Zinedine Zidane must have known this time would be harder. The once-former, now-current Real Madrid manager stepped away from the club after winning the 2018 Champions League final—his and the club’s third in a row, and the team’s fourth in five years—just as Cristiano Ronaldo, the key to all that success, left for Juventus. So, when Zidane returned after a tumultuous half-season for the club, he had to have known the job would be tougher this go-round. Even so, he probably didn’t imagine it would be this difficult.
Viewed from afar, things look mostly fine for Madrid. They sit third in La Liga’s table, a point ahead of Barcelona, and are in a Champions League group from which qualification to the knockout round is a virtual certainty. But seen up close, this Real Madrid squad that lacks fitness and identity is perilously close to slipping into total chaos. Because of that, today’s match against Paris Saint-Germain in France comes at a dangerous time.
First, the health issues. A whopping five players are out of the PSG match with injuries, with three of them in the midfield. Those would be Isco, Luka Modrić, and Federico Valverde, leaving Real with just three healthy midfielders to take to Paris: Casemiro, James Rodríguez, and Toni Kroos. The other two injuries come via Marco Asensio, who tore his ACL before the season, and Marcelo, who recently suffered a neck injury.
Perhaps even worse than the number of players ruled out of the PSG match is the number of players currently nursing injuries that keep them below 100 percent. Brahim Díaz, Mariano, Luka Jović, Rodrygo, Eden Hazard, and Sergio Ramos are all hobbled in some way or another, though all but Díaz, Mariano, and the suspended Ramos are included in the 19-man squad for the PSG match. At this point, so early in the season, there are more Madrid players either currently injured or recently recovering from an injury than there are totally healthy ones.
Due to the injury crisis currently plaguing Real, you could forgive them for their lack of identity and consistency on the field, but they are problems nonetheless. To a certain extent, this is bound to happen when you bring in as many pieces as they did in a single summer. The club signed Hazard, Jović, Rodrygo, Éder Militão, and Ferland Mendy in the offseason, and also reincorporated James, who returned from a two-year loan stint with Bayern Munich. That’s a lot of new pieces to try to fit together on the fly, particularly when some of the old guard are still clinging to their positions and previous ways of doing things. (There is also Gareth Bale, somehow still here and not among the infirm of the moment.)
Real’s defense has been in shambles through the first four La Liga games in, continually getting overrun due to the relative rigidity of the aging midfield. They’ve given up six goals in four matches and only scored 9 on the other end. A plus-three goal differential at this stage of the competition is adequate, but after a season in the wilderness and a summer of copious spending, mere adequacy won’t be enough for long.
The problems are numerous. The full backs, once one of Madrid’s great strengths, have been bad. The midfield is disjointed and relies too much on Casemiro to do all the defensive shielding. The attack has been anemic, leaving Karim Benzema (who it must be said has been absolutely fantastic) without complementary players to combine with in the final third. Integrating Hazard, who only made his debut with the team this past weekend after being held out with a thigh injury, will help, but it won’t fix everything.
Today’s game in Paris could be the one to turn the injury crisis into a full-on institutional crisis, or it could be the one where Madrid start to right the ship. PSG are dealing with injury woes of their own, and Hazard should be healthy enough to make his first start of the season. Win or lose, the clock is already ticking for Zidane to get this house in order. If he doesn’t do it soon, he could find himself once again out of the Real job, but this time not of his own volition.
It might sound crazy that a figure so revered at the club, with such an astoundingly successful recent history as manager, could see himself sacked midway through his first full season back in charge. But this is Real Madrid, where absolutely no one is better than what they’ve done recently.