Sunday January 10th, 2016

Zinedine Zidane wore the number five shirt during his time as an iconic player at Real Madrid, so it was somehow fitting that Real Madrid beat Deportivo La Coruna 5-0 on his coaching debut Saturday night. This was a first game that even the Frenchman could not have imagined, with two early goals settling the nerves and a last-minute Karim Benzema strike that underlined a huge improvement in performance, attitude and atmosphere. 

Gareth Bale threatened to overshadow the Frenchman, with a hat-trick that left AS columnist Alfredo Relano purring that “[Bale] could be on the Ballon d’Or podium, heir to Cristiano as the face of Madrid, which is what Florentino [Perez] was dreaming of when he signed.” Given the reports that suggested Bale was one of the few players at Real Madrid upset to see Rafa Benitez fired so abruptly, this was a perfect response. 

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The change in atmosphere was apparent even before kick-off, with Madrid’s traditional pre-match hymn ‘Hala Madrid’ sung with an extra gusto. President Perez took his seat looking particularly pleased with himself. “Even today, in the street, people stop me to thank me for having recruited Zidane. He was my most emblematic player,” Perez told So Foot. “He changed our history.” 

At the same time, Zidane stood in the players’ tunnel, taking his place behind Benzema and whispering into his ear. Within 15 minutes, Benzema had opened the scoring, his 100th goal for the club and not one of them a penalty. The Frenchman now has 14 goals for the season and a better goal-per-game ratio than Ronaldo.

It was at that point we saw a change from the Benitez reign: in previous matches, notably against Atletico Madrid (a 1-1 draw) and Sevilla (a 3-2 loss), Madrid sat back after scoring first. Not so here; it kept on pushing and Bale scored two more before half-time. This was a psychological change of approach as much as anything else; the players were focused on attacking, and the movement of the front three, who rotated positions, was better than it has been all season. The front three also defended more than usual; at 4-0 up, Bale tracked back and won back the ball to a huge ovation. On one occasion, even Ronaldo did the same. The BBC (Bale, Benzema, and Cristiano) has now scored 40 goals this season. Messi-Suarez-Neymar, despite Messi’s hat-trick against Granada earlier in the day, has 39. 

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Almost every decision Zidane made paid off. Isco started and gave the midfield more balance even if, at times, Bale dropped deep enough to form a 4-4-2. Dani Carvajal was excellent at right back; Benitez’s preference for Danilo there looks like it was because he was Perez’s new signing. When Sergio Ramos went off at half-time as a precaution, Raphael Varane was powerful, while local boy and crowd favorite Jese made a 17-minute substitute cameo, more time than Benitez gave him in the last two months. Jese set up the fifth goal after a run that included five step-overs. 

Deportivo had chances to score too, notably early on and right at the end. There were moments when Madrid’s holding midfielder Toni Kroos struggled, and the gap between defense and midfield was worryingly open.  

The identity of Depor coach Victor was a poignant reminder of the excess of the Perez reign. Victor was a youth team graduate and bit-part player at Real Madrid for two seasons (1996-1998) during which time he won La Liga and a Champions League; the same trophy haul Zidane managed in his five years at the Bernabeu. Victor, only 39, is a talented coach who one day may come back to the capital. 

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At Madrid, though, perception is everything and from point of view, Zidane is the legend in his rightful place. Alongside him was assistant David Bettoni, his friend from his days back as a trainee as Cannes. The pair bonded back then as, according to the book Zidane: From Yazid to Zizou, Zidane was the only player with a bidet in his room and Bettoni needed somewhere to recover his feet. They stuck together and when Zidane moved to Juventus, Bettoni played for four clubs in the Piedmont region to be near him (he was relegated three times). Bettoni moved to Madrid when Zidane signed. 

Zidane’s manner this week has surprised some people. He was more open and cheery than many expected in his opening press conference, something that Guy Lacombe, coach at Cannes when Zidane and Bettoni first turned up, and one of Zidane’s coaching tutors at the French football federation’s Direction Technique Nationale, said he had been working on.

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Lacombe told this correspondent that Zidane had three qualities that would help him as a coach. “The first is this ‘sense of the collective’,” said Lacombe. “Like every coach, he wants his team to play his way. But he has enough intuition to understand that he has to do this within his players’ abilities. [The second is] He is a great listener. It’s pretty rare among the players. The third is that he does want to be a coach. It’s a blessing that such a champion wants to give back to the game. He is patient. He’s been building his career bit by bit. The diplomas. Then the youth team. He has given himself every weapon to succeed. He is a coach. He believes in himself.” 

His players seem to believe in him too. There was an enjoyment in their game that had been absent this season. It may be too early to say, but with a group of players this talented, Zidane looks like he will take the Carlo Ancelotti approach of keeping everyone relaxed and happy rather than Benitez’s more didactic method. Even so, Benitez’s Madrid would still have beaten Deportivo. 

The question for Zidane is how his team will perform in the big games. This was the big knock on Benitez. Madrid has a nice run of games in the next month but in late February, it has a Champions League knockout tie against Roma closely followed by the derby with Atlético. That will be the first real test of Zidane’s coaching skills. Until then, that ‘Zidane 5’ shirt back on sale in the Madrid club shop will continue to fly off the shelves.

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