Florentino Pérez may be an egomaniac who doesn’t know how to keep out of his own team’s way, but at least he’s predictable. In a move that surprised absolutely no one, Pérez fired Rafa Benítez yesterday and replaced him with Real Madrid icon Zinedine Zidane. With Madrid only four points from the top of La Liga, and having qualified easily for the next stage of the Champions League, it can be argued that Benítez’s dismissal was harsh. But expectations at Madrid are astronomical, so most saw this move coming for some time.
Over at Manchester United — another super club whose fans found themselves saddled with a disappointing manager — supporters must be wishing their decision makers were as decisive. Louis van Gaal has engineered more dull displays at Old Trafford than Benítez did at the Bernabéu, crashed out of the Champions League, and has slipped behind in a domestic league that doesn’t boast a challenger anywhere near the quality of Barcelona. When Pérez gave Benítez a vote of confidence just last week, it was quickly revealed to be meaningless. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward reportedly gave van Gaal a similar guarantee after United’s worst December ever, and he seems to have meant it.
Benítez, as was obvious at the time of his appointment, was never going to last very long in the Madrid hot seat. The fans were underwhelmed from the start, and the players, having been disappointed to see the popular Carlo Ancelotti dismissed last summer, never seemed particularly enthused, either. Benítez is well-respected in Madrid for his history with the club and for his achievements with Valencia, but upon closer inspection, his resume starts looking a little funny in the light. Much like van Gaal, his last title winning team that could be called progressive in its playing style when it last took the field over a decade ago. Those styles are not so progressive now.
The parallels between United and Madrid also extend to the two men seen as great managers in waiting. Like Zidane, Ryan Giggs is adored by his club’s fanbase for his exploits as player. Both Zidane and Giggs are scorers of the greatest goal in their respective club’s modern history, both cut their teeth working as an assistant to a vastly experienced manager, and both are being groomed as the next “in house” great; Manchester and Madrid’s very own Pep Guardiolas. And crucially, both are wildly under-qualified for the jobs for which they have been anointed.
For all the crowd-pleasing romanticism of Zidane’s appointment, the Frenchman has hardly garnered many rave reviews from his time in charge of Real Madrid’s B team. Zidane’s presence at the Bernabéu may have loomed over both Ancelotti and Benítez, but that was more because of club politics rather than any clamoring for Zizou based on results. Similarly, Giggs has yet to coach a team on his own at any level, bar four games at the end of the disastrous 2013-2014 season – too small a sample size from which to draw any conclusions. There’s a good chance that at least one, if not both, will find themselves out of their depth.
If nothing else though, skeptical Madridistas can take comfort in the fact that if Zidane fails (or even if he doesn’t succeed the right way), Pérez will not hesitate to make a change. For both better and worse, Pérez has a history of being trigger happy when it comes to replacing managers, and Zidane will be no exception. And if there was any question that his status as a club legend would provide him with added protection, the undignified exit of Iker Casillas, perhaps Real’s greatest ever player, should put that to bed. Pérez is ruthless, and if the Zidane experiment does not work, he will end it.
Woodward on the other hand, has demonstrated the opposite instinct. If Pérez has a tendency to commit false positive errors by rejecting managers who have done well and are likely to continue doing well (Vicente del Bosque and Carlo Ancelotti), then Woodward has so far shown a tendency to commit a type of false negative error by failing to swiftly reject managers who have not done well (David Moyes and Louis van Gaal).
It is for this reason that those United fans who feel that Giggs is not yet ready for the big job have reason to worry. Having already persisted with van Gaal far beyond what many fans would have wanted, there is a growing concern that Woodward would be similarly hesitant to move on from Giggs were the Welshman to not work out. Pérez may have his faults — and indeed, he is destructive in his own way — but Woodward may do well to take a page out of his book.
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