Zinedine Zidane was my most emblematic signing and will be a great coach. I am sure that if he wants to be, he will be Real Madrid coach one day, but not today.
— Florentino Perez, 15 days before appointing Zidane as Head Coach
The end of 2015 was not a good time to be a Real Madrid fan. The manager, Rafa Benitez, was a dead man walking, and there seemed to be no credible replacement in sight. Enter Zinedine Zidane. His appointment was met with widespread scepticism, and it seemed to be right. I don’t think even Florentino Perez can claim to have had full confidence in the newly-appointed manager. I was pretty disappointed when Real appointed him (I remember saying that while he was one of the best players of his time, he’d lack the experience and the tactical nous for the job).
Zizou has proved everyone wrong. (I can’t even remember who it was I wanted Real to appoint in 2016.) He began his reign with a 5-0 win at Deportivo la Coruna and the rest is history.
The thing many of us, armchair managers, failed to realise was that, while he may not have managed a team at the highest level, Zidane had been a part of the Real Madrid set-up for a long time. He knew what his predecessors had got wrong. He applied this knowledge to great effect, implementing a squad rotation system to avoid a burnout like Ancelotti’s Real. Zidane also knew what they had been doing right, choosing to play Casemiro even if it meant benching a Galactico in James Rodriguez in order to give the team some much-needed balance.
The players also have great respect for Zidane: The idea of resting Ronaldo in order to keep him fresh is certainly not a new one, but to Ronaldo it is much more credible coming from a great like Zidane than someone like Benitez, who has never played football at the highest level.
Tactically, instead of imposing his own philosophy or system on the team, Zidane has shown versatility and flexibility, unlocking great defences like Atletico and Juventus. This tactical versatility, however, can also cause a lack of efficiency in the league. Sometimes the experiment goes wrong, like the 3-5-2 against Sevilla. Last year, these inefficiencies were masked by a never-say-die attitude and a great team spirit. (The problem this year is not the lack of the said spirit, but rather Ronaldo’s poor form in the first half of the season and Real’s forwards being uncharacteristically wasteful in front of goal.)
Zidane has also been smart enough to not let the boardroom influence his football. Like Jose Mourinho before him, Zidane has assumed full control of transfers and so, instead of buying the next Galactico, Real have made signings with an eye on the future. Which is why, even though Real have won two Champions League titles back-to-back, it doesn’t feel like the end of an era, rather, it feels like the beginning of something special. And that, more than anything else, excites me as a Real Madrid fan.
( The writer is a Standard XII student of St. Xavier’s Loyola, Ahmedabad )
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