With back-to-back Champions Leagues at Real Madrid, is Zizou the manager even better than Zizou the player? FFT finds out
Real Madrid’s new manager is 25 minutes into his first press conference on January 5, 2016. The assembled press pack has tossed up the usual questions without much in the way of a standout quote emanating from the latest coach to climb aboard Los Blancos’ tritutador de entrenadores, ‘the manager grinder’ that gobbles up and spits out coaches with relentless regularity. One question, though, has just piqued the newbie’s interest. He stiffens in his chair, scratches his balding head and then adjusts the microphone in front of him. Finally, he shakes his head and fixes his steely gaze firmly to his left and the origin of the question. What would Zinedine Zidane be happy with at the end of the season? “Ganarlo todo.” ‘Winning everything.’ He goes on. “Our objective is to win. We have two titles to win and by the end of the year, we want to have won both.” Third-placed Real Madrid are four points behind the leaders (and city rivals) Atletico, have lost the first Clasico of the campaign 4-0 against Barcelona and have been dumped out of the Copa del Rey for playing an ineligible player, Denis Cheryshev. On the horizon is a tricky-looking Champions League tie with Roma.
Los Blancos are in utter disarray, the majority of the squad barely on speaking terms with Zidane’s predecessor Rafael Benitez. No one – not fans, players or journalists – believe this catastrophe of a season can be rectified. President Florentino Perez has only turned to a club legend, with just 18 months’ third-tier experience as head coach of the club’s reserves, because he knows the 1998 Ballon d’or winner will at least unite a fanbase that is increasingly calling for his own head.
He is, at least according to the crows of Barcelona-based sports paper Mundo Deportivo, “a plaster”.
And all Zidane can contemplate from this impending car crash of a campaign is winning. Everything.
Eighteen months on from that promise, his team have won seven of the 10 competitions contested, including La Liga, two UEFA Super Cups and both Champions Leagues. They became the first team to defend the latter since 1990 and the only side to do it since the tournament’s change of format in 1992-93. Real Madrid’s 2016-17 double of La Liga and the Champions League was the first time they had won both in the same season since 1957-58.
“No one expected ‘Zidane the manager’ and I include myself in that,” he admitted earlier this year. “When you stop playing, you think about things and take advantage of spending time with your family, but my idea was being on the pitch. I’m from the pitch. I really wanted this.”
The manager who should never have been is now staring down the barrel of becoming the first coach in tournament history to win three European Cup titles in a row.
Exactly how did Zidane, the man whose playing career ended in such poetic headbutting ignominy, tame his inner fire to supersede former mentor Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola to become the best football manager in the world? And in just 18 months, too.
“ZIDANE HAD TO FIND HIS OWN WAY”
When Zinedine Yazid Zidane stuck his forehead into Marco Materazzi’s chest with 10 minutes of extra time remaining in the 2006 World Cup Final, the greatest player of his generation wanted nothing else to do with football. He had won 15 major honours, including the World Cup, Euros and the Champions League, having become the beautiful game’s Monet masterpiece, Beethoven symphony and Nureyev recital.
Such was Zidane’s grace, you wonder whether he had studied every movement his wife Veronique – a professional ballet dancer until she was 18 – had ever made to pivot, plié and caress that left-foot volley into the top corner to win the Champions League final in 2002.
Born in the notorious Marseille neighbourhood of La Castellane to Algerian parents Smail and Malika, Zizou returned to his North African roots, became the face of a myriad products and, most importantly, immersed himself in the daily family life that football had denied him. Every day, Zidane would pick his sons up from school and drive them to Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground in his club Audi – afforded him as club ambassador – for training.
He’d sit incognito in the stands, wearing a scarf, hat and overcoat to avoid being recognised, and watch Enzo, Luca and Theo (while sitting with an infant Elyaz, too young to take part) take their formative steps in the game. He would then drive the brood back to the family home in Conde Orgaz – the upmarket, tree-lined Madrid suburb where the Zidanes have lived since first moving to the Spanish capital in 2001.
“I had lots of offers to carry on but I left – that tells you everything,” he told FFT back in 2013. “You get tired of it. I couldn’t take it anymore. You’re always in a hotel if you’re playing every three days. In the early days it can seem fun, but not when you’re 34 or 35. But you miss the adrenaline of playing. You’ll always miss that.”
Those last two sentences proved increasingly instructive. Zinedine progressed from ambassador, to Perez’s special advisor and link with the dressing room under Jose Mourinho in 2010, then sporting director 12 months later and finally Ancelotti’s assistant in 2013. Yet nothing sated Zizou’s adrenaline fix. The man who as a kid wanted to be a lorry driver, because people would depend on him, had to be a manager.
“He was looking inside himself for the best way to become successful through his own work, not just by being called Zidane,” brother Farid revealed about those intervening years.
“Yaz [those closest to Zidane call him by his middle name, almost as a badge of honour] missed the feeling of angst and pressure that the games produced inside him,” said his other brother Noureddine. “And he can feel that again now as a coach.”
Many were surprised when he took charge of Real Madrid Castilla, the club’s reserve team, in the summer of 2014, but a handful had already witnessed the green shoots of a coach in him.
“Let me tell you, Zidane was one of the greatest players I’ve worked with in 40 years as a manager,” Paulo Campos, assistant to Blancos boss Vanderlei Luxemburgo from 2004 to 2005, tells FFT. “But he was never full of himself. He’d spend ages talking with a team-mate who didn’t understand something or to give his own opinions on tactics.
“You know that feeling of: ‘How did he think of that?’ Zidane didn’t only think about it, he had another five options in his head as well.”
If Perez wanted Zidane to be Madrid’s Pep Guardiola and guide the second-string outfit to promotion, the president was in for a shock as Castilla lost five of their first six games.
Zidane was also mired in controversy over his unfinished UEFA Pro Licence – the coaching qualification required to work in Spain’s top four divisions. Having chosen the three-year course with the French FA instead of Spain’s fast-track option for elite players, he would not finish his course until May 2015 – nine months after taking the Castilla reigns. The head of the Spanish coaching federation, Miguel Angel Galan, demanded Zizou’s suspension. Real Madrid appealed the decision in court and won. That first season was hardly an auspicious start. “He had to find his way,” Guy Lacombe, Zidane’s Pro Licence mentor and also the Frenchman’s first coach at Cannes’ youth academy when he was 15, tells FFT. “It was better for him to go through this early in his career. He learned just how difficult this job can be. He needed a year to grow.
“He understood that, whatever your game plan, you have to compose something special: your players, their profile, how you work with them on specific aspects,” Lacombe adds. “The more he knew his players, the better things became.”
“The first day he was Castilla coach, we had a chat in the dressing room before we went outside to training,” Derik, Zidane’s first-choice centre-back for that campaign, now on the books at Bolton, tells FFT.
MADRID’S 2017 LIGA AND CHAMPIONS LEAGUE DOUBLE WAS THE CLUB’S FIRST SINCE 1958
“I was surprised by how calm, and almost how shy, he was. He didn’t talk too much, but what he says wins your instant respect. He just said he wanted us to go out, train and enjoy ourselves.
“He’s very demanding. From the first day, he wanted us to play good football and to win promotion. We weren’t able to achieve that, but he was great at instilling a winning mentality.”
With Zidane passed over for the top job in the summer of 2015 in favour of Benitez (below right), it appeared another campaign of rope-learning was in store at Castilla. Benitez may have been the boss, but there was no ignoring the fox circling his hen house.
“We all knew that Zidane was the next option if Rafa didn’t finish the season,” Marca journalist Ruben Jimenez tells FFT. “To be honest, there hadn’t been much of an improvement in his Castilla side, but there was always the feeling that things would get better for Zidane with the first team.”
“THERE WILL BE ONLY ONE MESSAGE: TO WIN!”
On January 4, 2016 – the day after a limp 2-2 draw with Gary Neville’s Valencia – Benitez was gone, just six months into a three-year deal.
President Perez got the morale boost he desperately desired. The following day, more than 5,000 fans turned up at Valdebebas to watch Zidane’s first training session. Such was the desire among Madridistas to get a first look of the returning Zizou, the atmosphere there was more like a matchday inside the Bernabeu.
Yet Zidane’s early days were about more than just living off his name. In addition to his trophy-winning ambitions, the 45-year-old’s opening press conference was notable for Zidane mentioning “work” no fewer than 14 times. He wanted it from his players and said he wouldn’t stop until he delivered success. A routine was swiftly established. He arrives at the training ground at 8.30am and doesn’t leave until between 9.30pm and 10pm. At the end of every session, he has a meeting with the rest of his coaching team – assistant coaches David Bettoni, Hamidou Msaidie, goalkeeper coach Luis Llopis and fitness coaches Antonio Pintus and Javier Mallo – to analyse several videos of the session and discuss their thoughts. “The more the week goes on, the more he starts to talk about the opposition and the way that he wants his team to play – I know he still coaches this way,” former Castilla centre-back Derik recalls. “There’s the basic philosophy of maintaining good defensive shape – and then attacking well as a unit – but by the Thursday or Friday he wants his players to understand the plan, and especially where the opposition is weakest so that you can exploit them – he’s ruthless in that regard.” In between this preparation, Zidane still finds time for a 45-minute run, a session of Bikram yoga every day and, ideally, a game of tennis. He’s long since accepted he won’t get much sleep and gone are the days of picking his kids up from school. “I’m convinced of the day-to-day work I will do with my players,” he said in that first press conference. “That’s fundamental and there will be only one message: to win.” It’s a philosophy that has remained with Zidane since his playing days at Juventus during the mid-90s. Talent alone is useless without the application. Crucially, Zidane worked quickly to instil a harmonious atmosphere in the squad. His final words to the players before his maiden game in charge, against Deportivo, were simple and sought to establish rapport. He said: “Go out there, have a good time and make the public enjoy themselves. Enjoy it.” That last phrase is repeated before every game. Madrid thrashed the Galician side 5-0. “It was really tough and delicate period,” says journalist Jimenez. “He changed the team’s mentality and brought a happiness back to the squad. He wants his players to touch the ball, to play good football. Basically, he wants his Madrid to play like he did, and that, compared with Benitez, is huge. Rafa’s football was boring, the players didn’t enjoy playing for him and his style had nothing really to do with Madrid’s identity. “Zidane found himself in a dressing room where the previous manager had pretty much no relationship with the players and had lost 4-0 to Barça. Confidence was low and there was no real prospect of a trophy. It was the last card the president had left to play and now look at them.” A natural introvert, common consensus had it that a lack of communication would be one of Zidane’s big problems. He hadn’t given a single press conference as Castilla boss, because third-tier rules don’t require it. “When the cameras are on me, I close up because I imagine that my family may be watching and that stresses me out,” he once admitted. And yet Zidane loves talking one-on-one with his players. In part, it’s a learned behaviour. “I remember the smile on his face when I used to say some words in Arabic to him,” explains Campos, who spent years
“HE WANTS HIS PLAYERS TO TOUCH THE BALL, TO PLAY GOOD FOOTBALL, TO PLAY LIKE HE DID”
working in the Middle East before becoming Madrid’s assistant boss. “It brought him back to his Arabic roots. Far away from Algeria, he had a friend to talk to in his mother-tongue. It brought us closer together.”
Zidane’s relationship with Karim Benzema is predicated on a similar rapport – both of Algerian descent, both introverts, both family men.
“He gives me everything,” Madrid’s revitalised striker has said of his manager and mentor. “He wants me to do well. He may not talk very much, but his words are certain and before every game he usually says something that makes me feel good.”
When Benzema says his manager doesn’t talk much, he’s not joking. Team talks are usually restricted to two (a maximum of three) tactical points, because Zizou believes players aren’t capable of remembering more once the match has kicked off.
“The most important thing is the message you transfer to players,” Zidane claimed earlier this year in an interview with Mexican television. “I want there to be few instructions to the group. They’re professionals and they know how to play. You keep things simple.”
Ultimately, Zidane trusts his players and is merely tuning into what he appreciated most from his coaches in his career.
“If you’ve got a happy Real Madrid dressing room,” says the former Castilla defender Derik, who regularly attended first-team training in his final three years with Los Blancos, “that means you’re a very good coach, because it’s not easy to keep so many big-name players happy.
“Results follow on from that. Every time they play, you see a united team which plays for its manager. He’d always talk one-on-one with his players and, given the great player that he was, you can’t help but listen to what advice he has to say. There’s no one better than Zinedine Zidane to explain what you’re doing well and what you’re doing badly.”
Therein lies Zizou’s other greatest strength. He may choose to swerve questions about his illustrious playing days at every opportunity, but who he is matters. One of the reasons why Benitez so alienated Real’s dressing room was because he tried to teach Cristiano Ronaldo et al how to strike the ball at a free-kick, despite the Newcastle manager’s modest playing career. The four-time Ballon d’or winner met this kind of interference with great resentment.
Zidane instead challenged the Portuguese star to a training ground competition: a line of balls placed 20 yards from the goal, an inflatable wall and a goalkeeper – Zidane won.
“He was a better technical footballer than any of us,” Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata, who played under Zidane in last season’s historic Real double, tells FFT. “He could still be playing now, I’m certain of that. He would join in with the rondos or cross balls into the penalty area when we were doing shooting practice and they’d all be perfect. All of those things make you want to impress him.
“His name alone carried such weight in the squad,” Morata adds. “He is one of the best players in history and that means when you become a coach, you have that added respect because of what you achieved as a player. He talks to you, he listens. That’s his greatest strength and it tells you what sort of person he is.”
PUTTING THE ENGINE BACK IN THE BENTLEY
Those early months weren’t without their teething problems, however. Given a tactical lesson by Diego Simeone during a 1-0 derby defeat to Atletico Madrid in late February 2016, Zizou turned to a player who had come to represent Rafa’s stodgy team.
Casemiro is a no-frills defensive midfielder in the Claude Makelele role. So much criticism did Benitez receive for playing the Brazilian, he felt compelled to play Luka Modric and Toni Kroos as defensive midfielders in Real Madrid’s 4-0 Clasico humbling.
Yet in losing to Atletico, Zidane went back to Casemiro, and a 4-3-3, to sure up his defence. He persuaded president Perez it was a necessary move to allow Ronaldo, Benzema, Modric and Gareth Bale to prosper.
“Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” Zidane had famously said when Perez sold Makelele to Chelsea and replaced him with David Beckham in 2003, as the original Galacticos policy imploded. It took Perez 13 years, and a reminder from Zidane, to take note.
By April, Casemiro’s high pressing set the tone for Real’s Champions League quarter-final comeback against Wolfsburg, overturning a 2-0
first-leg defeat with a 3-0 win at the Bernabeu. Despite winning their last 12 league matches, the Spanish title was always unlikely, but the undecima, the ‘11th European Cup’, was still tantalisingly close with Manchester City disposed of in the last four.
Simeone’s Atletico handed Zidane the chance of tactical redemption. In truth, the game was very even, but Madrid’s boss had to lead almost in spite of himself. Apart from his ethereal talents, the thing that most stays with you about Zidane’s playing career is his temper. Thirteen of his 14 career red cards were for retaliation.
“I’ve had to learn not to show any tension, because that transfers to the players,” he has said about the fire that still burns deep within. Mas vale la maña que fuerza, say the Spanish – ‘brain is better than brawn’.
“The feeling that I have at the side of the pitch is totally different to playing. On the pitch, I could change things and sort things from time to time, but now it is just the players.”
Before that 2016 Champions League Final, with his players all talking about “pressure” and “tension” in the build-up, Zidane’s last words as his charges went down the tunnel eased all the nerves. Privately, many of those who took penalties in the ensuing shootout success admit to remembering the manager’s short speech as they began their run-up.
“I wish I could play.” No one missed.
THE KEY THING IS THAT THE PLAYERS GET ON REALLY F**KING WELL!”
That summer, Zizou sought to twist the knife on his rivals domestically and abroad. Yes, Real Madrid had won the Champions League, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted to win La Liga, a competition Los Blancos had won only once in eight seasons.
To do so, Zidane knew he had to rotate and ensure his players were in the best shape for every game. “Physically,” he had said at several intervals during the previous campaign, “we need to improve a lot.”
The call went out to fetch fitness coach Antonio Pintus from Lyon. Zidane had hated the battle-hardened Italian’s exhausting sessions when they first met more than two decades earlier at Juventus, but he never forgot the long-term benefits.
Pintus inflicted the same pain on the Real Madrid squad as he had on its head coach. On the opening day of pre-season there was blood, sweat, tears and vomit. Lots of vomit. Exercises ranged from balance to jumps and sprints, which were washed down with a 30-minute run. Every. Single. Session. For three weeks.
“Pintus has been so important,” Modric said at the end of the season. “So much of this year is down to him.”
With the players in better condition than ever, Zidane was confident enough to rotate. Though he missed out on his primary transfer target, Paul Pogba, academy graduates Diego Llorente, Alvaro Morata and Marco Asensio came back to the Bernabeu after spells away. All were hungry to prove their worth and slotted into the team when needed.
In the October of 2016, Real Madrid recorded 6-1, 5-1, 7-1 and 4-1 victories, all with different starting XIS.
When Isco started against Atletico the weekend after the November international break – Benzema, Sergio Ramos and James Rodriguez were all rested – eyebrows were raised. Given a free role, the diminutive playmaker was fresh and excelled between the lines of Atletico’s rigid defence and Real triumphed 3-0. It was, said Marca, ‘un baño tactico’– literally ‘a tactical bath’. Zidane had effectively tucked Simeone up in bed with a cup of cocoa.
“The key is the relationship he’s got with his players,” believes Derik. “They are superstars, but Zidane knows when footballers are at their best moment and when to rest them, so they play the most important matches in the best condition. And they all accept it because of this.”
The system wasn’t, however, without its problems. Post-christmas tinkering resulted in defeat to Sevilla, ending a 40-game unbeaten run, and a Copa del Rey exit to Celta Vigo. ‘Doctor,’ screamed the front page of Marca, ‘this is serious.’ It remains Zizou’s worst month in charge, with faceless club directors appearing in the press denouncing his experiment with a back three against Sevilla, in particular. A 3-3 home draw to Las Palmas resulted in some similar headlines. Eventually, with fewer changes made each week, confidence and wins returned.
“At the beginning, I didn’t think it was good for the team,” Modric later said. “When you play and then don’t play, you think you’re going to lose form. In the end Zidane showed us how important they can be.
“Now I think they’re good, but it’s also helped with how others have come in. We’ve won games because of them. Later, everyone has been talking about the ‘A Team’ and ‘B Team’ but we don’t look at it like that. We’re Real Madrid. One team! Any player who plays can do a good job.”
No player benefited from the rotations more than Cristiano Ronaldo. Returning from winning Euro 2016 the previous summer with an injured knee, the Portuguese sat down for a meeting with Zidane. He told CR7, now 31, about his rotation plan, and that Ronaldo would still feature prominently but that it would help him prolong his career.
Zidane reasoned that, instead of reaching the end of the campaign drained – chasing La Liga’s Pichichi trophy for top goalscorer – Ronaldo would peak at the season’s climax fresher and be more able to affect the key fixtures, rather than the limited impact he had on the 2016 Champions League Final.
“Listen to me and we’ll make history,” he said. “It’s because we need you that I want you to not play sometimes.” CR7 only listened as it was Zidane doing the talking.
Zidane understands his talisman’s need for praise like few others. “If I were in the same team as Cristiano,” he said last season, “he’d be the star, without doubt.” For his part, Ronaldo is “ecstatic” with Zizou as “he sees football differently to other coaches”.
“No coach has got on better with Cristiano than Zidane,” confirms Marca journalist Jimenez. “He’s made him evaluate his career better – to rest and rotate.”
Between March 18 and May 17, Ronaldo didn’t play in a single away game in La Liga. He didn’t even travel. Zidane and his coaching team realised that such is the beast that lurks within the former Manchester United forward, sitting on the substitutes’ bench is no kind of rest. He wants to come on if things are not going well. At home, he can watch the match, devoid of that same stress.
It helped that, during those games, Isco and Marco Asensio came to the fore – the former’s two goals at Sporting Gijon the definitive proof of Zidane’s rotation policy in action. It didn’t even matter that Bale got injured (again) in April’s Clasico defeat.
This was a relentless winning machine, one which the manager had cultivated since his very first press conference. He’d done so by using the youth team to give first-teamers a breather. Fifteen years earlier, Perez’s Zidanes y Pavones policy – Galactico stars supported by youth team graduates – had failed because the coaching structure wasn’t in place. Now, Zidane’s spell as Castilla coach has established that route.
“I see talent every day at Valdebebas,” he told FFT in 2013. “There are players there who are going to make it, but 80-90 per cent will do so away from Real Madrid. I’m here to try to change that. You can’t be a phenomenon in 10 minutes. There has to be continuity.”
Morata, Nacho, Llorente, Lucas Vazquez, Dani Carvajal and Mariano and had all come through and were vital to winning a first La Liga title for five years, finally secured with a 2-0 victory at Malaga.
“I’d like to get up here and dance,” Zidane said after the final whistle. “I’m not going to, but on the inside I’m very, very happy.”
A 4-4-2 diamond, with Isco at the tip and Ronaldo upfront alongside Benzema or Morata became the go-to formation. Ronaldo found the net seven times in three Champions League games – five across both
“no COACH HAS GOT On BETTER WITH RONALDO AT REAL THAN ZIDANE. HE’S MADE HIM EVALUATE HIS CAREER BETTER – TO REST AND ROTATE”
legs to dispose of Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals and a hat-trick in a 3-0 first-leg win against Atletico Madrid in the last four – to prove beyond doubt the genius of his manager’s long-term plan.
June’s Champions League final against Juventus afforded Zidane his best chance to show off that acumen. For the week before the match, training session after training session was dedicated to low cutbacks from the byline back to the penalty spot, after Zidane noticed Juve’s tendency in their quarter-final victory against Barcelona to defend and protect the area immediately in front of keeper Gianluigi Buffon’s goal.
“The Juve defence are brilliant when it comes to crosses into the box, but not so much when it comes to low cutbacks,” said Modric after the 4-1 romp in Cardiff. “We worked on that constantly and that’s how we scored three of our four goals. Congratulations to the coach.”
That tactical twist is Zidane’s coup de grace, just when critics tried to dismiss the Frenchman’s achievements as a mere motivator.
“There’s no doubt there are still those who are convinced that Zidane doesn’t have a tactical brain, who think that everything is down to the players, but everything starts with him,” says journalist Jimenez. “He changed formations and brought in Isco, Asensio and Mateo Kovacic as well. That’s all down to his philosophy and football brain.”
Derik agrees. “You can say that he’s got great players, but they’re the same ones who didn’t have a great last season under Carlo Ancelotti and struggled with Benitez. It doesn’t matter how good the players are, you’ve got to learn how to manage them.”
The celebrations, becoming the first Real Madrid coach since 1958 to win the league title and European Cup in the same season, meant so much to someone who has Blanco blood. Zidane said “gracias” 18 times in his post-match press conference.
“You enjoy it a bit more as a coach, because to achieve those victories is more difficult,” Zidane explained. “The key is that everyone has felt important. Above all else, though, the key thing is that all the players get on really f**king well.” President Perez was no less ecstatic. “Zidane directs the orchestra like no one else,” he said at full-time, confirming his manager and friend would continue into 2017-18. “We have the best players and are working on the youngsters. He’s changed our history ever since joining us in 2001 and we will always be grateful.”
“MADRID ARE NOW THE DOMINANT FORCE IN EUROPEAN FOOTBALL”
No Real Madrid coach, not even Jose Mourinho, has enjoyed as much power at the Bernabeu. When reports emerged over the summer in the Portuguese and Spanish press that Ronaldo was looking to leave, feeling pursued by the Hacienda (Spain’s HMRC) over alleged unpaid tax and unsupported by the club over his upcoming court date, Zizou was the first person to pick up the phone. He wanted to understand the situation for himself.
“Cris, we need you,” said the coach from his family holiday in Italy. Quite apart from the Portuguese’s goals, Zidane explained, it was CR7’S winning mentality he needed the most.
Ronaldo appreciated the gesture, with his manager persuading the Ballon d’or favourite to at least not go public and delay making a hasty decision. All the work that had gone into explaining how Zidane could help prolong his career meant the world’s best player remained in the Spanish capital. No one else could have overturned the iron will of this most headstrong of men.
Ultimately, all the players trust him. Ten days before the Champions League final against Juventus, Zidane marched into Florentino Perez’s office to say: “Keylor Navas is my goalkeeper.” Effectively, Florentino, don’t bother signing David de Gea. Navas may not be a star name, but his consistent excellence throughout three seasons at the Bernabeu – especially at the business end of the last one – and the easy-going atmosphere the Costa Rican creates in the group meant Zizou wouldn’t countenance his disposal.
“ZIDANE DIRECTS THE ORCHESTRA LIKE no ONE ELSE. WE’LL ALWAYS BE GRATEFUL”
Isco has developed into one of the best footballers in Europe under Zidane and was justifiably handed a Champions League final start in June, ahead of Gareth Bale.
“Pocos cambios,” was the message over the summer. ‘Few changes’. Kylian Mbappe – Perez’s first-choice signing – could come in, but only if one of Ronaldo, Benzema or Bale was moved on. Zidane’s compatriot instead joined Neymar at Paris Saint-germain. There’d be no “bobma”, a ‘transfer bomb’ which Perez prefers to animate Madridista support. Only Dani Ceballos – the 20-year-old Real Betis midfielder who starred at this year’s European Under-21 Championship – and Theo Hernandez from city rivals Atletico, to provide left-back cover for Brazilian Marcelo.
He also sent James on loan to Bayern Munich for a couple of seasons. Increasingly unable to reach an acceptable matchday rhythm, when James mouthed “go f**k yourself” while getting hooked 72 minutes into a routine win at Leganes last season, it was the final straw for Zidane. He’s loyal, yes, but there are limits to his patience.
Such influence hasn’t been without its increasing drawbacks, though. Zidane felt he could no longer stand in the way of forwards Morata and Mariano, both of whom he had seen rise through the youth ranks. The former scored three goals in his first four Chelsea matches, the latter four in five games for Lyon.
When Benzema injured a knee in mid-september to miss six weeks, Zidane’s only natural No.9 was Borja Mayoral, a 20-year-old with just eight first-team experiences at Madrid, who had scored only twice in 19 Bundesliga appearances on loan at Wolfsburg throughout 2016-17. For perhaps the first time, the coach had let his heart rule his head. “He wished me a lot of luck in the future and simply told me to enjoy my new chapter,” Morata tells FFT. “He’s always spoken about things to my face. That shows you what type of person he is.”
“Looking at our squad, we may be missing a No.9,” Zidane admitted after Benzema’s injury in a disappointing 1-1 home draw with Levante, especially with Bale the frequent subject of whistles of disapproval from the Bernabeu faithful. “I would have liked Morata to stay here but he wanted to play more football, which was his choice.”
That result was also notable for the return of an affliction unique to Real M ad rid–Cr is ti anode pen dencia: anover-reliance on Ronaldo. The Portuguese received a five-game suspension for pushing the referee in the Spanish Super Cup victory against Barcelona and missed that draw, plus another against Valencia. For the first time, Zidane felt emboldened enough to criticise the ref. “I’m not looking for a fight with them, but anybody can improve and referees are no different,” he said. “To think Cristiano will now miss five games, oof, something is happening there. I’m annoyed with this, like everyone, because for such a small thing, such a punishment is huge.”
Zidane has allowed a mental block to envelope the Madrid squad. It was different when there was no Ronaldo through rotation – that was his choice. When denied their star, they couldn’t overcome that hurdle.
“We need Cristiano now to score our goals,” Theo Hernandez said. “We’ve had chances, but missed them.”
All this, despite winning the Spanish Super Cup and the UEFA Super Cup with a scintillating display against Manchester United. For many, it’s unseemly for a Real Madrid manager to criticise a referee, especially when it permeates through the squad’s psyche.
“The epitome of anger’s reached him at his best moment since being in charge,” penned one columnist. “He should be all smiles, the same as always but multiplied by seven titles, but Zidane’s warier than ever. His words have dominated the public opinion and the game has hardly been spoken about.”
He criticised his players’ attitude against Levante (“we’re playing with too much confidence”) and tore into the squad during half-time of the opening match of their Champions League defence at home to APOEL. According to Marca, Zidane claimed that his players had “no attitude, no intensity and no desire” after going into the break only one goal up. They went on to triumph 3-0.
“Madrid are now the dominant force in European football,” Zizou had said after the victory in Cardiff. “Tomorrow we must show that again.”
And yet, for the first time in 18 impossibly successful months, Zidane seems under pressure and tetchy, almost as if he’s starting to become burdened by the intense weight of being the overwhelming favourites.
LA DECIMA, UNDECIMA, DUODECIMA…DECIMOTERCERO?
These remain only minor grievances, compared to those experienced a few hundred miles north-east in Catalonia. Madrid’s current team is their best since winning five successive European Cups in the ’50s and it comes at a time when Barcelona’s crown has slipped. Neymar’s gone, the president is facing constant calls to resign and is due in court over the Brazilian’s transfer, and both the club and Lionel Messi can’t decide whether he’s actually signed a new deal, which runs out next summer.
“After so many years of Barcelona dominance, that Real Madrid’s best spell for years coincides with a moment of huge instability with Barça is quite the source of joy for Madridistas,” says Marca journalist Jimenez. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re more interested in what’s happening at the Bernabeu, though it does taste a bit sweeter.”
Zidane has always wanted to create Real Madrid history. In 2003, he gave an interview saying he wanted to win “la decima, undecima and duodecima”. He meant as a player, but he’s secured Los Blancos’ 10th, 11th and 12th European Cups as first assistant, then manager in 2014, 2016 and 2017. Unsurprisingly, his team are early favourites to claim la decimotercero – ‘the thirteenth’ – this season.
True, he hasn’t elaborated on his plans from next summer, when his contract runs out, and has said “I know I won’t be here forever”, but he lives and breathes Real like few others.
“Look, Real Madrid are the best team in the world because of what they’ve achieved in the last two years,” says Zizou’s former charge Derik. “And by definition, the best team in the world is managed by the best manager.”
On that subject, Zidane’s remains unmoved. “Nooooo,” he said when the question came up amid Cardiff celebrations.
Paulo Campos believes Zidane’s success is unique among world-class players-turned-managers.
“Zidane studied to become a coach,” he says. “He reached this point step by step. Being able to perform at the top level doesn’t mean you completely understand the game, but his ‘football intelligence’ is rare. In the future, he’ll be manager of an important national team, like France at the World Cup.”
Marca’s Jimenez also puts Zizou in the highest bracket. His opposition is crushed, his squad fully behind him, his president enthral to his beat.
“He’ll join an elite group of the best coaches in history with Pep, Cruyff and Ancelotti if he wins a third Champions League in a row,” he says. “But personally, I think he’s already there.”
Immortality awaits. Again.
Left Zidane made history in Cardiff, having served as assistant to Carlo Ancelotti (below)
Above Zizou brought the happiness back to Madrid after “boring” Benitez was dumped
Above Marco Asensio (left) and new arrival Dani Ceballos (right) show off the Spanish Super Cup – Zidane’s seventh trophy since taking the Madrid job
Clockwise from top Zidane’s rapport with Ronaldo was vital to CR7’S decision to stay in the summer; “Give us a chance, gaffer!”; posing with ‘Old Big Ears’ for the second season in succession
Below “Time for a rest? OK, seeing as it’s you”
Above Zizou’s already equalled Pep’s tally of European Cup victories