Jose Mourinho was strongly rumoured to make a return to the Bernabeu following a set of poor results for Real Madrid but on Monday evening, the tide suddenly turned in Spain. Out of the blue came the name of Zinedine Zidane, a former Real boss just like Mourinho, but one that was not even remotely counted by the media as a probable to replace Santiago Solari. All of a sudden, the likes of La Sexta, AS, El Mundo started to report that Zidane was going to be appointed the Real Madrid manager as soon as the same day.
The timing, the urgency of it, was hard to believe. It wasn’t a long drawn process, as many managerial appointments have been in the past. But it wasn’t a regular one either.
The club had seen Barcelona do the double over them in the league and comfortably so. In a week before the birth anniversary of the club, they were out of Copa del Rey in the semifinals, out of contention in the league and most damagingly of all, swept aside by a young Ajax side to be dumped out of the Champions League. CSKA Moscow first and Ajax now, two thrashings whereby the defence leaked four goals each and the writing was on the wall. Another manager was set to be shown the ever revolving door at the Bernabeu. Santi Solari was out of the job, despite beating Valladolid in a come from behind win. Zidane, surprisingly, was back.
And back he was – just nine months after resigning from the job – which came just five days after a record third straight Champions League title. Accompanied by Real Madrid president Florentino Perez and his wife, Zizou entered the lush press room of the Bernabeu wearing a blazer and jeans. He seemed his usual calm and comfortable self and revealed he was offered the job five days ago and had chosen to accept out of the love for the club.
The timing seemed peculiar. The decision to come back seemed absurd when all that he reportedly asked of the club before stepping down was not adhered to. He had asked for Cristiano Ronaldo to be retained, Gareth Bale to be sold and no keeper to be signed. And yet, during the summer, Ronaldo was sold to Juventus, Bale had been retained in the squad and Thibaut Courtois had been signed from Chelsea pushing Keylor Navas to the bench.
The timing of Zidane’s appointment is perfect. He has 11 games left in the league and the job at hand is to keep the club within the top-four to maintain their place in the UEFA Champions League spots. He will use this time to assess the squad, the newcomers since he left and figure out the players he wants and at what positions.
Unlike the past, Zidane comes in with bigger say and power in the role he has taken. Someone who is not considered to be the greatest tactician, Zizou thrives on motivating players, getting the best out of them and managing the dressing room better than many of his more seasoned peers. If a massive overhaul were to happen at the club, Zidane should be the person leading the charge instead of the sporting directors or presidents of the club.
The key factor in the entire appointment and Zidane’s agreement appears to be the power he would yield over calling the shots at the club on transfer policy and player management. Further, Zidane is a safe bet for the club, too, as against someone like Mourinho who despite his impressive CV in the past, didn’t make any fans at Manchester United for lack of results or style of play. Both these aspects are sacrosanct for Real Madrid.
Making Zizou an even more ideal choice over a Mourinho is the familiarity with the club, the style, the culture and the squad. There are quite a few members in the squad who he worked with in the past but the issue would be that they are a year older, lacking confidence after a less than satisfying campaign and hampered by fitness concerns – such as Marcelo.
But, Zidane is also a choice which comes with large shoes to fill – of his own. When he was appointed the first time and replaced Rafa Benitez, he would go on to win three Champions League titles, two Club World Cups, two UEFA Super Cups, league title and Spanish Super Cup. A jaw-dropping nine titles in two and a half years. The unprecedented success is hard to match and it creates pressure – on himself, on the players and raises expectations from the fans. In so doing, Zidane has put his reputation at stake.
The question keeps circling: why return? why now? It was posed to him at the unveiling. “I have never been far away. I returned because the president called me. I love him, and I love this club,” he said. “We will change things, for sure, for the years to come,” is what he simply said. Fair enough. His sons play in the Real Madrid youth setup at the Valdebebas and Zidane himself attended a few matches.
Another point that is a worry for the Real Madrid faithful, after a horrid season, would be the fact that Zidane is no master tactician and there is no real identity to the style of football under him. A lot of the achievement was down to the brilliance and game-changing role played by Ronaldo. With the Portuguese gone, Real Madrid have been made to strive for goals. Karim Benzema has 22 goals in all competitions while Bale, the next best, has 13. To highlight the reason for concern, the third highest goal scorer is captain Sergio Ramos, a defender, with 11 goals. This leaves the door open for a big money signing and some members of the squad unsure about their place.
Vincius Jr. is possibly the biggest gain for Zidane and someone who might be unavailable to the Frenchman at all. His emergence, until the ankle injury hit, has the biggest shining light for Madrid in a bleak campaign. His runs down the left have created trouble for many defenders but his decision making, at a young age, remains questionable. It also makes a potential signing of Eden Hazard from Chelsea a tricky proposition.
Isco and Marcelo are two players who remained out of favour under Solari with Sergio Reguilon and Marcos Llorente the biggest gainers. With Zidane returning, it remains to be seen how the squad is formulated.
Bale, however, seems to be the biggest loser in Zidane’s return. The duo were reportedly not on speaking terms when the Frenchman left and things are unlikely to improve. A clean slate may be possible but it seems improbable.
With PSG suffering another embarrassing exit in the UEFA Champions League, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe could be prized away from Parc des Princes. Questioned which of the two highly skilful players Perez would like to bring to the club, he said, “I would like them both,” with a smile.
“We need to start working on a new glorious era. That is why we welcome back Zinedine Zidane,” said Perez on Monday.
Recap to May 2018, Zidane was seated alongside Perez and said, “This is a team that should keep on winning and it needs a change for that. After three years, it needs another discourse, another working methodology, and that’s why I took this decision.” Well, the club does need to win after a poor season in all competitions, needs another discourse, methodology and Zidane is there to try and achieve that. Will it be easy? No. Will there be pressure? Now more than ever.