Just when Real Madrid seemed at a crossroads and few could see which path to take, Zinedine Zidane decided to come back.
The club’s situation was hardly appealing for any top-level coach: over 10 LaLiga matches left, 12 points behind Barcelona, no other competition to fight for, a dressing room plagued with out-of-shape players, an ageing squad that hasn’t been properly reinforced in the last few transfer windows… If you add a president that likes to have the final say in every personnel decision, the possibility of hiring an exciting name to manage the team next season – let alone these final three months of the current one – looked worryingly complex.
But then he decided to come back.
In fact, Zidane’s was probably the only name able to change the atmosphere at the Santiago Bernabeu in such a drastic manner. On Saturday afternoon, the run-up to the match versus the ailing Celta felt like a celebration, almost contagious in a fantastic spring afternoon in Madrid, in a season that has offered almost nothing to celebrate so far. Most of my neighbours in the Fondo Sur looked happy just days after four consecutive home defeats that for practical purposes finished the season for the club. Only Zidane’s nomination could achieve that change of mood in such a short period of time.
His first line-up felt like a travel down memory lane: we saw Navas, Marcelo, Asensio and Bale start again, and in all truth all we missed was Cristiano to believe that we were still alive in the Champions League and could challenge for another title. But reality is tough, and once the match started we realized that this was a new episode of this season’s soap opera: flashes of class and intensity scattered in a concerning lack of flow, as the names on the shirts promised a level of performance that never quite happened. On Saturday, Zidane trusted his inner circle of yore, but nowadays that can’t guarantee solid, 90-minute performances.
Yes, it wasn’t an exciting display by any standard, but Zidane did manage to instill some of his inspiration to the players, in a similar manner to what happened with the fans in the stands. Isco and Marcelo are hardly close to a decent fitness level, but they showed more interest than under previous coaches, and with their skill set that can make the difference, even if in certain occasions their faulty shape was blatant. Additionally, we can safely say that Zidane’s comeback brought the most complete Gareth Bale performance of the season, as the Welshman helped several times at the back and was as active as ever up front. Zidane also witnessed a very inspired Marco Asensio, who in a Robenesque set of dribbles created the space for Isco’s opener. In short, Zidane’s motivational magic is still there, and even though how he makes that happen in unclear, now Real Madrid have recovered the Zizou factor.
The question now is who will be there next season to make the most of it. If Zidane has accepted to come back in such a dire situation is only because he’s done it under his own terms: the freedom he did not have last summer to get rid of a handful of players, and the cash he was denied to replace Cristiano Ronaldo plus the other team mates the Frenchman wanted out of the team. “With me, it would have been difficult to keep winning next season”, he said in his farewell, as he clearly knew he’d lack the power and the budget to turn the winning, but ageing side upside down. The structure of power at the Bernabeu is complex, and Zidane decided not to fight that battle. After nine months, he shouldn’t have to.
What will come next? If you have to believe certain tabloids, next season Real Madrid will look like the French national team with a couple of canteranos added for the sake of it. Of course, Zidane’s influx over French players is huge, and there’s a handful of them who could be useful in a white shirt. However, if Zidane comes to convince you to join his Real Madrid, it does not really matter whether you’re French, Belgian or Nigerian, such is his charisma in world football. One of the reasons why he left was the lack of top-level reinforcements since he took over: Daniel Ceballos, Marcos Llorente and Mayoral’s comeback were not the profile of players Zidane wanted. The Frenchman had the 2016-17 squad as a reference, and the wealth of talent and physical power those 23 players had hasn’t been approached by the subsequent personnel decisions by club management. That season Real Madrid had two sides, and that is what allowed Zidane to rotate and compete when April and May arrived.
The fact is that the signings discussion will happen later on. If Zidane has accepted to take over the team now is because he wants to take a first-hand look at the players and decide who’s staying and who’s leaving. And even if he gave Isco a pass on his disciplinary issues under Solari, he won’t be impressed with his shape and that of Marcelo.
At the end of last season Zidane wanted to clean house, and now he sees himself in a very similar position, without the pressure of getting short term results. Get ready to see plenty of surprising line-ups and tests in the next few matches but, among any other considerations, just relax after such a tough season. Even if most sequels aren’t as good as the original movie, we now have Coppola behind the camera.