Ten months after he walked out on Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane is back. He's signed a contract until June 2022 and been empowered to oversee the sort of radical overhaul of the squad he felt was necessary at the end of last season but felt then he would not be be supported in making.
It’s undeniable now that this is a squad that has reached the end of the line, and club president Florentino Perez has seemingly acquiesced to Zidane’s demands with reports of a transfer kitty in excess of $400 million. Whatever problems Zidane foresaw when he stepped down as manager last May, it’s hard to believe he imagined things would go as drastically wrong as they have.
The appointment of Julen Lopetegui to replace him was badly botched, with Spain’s World Cup campaign going down as collateral damage. His reign lasted 138 days, and while Santiago Solari was always a temporary appointment stepping in for him, it was probably hoped he would last longer than 119 days. Exits from the Copa del Rey and the Champions League as well as a defeat to Barcelona that as good as secured Ernesto Valverde’s side La Liga's title did him in, though the club maintains he's been offered a role elsewhere to stay on if he'd like.
Zidane was always a curious manager. He sits alongside Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti as one of only three managers to have won the European Cup/Champions League title on three occasions, and yet he hasn’t even completed three seasons as a head coach. His teams rarely controlled games, relying on big players to produce big moments when required. Although he won a league title in his first stint at the Bernabeu, his domestic record was no better than moderate. But what he was good at was handling players with big egos, helped of course by his own stellar reputation as a player. His key skill was as a politician.
Politically, Zidane has played this perfectly. He is in a far stronger position now than he was in May, his point made by Real Madrid’s dismal season. But it will be fascinating to see what happens now when he presumably is given a relatively free hand in guiding recruitment. What is his philosophy? What sort of player will he look to sign?
One thing that seems all but certain is that Gareth Bale will be leaving the club–the problem of finding another club that can afford his wages notwithstanding. The Wales international has had a miserable season, is regularly booed by the Madrid crowd and has not come close to filling the void left behind by Cristiano Ronaldo. He was likely to go this summer anyway, but this as good as confirms it. By the end of last season, his relationship with Zidane was effectively non-existent, which is why he was talking about leaving to find regular football even in the immediate aftermath of scoring two decisive goals in the Champions League final.
Eden Hazard seems likely to come in, his cryptic comments a couple of weeks ago about having decided his future suggesting a deal may already have been agreed in principle, but with numerous players in the squad the wrong side of 30, there are sure to be other major arrivals as well. Sergio Ramos’s future, meanwhile, remains uncertain given his uneasy relationship with Perez.
The main beneficiary of Zidane’s appointment, strangely, may be Tottenham. There has been a sense over the past few months anyway that Mauricio Pochettino would stay, although the Argentinian’s anger with his side after its defeat to Southampton on Saturday perhaps exposed his frustration at the way investment in the squad has been restricted by the (long-delayed) move to the new stadium.
But the way the season has panned out means neither of the two clubs most likely to offer Pochettino an exit now has a vacancy. Real Madrid and Manchester United were not merely bad enough to require a new manager in the summer, but so bad that they needed one early. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, having excelled in his 14 games as manager of United, now looks all but certain to be named as Jose Mourinho’s permanent successor, while Zidane’s appointment blocks off the route to Madrid.
And then there is Mourinho, never short of a passing journalist to brief, who clearly felt that he stood a very good chance of getting the job. He may have left the club in acrimony in 2012, but he retains a warm relationship with Perez and was seen as having the ruthlessness to take on Ramos and other senior players whose attitude perhaps has not helped this season. With Madrid off the table for now, his hopes of landing a major club soon seem increasingly bleak.
Zidane, meanwhile, has time, that rarest commodity for a modern manager. Madrid doesn’t have a meaningful game for six months, and in that sense this is the perfect time to start planning a revolution.