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Zidane departs Real Madrid again: What’s his legacy now, and what’s next?

Zidane’s return to Real Madrid didn’t end on the same high note as it did in 2018. What do Real Madrid do now?

ESP: Real Madrid-Villarreal CF La Liga Santander. Photo by Ruben Albarran / Pressinphoto / Icon Sport

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.

Sequels are rarely as good as the original, but there are always going to be exceptions to the rule. Bayern Munich’s caretaker and watchful guardian, Jupp Heynckes, has been Bayen’s manager on and off as he was needed, summoned with a bat signal — not only helping with the transition of the club in between managers, but also amassing four league titles and one Champions League trophy over the span of four separate stints and three decades.

There was a sentiment that Zidane could be the Heynckes of Real Madrid. After his last goodbye in 2018 (my tribute then enclosed here), Zidane signed off with “until soon” as Florentino Perez looked at him with bulging, teary anime eyes. It wasn’t a goodbye. “Until soon” lasted one year. That’s about as soon as it gets.

But many worried about his legacy. Zidane initially took over from Rafa Benitez in 2016. If it was tough for Zizou the manager to live up to Zizou the player, it was going to be impossible for Zizou 2.0 to live up to Zizou 1.0. The latter made history, and the former had either lost legends or watched their beards turn grey. Still: Zidane had the balls to return and push the envelope, to write more history. He cared little about legacy, and as has been the case as both player and manager, he has not cared about walking away from money. This is his craft.

There were those that worried about his legacy, but there were also plenty of critics concerned about his return — and many of them kept piling up over the course of his second stint. Zidane himself has verbalized he is not a tactician, and that is perhaps why he dodges questions about tactics on rare moments they arise (though Zidane was an artist at dodging everything and anything that was asked). And maybe for that reason, the football tacticians and analytics junkies of Twitter didn’t like him much. He was not the nerd-favourite that Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann are. Zidane was less relatable to mere mortals, and a disconnect would often form with him and those who criticized his football ideologies, quick to point out everything he could be doing differently.

Zidane believed football was often more simple than we make it out to be. But Zidane was also a football freak — a transcendent superstar that felt the game naturally, like he was floating through space, that did things you can’t really teach. He played around players who were freaks like him at both club and national level, and during the three-peat, he coached said mutants too. The galacticos at the turn of the century have been on record to say that they didn’t train on tactics. The individual brilliance of Luis Figo, Raul, Ronaldo Nazario, Roberto Carlos, and Zizou himself took that team far, but not as far as it could have gone. It crumbled when they threw away their shield, Claude Makelele. And that is, in part, why Zidane relies on shields like Casemiro, Luka Modric, and Lucas Vazquez. They are reliable umbrellas against attacking tsunamis.

But if it was as easy as having superstars, Rafa Benitez would’ve been so good that there was no need to promote Zidane. The only player who loved Rafa was Gareth Bale. The rest mocked him. When Zidane came in, there was immediate respect. They lent their ear. They listened. They admired. They bought in. Rafa was easy for superstars to laugh at. Zidane had done more than all of them.

Zidane worked out, and that’s an understatement. But the Benitez blip is also the weed of a deeply-rooted problem: Carlo Ancelotti was fired because of results, not process. One of the common criticisms of the current regime is that there is a disease of constantly turning stones over too early. Ancelotti was replaced for someone worse. Rafa and Julen Lopetegui were replaced with inexperienced Castilla managers. Make no mistake: Zidane’s greatness as a manager clouded judgement. He was an anomaly. There is an entire history to back this up: Firing managers for the sake of it is never a good idea. It’s, for lack of a better word, visionless. The club may be in a position now — with Allegri going back to Juve, Pochettino possibly going back to Tottenham — that they’ll rely on a Castilla manager again, and hope for Raul to replicate what Zidane did.

(Though Antonio Conte, a man that Real Madrid called after firing Lopetegui, is clearly going to be a strong candidate now, and Real have had ‘exploratory talks’ with him this week, per source.)

It’s worth noting that Zidane was not a tactical black hole. He’s had many tactical masterclasses, a certain versatility to his blueprint, and enough trophies to back his claims up. But if there was a predictability to the way Real Madrid designed their offensive scheme, there will be a call now for something with more complexity — something with quick switches, better pressing (part of the issue with Zidane’s versatility was that the press wasn’t implemented full-time, and was disjointed, which I wrote about here), more movement in the half-spaces, and more unstoppable copy-and-paste goals (see: Manchester City). Superstars can transcend predictability. In past years, everyone in the stadium knew a cross to Cristiano Ronaldo was coming. But Ronaldo is the greatest off-ball mover in the history of football, a physical freak, and a genius. It mattered little what defenders knew.

But even in Ronaldo’s last season at Real, the team’s goal-differential was 20 goals worse than champions Barcelona. They conceded 44 goals — the worst mark of the top-4 teams, and even worse than 11th place Espanyol. When Ronaldo left, the team had to solve both its defense and offense. The defensive issues wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves without Ronaldo’s goals to outperform them. To Zidane’s credit, he solved the defense upon his return, but not the team’s offense. And to his credit again, his team has been decimated with injuries, the goal-scoring output from the wingers has been disastrous, and he was preceded by Lopetegui who broke records you don’t want to break with regards to goal droughts.

There is a feeling now that Zidane took this team as far as he could, and that in a new era without new superstars, he won’t be able to connect with the younger generation the way he could with the older one. But that feeling doesn’t all come from the entire board, who predominantly wanted Zidane to continue. But the feeling was lingering. This is not the three-peat team anymore, and a different manager with a new message might be needed to usher in something new. Not all issues the team had can be chalked up to injuries. The elimination against Chelsea had more to do with spacing, tactics, transition, outlets, press-resistancy than they did with the personnel. Militao and Nacho raised the call in the absences of Varane and Ramos. Real Madrid have had inferior tactics in their last three Champions League exits (only two of them involving Zidane). That’s frustrating.

(To be sure, injuries didn’t help, and any minutes that Marcelo had to take in particular were liable.)

The club has two likely paths now: Conte and Raul. Both are distinguished. Conte is experienced, has major titles in his belt, and has managed stars before. He may not think as long-term as Raul, who already has a deep connection with players like Miguel Gutierrez, Antonio Blanco, and Sergio Arribas. Raul also deploys a fun, high-octane, aggressive pressing, quick-switching brand of football — something Conte is not known for.

Whoever it is, they will have a difficult responsibility of navigating a high-pressure environment with reinforcements that likely will have to come from the already-formed canopy: Martin Odegaard, Gareth Bale, Brahim Diaz, Luka Jovic, Borja Mayoral, and others, including the soon-to-be-announced David Alaba. An important point: Would Zidane really have left had he known he’d be coaching Kylian Mbappe next season? If that’s the case, then neither Raul nor Conte will be able to rely on many attacking injections.

Soon, we’ll see Zidane and Florentino sit together at the podium again, announcing yet another break from each other. We’ll look to see how similar the dynamic is to the goodbye in 2018, and if Zidane will say “goodbye” or “until soon”. Whatever he says, you can’t untangle Real Madrid and Zidane, ever. They are one.

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