Real Madrid’s trust in Zinedine Zidane is being tested again after embarrassment in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday sparked fresh concerns about the club’s present and future.
Humiliated in the cup by Segunda B’s Alcoyano, a week after being outfought and largely outplayed in the Spanish Super Cup by Athletic Bilbao, Madrid find themselves in another slump.
Their season might well finish without a trophy, with Atletico Madrid marching on in La Liga and Europe’s elite stretching the gap even further away from Spain’s once formidable trio in the Champions League.
But more worrying is that this appears to be a squad now in desperate need of renovation and a team shorn of the strengths that took them to the title only six months ago.
The question is whether Zidane is the person for a rebuild, or even now if he wants to be. Asked if he still has the backing of the players on Wednesday, Zidane said: “I believe so, you have to ask them. We’ve done good things this season, apart from the last four games. Now we have La Liga and the Champions League and we have to work.
“Whether my message gets through, you have to ask them, I can’t answer that.”
Zidane has never been a coach to impose a clear identity, his numerous successes drawing suspicion in part because they seemed to arrive from nowhere, without a crescendo to give them more credibility.
But they were always built on a solid defence, a dependable core and a relentless will to win that meant close games became narrow victories and pressure periods brought a reaction.
Zidane needs another reaction now, starting at Mendizorrotza against Alaves on Saturday, like when Madrid won the Clasico at Camp Nou in October, and rattled off six victories on the bounce in December, each time after their coach’s position had come under scrutiny.
The difference this time is not just the scale of the failure against Alcoyano – who have not played in the top flight in half a century – but that it left Zidane accused of ignoring the future too.
His reliance on a select core was underlined by the poor performances of fringe players like Isco, Marcelo and Eder Militao, who looked short of sharpness and, perhaps, motivation.
Even more jarring for those higher up the club may have been the struggles of Vinicius Junior, Fede Valverde and Alvaro Odriozola, youngsters once circled as players that could be part of a new era.
And what about those not there? Luka Jovic was sent back on loan to Eintracht Frankfurt and scored twice for them in 28 minutes.
Or Martin Odegaard, who was recalled early from his loan at Real Sociedad only to be left searching this month for another exit. Sergio Reguilon is at Tottenham, Dani Ceballos at Arsenal.
Zidane has decelerated the transition, perhaps because it was by relying on the old guard that Real Madrid beat Barcelona to the league last term.
And when Zidane demanded change in the summer of 2019, his first transfer window after coming back, it was the club that failed to deliver.
Eden Hazard, Jovic, Ferland Mendy, Militao and Rodrygo were signed for around 300 million euros but only Mendy at left-back has consistently improved the first team. Zidane’s priorities, like Paul Pogba, were overlooked.
Nobody could have predicted those arrivals would have to last Real Madrid two seasons, the pandemic strangling the club financially meaning there were no new signings last year.
But their lack of impact has been laid bare, the price of failing to update growing ever more costly.
Zidane has always been trusted to pull Madrid out of a mess but never to build something new. When they won the title last season, it papered over the cracks, a testament to his ability to manage and motivate but the need for renewal remained.
Zidane wanted change in exchange for coming back. The change the club is now pondering is their coach.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Levante v Real Sociedad (2100)
Huesca v Villarreal (1400), Sevilla v Cadiz (1615), Real Sociedad v Real Betis (1830), Alaves v Real Madrid (2100)
Osasuna v Granada (1400), Elche v Barcelona (1615), Celta Vigo v Eibar (1830), Atletico Madrid (2100)
Athletic Club v Getafe