Zinedine Zidane has cracked the code again. Never considered a tactical master, Zidane has solved several problems he had with his squad in a thrifty manner and has them humming again at the right time of the year. After a lacklustre start to the season, Real Madrid are back to their best, and it's hard to see anyone standing in their way now that they've found a working formula. They head into a tie with Juventus in the Champions League with options tactically, given Zidane's trickery with his personnel and formations. It speaks volumes of the manager's reputation at the club that he was given leeway when he needed some extra time to figure out what his side needed despite crisis talk midway through the season.
Zidane, who was disparagingly referred to as a "clap your hands" manager, has reinstalled a 4-4-2 formation, and Real Madrid have the second-most points in the league since the winter break (29), one behind Barcelona. Of late, they have won 28 out of a possible 33 points, with Barcelona behind them on 24 and Atletico Madrid further back again with 22. They can rue their poor league title defence, but the Champions League is the one they are concerned with now, and Zidane has them primed for a proper rally toward another title.
The key talking point with the change is putting the "BBC" of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo on the shelf for the more functional approach of Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio operating as wingers in a 4-4-2 and Benzema and Ronaldo as the front two.
"I almost would have preferred Zidane to play with the BBC instead of Lucas [Vazquez] and Asensio," Quique Setien said in February after Real Betis lost to Real Madrid. "We would have had fewer problems. They defend less," as the opposition manager confirmed how much more difficult Real Madrid are to play against with their new look.
There are problems with this tactic that have not surfaced or stalled their recent progress yet. Playing four in midfield with Asensio and Vazquez as wide men leaves just two central midfield positions to fill. That means one of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric or Casemiro will eventually be left out if this tactical tweak persists. The initial reaction to such a thought is that Casemiro is the weakest link, but he is vital to Zidane's control of the centre when he doesn't have as many bodies with which to fill midfield. There is also a worrying trend in conceding from set pieces that needs to be managed.
Although there are some negatives, the positives seem to outweigh them. Another one being that Marcelo and Dani Carvajal were often left exposed at the full-back positions earlier in the season but now have the protection of two extremely hard-working wide men. This allows them to get forward, with Real Madrid's overloading of wide positions making them a nightmare to defend against.
Another problem solved with the tinkering is the weight of scoring goals is taken from Benzema, as dropping him was out of the question, and Zidane most certainly has breathed life back into Ronaldo after a lame start to the season. He is pushing for another Ballon d'Or, with 37 goals in 35 games, and continues breaking records on an almost weekly basis as a striker.
It does make Isco's place at the club slightly more fragile and forces Bale to sit on the bench, given Vazquez's more focused approach to defending. On the plus side, it also makes Real Madrid's options from the bench incredibly strong and extremely flexible. According to WhoScored.com, Zidane has played the 4-4-2 seven times in La Liga, which is one more than he has played the 4-3-3. Planning against a Zidane side is becoming a lottery.
It gives Real Madrid more weight in the transfer market too, with the emergence of an academy player such as Vazquez and the great hope of Spanish football in Asensio playing meaningful minutes as starters. The pair are a big reason the Spanish national side's DNA has shifted from Barcelona to Real Madrid. If rumours are to be believed that Real Madrid want Mohamed Salah, it makes Liverpool's reported stance that he is not for sale a little easier to take.
Real Madrid are back to their best, and despite being out of the running for La Liga, they could be the best team in Europe at present. Zidane was on the brink as their manager, but he has adapted and disposed of the fabled 4-3-3 formation that the club played almost religiously. The weight of his name and history with the club also mean that he is allowed to experiment, and this might be the most important aspect of Real Madrid's push for an unprecedented third straight Champions League title. Based on what we've seen from Real Madrid under Zidane before, one wouldn't rule them out.