Most managers dream of Champions League wins, but when you’re at the helm of one of the biggest clubs in the world, a European title is not enough if you can’t back it up with domestic dominance.
It’s a tall order for any club. But this is the requirement that is set forth by Madridistas.
For Zinedine Zidane, who was going to helm an era of Pep Guardiola-Barcelona proportions at Real Madrid, that order was over on Thursday when he announced his departure from the club.
To answer that, let’s look at what Zidane has accomplished and where he thinks he failed.
The 45-year-old Frenchman was promoted to manage the senior team in January 2016 in a rather rushed, but well-primed, arrival. His post-retirement involvement with the club began in 2009 as an advisor to Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez; he was appointed assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti in 2013 before going on to manage Real Madrid’s B Team, Castilla. All of it was practice for the eventual senior head coach role. There was no question he was, to the club and Pérez, the answer.
Zidane’s promotion as Rafael Benítez was fired was an almost necessary move. It was a time of high frustration, and it was easy to brush any concerns of readiness under the rug.
Zidane’s first league match, against Deportivo de La Coruña, came a mere two days after his appointment with Real beating Depor soundly 5–0. Likewise, his first Clásico in April saw Real Madrid win 2–1, a feat for first-time managers.
But those were early days and spirits were hopeful. Real Madrid only barely managed the Champions League win that year after a chance penalty against Atletico Madrid in Milan went in their favour. As the 2015-2016 season wrapped up, mutterings began that the excitement around Zidane’s arrival was squad motivation rather than any particular coaching prowess.
Still, his team finished that first season with a Champions League title. The next two seasons would see further Champions League victories, but only one league title. And that is not acceptable when you are Real Madrid. This year, Real finished third in La Liga behind Barcelona and Atlético Madrid. The word “change” started as a whisper, then a mutter, then an open shout.
By all accounts, Zidane’s approach was a personal one; his presence huge both on the field and in the locker room. Players liked him for both his sensitive approach and his legacy. It was a stark difference to the relationship players had with Benítez. Reportedly, Zizou left his players in shock at his departure on Thursday, telling captain Sergio Ramos of his decision only moments before the press conference.
But Zidane knew full well this would be his last season. He hadn’t done anything radically different this season, and with the spectre of aging Galacticos on the roster, it’s a good guess that he either did not trust his ability to form a new team of the same quality or did not want to. It’s fair to say he saw that coming and engineered an exit on his terms before he could be fired and have his legacy sullied by infighting and power struggles.
Given his legacy with Madrid, it is inevitably disappointing to see someone so entwined with the club depart. It isn’t yet known where he’ll end up; perhaps international coaching will appeal? Whether his style matures is unknown, but one won’t help but wonder what he could have done if he’d looked for opportunities to grow in his Real Madrid role. We’ll never know.