Zidane, Conte and the Coaching Carousel That Will Reshape Europe’s Top Tier

Zinedine Zidane’s and Antonio Conte’s departures from Real Madrid and Inter, respectively, speak volumes about the underlying issues at some of the world’s most prestigious clubs.
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European football is being reshaped. The immediate prospects of a Super League may have faded, but the underlying issues that led to that radical proposal being mooted have not disappeared. And as the economic pressures brought by the pandemic have magnified the issues caused anyway by the game’s preposterous financial structures, this feels like a vital summer in determining how the sport will look in a decade or so.

Already this week, Antonio Conte has announced his departure from Inter and Zinedine Zidane, for a second time, has quit Real Madrid. There are empty seats on the carousel, and, with Tottenham also looking for a manager, there will be major changes this summer.

That Zidane is leaving is no great surprise. He never really seemed to want to return to Real Madrid when he came back in March 2019, and, although he did win the Spanish title last season, this, Madrid's first season without a trophy since 2009–10, has been a disappointing year—something in part caused by Madrid’s inability to refresh an aging squad. Its much-vaunted policy of balancing the books by buying promising young Spaniards has failed so utterly that there is not a single Madrid player in the Spain squad Euro 2020. President Florentino Perez’s only response has been to demand a Super League, insisting that football will collapse if he is not allowed to go on paying Gareth Bale $750,000 a week not to play and buying Eden Hazard for $150 million.

Antonio Conte and Zinedine Zidane are looking for new clubs

Zidane initially quit Madrid after winning the Champions League in 2018, seemingly because he was unwilling to go through the process of rejuvenating and redeveloping a squad that had grown old together. Three years on, very little has changed other than that those players who seemed to be reaching the end of the road then are even older. Madrid is still Madrid and it remains, of course, an attractive job, but it’s hard to imagine a less auspicious time to take over there, with an ordinary squad and debts beginning to bite. At the same time, Perez is engaged in an ongoing battle with UEFA over the fallout from the Super League.

Inter is hardly in a better position, having had to take a $335 million loan from Oaktree Capital Management to weather its financial woes. Suning, the club's Chinese owner, is in such a financial mess that it required a state bailout and folded its Chinese Super League club Jiangsu earlier in the year, three months after winning the league title. Conte quit after being told roughly $100 million would have to be raised from player sales.

Having ended Inter’s 11-year wait for a scudetto, and with success at both Juventus and Chelsea, Conte immediately became the highest-profile out-of-work manager in Europe. There have been suggestions he could take the vacant position at Tottenham, although it emerged Thursday that there have been talks between Spurs chairman Daniel Levy and Mauricio Pochettino about a possible return.

Pochettino left the club in November 2019, replaced by José Mourinho, and took over at Paris Saint-Germain. While PSG’s failure to win Ligue 1 for only the second time in nine years comes down to issues that predate him, his failure to correct those problems or to take the side beyond the semifinal of the Champions League, despite victories over Barcelona and Bayern Munich, inevitably count against him. Pochettino’s relationship with Levy was always good, and his struggles in his final months at Spurs were more to do with a squad that had gone stale as investment was diverted to the new stadium than any failure on his part. A Pochettino return might, perhaps, pave the way for Conte at PSG.

PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino

But there are other clubs with questions to answer. Will Barcelona stick with Ronald Koeman after a disappointing season that saw it finish third in La Liga? How much faith does Juventus have in Andrea Pirlo after a fourth-place finish, even with victory in the Coppa Italia? Could Manchester United, its trophy drought now extended to four years, move to replace Ole Gunnar Solskjaer now that the CEO who appointed him, Ed Woodward, has announced his intention to move on?

Massimiliano Allegri has been without a job since leaving Juventus two years ago and must surely be due to return soon. It seems entirely plausible, in fact, that Juve could turn back to him if its doubts about Pirlo are substantial. Or Zidane, perhaps, could return to the club where he spent five years as a player—and a teammate of Conte's—while Allegri heads to the Spanish capital, as has been reported in some corners.

(UPDATE: Juventus has indeed fired Pirlo, bringing Allegri back to Turin.)

This is one of those summers of flux, with pieces being shuffled rapidly around the board. It’s a time of opportunity for a club with the vision and ruthlessness to act—and if they don’t, then the possibilities may not open up again for a little while.

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