand better and judge the case, perhaps we should analyse what happened when Zinedine Zidane was offered the job as Real coach, less that two years ago. At that time, he was coaching a Second División B team, a third tier in Spain.

Real Madrid's Superstar Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo at Wembley Stadium, London, November 1. Ronaldo has made clear his disappointment at Real Madrid's business last summer. ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty

Lacking experience, he was very brave to accept the challenge, but also wise and humble enough in deciding to implement two tactical ideas from former coaches. From Carlo Ancelotti, he took the concept of counter-attack, playing the spaces with Karim Benzema as the main coordinator of these manoeuvres. From Rafael Benitez, the idea that Casemiro should play ahead of the two center backs, protecting the defence and lightening the duties of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.

Can it be that only the combination of those tactical systems allowed Real Madrid to win two Champions Leagues and a La Liga title, while his predecessors were sacked? Clearly not.

What was crucial and decisive, and can be seen as Zidane's main contribution in those two seasons, was to give back to his players the feeling that the club belonged to them. They had not felt anything like that since winning two consecutive La Liga titles in 2007 and 2008. Until those years, and from 2009 onward, Real Madrid was the team of the president's whims. Zidane, however, remained in the background and allowed the players to enjoy the limelight rather than himself.

That behavior had a very positive mental and physical effect: the players put all their energy and stamina into succeeding. Matches were regularly won in the last minute, which is a good example of the fervor and passion. Enthusiasm is the most important part of football, and in teams with so many stars this is even more decisive. Raising the enthusiasm of the team to the maximum for a year and a half was the greatest work of Zidane, combined with the application of the ideas of Benítez and Ancelotti.

Zinedine Zidane
Zinedine Zidane at GSP Stadium, Nicosia, Cyprus, November 20. Zidane's team has suffered a slump in form this season. FLORIAN CHOBLET/AFP/Getty

That worked very well with tailwind and combining talent and enthusiasm, but the inexperience has obviously had negative effects when problems arise. Zidane, still without a defined method, invites the players to improvise, he wants the players to feel free to solve problems by themselves, using their talent and imagination, but this is almost impossible in contemporary football, even if you have the most intelligent and skillful players in the world.

In modern football it is difficult to live for long on heroism and passion, or on the skill of superstars to win titles. You need a structure, a formula that players can use when a crisis or a problem arises during a match. A framework of ideas, concepts and mechanisms got through repetitions and simulations in the training field, in order to offer solutions to the players. Now, Zidane must try and find solutions for when the talent and improvisation of his players cannot win games.

Apart from that, what is really serious, and bewildering Real supporters is that, for some unknown reasons the fire that encouraged the players to deliver their last drop of energy seems to have disappeared in recent months. Maybe it is from the relaxation that appears when a team has won everything in the previous seasons. Zidane must find out if the reason is mental or physical, because the big difference between success and failure, in football at the highest level, is precisely in that drop.

In recovering the enthusiasm and passion lost by the players, and in Zidane finding tactical solutions, lies the possibility of recovering the confidence and getting new trophies this season. It is not too late.

Carlo Ancelotti
Rafael Benitez

But having said that, we must not forget that when you talk about Real Madrid, the normal football rules do not apply. It is a team that never gives up, and has built a legend winning matches and titles impossible for others, and in heroic circumstances.

So, regardless of any bad moment they may seem to be in, you must never rule them out to win any competition they are playing. That is why they have been proclaimed the best club of the 20th century and have won more trophies than any other team in football history.

Ramón Calderón is a Spanish lawyer and former president of Real Madrid, holding the position from 2006 through 2009.