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The End Of The Zinedine Zidane Era And The Mark Of A New (And Challenging) Beginning

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Concluding thoughts on the immortal Zinedine Zidane; and the beginning of a furiously busy off-season

Real Madrid Celebrate After Victory In The Champions League Final Against Liverpool Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

‘KO’ — by Finn


Back in February, in the lead up to an away match at Benito Villamarin to face Real Betis, Zinedine Zidane spoke to the media to address some routine questions. Among the nuggets, he candidly discussed the toll it takes on a human being to be the head coach of the most pressure-popping head-coaching job on earth: “It’s extremely tiring, no doubt about it, and more so at a club like Real Madrid.”

There is a glimpse of who Zidane is in that quote. Both as a player and manager, he was direct and transparent, but wise enough to avoid silly questions that aimed to stir controversy and create headlines. In an era of social media noise, Zidane learned to how to master the room, shoot down nonsensical questions, and block out criticism — he was boring but full of smiles. He had to be. With a squad as deep as Real Madrid’s, there is always a cacophony of voices pleading to play this player and that player. Even if you tune it out, it’s tiring to deal with. Zidane never yo-yoed away from what he believed in. En route, he did things no other manager has ever done, and he leaves a competition (for now), that he hasn’t ever been KO’d in.

In today’s presser — one announced with ridiculous short notice, leading you to be curious about how last night’s dinner chat between Zidane and Florentino went — Zizou said he’s “Not tired of coaching”. Being tired of coaching Real Madrid could be separated from that statement though. “I always get this kind of question,” Zidane said on that same day in February, in response to a question about Marco Asensio’s playing time. “Today it’s Marco. Yesterday it was Isco. Other times it’s Ceballos... It’s the hardest thing for a coach: making that choice and leaving seven on the bench and three or four at home. The players are ready for when they get their opportunity. Some play more than others in a team; that always happens”.

This is a sad day for Madridistas, but not for bad reasons. You’d only be human to have a lump in your throat, but if anyone would’ve suggested before the season started that Zidane leaves on a high, after making history, preserving his legacy — rather than staying to a point of being vilified if the team suffers a dramatic drop-off — you’d take it. Knowing when to leave is an underrated trait, when far too many players or managers have lurked around when they knew it wasn’t best for both parties. When that happens, some of it is down to stubbornness and pride; whereas Zidane genuinely believes he’s doing what is best for the club by leaving now. He may or may not be right, but the fact he assuredly feels this way points to bigger questions that we don’t have the answers to yet, and all of this is setting us up for a wild summer and flurry of activity.

When Zidane was appointed in 2016, there was always concern about his reputation within the club’s legacy had things gone wrong. Florentino was bold in rolling the dice with Zizou when things went south with Rafa Benitez. He knew that Zidane would be a tricky figure to sack, but also knew there would be less expectation to keep him around, assuming he couldn’t live up to the unthinkable task of turning the team around as dramatically as he did.

And at that point, to do what he did — turn the team around, ignite the players into buying into his ideas, and just win trophies — really was dramatic. He took a pickaxe and chipped away at the inherited 10-point La Liga deficit half way through the season, and three of those points came from a brilliant narrow scheme at the Camp Nou. Not only could Florentino not sack him, but just over two years later, he’s gutted at the fact Zidane has left. The Frenchman has left on his own. For the millions of Zidane Stans around the world, this is the ideal situation. He’s on top, and no one has asked him to leave. He will be sought out for other head-coaching positions should he choose to pursue them in the future, and will be welcome back if the club needs him in the future too. This isn’t over. Zidane and Real Madrid will never be over. It would not be surprising to see him return years from now.

For the first time as president of Real Madrid (depending on your interpretation of Mourinho and Florentino mutually parting ways in 2013), Florentino is faced with the reality of a coach leaving without being sacked. What he chooses to do now has dramatic consequences. Zidane was one who had emotional, invested interest in developing the academy and thinking long term. He and a band of core players went to Florentino after the 2017 Champions League final and stood behind Keylor Navas as the team’s main goalkeeper. Under Zidane, the bulk of transfer activity has revolved around loan spells. It has revolved around continuity. There will be an itch this summer either way with Zidane gone. It’s a World Cup year, and it’s unclear what a new manager will be asking for and what the spending budget will be.

Naturally, with so many good coaches around the world already locked up at other big teams, the shortlist won’t be huge — nor should it be if your vision for the team is clear. Mauricio Pochettino, although recently inking a new deal at Tottenham, has an escape clause if Real Madrid come knocking, according to reports. There’s also Antonio Conte, Max Allegri, Arsene Wenger, Joachim Low, Maurizio Sarri, and some internal names — most notably Guti (who is a clear frontrunner, if you ask me, and has the leverage of ‘club DNA’, attacking direct football, and genuine interest in continuing to promote the academy).

Coaching Real Madrid is a ridiculous job, and one that tests even the greatest and most enduring of coaches. Coaching stints here are rarely lauded as successful. There are few that survive the managerial conveyor belt, and those that do will eventually live long enough to see themselves become the villain, or be sacked — fairly or unfairly. All of this makes Zidane’s decision to leave now even more justifiable. He is on a rare and uncharted throne in the club’s history.

But this particular time is especially testy and pressure-loaded. This is not like taking over a Real Madrid team that has gone 12 years without a Champions League trophy, or one that has endured a six-year round-of-16 curse. It is going to take something special to match what Zidane has done, or let alone top it. Taking over now could be a leap of faith or a leap of death. Getting it absolutely right with your next coaching appointment is no guarantee, and there may be a transitory ‘here, take over this office for a second until we find our main guy a year from now. There is a coaching manual on your desk, good luck!’

The entire team loved Zidane. If you want to know how easy it is to guarantee respect from the players, ask Rafa Benitez, who select core players, openly, didn’t take seriously. Tactics are great — but getting your players to buy-in is equally important. Zidane leaves at a time where there are question-marks around the squad — particularly around a certain superstar or two. The new manager is probably not excited about inheriting those question marks.

Zidane set the bar astronomically high. He is a manager people had little expectations of given his lack of experience and pure unfamiliarity in this role. He blew everyone away. He was, in many ways, undecipherable. Like any coach, he had his strengths and weaknesses. His tactics were unpredictable and versatile — sometimes puzzlingly bad but sometimes just perfect and masterful. It didn’t always look good, but other times it looked magical. But whether they looked good or not is almost irrelevant when you see what he achieved at the end. There have been managers in the past who’ve played sexy football without winning. How fondly are they remembered? 50 years from now, our grandchildren will look back at this era and say, ‘Holy shit. Three in a row?! Wow! Ronaldo, Marcelo, Bale, Ramos, Varane, Carvajal, Benzema, Bale, Casemiro, Kroos, Isco, Kovacic, Navas, and Asensio were all on the same team?! Zidane was the coach?!’ — they will not be scrutinizing tactics. The pure results from Zidane are ridiculous, as bad as the team was this season domestically. This is why it’s going to be so difficult for a new manager, particularly when the core of the team changes.

Yet, as challenging as it will be, it’s exciting too. It’s not inconceivable that next season would’ve finally been the season where the team dropped-off under Zidane. Motivation can wane. We saw the consequences of it in La Liga. At the beginning of the 2017 - 2018 campaign, every post-game presser after a bad result included a comment from Zidane about ‘needing to start better next game’. Those ‘good starts’ never came until it was too late. Even Zidane, motivator-supreme — the man that Luka Modric proclaimed “Every piece of advice he gives you is like gold dust,” — had trouble getting the best of this team domestically.

“I am doing this for the good of this team, for this club,” Zidane said. “It would have been difficult for me to win again next year.”

“...If I do not see clearly that we are going to continue winning, a moment comes when you say better to step aside.”

How can you not respect the humility and sincerity in these words; and how can you refute them?

‘Until soon’, Zinedine Zidane. You are immortal.