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The Significance of Zinedine Zidane’s Return to Real Madrid

Kiyan Sobhani’s latest column, on the return of Zidane

Real Madrid Unveil New Manager Zinedine Zidane Photo by Denis Doyle/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.

It’s been one of Real Madrid’s worst seasons in recent memory — a season immediately proceeding a historically successful era and two-and-a-half-year reign of continuity where the club danced in front of Europe with all the accolades, proclaiming to the continent “we run this shit — this is our competition!” Ensuing the high of the three-peat: a season-long hangover which started back in the summer when two of the most important figures in club history left. Two managers and nearly nine months later, one of those figures is back, with his heart bursting and his vision piercing.

Zinedine Zidane has returned. “Until soon”, as he put it in passing when he left, is a common Spanish phrase, but one that everyone took literally. Zidane is Real Madrid. Zoom in on the Real Madrid crest and you’ll see him tattooed on the crown as much as Raul and Alfredo Di Stefano are. You couldn’t separate the club from him forever. His kids run through the Real Madrid academy, he never left the city, and when he walked away from the head coaching job, it was out of sincerity and love. He left money on the table because he believed that’s what was best for Real Madrid.

‘Until soon’ happened far sooner than anyone envisioned. I wrote a heart-felt goodbye to Zidane on the last day of May, and didn’t expect to welcome him back for several years. I’d imagine he would bounce around to some other places close to his heart — Juventus, France — and return occasionally the way Jupp Heynckes pops in and out of Bayern, saving the team as needed before returning to his yacht.

Real Madrid offer long-term contracts to every manager. It’s a vote of confidence to him and the players. They paid out Julen Lopetegui 15 million to compensate for a deal that ran until 2021. Santiago Solari’s contract also ran three years. Zidane’s will go until 2022. Contracts don’t guarantee anything but money — but there is a long-term feel with Zidane’s. Whether it was correct or not, Solari’s tenure always seemed transitory; and had Real Madrid let Santi go now and replaced him with Castilla head coach Jose Manuel Diaz, it would’ve been a clear interim move — a hope to restore morale and buy time for the auction in the summer.

Zidane isn’t here for a take-out picnic — he’ll be setting the table every night, cooking meals, and watching the family grow. That’s the plan — conceptualizing it is easier than doing it. There’s a chance this turns out into a nightmare — with worst-case scenario being that all of the demons that appeared in Real Madrid’s domestic campaign both this year and last year carry over to next season, that the players just don’t get motivated in La Liga again, that Real Madrid can’t sign their big star to help with the offensive load, and that Zidane’s legacy takes a huge hit before the club have to let him go at some point.

That’s fine, and the reality is that scenario exists with any manager Real Madrid sign. Zidane wasn’t the best manager potentially available, but he’s up there, has a proven track record, and suits Real Madrid (he knows all of the club’s intricacies, is an underrated tactician, and can navigate a press conference by diffusing it with respect and wisdom). The market is unclear this summer. Mauricio Pochettino ticks all the boxes — he gets the best out of his resources, is an elite tactician and man-manager, has become vocally frustrated of late with the Tottenham board, and is an Espanyol guy through-and-through (which makes him an ally against you-know-who). But Pochettino may not have been entirely attainable, and negotiating with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy is always complicated, and waiting out until summer for a manager you may not get is risky.

Would Zidane have been available in the summer had Real Madrid waited and tested the water? Maybe Zizou is still kicking his feet up at that time — or maybe the Juventus job opens up if Allegri gets knocked out of the Champions League this week. Waiting it out is a gamble if the manager you want is available right away.

There is also reason to bring Zidane in now. When Real Madrid were dismantled by Ajax in the Champions League, there was a reasonable question to ask: What’s the point of firing Solari now? Getting your guy this early is improbable, and letting Solari go before the season ends doesn’t necessarily move the needle in the right direction. Some wanted to do it for the sake of retaining a disgruntled Isco and Marcelo — but even that’s not a guarantee under a new coach who likes what he sees in Sergio Reguilon as an impressive two-way full-back; and Isco’s problems lie deeper than just Solari. Maybe a new manager unearths both of those fringe players; maybe he doesn’t.

Zidane solves some of those concerns. Letting Solari linger was going to make the rest of the season awkward for all parties involved and tough for fans to bear. A new coach doesn’t guarantee a spike in spirit — but if it’s Zidane, everything changes. The man is laced with a presence that jolts the soul into motion. It’s still unclear what happens to Isco and Marcelo, and Zidane did mention in Monday’s presser that there will be “big changes”; but he does have a good history with them both, which at the very least, sees both the Spaniard and Brazilian in a more serendipitous situation than before.

The Frenchman’s return poses an interesting question: What has actually changed since his departure (besides the obvious Ronaldo sale) back in May? Expectations, for one. When he left, the bar was high, and anyone succeeding him (including himself, had he continued) would be measured against an impossible ghost. Zidane was a genius for leaving on his own merit after making history. What he did as a coach was unparalleled, and the way he left was unparalleled too: He was the only coach under Florentino’s second reign to have left on his own merit, with the president looking at him with droopy and sad eyes. Maybe he’s an even bigger genius now. The club has fallen apart since he left, and now he returns as a saviour — with the rest of the season being played with low expectations as eyes will be on what he can do this summer and beyond.

Another change: stipulations. Whether it was admitted or not in the press conference (it wasn’t, though Zidane did hint plenty at making ‘changes’, both on and off the field), the Frenchman returns with some autonomy in terms of squad structure. No one interfered with his lineup selections, but he saw what was coming last summer in terms of a transition year. He didn’t feel he was the man to guide the ship — particularly without a say in what happens in the transfer window.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of this day, even if down the road, with hindsight, bringing Zidane back turns out a mistake. Even those not entirely enamoured with the Frenchman felt a relief to see him speak during Monday’s presser.

Real Madrid famously shuffles through managers. Only two managers have outlasted the conveyor belt for a reasonable amount of time: Jose Mourinho and Zinedine Zidane (ironically, both were the ones linked to this job the most). Almost each manager that the club brings in has a radically different philosophy than that of his predecessor. Identities are shrivelled to the ground and rebuilt regularly. Fans long for continuity and patience. With Zidane, Real Madrid had that continuity, and while there is an eternal debate about whether they had an identity under Zidane or not, the reality is they did: Zidane’s identity was his in-game management, ability to make adjustments at half-time that actually worked, and had a tactical versatility that had his opponents going into matches guessing what Real Madrid would do.

Don’t call Zidane’s success ‘lucky’. As I wrote in detail the day before Zidane’s departure in May: It’s not about luck. ‘Luck’ is a lazy argument to discredit an historic team. In some games Real Madrid had luck, in others their opponents were the ones who escaped. Champions create their own luck, psychologically bully their opponents into mistakes, and, if after three years you’re still winning the most important competition on earth, then you’re not lucky — you’re bloody good.

Still, that doesn’t mean Real Madrid weren’t without their flaws under Zizou — he’ll be the first to tell you that. Of the many interesting nuggets from Monday’s presser, Zidane said he’s “recharged his batteries”, meaning he comes back with a fresh perspective, and with the potential added benefit of being a better manager than he was, with an ability to rectify the mistakes of years’ past.

“I don’t forget what we won but I also don’t forget the bad things we did,” ZIdane said. “We lost the league straight away, we lost the cup. We won the [Champions League], OK, but we know where we are. Life is like that.”

“My ambition for this club,” Zidane continued, “the excitement I have to manage this club, no one will take that from me. I will do all I can for the club. For now, we just have to focus on what’s left of the season and then see what we can do for the next [few] years: that’s the most important thing.”

There is little Real Madrid did right this summer, even if a lot of it was out of their hands. Appointing Zidane was about as good as you can do to win the fans back; and giving Zidane the reigns and power to build a squad and identity that he wants long-term is a step better. Zizou is playing with house money this season. Next season he’ll feel the heat. Will fans be patient if things go wrong? Zidane’s legacy is on the line, and some would call him crazy for returning to the most difficult job in football. That’s not crazy. That’s love.

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