Author: Ronan O’Rourke
The date was January 4th, 2016. Huge changes were on the horizon once again for Real Madrid, arguably the biggest club in world football. They had just dismissed Rafa Benitez from his position as manager of the team in what appeared to be fairly dubious circumstances. The former Champions League winner was doing a solid, if unspectacular, job at the Bernabeu and it did seem a little premature to give up on him taking into account his past successes.
That of course as anyone who follows Real Madrid closely, is not the Florentino Perez way. Perez is a ticking time bomb of a President who makes emotional and irrational decisions as if they are going out of style. His decision to axe Benitez after just 6 months and 25 games in charge was not really a surprise at all.
What was a little on the startling side was the selection of his replacement as former player and legend of the sport Zinedine Zidane. Nobody doubted then, and nobody ever will doubt Zidane the player, but his coaching career to date had been less accomplished. He had been in charge of Real Madrid’s reserve squad Castilla for a year and a half. There were initial controversies over whether he was allowed to coach them as he had not completed his badges and following that his results were nothing more than mediocre. The legitimate question was asked: is Zidane the manager ready for the big job?
It was certainly a risk on his part. Real Madrid fans are notorious for their lack of patience and understanding with managers. Nothing less than unequivocal success on the field would be tolerated. Not only that but success could not come at the sacrifice of style as Jose Mourinho most famously suffered for.
The early indications were good for Zidane though as he became the first Real manager since Bernd Schuster in 2007 to win his first Clasico, ending Barcelona’s long unbeaten run in the process. Then only months later he finished off the job Benitez had started and won the Champions League, beating local rivals Atletico de Madrid in the final yet again. Real Madrid didn’t win La Liga that season but Zidane seemed to be making light work of one of the toughest jobs around.
Real Madrid followed up that campaign by proving it was no fluke this season as they won La Liga for the first time in 5 years, while also romping this past weekend to their second Champions League title in a row, a feat not before achieved in the Champions League era. The team also threw in a 40 game unbeaten streak for good measure. They appeared almost unstoppable.
As a result, Zidane has been rightly heralded as a top manager. However, it is not quite as simple as that. I believe strongly that the Frenchman is the perfect man for Real Madrid and their team of Galacticos but he would be far less effective in a different environment. What I am referring to about here are his man management skills.
A key ingredient to success at a club like Real Madrid is keeping your players happy. An element of that is having their respect. This appeared to be the downfall of Benitez who despite his obvious past achievements was never quite accepted by the players or the devout fans of Los Blancos.
It would take a massive ego to not respect a man like Zidane though. He is widely regarded as not only one of the greats of his generation but also an all time top player. But that in itself wasn’t enough. Many world class players have failed as managers for a variety of reasons. Some tried coaching when they weren’t very good at it, others didn’t have the patience for players inferior to them and others just made poor transfer decisions.
Zinedine Zidane on the other hand seemed to play to his strengths. He for the most part allowed his talented squad license to do what they liked on the pitch. He wanted them to be happy and to express themselves. He finally got the best out of the mercurially talented Isco who was very much at a cross road in his career and on the periphery of the squad before Zidane arrived. He also facilitated the transformation of Cristiano Ronaldo from an all action player to a classic number 9 who mostly now just floats around the penalty box and finishes all that comes his way.
Perhaps most importantly of all, he made Casemiro a regular in the first team. The Brazilian holding midfield player is clearly less technically able than those that surround him. However, as we are starting to realise again after a few years of a lull is that world class holding midfield players often make the difference between good and great teams. Success tends to follow them. Just think back to Zidane’s former teammate Claude Makelele or more recently N’Golo Kante. Casemiro was that man for this current Real Madrid side.
This in turn released the likes of Toni Kroos, Luca Modric and Isco to play with the freedom they enjoy. As we have seen, when you attempt to go head to head with that trio for 90 minutes even the most stubborn of defenses can start to wilt which Juventus definitely learnt the hard way last weekend.
Therefore, I am not ready to label Zidane one of the greatest coaches in the world just yet. What he has achieved at Real Madrid has been nothing short of phenomenal, but as it stands it truly was the perfect position at just the right time for him. A position where he perfectly managed a team of talented egos and got them playing in a manner they all had fun with. Time will tell if Zidane proves himself to be anything but a great man manager but when history looks back at his time at Real Madrid, he probably won’t mind too much how he is perceived. Two European Cups, and a La Liga title in 18 months in charge is about as good as it gets on paper and may never be matched again. We all await what is to come with baited breath.