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Fernando Torres was struggling. Having scored 72 goals in his first three seasons at Liverpool, he had found the net just once in the first 10 games of what would turn out to be his final half-season at Anfield, in 2010-11.

With Torres’ confidence through the floor, his Liverpool manager at the time, Roy Hodgson, tried something unusual to get the goals flowing again for the Spaniard. In training games, according to an interview with former Liverpool defender Daniel Agger a couple of years ago, Hodgson arranged a drill where eight forwards would face just two defenders, allowing them to score more in an apparent attempt to boost the striker’s flagging self-belief.

It didn’t exactly work. Torres scored another eight goals before Chelsea paid £50 million for him that January, after which his form fell even further. Torres would later describe this period as the equivalent of “swimming with your clothes on.” But it’s tough to blame Hodgson too much. The form of strikers is one of football’s most delicate and crucial balances and anything is worth trying in an attempt to get it back.

The notion of “form” for strikers is as fragile as it is intangible.

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Torres is far from alone. There’s Romelu Lukaku, Manchester United’s expensive forward and owner of two significant scoring droughts this season, going six weeks without a goal either side of a brief reprieve in form that saw him net six in three games. Or Southampton’s Shane Long, who’s scored in back-to-back games to snap a run that saw him score just three times in the Premier League since February of 2017. Or Luis Suarez, who has just one goal in his past 20 Champions League matches.

It doesn’t even have to be a big drought to capture the headlines. Remember the pressure applied to Mohamed Salah following his remarkable 2017-18 season? Despite racking up 19 goals and seven assists in the league this season — and 24 goals in all competitions for Liverpool — more was made of his eight games without a goal from Feb. 9 to April 5.

And finally, take Christian Benteke: his goal in Crystal Palace’s win over Arsenal on Sunday was his first since April 28, 2018, when he netted in a 5-0 win over Leicester. His first strike in 20+ league matches was a joy to watch, given that the decline of a man who was once such a feared marksman for Aston Villa has been as precipitous as it is heartbreaking to watch.

“He’s certainly trying his best to get that goal,” said his current manager Hodgson in October. “Really, all we can do is keep working at it and encourage him to keep his game going but, of course, psychologically these things do matter and do have an effect on players.”

If that makes you want to give Benteke a hug and a high five, you’re probably not alone but in truth, some strikers never recover from a period of bad form, or loss of confidence. Take Alan Smith, the former Arsenal striker, who won the Golden Boot in 1989 and 1991 but by 1992 was stuck in a rut he would never really recover from.

Collapses in form can be triggered by anything or nothing but in Smith’s case, it was the arrival of fellow striker Ian Wright, who changed the way Arsenal played away from the structured style that Smith thrived in.

“You couldn’t really knock him when he was putting the ball in the net all the time,” Smith tells ESPN FC, taking care not to blame Wright, but the change in approach affected him to the point that his confidence disappeared.

In his recent autobiography “Heads Up,” Smith wrote: “I began snatching at chances I would normally tuck away without even thinking. Next to Wrighty’s lethal marksmanship, my miskicks and fumbles felt totally embarrassing. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow this shadow of a striker who started to dread the prospect of finishing practice.”
Torres scored just 20 league goals in 110 games for Chelsea and never rediscovered his Liverpool form afterwards. Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
A goal scorer’s job is to be the man to whom everyone looks to win the game, so when that role is altered, it can have a calamitous impact.

“I just tried to fit around it all, which I did find difficult,” says Smith, and once a striker gets into that negative mindset, even relatively innocuous-seeming things can become inflated. For example, Smith recounts the time Kevin Campbell, then a youngster who had not long broken into the Arsenal first team, arrived at training in a new Mercedes with a “KEV 9″ number plate. But nine was Smith’s number: was this young upstart muscling in? Was he being replaced? Is this the end?

“It’s not a big thing, although at the time it felt like a big thing,” Smith admits, but it’s easy to see how seemingly minor things can creep into a striker’s head when pessimism has already taken hold. “Looking back, I was probably looking elsewhere to blame somebody else, when I should have been looking at myself.”

When form has disappeared and confidence is low, the cycle becomes self-perpetuating. “You stop making the runs because you stop believing in yourself,” former Manchester United striker Andy Cole told ESPN earlier this year. “I’ve been in that position… psychologically you don’t really want the ball.”

Smith agrees. “You’re not quite sure what you’re supposed to be doing, and almost dreading chances coming to you because you’re not [confident] at all. Shying away from getting into those goal-scoring positions is the worst thing you can do.”

That last point is the key one. A player will stop taking up the positions because they think they will miss, but not taking up the positions virtually eliminates the possibility of scoring and thus regaining confidence. Before long, that avoidance becomes obvious.

Bristol City manager Lee Johnson has worked with dozens of strikers in his six years as a coach and can quickly spot when a striker is hiding. “We’re built to spot body language and signs,” he says. “You can look at someone’s eyes to see if they’re glazed over or responsive. And you can quantify it now with statistics. The problem is when players go into their shell after perceived failure.”
The once prolific Christian Benteke ended his Premier League goal drought just days short of it lasting an entire year. Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images
Of course, it is possible to correct problems like this, and many players turn to sports psychologists for help. Dan Abrahams is currently Bournemouth’s lead psychologist and has worked with numerous Premier League and international players, often after they have found themselves in a rut and can’t correct things on their own.

“The first port of call is to start having a conversation about what they look like when they’re at their best,” Abrahams tells ESPN FC. “What are they doing, what runs they’re making, what their movement’s like, and just trying to break that down into simple statements or key words. For example a striker might say ‘I’m alert and lively,’ so you build a mental structure around those words.

“That often makes a massive difference on the pitch, because they walk onto the pitch thinking ‘I just want to look alert and lively today. I know what that looks like, and feels like. That’s how I will judge myself today, and I won’t worry if I don’t score.’”

From there, a striker might relax and the physiological consequences of low confidence should lessen. “When you get stressed you get desperate,” says Abrahams. “You go in the direction of frustration or anger, or you go the other way and get despondent. Your anticipation slows because your muscles are tight, and your decision-making slows.”

That’s basically what the layman might call “trying too hard.”

“Sport tends to be very paradoxical: the more you try, often the worse you perform,” Abrahams says.

Players might have these sort of conversations with managers, but when a striker is struggling then the manager will inevitably have to address it publicly. “I don’t think you can hide from the truth, whatever that may be,” Johnson says. “[When you speak in public] you’re talking to your player, not the press: it could be a conscious decision to say he’s falling short.”

Johnson emphasises what a delicate balance that is between knowing “you’ve got to keep an element of authenticity about what you’re saying,” while at the same time avoiding the “high-risk strategy” of actively criticising a player in public.
Ultimately, as outside observers it’s easy for us to forget that a striker in a barren run is in all likelihood going through significant turmoil. “I think people underestimate how tough it is to be a footballer,” Johnson says. “These boys are 0.0001 percent of people that play — they’ve already gone through a lot to get where they are.”

Torres went on to win the Champions League, score in the Europa League final and return to his boyhood club Atletico Madrid. Smith’s form never really came back and in his own words his career “largely dribbled to a close.” Who knows what will happen with Benteke.

But for all of them, this isn’t a discussion point or something to be mocked. For a striker out of form, football is not just their job but probably their passion too, and they’re failing at it in front of millions every week. They’re just looking for a way to stop that from happening.

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After another action-packed weekend in soccer, Gab Marcotti reflects on the big talking points in his latest edition of Monday Musings.

Jump to: Bayern rout Dortmund | Man City’s Quadruple | Milan-Juve fallout | Arsenal woe | Bravo, Benzema | Rabiot drama at PSG | Watford, Wolves dazzle

Barcelona bring Atletico’s season to an end
It was the last roll of the dice in terms of La Liga’s title race and there were no surprises. Or, rather, the surprise was how, playing with 10 men for more than an hour, Atletico Madrid showed that their “Cholismo” style of play is alive and well, at least well enough to rattle Barcelona on auto-pilot. But then they succumbed to the inevitable — a fine Luis Suarez finish and the usual Lionel Messi clock-in — and, for the eighth time in the past 11 seasons, the title is all but headed to the Camp Nou.

Atletico would need to make up 12 points (Barca have the head-to-head tiebreaker) in the remaining seven matches, and that simply won’t happen. You wonder what might have been had Diego Costa not shared his views about the referee’s mother, earning himself that early red card, but you’re left with the sneaking suspicion that it wouldn’t have mattered.

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Barca would have found a way through just as, broadly speaking, they’ve found their way through this season, navigating the various hurdles and hiccups Ernesto Valverde has had to deal with. From Ousmane Dembele’s absences (some forced, some less so) to the shakiness at the back, from slow starts for Suarez and Ivan Rakitic to the non-start that has been Philippe Coutinho’s Camp Nou career thus far, Barca have maintained their forward momentum.

It would be wrong to say Messi has carried them through the tough times. But with 43 goals in 40 matches this season, and 10 in his last six, he’s peaking when it counts. And with Jordi Alba regaining his form, Arthur emerging in midfield and Marc-Andre ter Stegen hitting new heights, he’s not the only one to have been solid throughout this peculiar campaign.
The Treble remains a possibility — Barca are in the Spanish Cup final (vs. Valencia, May 25) and take on Manchester United this week in the Champions League quarterfinal, first leg — and it’s safe to say few would have expected it early in the season. That’s a credit to Valverde: not everyone’s cup of tea and not a managerial genius, but a guy who evidently gets things done and, crucially, manages to keep a lid on controversy.

This job wore down Tata Martino and Luis Enrique and spat them out at the end; Valverde seems unfazed.

Bayern thump Dortmund with title on the line
Just when you thought the tide had turned, Bayern sent Borussia Dortmund an emphatic reminder of why they’ve won six straight Bundesliga titles. This was an epic beatdown — Bayern were 4-0 up at half-time and 5-0 at the final whistle, possibly because they were bored of scoring — and it had as much to do with the Bavarians’ merits as it did with Dortmund’s errors.

Let’s start with the former. Javi Martinez and Thiago Alcantara may have blown hot and cold this season, but they dominated the middle of the park on Saturday with a combination of quality and steel. The oft-criticized Mats Hummels notched the opener and showed the sort of leadership and intelligence that made him one of the most coveted center-backs around, at least back in the day. The wingers stretched and harried and forward Thomas Muller, back in a central position, did what he does behind the ever-clinical Robert Lewandowski.
Equally though, some of this must be on Lucien Favre. Already without key players Paco Alcacer, Raphael Guerreiro and Achraf Hakimi, his Dortmund set-up was undone by a string of individual errors. Many blamed him for his decision to keep Mario Gotze on the bench and play Marco Reus as a false nine: to me, that’s less of an issue than his other big guns wilting under pressure and making silly mistakes.

Don’t crown Bayern just yet, mind you: they only lead Dortmund by one point with six games remaining. Not to mention that after Dortmund’s superb first half of the season, it would be unacceptable for them to raise the white flag just yet.

Man City’s Quadruple chase is on
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An early Gabriel Jesus goal sent Manchester City past Brighton, 1-0, and on their way to the FA Cup final, where they can complete another leg of the potential Quadruple. It was one of those games you often get when a smaller side concedes early.

It felt as if Brighton boss Chris Hughton was so concerned with giving up a second goal that they left much of the attacking until the second half, which suited City just fine.
Guardiola called the Quadruple “almost impossible” but, in fact, he’s being a little disingenuous. A Quadruple is just the Treble plus the League Cup, which City have already won. And while Trebles used to be a staggeringly difficult and infrequent achievement, in the past 11 years we’ve seen it done four times (including by Guardiola himself, while at Barcelona in 2008-09).

City are among the favourites in each of the three competitions they’re contesting. It would be a huge achievement, but at this stage it’s not quite “almost impossible.”

Milan furious after Juve defeat
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Bonetti: Milan lacking an identity in recent weeksESPN FC’s Matteo Bonetti examines Milan’s recent struggles and slams the referee for not awarding the Rossoneri a penalty in their loss at Juventus.
Milan were furious at referee Michael Fabbri following their 2-1 defeat at Juventus, and you can see why. It was a horrendous officiating display and the Rossoneri recriminated for a couple of missed bookings (Leonardo Bonucci and Rodrigo Bentancur), Mario Mandzukic kicking out at Alessio Romagnoli (though, to be fair, VAR failed to flag it) and a penalty not given when Hakan Calhanoglou’s cross hit Alex Sandro’s outstretched arm (Fabbri didn’t give it even after the VAR review, judging it to be “natural”).

Milan were frustrated because this was one of their better displays in recent weeks, but the old “Juve helped by the referee” narrative doesn’t quite hold here. Moise Kean had a perfectly good goal disallowed for a phantom Bonucci foul and Mandzukic was wrongly stopped in a good position (he was offside, but it was Calhanoglou’s backpass). This was a referee having a nightmare and nothing more.
As for Juventus, Kean has now scored in five consecutive games, including internationals, but it has to be frustrating how Max Allegri’s squad players (Daniele Rugani and Bentancur, to name just two) do little to stand out when given a shot. Roll on Ajax in midweek.

Arsenal fail at Everton
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‘Tough to have any faith’ in Arsenal’s top-four chancesFollowing Arsenal’s defeat at Everton, ESPN FC’s Steve Nicol and Alejandro Moreno express their concerns with Arsenal’s top-four push.
Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat away to Everton was a throwback to the past, and not in a good way: in fact, they seemed to display all the traits that ruined Arsene Wenger’s teams in his later years. They defended poorly, lacked steel in midfield and took too many touches in attack. Everton could easily have scored a couple more, as Unai Emery admitted afterward. Incredibly, Arsenal remain one of only two teams in England’s top four divisions to have conceded in every single league game away from home.
Emery has been hard to decipher this season but you’re tempted to give him a pass for Arsenal’s inconsistency, if only because so much of the personnel — which he inherited — seems so flaky or ill-assorted. The fact that they are still competing for a top-four spot and are in the Europa League quarterfinals is largely down to how he has figured out to jury-rig this side.

Benzema shows he’s the answer up front for Madrid
We must be nearing the point where Real Madrid look at their squad and figure that maybe they don’t need a top-drawer center-forward. For all the grief Karim Benzema has received over the years, he’s had a steadfast ally in Florentino Perez. And this season, with Cristiano Ronaldo gone, Gareth Bale flickering, Vinicius Junior injured and three different managers on the bench, the veteran France striker is pulling his weight and is on pace for his second-most prolific season at the Bernabeu.
Benzema was again one of the few bright spots and bagged both goals in the 2-1 win over Eibar. Real Madrid looked laboured in a first half that saw them go a goal down and Benzema get little help from Marco Asensio and Bale. Business picked up after the break, which is what you expect against an opponent with little to play for but pride, but the lack of urgency (Benzema and a few others excepted) remains a concern.

Rabiot drama overshadows PSG
A home win against Strasbourg meant Paris Saint-Germain could have wrapped up yet another Ligue 1 crown on Sunday night, but PSG found themselves a goal down until the final minutes before grabbing a 2-2 draw. Thomas Tuchel once again only named five substitutes — it’s now almost a weekly statement about the limits to his squad and the rash of injuries — and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting’s bizarre miss went viral, but otherwise there’s not much to report: when the league is in hand (a draw next week will suffice), it’s hard to keep your edge week in and week out.

 

Meanwhile, the Adrien Rabiot saga rumbles on. He’s now been fined and suspended in part for “liking” a video in which Patrice Evra threatens former PSG winger Jerome Rothen in the aftermath of the club’s defeat to Manchester United. Rabiot is a talent and will have no shortage of suitors in the summer, even with all this baggage. It’s a shame it’s going to end like this.

Watford and Wolves wow at Wembley
Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal between Watford and Wolverhampton Wanderers offered edge-of-the-seat excitement and moments of real skill, from Diogo Jota’s runs to Gerard Deloufeu’s absurdly exquisite golf chip. We had a two-goal comeback, an injury time penalty, a guy putting on a luchador mask (and then being trolled for it afterward) and a lovely redemption story from Troy Deeney in their 3-2 win after extra time.

Let it be evidence for what most already know: You don’t need big brand super clubs to have an entertaining, high-quality match with plenty of drama. If you have two raucous sets of fans, a high-stakes game and the right setting, the spectacle can be as good as anything you can imagine.

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HOUSTON – U.S. men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter said his team delivered “a good performance” in a 1-1 draw with Chile on Tuesday night, one in which his team was pushed to the limit by the visitors.

“It was a great test for the guys,” Berhalter said. “I’m really happy we got to play a game like this, and I think we’ve learned a lot.”

The opening exchanges were end-to-end, with Christian Pulisic opening the scoring in the fourth minute after Gyasi Zardes’ incisive pass put the Borussia Dortmund midfielder in the clear for a breakaway.

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Chile was soon back on level terms thanks to Oscar Opazo’s ninth-minute equalizer, and with the visitors applying their trademark high press La Roja controlled much of the match thereafter. But Berhalter credited his side for sticking to their game plan of trying to play out of the back.

“I thought that we spent a lot of energy in the first half, we had a lot of good movement, we had a lot of quick attacks, and I think that cost energy on the team,” Berhalter said. “But it also hurt Chile and it gave them some problems. They resorted to playing one-versus-one, all over the field, and that’s a strength of theirs. They have good players in those situations. Overall, we made it extremely difficult for them.

“I thought we showed the bravery to try to play through some of their pressure. In a tight turnaround, a tight window, not being able to practice that much, and playing seven new guys, I think it was a good performance by our guys, particularly the effort.”

Such was the intensity of Chile’s pressure that Berhalter was forced to make multiple tactical changes. Among them was dropping Cristian Roldan into a deeper midfield role alongside Michael Bradley early in the first half, as well as moving to what he called a 3-4-2-1 — though it looked more like a 5-4-1 — with a narrow midfield in the second half.

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“They would drop numbers low, and push their fullbacks high in like a mid-high position, and what would happen is as we would start to slide our fullback to their fullback, there would be space to play their No. 10s in the pockets, especially with [Arturo] Vidal,” Berhalter said. “We weren’t comfortable with it in the first half, but we wanted to make an adjustment. We gave it some time in the beginning of the second half and we ended up going to a 3-4-2-1 where we could be much more aggressive with our wing-backs getting forward and pressuring that fullback when he’s in possession and still having a side center-back now to take one of those 10s in the pocket, if they’re trying to play it into them. I thought that gave us stability in the match.”

The U.S. suffered a blow in the 35th minute when Pulisic was forced to leave the match with a right quadriceps injury. U.S. Soccer said that Pulisic’s exit was precautionary, and Berhalter added that Pulisic was already getting an MRI to assess the injury’s severity. The ailment marks the fifth time this season that Pulisic has suffered a soft tissue injury, though Berhalter insisted he isn’t worried about the state of his creative linchpin.

“You look into the why, you do an inquiry of why that’s happening, and you make adjustments,” he said about Pulisic’s latest ailment. “He’s at a top club, he’s going to a top club [at Chelsea this summer]. We have very high-level medical personnel on our side, and we’ll get it right.”

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Roldan: USMNT buying into cultural shift under BerhalterUnited States midfielder Cristian Roldan believes the USMNT is responding well to the changes implemented by head coach Gregg Berhalter.
Berhalter added that he learned a great deal about his team during the international window, and in particular the game against Chile.

“Opponents have a great deal of respect for us as a team. I’ve learned that,” he said. “I learned that the guys are resilient also. I learned that we were pushed to the limit today and the guys hung in there.”

More importantly, Berhalter’s top goal for the U.S. team during the games against Ecuador (a 1-0 win) and Chile was achieved.

“Our goal going into this camp was to evaluate as many people as possible in this camp. We did that,” he said. “That’s why we made seven changes to the lineup, to see new faces. Particularly this group that hasn’t played together before, I thought it was a reasonable performance, and proud of the effort. But I think we have a good understanding of the qualities that the player pool has now.”

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By appointing Zinedine Zidane coach and not director of football, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez missed a huge opportunity not only to ensure that the 13-time European champions rise like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of their current season but also to invest in the club’s football health and success for generations to come. Zidane, who spoke at his introductory news conference on Tuesday of a “second project” and a need to “change things for the years to come,” is the right man. There was, though, a bigger, more important job that should have been his and in which he could have made a greater impact. Real Madrid’s pride is in tatters, but the need to employ their third coach of the season, after the brief reigns of Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari, goes beyond the fact that they have lost their past four home games — 11-2 on aggregate — and will finish the season without a trophy for the first time in just under a decade. Their key problems stem directly from the fact that Madrid do not have a central football plan that is any more refined or robust than “buy talent.” Modern times have overtaken that Galactico idea. It can work but not on its own. Had Zidane been appointed as the brain of the club, rather than the coach, he could have solved that. In effect, he could have become the Johan Cruyff of Real Madrid and mimicked the central core of wisdom, ideology, judgement and know-how that the great Dutchman brought to Barcelona in one form or another after he took over at the Camp Nou in 1988. Football even had the decency to give Florentino a helpful nudge in the ribs as to what was wrong with his club and how to solve it in the short, medium and long term. What I mean is that each of those disastrous losses at the Bernabeu bore the fingerprints of the most important man in football history: Cruyff. Girona undid Madrid on Feb. 17 thanks to a tactical switch made by their coach, Eusebio Sacristan, who learned his skills as the blue-collar worker in the midfield of Cruyff’s Barcelona “Dream Team” during the 1990s. The double Clasico loss, three days apart? They lost not only to a club that has moved from drought to plenty since Cruyff principles were introduced but also to one at which the leading players — Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Ivan Rakitic, Arthur and Luis Suarez — understand and practice the great man’s ideas. Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde also played for Cruyff. – Lowe surprised that Zidane returned to Madrid – Perez mentions Neymar, Mbappe as possible targets Then, of course, there was Ajax. Akin to Barcelona, with their tactical movement, technical skills, attitude to the schooling and recruitment of young players, their central philosophy represents the Cruyff ethos. (In fact, Marc Overmars, whose excellent stewardship of the club’s technical development has led to the Amsterdammers revival, was a Cruyff appointment when the great man returned to his first club in the final years before his 2016 death.) It would be unfair to consider Zidane an identical thinker, philosopher and obsessive about football development to Cruyff, but he can be the Madrid equivalent. The two men share characteristics and, what is more, history. Cruyff was on the point of being sold by Ajax to Madrid in 1973 before he rebelled and joined Barcelona instead. Twenty-two years later, he was tempting Zidane to make a similar move from Bordeaux, only to be sacked by the Camp Nou hierarchy. Zidane joined Juventus in 1996 and moved to Madrid five years later, whereupon he began an association with the club that, in hardware alone, brought two league titles and five European Cups as player and coach. As such, while Cruyff is the No. 1 man in Barcelona history, Zidane has become, alongside Alfredo Di Stefano, Francisco Gento and Cristiano Ronaldo, among the top Madrid icons of all time. What Los Blancos need is for him to oversee a central core of values, ideas, planning and judgement. Florentino Perez and Zinedine Zidane will work together again, but will Madrid break the cycle of boom and bust? AP The brutal decline of the team in the past year is only partly because of Ronaldo’s departure (remember, they won just two Liga titles in his nine seasons at the club). It is only partly because the squad — consciously or subconsciously — became sated and less hungry after four Champions League wins in five years. Since formally rejoining the club in 2009 and until he took over as coach seven years later, Zidane was director of football, head of scouting analysis, Castilla manager, ambassador and a link between the board and the squad. The eminence gris, he became a trusted confidant for Florentino, who is close to few others beyond his commerce and marketing-oriented aide-de-camp Jose Angel Sanchez, and complemented the president’s desire to spend, spend, spend. Zidane had a hand in almost everything. From whom to sign and when to sign them to whom should be moved out and which kids were to be encouraged, plus how to persuade players to choose Madrid rather than, say, Manchester United or Manchester City, he was vital. Moving Zidane from this wide-ranging and influential advisory role to the bench certainly brought massive success. But he was actually reaping the benefits of his own planting, harvesting and crop maintenance. Taking him away from that, to concentrate wholly on coaching, allowed a rot to set in that resulted in a lack of midterm planning and failure to anticipate what could lie ahead. 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When he quit last May, days after winning the Champions League for a third straight season, Zidane not only saw a raft of problems coming down the line in terms of recruitment, athleticism, attention to detail, squad hierarchy and basic competitive hunger but was also in a privileged position to understand that nobody had adequately been doing the job he had done in the time before he took over the first team. What Florentino could, and should, have learned from watching Barcelona’s successes is that an intelligent system, well planned and consistently applied from a central philosophy or database, will always provide an advantage over best guesses and biggest budgets over a period of seasons. The longer the comparison, the clearer the margin of advantage. By walking away, Zidane was ensuring that the president understood that any future for Madrid that involved him must — must — include more autonomy of decision-making, specifically on the matters of buying, selling, presidential interference, training, dressing-room authority … you get the picture. All of which is why Florentino should have swallowed some pride and made sure a fully-functioning, football-driven position of technical director was created, with Zidane filling the role. He could and should have charted the way forward in terms of his president’s wish to incorporate the cream of the world’s youth talent while remaining trophy-competitive at the same time. Instead of acting as the next coach, for instance, he should be choosing who is suitable to take the job. Moreover, he should be taking key decisions about how to clear out certain members of the squad and who those people are. Toni Kroos, for example, passed his sell-by date last summer. Below first-team level, Zidane should be developing an idea of how to guide future generations through what Madrid call La Fabrica, their version of Barcelona’s La Masia academy. Madrid have their version of Cruyff, of Sevilla’s Monchi, of Bayern Munich’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge-Uli Hoeness partnership. Properly used, Zidane could have become the touchstone for generations of intelligence, resourcefulness, admiration and success that is not dependent on Florentino’s current model of boom and bust. Instead, by restricting him to the bench, the risk is being run of history repeating.

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MILAN — When it comes to scoring in Serie A, only Cristiano Ronaldo is more prolific than Krzysztof Piatek.

But only just.

Netting in AC Milan’s 3-0 win over relegation-threatened Empoli on Friday, Piatek moved to 18 league goals this season — only one behind Ronaldo in his first campaign at Juventus.

The 23-year-old Piatek has struck 26 times in 27 appearances in all competitions, with seven coming in the six games since he joined from Genoa last month.

“The credit goes to him but also to the whole team,” Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso said. “They put him in the right condition to score.”

Franck Kessie and Samu Castillejo scored the other goals, while Milan also had two others disallowed on video review.

Milan kept a firm grip on fourth spot in Serie A and the last Champions League berth, moving four points clear of Roma which visits Frosinone on Saturday.

The Rossoneri also closed the gap to city rival Inter Milan to one point, with the Nerazzurri travelling to Fiorentina on Sunday. The Milan derby is on March 17.

“We have to take it game by game, without looking at the table,” Gattuso said. “You feel the pressure just by putting on the Milan shirt in this stadium. It’s been a few years since we’ve been playing for something important, we need to play for it with really great desire.”

All the goals on Friday came in the second half, as Milan improved dramatically after the break and took control with two quickfire goals.

Piatek broke the deadlock in the 49th minute from close range after the ball had been rolled across to the Poland international by Hakan Calhanoglu.

Castillejo had been involved in the buildup and he set up Milan’s second two minutes later with a threaded pass for Kessie, who placed a deft chip over Empoli goalkeeper Bartlomiej Dragowski.

The Spanish forward got on the scoresheet himself in the 67th minute, tapping in at the near post after a cross from Andrea Conti, who was making his first start in 544 days.

Empoli, which has not won away from home this season, remained three points above the relegation zone.