Is Zinedine Zidane in danger of Real Madrid exit after Villarreal defeat?
MADRID, Spain -- Real Madrid are officially in crisis after Saturday afternoon's 0-1 La Liga defeat at home to Villarreal, and coach Zinedine Zidane is now in serious danger of losing his job, with his inability to even explain what is going wrong testing the nerves of everyone around the club.
Such a situation seemed almost impossible just last August, when Madrid were reigning Spanish and European champions, and Zidane looked to be the perfect manager for the Bernabeu dressing room's mix of experienced stars and talented youngsters. However, the 2017-18 season started badly and has gotten worse.
Saturday's embarrassing slip-up means the team has just one win in their past five games, a 3-0 Copa del Rey victory at Segunda side Numancia. Such a record may have club president Florentino Perez thinking of making a change, even with the huge Champions League last-16 first-leg at home to Paris Saint-Germain now just a month away.
Villarreal were good value for their first-ever win at the Bernabeu as Javi Calleja's team were very well-organised in defence, intelligent in possession and sharp in attack. By contrast Zidane's side again looked a shambles tactically, in bad need of a shake-up given their lack of confidence and ideas.
Madrid dominated possession, as expected, but they struggled to carve out really clear chances, and when they did, they could not take advantage. They managed 28 shots at goal over the 90 minutes, but it was a case of quantity not quality as just seven were on target. Villarreal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo made a couple of excellent saves, but it was not a case of a keeper having the game of his life; instead, he simply dealt with what was thrown at him.
It was another supremely frustrating afternoon for Cristiano Ronaldo, too, as we've seen so often this season -- especially in La Liga. Ronaldo had 11 shots at goal (just four on target) and really should have scored at least once. The Portugal captain's worst miss came from just three yards right on half-time, after which he claimed a penalty from referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco. But the truth he should have buried the chance and a tally of just four goals from 83 shots in 13 La Liga games is awful from the reigning Ballon D'Or.
Most shocking at the Bernabeu was a vague feeling of inevitability about how things played out. Not long ago, Madrid went a record 73 consecutive games scoring, but they have now failed to find the net in four of their past seven in La Liga and dropped into a battle simply to finish in the top four.
Until recently, there was always an expectation that Madrid would find a late goal to save a poor performance. Just last season they scored 14 times in the last five minutes of games, often when Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez (both of whom left the club last summer) had been sent on as subs. This year Zidane's side have not scored even once after the 85th minute in any match, while both Villarreal and Betis have got late winners for 1-0 wins at the Bernabeu.
When Zidane sent on Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez late on Saturday afternoon, there was no real feeling that it would make a difference, and the noise that often built inside the stadium as Madrid chased a late goal was just not there. There were whistles when Villarreal scored, a textbook counterattack beautifully finished by Pablo Fornals, but not the rage that accompanied setbacks in the past. With the team so far behind runaway La Liga leaders Barcelona, the mood was almost of resignation when the final whistle went.
There's a need for some leadership in times like this, but Zidane has not been helping the mood of late with his public comments. What once seemed like admirable loyalty in proven stars who had done the job for him before now looks more like blind faith in ageing players. There is also a clear lack of ideas from Zidane himself as to how he might himself change things and get the team playing well again.
At Saturday's postgame news conference, Zidane kept repeating the phrases "the ball did just not want to go in" and "I cannot explain it." The more optimistic Madrid fans and pundits can only hope that behind closed doors he has a better idea of how to fix things. Allowing his players to express themselves and make decisions was previously Zidane's biggest strength, but it now looks a weakness as he is unable or unwilling to provide the big shakeup -- either when it comes to personnel, tactics or both -- that looks necessary.
Saturday's comments -- such as "In football there are two teams, and what you must do is score a goal more than the opponent. And we tried that" -- did little to convince those who doubt whether Zidane, who is still quite raw as a coach, can get them out of their current rut.
Predecessor Rafa Benitez was sacked almost exactly two years ago after taking 37 points from 18 La Liga games. Madrid have now played 18 this season but taken five fewer points. That was clearly a different situation, and Benitez had lost (or never really won) the dressing room. Still the comparison doesn't look good for Zidane. The former galactico's public and long-term closeness to club chief Perez is arguably the main reason that his job isn't already under more pressure, but criticism is growing louder in the local media, especially on the influential late-night radio shows that always seem the best judge of the real atmosphere at the Bernabeu.
On Friday, Zidane hit out against the "negative coverage" of his side, claiming he saw lots of positives, but 24 hours later, his team were just as bad again. And laying into the local press for unfair coverage of the team is one sure sign that their grip on their job is less secure -- as seen most recently with Benitez and a few years back with Jose Mourinho.
It is now clearly odds-against that Zidane will still be in charge next season. Whether the always ruthless Perez decides to make a change ahead of the PSG game in a month's time could now depend on the upcoming Copa del Rey quarterfinal against Leganes and Real's next two La Liga games, at home to Deportivo La Coruna and away at Valencia.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan