As they fly home from their FIFA Club World Cup triumph in Japan, Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid can be forgiven for beginning to reflect on what has been close to the perfect year. Certainly given the state they were in when he took over in the early days of January, things couldn’t realistically have gone any better. What makes his dream 2016 all the more impressive is that he has achieved success and won trophies whilst building for the longer term.
Zidane’s appointment at the Santiago Bernabeu in the dark days of last winter was met with scepticism by some and to an extent that was entirely justified. He was an inexperienced coach with an unconvincing record in charge of Real Madrid’s B team. Even those close to him had reported his early struggles in communicating his ideas to his players and he was unfairly billed in some quarters as a poor motivator of questionable tactical nouse. The sudden nature of his appointment was also easy to view as the last desperate move of a president whose popularity had hit an all-time low as the club veered from one crisis to the next.
Perhaps it was just that, a move primarily designed to appease the masses who were always going to get behind a club legend like Zidane and allow him a certain amount of leeway to find his feet in the top job. Florentino Pérez however would claim it was merely the conclusion of something he had been plotting for years, perhaps even since the very day Zidane retired from football in a blaze of fury one evening in Berlin a decade ago.
Either way it has proved nothing short of a master-stroke. The stats obviously make for very good reading as far as the Frenchman is concerned. He’s suffered just two defeats in 51 competitive games in charge, has clinched the club’s 11th European crown, the unexpected ‘undécima’ and has claimed a massive 90 points from his 35 league games. Over the same period Barcelona have collected just 76.
Doubts about his tactical prowess have been devoured in the most emphatic fashion. His side’s 2-1 win at Camp Nou last season was the first big sign that he was up to the huge challenge the job presents. Despite that many observers still pointed to Barcelona being tired and Zidane being able to call upon players like key defensive midfielder Casemiro, who’d been unavailable when Barca had ran riot at the Bernabeu earlier in the campaign, as the main reasons for the result.
However as he took Real Madrid to Barcelona for the second time a fortnight ago, without Casemiro not to mention Gareth Bale, he succeeded in once again devising a game-plan that negated the threat offered by Barcelona’s brilliant attacking trio whilst causing enough problems at the other end to secure a deserved point.
In their previous away game, Zidane had done something many of the best coaches in world football have tried and failed to do by tactically outwitting Diego Simeone and his Atletico Madrid side in their own backyard. Perhaps the element of surprise makes it easier for a novice coach to catch out his opposing number with a tactical masterstroke but at the highest level it’s also possible for relative rookies to fall flat on their face when coming up against sides of such quality. Clearly that hasn’t happened and he’s left both Simeone and Luis Enrique with some serious thinking to do as Spanish football heads into the winter break.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about Zidane’s eleven and a half months at the helm is that he isn’t merely doing a short-term job and has already made changes that will have a longer-reaching impact. For a man that even on the cusp of European glory stated he was unsure whether he’d be retained in the hottest of hot-seats, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Certainly few Real Madrid coaches over the past decade have had the foresight or interest to look much beyond the current season and you can hardly blame them given the rate with which Florentino Pérez has fired them.
Injuries this term have played their part and contributed to giving some of Real’s more inexperienced players some much needed game-time. However you sense Zidane, who worked with many of them in his previous role, is also committed to giving the younger players a chance to prove their worth. He seems to have instilled in them a sense of belonging in the first-team set-up that was previously lacking and a dressing room full of egos finally seems to have a man they universally respect and are willing to unite behind.
Even just 12 months ago the sight of Mateo Kovačić and Lucas Vázquez on a Clasico team-sheet would have been plenty of cause for Madridista concern but not now. Cristiano Ronaldo responded to the first of Real Madrid’s two defeats under Zidane by singling the pair out along with Jesé in his infamous ‘I like to play with Karim, with Bale, with Marcelo’ comments. His remarks can only have had a destructive effect on the morale of the players but Zidane stuck by them and has played a key role in the development of the duo, while Ronaldo has thankfully since done most of his talking on the pitch.
The return of Marco Asensio and Alvaro Morata to the club has also gone well. For a brief spell before Cristiano Ronaldo’s recent goal-glutz, they were actually Real Madrid’s joint top-scorers and they have helped add real depth to the squad whilst also easing fears about the lack of young Spanish players coming through of the quality required to have a long-term future at the club.
It has taken a while for Real Madrid to follow the Barcelona model of appointing from within or at least opting for someone who has an understanding and passion for the club capable of competing with their desire to produce short-term success. They’ve lacked a coherent plan to deal with Barca’s dominance of Spanish football ever since Pep Guardiola took charge of the Catalan giants and have as a result had to sit back and watch domestic silverware head to Camp Nou with alarming regularity.
Not since Juan Ramón López Caro in 2005, have Real Madrid appointed a coach already employed by the club and not since Vicente del Bosque in 1999 have they gone for a truly iconic Real Madrid figure entrenched in the club’s history. Appointing someone as inexperienced as Zidane may have been a risk, but it is one that so far is paying spectacular rewards.
Following on from the flawed galactico era and the struggles to get close to Barcelona since it, there is a sense that finally Real Madrid are a club that knows where it is heading. Despite their Champions League and World Club Cup triumph, not to mention their current league position, there is still a long way to go before Los Blancos can truly start to believe they are back on a level footing with their eternal rivals.
However in Zidane they have someone who is more than a ‘career coach’ and his pragmatic approach may just lay the footing for a much-needed period of stability that could bring great success to the Santiago Bernabeu.