Renowned globally as one of the greatest footballers of all-time, Zinedine Zidane has seamlessly continued his success into management by taking one of the most high-pressure jobs in the sport and making it look easy.
When Los Blancos finally secured La Decima after extra-time in 2014, the Frenchman was present only as assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti, his eyes firmly set on becoming top-dog. Many spectators believed that Zidane’s time had come a year later when the Italian was removed as manager – a decision which highlighted the exceptionally high demands of the job.
Yet, to the surprise of ‘Zizou’s’ supporters, Madrid began the 2015/16 season with Rafael Benitez at the helm. Zidane was to remain at the side’s B-team, Real Madrid Castilla, providing an opportunity to gain further experience. Doubts had also been cast over his managerial ability, after finishing just sixth with the side in his first campaign.
Despite the setback, Zidane would finish the season by securing the Spanish giants their 11th European title, having replaced Benitez in January and successfully navigating his side through the Champions League knockout stages. The final itself was another tight contest with their city rivals Atletico, who Ancelotti had defeated two years earlier.
On this occasion, only penalties could separate the two, with Diego Simone falling at the last once more, whilst the heir to Real’s throne was truly crowned.
In the league that year Madrid had finished a point behind Barcelona in second – a respectable finish due to the European success. Yet, failure to win a title in his first full season would almost certainly cost the Frenchman his job.
A year on, Zidane has conquered both Spain and Europe, seizing the La Liga title away from Camp Nou and becoming the first manager (and first club) to retain the Champions League – the first side to win successive European Championships (excluding UEFA Cup/Europa League) in 27 years.
As was often the case with Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, there will always be critics who attempt to devalue great achievements, claiming that anyone could lead these sides to success.
Such comments are, of course, meaningless. It is, however, interesting to assess the state of a club prior to the reign of any successful manager. At Barcelona, Guardiola took on a side who had come third the previous season and had gone two years without lifting a major trophy. After a single campaign, the Catalans were treble winners, widely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest club sides of all time.
In Madrid, Zidane inherited a club who had gone just one year without European success, yet now they have lifted the Champions League in three of the last four years, failing to do so only when Zizou was out of the first-team set-up.
In Cristiano Ronaldo, Madrid boast the Champions League’s top scorer from each of the last five years. The forward was talismanic yet again, whilst scoring twice in this season’s final, adding to the hat-tricks netted in the two previous rounds.
However, Real are much more than a one-man show. Since replacing Benitez as manager, Zidane has made few changes to the squad, a sure sign of the quality he inherited. Yet this team still had something missing. Where his predecessor struggled to get the best of a vastly talented line-up, the current incumbent had excelled in making big calls, whilst seemingly sustaining harmony.
Take the final as an example. Much discussion pre-match focused on whether the Frenchman would prefer Isco or Gareth Bale in the starting XI. This was heightened in the British media due to the connection with the Welsh winger, and the romantic idea of the 27-year-old lifting club football’s’ most prestigious trophy in his hometown.
Zidane proved capable of making the right call from a tactical perspective, as Isco proved pivotal whilst on the pitch. He was vindicated further by choosing to start Daniel Carvajal. The full-back had missed the previous month through injury but was key to suppressing Juventus in the second half. Most importantly, these decisions were made without damaging squad morale ahead of the season’s biggest game; no player appeared disgruntled on the bench or when substituted.
Crucially, Madrid’s Galactico manager used half-time to completely overturn his side’s fortunes. The first 45 minutes had been tight but Juventus looked the better team. Aside from some deflective good fortune to take the lead after an hour, Los Blancos deserved everything they got.
Juventus are widely, and rightfully, regarded as the best defensive outfit in Europe – they’re not exactly weak in attack either. Yet in the second half, Madrid nullified them completely. Paulo Dybala, who is influential so often, and Miralem Pjanic, a constant threat in the first period, were denied any opportunity on the ball, as Luka Modric and Toni Kroos resumed normal service by dominating the middle third.
Aided by his side’s comfortable lead, Zidane was able to give Bale, Marco Asensio and Alvaro Morata a chance in the final – three more of the club’s key players rewarded for their efforts over the season.
Morata has been heavily linked with a move away, with the Telegraph suggesting Manchester United have prioritised the forward, who finished the season behind only Ronaldo in Madrid’s scoring charts. Asensio has broken into the first team this season, featuring regularly and could have a bright future at the Santiago Bernabeu. Bale remains the club’s record signing and has stated his intention to stay put, despite yearly reports in Britain claiming that United are chasing the Welshman.
Interestingly, there was no place in the final match day squad for James Rodriguez, as Zidane has increasingly used him as a rotation option. Still, the 25-year-old cost the club over £60 million, leaving a player of that stature out of such a game is a big call, once which the Frenchman is clearly comfortable to make.
Decisions of that nature are part of the package of managing a club like Madrid, yet Zidane’s consistent ability to select the right team, who score in every match (60 this season) and are tough to beat (Madrid set a new Spanish unbeaten record this campaign) mean that his choices can not and will not be questioned.
Florentino Perez, Madrid’s esteemed club president, has claimed on Spanish radio (as per Sky Sports and The Independent) that Zidane can stay at the club for the rest of his life. The manager certainly won’t take anything for granted, but has so far done little wrong and looks set to replicate his achievements as a player on the sidelines.
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