Rafael Benitez lasted just seven months in his dream job at Real Madrid before he was unceremoniously dumped for Madrid legend Zinedine Zidane.
Benitez replaced Carlo Ancelotti but found it difficult to galvanise a squad that was still in favour of the popular Italian. He subsequently left the side sitting third in the table, four points behind fierce rivals Atletico Madrid. With the rather surprising appointment of the inexperienced Zidane we look at what the Frenchman can bring to the role.
Zidane was once the world’s most expensive player. He transferred from Italian giants Juventus to Real Madrid in the summer of 2001 for around €75 million. His purchase brought about the new era of the Galacticos, where he was joined by Luis Figo and David Beckham amongst many high-priced others. His playing career was littered with both team and personal success as he won a La Liga title, two Serie A titles, and the Champions League.
These triumphs were combined with his Ballon d’Or win, being named FIFA Player of the Year three times, and winning the Golden Boot at the 2006 World Cup. His playing career ended after the World Cup though, where he was infamously sent off in the final for a head-butt on Marco Materazzi, before going into a career in coaching not long after.
Jose Mourinho was in charge of Madrid in 2010 when he appealed for Zidane to become more involved with his team, noting his presence had a positive effect on his side. Just a year later Zidane was then promoted to be their new sporting director. However, it wasn’t a role he held long as the following year he became Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant, completing a rapid rise for the Frenchman into the fraternity of coaching.
In Zidane’s brief unveiling as new manager to the press, Los Blancos president Florentino Perez stated:
“He knows better than anyone just what it means to lead the Real Madrid first-team squad. He’s fully aware of how tough and at the same time how exciting this demanding position is.
“Furthermore, Zidane knows the players, as many of them lifted the club’s tenth European Cup in Lisbon with him as assistant coach.”
From these statements it seems that Zidane’s inside track with the club made him an enticing and ultimately irresistible candidate to take up the position. His knowledge of the team and successful experiences with them gave him an advantage over other more experienced hopefuls. When speaking of Zidane’s influence over the squad at training the former manager Ancelotti observed: “When Zidane speaks, players listen.”
It seems Zidane has followed the well-worn trajectory of fierce rivals Barcelona, where their old players re-join the club after their playing careers have come to an end and are filtered through the coaching positions within the youth system. Pep Guardiola is the greatest example of this method when it works, and now Zidane has followed in those footsteps. Before Benitez’s departure the Frenchman was in charge of Real Madrid’s Castilla youth side. They missed out on promotion from the Segunda B division in Zidane’s first season in charge, but currently sit in second place with every chance of promotion this year. Clearly he has made enough of an impression for the Madrid hierarchy to believe that he could be a success guiding the first team.
Zidane clearly had the hunger to coach from an early stage and has continually pushed forward in his pursuit of a top job in world football. After the dismissal of his friend and mentor Ancelotti, Zidane voiced his disappointment but also his willingness to take charge of the side if he was given the opportunity.
“Yes, I would have accepted being Ancelotti’s successor,” Zidane told France Football (via the Mirror)
“I’m a professional and I’m never going to turn down a challenge,” he said.
He was passed up for the role in favour of the more experienced Benitez but he didn’t have to wait long to take the reigns of the club he has been associated with for well over a decade now.
On the pitch Zidane was renowned for his seemingly effortless style. He made the game look simple as his vision and control allowed him more time and space than any other player was afforded on the pitch. Being the manager brings a new set of circumstances though, as he will no longer be able to directly influence matches in the way that he used to. The responsibility falls on his players and he will have to rely on them to perform as he tells them to do. Zidane has acknowledged this in an interview in FourFourTwo, where he noted:
“If you’re soft with the boys, it doesn’t work, I discovered that, for the common good, you have to know how to tell players things they’re not ready to hear.
“I do it rarely, because I think I have a natural authority which means I don’t have to resort to bawling out players.”
This self-assurance has always been a part of Zidane’s personality. It is an arrogance that is established through his high self-belief in his own abilities. It is a quality that is often overlooked when analysing what makes a player great. Zidane had it and various others who locate the upper echelons of the sport today share it too, with Cristiano Ronaldo an excellent example of this. However, a natural introvert, the Frenchman found it difficult initially in his new coaching roles to successfully translate this trait across to his players.
“The first time I went to see him, he was timid in training and couldn’t take charge of the group,” his mentor Guy Lacombe told FourFourTwo.
Zidane obviously noticed this as well and remedied the situation after a brief revaluation.
“Fifteen days later, he was much more assured,” the ex-PSG manager Lacombe noted.
The veteran Frenchman worked with Zidane and helped him gain his UEFA Pro License, so is perhaps better placed than anyone to offer an opinion on Zidane as a coach. His willingness to change and alter his style so early into his coaching career shows an impressive show of humility and intelligence and should hold him in good stead in his time as Real Madrid manager and possibly beyond.
The Spanish giants aren’t exactly a patient club though, and he will be given very little time to adjust. He will simply have to learn on the job and try to make sure that he doesn’t repeat the same mistakes of old bosses. President Perez has always been a big fan of Zidane’s but his record in hiring and firing managers is not a good one.
His policies perhaps causing more instability within the club than he would care to admit. Perez has held the top position at Madrid for a total of 12 seasons. In that time he has overseen an incredible ten different managers. Obviously loyalty and patience holds no real importance in his lexicon. No manager has ever been afforded more than three years at the helm to build something so Zidane would be unwise to believe that he will be the exception to the rule.
Luckily, Zidane has a reputation that is unparalleled in football. Besides Materazzi there have been very little negative words spoken about him in the press throughout his storied career. This reputation breeds respect and means the players, who are already familiar with him from his previous coaching role, should accept him with no queries at all.
If this is the case he will already be starting off on a better footing than his predecessor. After Ancelotti was fired at the end of last season and Benitez was installed it was reported that the Spaniard couldn’t gain control over the dressing room. At a club the size of Madrid it is not surprising the amount of egos in the side, but because of his own enhanced reputation Zidane should be able to bypass this issue entirely.
The decision to hand Zidane the reigns at one of, if not the biggest club in the world is unquestionably a huge gamble. His lack of experience should be treated with trepidation because as we have seen in the past, a world-class footballer doesn’t necessarily transfer to them being a world-class manager. There are many components to first team management that Zidane won’t have encountered yet, but he will have to deal with them in real time while at the helm of Madrid.
It is a huge challenge for the Frenchman but one he seems comfortable with taking on. He has been groomed for the position for a while and the hierarchy clearly have him earmarked as the man to take the club forward. His hunger and desire to impress will carry him through the early stages of his career, but once the excitement dies down it will be up to the relatively unknown entity of Zidane to show what he is all about as a manger and make his case for carrying Real Madrid into a new era.
Mark Molyneux, Pundit Arena