In a strange sort of way, Zinedine Zidane must have felt a cruel sense of vindication after watching his Real Madrid team crash out of the Copa del Rey to third-tier Alcoyano - Los Blancos’ worst, most humiliating defeat in the competition for over a decade.
For weeks, the Frenchman had been implored to rotate his squad. Real Madrid had looked desperately tired in their Spanish Supercopa semi-final loss to Athletic Club the week before, and in La Liga matches before that too. And yet Zidane continued to rely on a trusted core of players, only making one or two changes between games.
That core of players was largely given a rest for Wednesday’s round-of-32 tie away to Alcoyano. Karim Benzema, Thibaut Courtois, Toni Kroos and Marco Asensio were on the bench as goalkeeper Andriy Lunin and defender Victor Chust were handed their senior debuts. Luka Modric was left out of the squad entirely.
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What unfolded was a demonstrated of why Zidane has been so reluctant to rotate. It might even have been a sign of why the Frenchman is no longer the right man to take the Spanish champions forward. Real Madrid have one of the deepest squads in European football. That Zidane is struggling to get anything out of more than just a handful of players is damning of his capacity as a coach.
Against Alcoyano, Real Madrid were lethargic throughout. They took the lead through a header from Eder Militao on the stroke of half time, but failed to build on it, allowing their lower league opponents back into the contest. The defending for the equaliser was abysmal, as Jose Solbes was afforded time and space at the back post to finish from a corner kick. Even after the red card shown to Ramon Lopez in extra time, it was the 10 men of Alcoyano who showed more ambition to find a winner, which they did.
Real Madrid finished the game with Asensio, Benzema, Kroos and Eden Hazard on the pitch, yet there was never any real sense that a comeback was coming. Some might put this down to the fabled magic of the cup (after all, La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid didn’t even make it to the Copa del Rey round of 32 this season), but trends are starting to emerge that don’t look good for Zidane.
Zidane has failed to tactically evolve Real Madrid in his second stint in charge. The Frenchman has never been known for his footballing philosophy, but his hard-running style appears to have taken its toll on the legs of his players. Zidane might have taken Real Madrid to the Spanish title last season, but their pace is getting slower and slower.
New signings and hungry youngsters should have helped Zidane revitalise his team. Martin Odegaard, for instance, was recalled early from a two-year loan spell at Real Sociedad to give Madrid renewed drive and energy through the centre of the pitch. Six months later, the Norwegian has reportedly asked the club to go out on loan again due to a lack of game time.
Barcelona’s transfer activity in recent years has been the subject of much scrutiny, but Real Madrid’s record in the market of late hasn’t been much better. Last season, for instance, over £300m was spent on new signings by the club. Of the six players who arrived, only Ferland Mendy and Rodrygo have lived up to their billing, with Luka Jovic, Militao, Reinier and most notably Hazard all flopping. Zidane had no apparent plan on how to use them.
By re-appointing Zidane almost two years ago, Real Madrid gave the Frenchman the freedom to reshape his team as he’d long wanted. But from that freedom very little has been produced. Real Madrid are essentially the same team now, in terms of both approach and personnel.
'It’s not a disgrace' – Zidane after Real Madrid’s shock loss to third-tier Alcoyano