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He’s bringing sexy back: 5 tactical notes from Zidane’s first game in charge

1. Zizou delivers on promises

Of course they would entertain. It almost sounded as if Florentino Pérez had dictated the script

Few knew much about Zinédine Zidane the tactician before his debut as Real Madrid coach, but the Frenchman had certainly talked the talk. Asked about his style of play, Zizou had championed attacking football based on possession, fluent movement and playing out from the back. Of course Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo would start. Of course they would entertain. It almost sounded as if Florentino Pérez had dictated the script.

Delivering on such promises requires tactical flexibility, something Zidane had showed during 18 months in charge of Castilla, the club’s reserve team. The youngsters could be slick at home on the pristine Valdebebas turf, but more direct in the swamps of the rainy Basque mountains. With formations varying, the resemblance was closest to Carlo Ancelotti, for whom he was assistant coach in the Champions League-winning 2013/14 campaign.

This debut reinforced that impression. Setting out in a 4-3-3, Zidane played the BBC, with Toni Kroos behind Isco and Luka Modric. Within six minutes, Madrid had twice played out of the back under pressure as passes were exchanged inside the penalty area. The plan almost backfired when Sergio Ramos had a pass intercepted near the box, but Madrid generally did it well and drew applause from the stands.

Further ahead, the BBC moved fluently as Marcelo and Dani Carvajal bombed forward. The players seemed freed from the shackles imposed by Rafa Benítez, who is known for limiting the scope for individual improvisation. Though Zidane had only worked with the squad since Tuesday, the mere change in philosophy was enough to transform the atmosphere, and Madrid created enough chances to merit five goals. The only thing missing was a goal from Ronaldo, who unleashed 10 efforts without success.

2. Isco thrives in tailor-made role

Roaming suits Isco well and allows Ronaldo to drift inside, which may explain why Zidane preferred the Spaniard to James Rodríguez

Zidane also recalled Isco, who endured a frosty relationship with Benítez, and the 23-year-old played a crucial role in destabilising Deportivo. On the ball, Madrid’s midfield trio tilted so that Kroos and Modric played deeper, almost as double pivots: Kroos ended up the busiest passer, with 80 out of 83 deliveries finding their target, while Modric came second with 71 out of 78. As these two kept the side ticking, Isco got more creative responsibilities.

Showing his resemblance to Andrés Iniesta, Isco varied between drifting between the lines and targeting the left flank. On 14 minutes he found a pocket of space centrally and set up Ronaldo, whose shot was deflected to the corner from which Benzema flicked in the opener. After the duo had again combined neatly, Isco exchanged passes with Marcelo and returned a cross that the Brazilian fired just wide. By half-time, most of Madrid’s moves had come down this flank.

This kind of roaming suits Isco well and allows Ronaldo to drift inside, which may explain why Zidane preferred the Spaniard to James Rodríguez. When Isco came off for the Colombian on 66 minutes, his positioning had clearly been more advanced than that of Modric.

3. Bale best on the right

On the other flank, Bale shone. The Welshman has long stated his desire to play centrally, but if this was an effort to justify such demands, it backfired. As Ronaldo and Benzema switched positions, Bale mainly stayed out wide and delivered perhaps his finest display of the season. On 20 minutes he ghosted into the box to steer home Carvajal’s cross, before his floating pass created a chance for Benzema. Later, a clipped ball that Ronaldo headed against the post triggered rousing applause.

After the break, Bale sidefooted home Ronaldo’s cross before converting Kroos’s corner, sealing a hat-trick from just four efforts. Though he completed just two out of six attempted dribbles, the display added further evidence of his efficiency when given space out wide, as opposed to the condensed central areas more suited to nimble playmakers. Taken off in the 74th minute, he departed to a standing ovation.

4. Languid BBC fail to press

Bale was also the most industrious member of the BBC, though that said little. Zidane had warned that no team could have players who didn’t defend, yet Ronaldo and Benzema did not appear to have heard him. With only Bale staying on the right side of the ball, Madrid often took on a 4-4-2 shape as Isco and Modric were forced to pick up Deportivo’s full-backs. After the game, Zidane admitted that the pressing had to improve.

The stats underlined his observation. The two sides each made 55 ball recoveries, but Madrid made only 11 in the opposite half, as opposed to Deportivo’s 20. Neither did Madrid try many tackles high up the pitch, though credit should again go to Bale, who committed a goal-saving challenge inside his own box shortly before coming off.

5. Structural issues remain

The slack pressing led to other defensive problems. Madrid were often disorganised in the final weeks under Benítez and, while this was a first clean sheet at the Bernabéu in five league games, Deportivo could have scored one or two; particularly in the 11th minute, when Keylor Navas saved a close-range finish from Lucas Pérez with the score at 0-0.

Deportivo went on to record 18 shots and, while many were optimistic, others could have gone in. Pérez twice fired wide after finding space in front of the back four, while in the second half, Deportivo had spells of pressure and were stopped by inaccurate finishing, hesitance and last-ditch tackles.

Zidane later said there is still much to improve, and defensive drills will surely feature in the coming weeks. For all that, the emphasis will surely remain on the attacking play, which has, for now at least, turned the Bernabéu into a far happier place.

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