On the impoverished streets of Marseille, Zinedine Zidane crafted a remarkable combination of skill, elegance and competitiveness that has no peer in the history of the sport. Zidane won a World Cup in 1998, a Champions League in 2002 and nearly a second World Cup in 2006. Load up any YouTube compilation for the Roulettes and all of his other tricks with the ball at his feet for the skill and elegance, but to see his competitiveness, look to his two appearances in World Cup Finals with the two headers off corners against Brazil in 1998 and the headbutt against Italy in 2006.
The skill and elegance of Zidane the player are largely irrelevant now as manager of Real Madrid except for the unconditional respect a legend of his caliber commands upon his players simply by being a legend. This may not matter for certain clubs but it certainly matters for a club devoted to stars like Florentino Perez’s Real Madrid. It matters to Perez how big of a star a player is more than how well he fits and it also matters how big of a star the manager is or was as a player.
Rafa Benitez was perceived by Madrid’s supporters and their players as a mediocre, workaholic middle manager playing Perez’s galacticos even when it made for completely incoherent play on the field. There was not even a honeymoon period for Benitez with this team, outside of Gareth Bale, and they mockingly called him the No. 10 as he’d instruct these present and future legends on how to do the things that came so easily for them and never for him as a player who couldn’t get past the Segunda Division.
Benitez was not coincidentally fired after defiantly leaving James Rodriguez and Isco on the bench in a 2-2 tie at Valencia. Benitez played Perez’s preferred 11 in November against Barcelona and they were thoroughly embarrassed. Benitez at least chose to go down his way as he and his wife were not given any more time to tidy up Jose Mourinho’s mess. Benitez did as Perez instructed because he had to while Zidane feels a level of indebtedness to Perez for bringing him to Real Madrid as a player and believing him as a future manager.
Based on coaching merit and time served, there is no way Zidane gets this job without being ZIZOU. Pep Guardiola had significant success at Barcelona B before his promotion and always played the game like a coach on the field, whereas Zidane’s lower division team has been inconsistent and his greatness as a player and leader was far more individual in nature.
Cynically, this appointment feels like Perez using Zidane as a human shield. Perez convinced Zidane not to take the Bordeaux job knowing he would be the perfect in-season replacement if he needed one.
But the competitiveness he showed as a player and his presumed ability to get 11 of the top-100 footballers in the world to buy-in to his vision and man rotation gives this broken version of Perez’s Real Madrid the best chance they have at salvaging the season.
Zidane is committed to making the BBC of Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo work, but he also suggested that his identity as a player will be imprinted on this team. Zidane wants Real Madrid to play from the back and maintain possession, though quickly. Zidane wants Real Madrid to play more like Barcelona even though he was beside Carlo Ancelotti as his assistant when they won the Champions League and Copa del Rey in 13-14 by being quicker and more athletic than their opponents. That team had Angel di Maria, Marcelo and Isco initiating the counterattack to free up the BBC in what was so often an unstoppable wave of energy and skill. Isco is the closest facsimile of Di Maria but putting him on the pitch every match means one of Perez’s must starts must come off.
The signings of Toni Kroos and James after the World Cup in 2014 will continue to haunt Zidane’s Real Madrid as it did for Ancelotti last year and Benitez this season. Zidane may be as beloved and respected by this team as Ancelotti was but he’s still dealing with a flawed roster construction. There’s enough talent to still be ‘Real Madrid’ against most clubs no matter how incoherent the XI is, but they can’t beat the clubs Perez has heard of that way.
Real Madrid has been unable to unlock their opponents this season and have been lobbing benign crosses instead of creating high leverage opportunities inside the box. They’re within striking distance of the top of the table in La Liga because there’s been a shocking amount of parity this season.
Beyond his time assisting Ancelotti, Zidane was also involved with Real Madrid during Mourinho’s tenure and visited both Marcelo Bielsa and Guardiola last season. Zidane won the Champions League under Vicente del Bosque. The most successful managers during the galacticos era of Real Madrid have been Del Bosque and Ancelotti, who were more about earning the respect of their players than beating their opponents tactically.
Zidane’s default setting is to be introverted albeit with a quiet charisma, but the competitiveness he will have as a manager has already manifested itself. Zidane abandoned his ceremonious role with Real Madrid to do actual work in this path to become a manager. It’s rare for players of Zidane’s stature to put themselves through the rigors of managing at this level.
Zidane and his fellow nineties generation peers (Gary Neville, Luis Enrique and Diego Simeone) are now the managers of the top four clubs in Spain. Like Guardiola, those three players were phenomenal talents with tremendous longevity as players, probably a more ideal pedigree than Zidane’s, who comes from the more rarefied Johan Cruyff realm. Guardiola, Neville, Enrique and Simeone are relatable to their whole team, even the players who aren't nearly as good as they were. Only Ronaldo knows what it's like to be a Zidane, while Zidane only knows what it's like to be Zidane and that has been a dangerous set of expectations for a manager to have for his players.
Zidane doesn’t need to revolutionize the game the way Guardiola has to be successful. By all accounts Zidane has the work ethic and the drive to synthesize everything he’s learned from other managers and will learn in time on the sidelines. There is no sense of entitlement or arrogance coming from Zidane with his appointment and hopefully for him, he’s not failed by what he’s given to work with by Perez. It shouldn't matter how good a manager was a player but it does for Perez's Real Madrid and it's for that reason Zidane has as good of a shot as anyone to maximize the potential of this broken assembly of stars.