For Zinedine Zidane, the real challenge has now begun. Handed the reigns to a club that was full of talent but had underachieved, he used that immense talent to its fullest in winning not only the world’s most competitive league but the world’s hardest football competition. The season after etching Real Madrid’s names in the record books (again) and adding a star to the crest (again), the manager is finding repeat success to be a challenge.
Real Madrid’s main problem has been keeping its immense talent on the pitch, and that starts with the Galacticos’ brightest star. Ronaldo has returned from his five match suspension and is flashing signs of his immense form, but still is not at 100% effectiveness. From the medical front, the list of unavailable players for this round is a who’s who of international stars, including Marcelo, Theo Hernandez, Mateo Kovacic, and Karim Benzema. These injuries have tested the club’s depth but allowed younger players like Dani Ceballos to shine.
The malaise is more than this though, and much of it comes back to the simple fact that these players have little to play for with their club. At this level, all of them are the consummate competitors and want to win above all else, but that’s an easy concept to grasp in the home locker room before playing Barcelona. It is harder to internalise in a visitors’ locker room against a small league side whose players will sit back and kick your ankles while the fans whistle at you every time you run by. You still want to win, but that fire’s died down a little because you already have. In Real Madrid’s case, you already have multiple times. It is inconceivable that players and staff as great as these could ever just coast with the pressure heaped on them, and if you hooked them to a lie detector that needle wouldn’t jump a centimetre when you asked if they were still motivated to win every where every time. The issue is the player’s subconscious, that part that gives an extra boost to push a player or manager when the going is tough.
Sir Alex explained in his interview with the Harvard Business Review how he maintained consistent success over the years: “We had to be successful – there was no other option for me – and I would explore any means of improving. I continued to work hard. I treated every success as my first. My job was to give us the best possible chance of winning. That is what drove me.” Now Sir Alex’s interviews and books on leadership tend to be… tidied up to avoid the uglier side of his management style but this point is a valid one. Great sides win with the same players and staff because they find the challenge in everything. It may be internal or external, but there is a new goal or opportunity in every training session or match. The manager’s job is to push the players to find these successes. His motivation techniques he used the year prior may no longer be valid and now he has to find the touch points to inspire his team to continued success.
In interviews this year, Zidane has shaken off the slow start, mixing in jokes about the season and general verbal shrugs about the club’s struggles. In this weekend’s 2-1 win over Alaves, a match which saw multiple shots hit the goalposts for both sides, the manager simply focused on the outcome. He told the media after the match, “There has to be patience. It’s not a brilliant time for us, but we have to accept it.” This is not the message of hope or inspiration, but a reality. That reality is Real Madrid are slogging through the beginning of a new campaign but they have the quality to take points while the club rounds into form. Likely this is not the pre-match message to the players, but as the manager he has to work with the players to set their markers for success.
The downside for Dortmund is that this match is an opportunity the players to make their mark in a new and different way. These two sides have a long history but the Westfalenstadion is a challenge unto itself. The fortress presents a nearly impossible task to all opponents who enter the ground, and for a club on autopilot looking for something new to overcome, it’s a prime opportunity. If Zidane can focus his players on the task and its seeming impossible in the right way, he can create a new goal for a club seeking them.