Zinedine Zidane comes under the wing of Florentino Perez to become the 13th manager Real Madrid has had in the past 15 years, it was announced yesterday. On the surface, Zidane's job is difficult. Real Madrid's managerial conveyor belt swallows managers whole, and it would take an incredibly naive person to think Zidane is exempt from this chastising so long as the club continues to be veiled from its deep-rooted problems.
But Zidane is now the leader of the team, has taken the dive of uncertainty into the depths of the Real Madrid boiling pot, and he deserves the support of the fans. He's raw, hungry, and completely unproven - but he has his strengths. If Zidane wants to break the managerial curse and stay at least as long as Jose Mourinho and Vicente Del Bosque did, he undoubtedly has to improve as a manager.
Zidane, the motivator
"I'd much prefer a good coach without their badges than a bad one with them who hasn't got a club."
- Johan Cruyff
Not that Zidane has a particular track record of motivating players as a head coach, but everyone is under the impression that the Frenchman will command respect from his players and bring out the best in the squad. While Benitez had a tough task of managing egos, finding room for everyone, and pleasing the board and fans; these traits are perceived to be Zidane's strong suit - again, with zero track record, just assumptions. It's his character and persona. Zidane is mythical in Real Madrid, much like Di Stefano and Raul. He's respected by everyone.
Using personality rather than coaching pedigree as a measuring stick, Zidane is similar to Vicente Del Bosque. Del Bosque wasn't an elite tactician, but what he was was a cool and composed figure, one whom the players respected and trusted. Trust and respect are great assets. It's incredible how far an organization can go on these two traits alone. You could have a tactical mastermind and it could all go to hell if no one buys into your philosophy.
Marco Materazzi of all people touched on this earlier today.
"You can be the best in the world, but you don't go far if you don't have a connection with the players. You cannot succeed if you cannot bond with those who have stronger personalities. They are the ones who have to help you out on the pitch. Madrid are a difficult club and it is not enough to have the president's backing.
"Benitez will never change. He always encounters the same problems. Instead of creating a good relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo, he tried to become close with Gareth Bale.
"It's the same story all over again. On his first day at Inter, he talked to Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Ivan Cordoba, but completely ignored Cristian Chivu..."
But again, Zidane is up against it. Let's forget any malfeasance of the Club's administrative department pre-Rafa era. That on its own is an entire book to be written. In the past five months or so, Benitez had been handed some wild expectations. Real Madrid are currently third in La Liga - two points behind second place Barcelona who also have a game in hand. It's not ideal, but it's not entirely disastrous either. Keep in mind the team is unbeaten in the Champions League and Rafa Benitez's system is entirely different from Carlo Ancelotti's and the team needs time to gel.
Rafa's final blow - of all places - came on the back of a tough away draw at the Mestalla where the team played with 10 men for the final 21 minutes of the match. Before that, Real Madrid scored 13 goals in two matches. So while, in a general sense, fans knew Benitez wouldn't last long as head coach of the most tumultuous coaching gig in all of sports, the timing was strange. After all, it wasn't long ago that Florentino Perez publicly backed Benitez, only to publicly throw him under the bus a few weeks after.
It can easily be argued that the entire mess with Benitez was unfair to him. He was given less than six months to instill his ideas - hardly enough time for any manager to implement anything. Yet, the reality is this - Real Madrid failed to pick up three points against these teams: Barcelona, Atletico, Valencia, Villareal, and Sevilla. The only truly big team Real Madrid beat this season was PSG, and that was laborious and frantic - at best.
Unfair as it may be, Zidane is inheriting a team which is overseen by a board who changes managers more than they change their own underwear. There's a chance Zidane surprises us all and builds a machine that lasts an entire epoch. It seems far-fetched, but if that happens, it's going to require patience. Florentino Perez loves Zinedine Zidane - his famous question of the bald-headed French Maestro to sign for Real Madrid in the form of a pen and a napkin at a banquet table will forever be an important part of Real Madrid's history. But how long will Zidane's leash be in the eyes of his president? If Perez is desperate to find Real Madrid's Guardiola, expectations are already defective, and Zidane's tenure could end disastrously.
What you need to know about Zidane, the manager
*Small sample size alert
Zinedine Zidane's first head-coaching job came in 2014 where he took over the reigns at Real Madrid Castilla with aspirations of one day leading the senior team. Few thought the day would come so soon, with barely any note-worthy highlights on his resume, but if you asked him, he was ready to take over in 2015 when Real Madrid dismissed Ancelotti.
"I would have accepted the offer to replace Ancelotti," Zidane said. "But Madrid still don't think it's my moment."
Just months later, it turns out Madrid does think it's Zidane's moment. But the question is - why? He has no proven track record. The only content in Zidane's coaching resume is a UEFA Pro Coaching License course, a trip to Bavaria to observe Pep Guardiola's methods in training, a one-year tenure as Carlo Ancelotti's understudy, and a raucous 1.5-year spell with Castilla.
Why indeed. There are a couple explanations - both equally relevant and plausible. One is that Real Madrid sacked Rafa Benitez without adequate replacements ready. Zidane is an easy candidate who's close to the Club and can be promoted as an interim manager until someone like Mourinho (shrug) or Low become available in the Summer - ready to build their team. The other explanation - presumably what Madridistas generally hope is the truth - is that Real Madrid want to find their Pep Guardiola. Chances are they might and Zidane will stay long-term, but chances also point to the opposite direction - one of failure and tarnished reputation for both the Club and player.
Two things to consider: 1) Guardiola's tenure with Barcelona B before he took over the A team was more successful. The team won the Tercera, won their Segunda playoffs, and were promoted; and 2) Guardiola was a defensive midfielder, a deep-lying organizer who sees the pitch in a certain way. He also has Barcelona's brand of football ingrained in him which gave him the ability to implement an identity.
Wisely enough, Zidane has already calmed and dismissed the Guardiola comparison.
"You can't make that comparison," said Zidane. "Pep is Pep and I will do my best.
"Guardiola is a fantastic coach and what he is doing is impressive but I won't compare myself to him.
"I didn't do that as a player and I won't do it as a coach."
But here's where Zidane can draw parallels with Pep - like the Catalan who breathes Blaugrana, Zidane breathes Madridismo. He's young, has played with or against some of the older players like Ramos and Ronaldo, and brings fresh ideas to the club which the attacking players like James and Isco may thrive on.
*Quick note: For those that think Zidane's arrival might disrupt Bale's form who excelled under Benitez, just remember this quote from Zizou in 2014: "Gareth Bale was born to play for Real Madrid".
Zidane is calm, not much of a vocal leader by nature - but this could turn out to be a good thing. Zidane's disposition will be intrinsically motivating, and players should be able to buy into his ideologies. That on it's on is exciting - to see one of the most talented squads in football be motivated to play their best for the Club. This image is quite intriguing.
In a sense, Zidane is the anti-Mourino, and again, closer to Del Bosque and Ancelotti in nature. He cares greatly about the long-term aspirations of the Club, and has invested his time in Real Madrid's youth system since 2012, working closely with players like Jese and Morata.
It's important to note that while Zidane is low-key in nature, he's not passive. He is, after all, a manager now, and if you watch Castilla, you'll see the Frenchman on the sideline marching orders and constantly organizing the team. This is something he's improved on in general - being more vocal and establishing himself as the man in charge.
He gets to work early morning, and typically puts in 12-hour days. If he's not on the pitch, he's in the office watching film and analyzing tactics. Again, his dedication and sincere will to make this Club succeed is what ultimately may make him succeed, assuming external factors don't interfere too much.
Zidane's Castilla Run
It was mentioned above that Zidane's tenure with Castilla was tumultuous, but ultimately more encouraging than it was dreary. When Zidane took over as the manager with Real Madrid B, the team got off to a bad start - losing five of their first six games. Somewhere along the way, Zidane took a step back and, against his original philosophy, switched from a possession-oriented scheme to one that plays more direct - similar to Mourinho's 4-2-3-1. Castilla then went on a run and topped the table. This was a huge victory and added some pedigree to Zidane's potential as a manager - to react when things aren't going well and shedding any stubbornness.
Eventually, the team finished sixth in the table, and, the final placement in the standings might just answer the question why can't Zidane be the next Guardiola?
The next wave of trouble arrived with Martin Odegaard - the promising Norwegian laced with exceptional skills and a bright future. Reportedly, Odegaard's signing wasn't great for the dressing room. Here was this superstar kid arriving from a different country - he was an outsider earning £80, 000 / week and training with the first team whenever the opportunity presented itself. Castilla's form dropped with Odegaard's arrival, but ultimately Zidane didn't hesitate to put the Norwegian wonder-kid on the bench despite his price tag. Castilla slowly improved, and Oedgaard was integrated in a new role in which he's playing better - as an advanced central midfielder.
For the record, Odegaard still has a long way to go. I chatted with Managing Madrid staff writer bozz - who watches Castilla regularly - about Odegaard's development today, who had this to say:
His last game was one of his better ones and his form has picked up a little bit in the last couple, but I've been largely underwhelmed. ZZ has moved him around a bit and gave him chances, but many times he'd be pulled around 60-70 minutes after only completing a couple neat tricks or dangerous passes. Hasn't taken over a single game.
Off the ball work needs so much improvement. Not very strong either. He's good for a small handful of nice passes but aside from that he's not the guy that's been controlling play.
Still, Odegaard is just a fledgling, and he's improving. It should be noted also that this version of Castilla is one of the youngest the Club has ever had, so expectations need to be kept in check.
Patience is needed
Asking patience from fans is one thing, but asking patience from the Real Madrid board is another. If Florentino sees Zidane as a solution, how many failures will Zidane be exempted from? Zidane has already made statements about winning something this season which is huge - even if it was the right statement to make. The correct measuring stick this season should be the eye-test rather than the results. This may sound like something a defeatist would say, but it must be emphasized that Zidane needs the time his predecessors never received to implement his ideas and build his squad. The squad he currently manages is not the squad he built - but the one he inherited. He needs time build his own.
Welcome to the club Zinedine Yazid Zidane, and best of luck.