Zinedine Zidane must fix Real Madrid fast, but he's not solely to blame
It's fair to say that Zinedine Zidane is currently under the most personal and professional pressure he's suffered since being sent off in the 2006 World Cup Final for head-butting Marco Materazzi.
From historically good: Eight trophies in his first two years at the helm of Real Madrid, the first man to win consecutive Champions Leagues and the author of Los Blancos status as Spanish and European champions for the first time since 1958, his team has nosedived.
Madrid languish in fourth, 19 points behind Barcelona and just in front of Villarreal who, on Saturday, claimed their first win at the Bernabeu, despite the absence of several key players. Even in the febrile history of a club like Madrid, the fall from the throne to the gutter has never been so sudden or so bruising.
All of which means that there will be a bill to pay, as is the case when dignity and / or ego is damaged. A small part is the jeering and whistling that breaks out at the Bernabeu when things are going wrong, audible even above the fans' "singing section."
The stadium isn't quite outright hostile yet. But it is turning and that this is true, so soon after Madrid was inundated with trophies and glory, tells the story of an incessantly hungry, perhaps entitled fanbase, as well as the impoverished nature of the football the team is playing.
The next part of the bill will come when those media based in the Spanish capital ignore the current briefing from the club that it's the players, rather than the coach, to blame.
Having won three trophies already this season, and with the Copa del Rey and Champions League still up for grabs, Madrid's powerbrokers -- president Florentino Perez and his director general Jose Angel Sanchez -- are shrewd in attempting to direct the ire away from their coach.
Zidane has meant so much to Perez, as an epoch-making player, as an ambassador, as an election-aide, as a transfer market guide and, ultimately, in coaching roles, that while Madrid's leader may be ruthless and quixotic, the Frenchman is due -- and will receive -- more leeway than any coach.
But woe betides anyone, who thinks Zidane is even relatively safe. Should Madrid be eliminated from Europe by Paris Saint-Germain, then you can take it that the odds of Perez taking a mid-term view and putting his arm around Zidane's shoulders, rather than hands round his neck, are low indeed.
But Zidane, elegance included, is a streetfighter. He won't change that element of his makeup; Zidane's attitude will be: "To heck with the critics" or firmer words to that same effect.
And he'll be hunkering down for hand-to-hand combat with anyone who wants to prevent his world, Spanish and European champions winning those two knockout competitions that remain available.
How Zidane fares in those tasks may dictate whether Perez is willing to endorse him for a third year in charge, supposing the chasm between Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga hasn't already dictated the coach's future.
(On the flip side, whether "Zizou" will wish to stay on beyond the summer, after two-and-a-half years of ultra-success and ultra-pressure, is another question. And one for another day.)
With Jose Mourinho, who Perez wanted to appoint in January 2016 before being turned down and opting for Zidane, looking edgy at Manchester United and with Mauricio Pochettino clearly slated to get his opportunity at the Bernabeu in the not-too-distant future, there are candidates to step into the breach the instant Madrid's famously intemperate president says: "Basta, suficiente... nada mas."
However it's only fair to acknowledge that the 45-year-old is halfway through only his second season in charge of a senior team. Valuable as his brief experience of teaching the Madrid kids was in terms of cutting teeth, this is the real deal.
Almost all the great modern coaches stacked up years of experience before breaking through to elite status. Thus, as it emerges that Zidane is contributing to, rather than resolving Madrid's problems, there is an argument that the problem is not lack of talent but lack of experience.
Does anyone care? Perhaps not in the Real Madrid culture which, since Perez seized power in 2000, has blossomed into: "Hire, fire, look for the next guy." There is no central football philosophy. So don't look for one.
But make no mistake; as much as Zidane's gentle hand on the tiller was precisely what a talented but high-maintenance squad needed from January 2016 until the summer of 2017, he has become a central part of the issues Madrid face.
Put simply, he's never even been close to having to anticipate, plan for, cope with or solve the kind of tests that have been flooding towards his office at Valdebebas since mid-summer.
You want a list?
Some of his squad feel sated after the recent trophy rush.
Some of his squad are quietly saving themselves a little bit of intensity and "all for one" attitude at club level because this summer brings the World Cup.
There's the transfer "policy," which lacked equilibrium because experience and goals were being shipped out last summer while potential talent and youth were shipped in.
That same transfer "policy" didn't listen to Kylian Mbappe's people saying: "He'll join if one of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema or Cristiano Ronaldo is sold, but otherwise you've got no chance."
And the transfer "policy" had no viable alternative when it proved that Mbappe's people weren't kidding, by which time Alvaro Morata was shopping around Chelsea and Fulham and learning the words to "Blue Is the Colour."
Then there was Ronaldo pushing the Supercup referee and incurring a huge ban, Sergio Ramos getting sent off out of sheer self-indulgence, a virus attacking the lining of Dani Carvajal's heart and Ronaldo forgetting what type of relationship the ball and the net are supposed to have.
I could go on.
Forget the fact that Zidane knows his sport intimately and that he was a majestic player and leader. Coaching, the man-management (of multi-millionaires), media strategy, fitness programming, working in a huge enterprise when things are going badly, player motivation and time-management are all devilishly difficult elements in his chosen profession.
And, after a short spell managing Real Madrid Castilla plus one full season managing the senior side, Zidane is, simply, short on savoir-faire. Eight trophies or not, we are watching his apprenticeship.
Where he has let himself down is in how to react to this test. Maintaining the tempo and content of training, which is aimed at keeping players happy, interested and ticking-over in fitness terms, hasn't been sufficient.
Since the first fortnight of competitive action this season, when Manchester United and Barcelona were swatted aside, it has been clear that Madrid are neither as focused, mentally sharp, hungry or full of competitive stamina as last season. Not even close.
The back-up players don't think that they are getting a fair shot at first-team action, hence they are complacent and their cutting edge has been blunted. The first-team players, it seems screamingly obvious, have taken it for granted that if they are fit they play. That is an unhealthy state of affairs.
There have been little things, like the time it took Lucas Vazquez to gee himself up after not making the Champions League final squad, Marco Asensio's drop in intensity upon finding out that he's not a starter when everyone else is fit, Marcelo's apparent belief that he's a striker and doesn't have to worry about defensive positional play; these -- and others -- have long required Zidane to wield his stick, rather than keep dangling carrots.
So disenchanted is Dani Ceballos, who of all the summer recruits looked most likely to immediately hold down a first-team slot, that Real Betis coach Quique Setien claimed the midfielder wanted to return to his former club in this transfer market.
Borja Mayoral? Valuable in La Liga and the Copa when called upon in extremis he may be, but he is never a starter even when Ronaldo and Benzema are fit and misfiring.
What was he thinking, as an arch goal-snaffler sitting on the bench, when Zidane didn't even use all three substitutes in Saturday's loss at home to Villarreal?
Come to that, in fact, what was Zidane thinking? All hands on deck means all hands on deck mon brave. Not just two replacements used and then 20 minutes left to make the final change.
Madrid's manager is struggling partially because he faces a wave of problems that normally occur over a four- or five-year period at even the biggest clubs, not over three or four months.
But he's also exacerbating the problem by telling the media that it's them out of step, not his team. Further, he's not improving the situation by failing to lay down the law to one or two of his playing lieutenants, who have gone absent without leave.
Were I him -- I'll bet he's glad I'm not! -- I'd be on the phone to one or another -- or both -- of his two most famous managers: Marcello Lippi and Vicente Del Bosque.
Just to ask the question: "Never mind specifics of Real Madrid right now, when you were in a similar situation, what remedies did you use successfully?"
The season isn't lost yet -- Perez may show loyalty and patience, for once -- and Lippi and Del Bosque owe Zidane big time for what his skills and personality did for their own careers.
Don't be afraid to ask for help, "Zizou"; re-inventing the wheel is for mugs. But as for your team's form and trajectory, be a little bit afraid. If they don't improve then these last few torrid weeks could, pretty soon, seem like the good days.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.