Zinedine Zidane returns to Real Madrid under vastly different set of circumstances compared to first stint
Initially appointed three years ago to steer the ship, the Frenchman returns to the Bernabeu tasked with transforming a squad that has lost its way
The most successful, glamorous and often bewildering club in football has reminded the sport that, however chaotic their circumstances, they are still irresistibly attractive.
“I could not say no,” explained Zinedine Zidane as Real Madrid got back the manager they have learned to love more than any other this century, only 284 days after he resigned.
A great deal has happened in that time, both to Real and to Zidane, this enigmatic, quixotic former Ballon D’Or winner turned Midas-touch manager.
Madrid have ceased to be European champions, the title Zidane guided them to for three successive years in what was his first job, starting in January 2016, as a head coach for any senior team.
Madrid have ceased to be contenders in either of this season’s Spanish domestic competitions too, thanks to two losses, four days apart, at home to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey and La Liga.
Over the space of one dramatic week, then, Santiago Solari, appointed in October, knew for sure that his stint in charge was to be a temporary one. He was not the ‘New Zidane’, for all that he had followed the same path - former Real player; former Real youth team coach - to the hot seat.
But had you asked the intelligent Solari even a few days ago who might succeed him, he would have been unlikely to say his friend Zidane. Back last May, when the Frenchman announced he was stepping down after two and half gilded years, Zidane was so firm and clear about his decision that it was plausible to wonder if he was giving up coaching altogether, burned out, disillusioned.
Why else walk away from a job that had delivered, without interruption, the most prestigious club prize, all those European Cups, and from a role that, in his first full season, he had done so instinctively well that Zidane’s Madrid won la Liga too?
Fact was, Zidane had seen alarming symptoms of fragility, of internal conflict and foresaw that he could no longer solve them.
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He was perfectly prophetic about much of that. Madrid lost their most important player, Cristiano Ronaldo, who chose to move to Juventus for new challenges and an environment where he would feel more appreciated.
Zidane’s successor, Julen Lopetegui, found very quickly Ronaldo’s towering contributions were not easily replicated. Lopetegui also saw the accumulated fatigue, psychological as well as physical, that had accumulated in the dressing-room. As Madrid failed on the pitch, he saw friction too, in a squad where there is an uneven balance of talent and some sizeable egos.
As Ajax, at the Bernabeu, vibrantly expelled Madrid last week from a European Cup they had come to think - under Zidane - they owned, the need for radical solutions was clear. And it is not just the return of Zidane. He has come back with a manifesto, handed to his employers. He set bold conditions over five days of concealed negotiations leading to Monday’s announcement.
This Zidane, with a contract until 2022, will be unlike the 43-year-old Zidane who took over the first time, when his main recommendation was his brilliant playing career and he was but a novice in the technical area.
He will be paid a superstar salary, and has been promised the budget to overhaul the dressing-room in ways he will tailor. The idea that Ronaldo - a regular 50-plus goals a season man - could be replaced from within, by, say the inconsistent Gareth Bale, has been proven false.
A dynamic goalscorer, and an expensive one, will be sought. In addition, Eden Hazard’s name will rush up the agenda, the Chelsea player’s admiration for Zidane well known and mutual.
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It will be a busy summer in the market, and, in the meantime, Zidane will be preparing the ground for the new look Madrid, attempting to restore lost confidence to younger players who had thrived in his first spell, like Marco Asensio, and to assess why the likes of Toni Kroos and Marcelo have diminished in his 284 days away.
Zidane has been discreet in that time. That is his natural demeanour. Offers have come to him from elsewhere, but he turned them down. It has also been a dramatic period in terms of his possible career-path.
France, whom he captained and won the World Cup with, triumphed in Russia last July; had they not had a successful World Cup, it is plausible he would have been line to manage his country.
One day he may well coach his country. But his second big job as a manager is the same as his first. Only he will do it with greater wisdom. The expectations will be vast, but he will start off more empowered.
He will continue to be discreet, enigmatic even, but we are about to learn a lot more about Zizou the coach, the man who knew so clearly when to say ‘No more!’, but found it impossible to keep saying ‘No’ for very long.
Updated: March 12, 2019 12:36 PM