As far as starts to a managerial tenure go, Zinedine Zidane’s opening stint in the Real Madrid hot seat is about as good as it could get.
After being appointed on January 4 to replace the maligned Rafael Benitez at the Santiago Bernabeu, the Frenchman has enjoyed a remarkable beginning to his first position in senior football management.
Los Blancos didn’t clinch the La Liga title in 2015-16, but they finished the campaign with 12 consecutive wins, eventually falling a point short of champions Barcelona. But it was a sequence that paved the way for the “Undecima” as Madrid beat local rivals Atletico Madrid in Milan to clinch their 11th European Cup.
And while that success may have left some fulfilled, Madrid have continued to kick on under their former midfielder. A 2-1 win over Sporting Gijon on Saturday meant Real have secured an impressive 86 points from their first 33 games with Zidane at the helm; his 81.8 per cent win success rate is unrivaled by Real bosses.
It’s left Real in a brilliant position. On the domestic front they’re six points clear of bitter rivals Barcelona at the top of the table and their spot in the last-16 of the UEFA Champions League is secure.
Of course, these standards are to be expected in the Spanish capital, where some of the most lavish acquisitions in the history of the game ply their trade. But Zidane’s assured presence has underscored what has been a tremendous 2016 for the club. There’s a sense he could do for a while yet too.
It’s been reported in the past that Real president Florentino Perez envisaged the 44-year-old becoming Los Blancos’ equivalent of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona—a player central to previous successes on the pitch, learning his trade at the club in other positions, and then taking on the top job.
Zidane undoubtedly carries a clout at Madrid. It’s one of the reasons why Perez turned to him to replace Benitez, under whom rumors of dressing-room disharmony were rife. And it’s an authority that’s allowed him to make some important decisions, decisions that those who haven’t scored in a Champions League final win for Madrid may have been able to make.
Primarily, the Frenchman has not been afraid to inject some pragmatism into the XI when the situation demands.
While Madrid have a selection of aesthetic attacking midfield players in Isco, James Rodriguez, Mateo Kovacic, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez, on their way to Champions League glory it was Casemiro that was used to shore up midfield. It’s a tactical tweak Benitez, with his reputation for defensive football, would have been castigated for.
Zidane hasn’t been and Real have reaped the benefits. The manager’s principles evidently aren’t in line with the club’s philosophy for cavalier attacking football, but the former Castilla boss has ironed out some debilitating traits, ones that have consigned Los Blancos to just one league title win in the last eight seasons.
They’re problems that needed to be looked at with a long-term view, a luxury not afforded to his predecessors, and crucially, that’s what Zidane looks to be doing. It’s something that’s made for steady progress in terms of performances under his watch, even though the bald results have been pretty spectacular.
That’s important for Madrid. Granted, the club’s hire ‘em, fire ‘em approach to management has yielded some stunning football and numerous glories, but a long-term plan needs to be put in place if they’re to frequently match the might of Barcelona and resist the challenge from across the city too. Now feels like the right time to enact that motion, especially with FIFA’s transfer embargo looming over the next two windows.
Of course, it’s never easy to trust Real to stand by their manager; Benitez was given a vote of confidence by Perez on November 23 last year before being replaced by Zidane. But the incumbent boss will be granted patience his predecessors didn’t receive.
The former midfielder is a colossal figure in the club’s history, after all. Zidane’s stunning goal in the 2002 Champions League final is one of the iconic football moments of this century, while he lit up the Bernabeu with some mesmeric midfield displays in his five years at the club.
He’s adored by the Madridistas and that’ll earn him time when things do inevitably turn sour at some point. Not since Vicente del Bosque have Los Blancos had a figure who was so important on the pitch take their place in the dugout.
So while Zidane has a long way to go before he can be considered alongside Guardiola in the managerial hierarchy, the unique opportunity is there for him to build something at this enormous football club. It’ll be fascinating to see how his Madrid vision comes to fruition over what should be an overdue prolonged spell in the post.
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