By appointing Zinedine Zidane coach and not director of football, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez missed a huge opportunity not only to ensure that the 13-time European champions rise like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of their current season but also to invest in the club’s football health and success for generations to come.
Zidane, who spoke at his introductory news conference on Tuesday of a “second project” and a need to “change things for the years to come,” is the right man. There was, though, a bigger, more important job that should have been his and in which he could have made a greater impact.
Real Madrid’s pride is in tatters, but the need to employ their third coach of the season, after the brief reigns of Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari, goes beyond the fact that they have lost their past four home games — 11-2 on aggregate — and will finish the season without a trophy for the first time in just under a decade.
Their key problems stem directly from the fact that Madrid do not have a central football plan that is any more refined or robust than “buy talent.” Modern times have overtaken that Galactico idea. It can work but not on its own.
Had Zidane been appointed as the brain of the club, rather than the coach, he could have solved that. In effect, he could have become the Johan Cruyff of Real Madrid and mimicked the central core of wisdom, ideology, judgement and know-how that the great Dutchman brought to Barcelona in one form or another after he took over at the Camp Nou in 1988.
Football even had the decency to give Florentino a helpful nudge in the ribs as to what was wrong with his club and how to solve it in the short, medium and long term. What I mean is that each of those disastrous losses at the Bernabeu bore the fingerprints of the most important man in football history: Cruyff.
Girona undid Madrid on Feb. 17 thanks to a tactical switch made by their coach, Eusebio Sacristan, who learned his skills as the blue-collar worker in the midfield of Cruyff’s Barcelona “Dream Team” during the 1990s.
The double Clasico loss, three days apart? They lost not only to a club that has moved from drought to plenty since Cruyff principles were introduced but also to one at which the leading players — Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Ivan Rakitic, Arthur and Luis Suarez — understand and practice the great man’s ideas. Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde also played for Cruyff.
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Then, of course, there was Ajax. Akin to Barcelona, with their tactical movement, technical skills, attitude to the schooling and recruitment of young players, their central philosophy represents the Cruyff ethos.
(In fact, Marc Overmars, whose excellent stewardship of the club’s technical development has led to the Amsterdammers revival, was a Cruyff appointment when the great man returned to his first club in the final years before his 2016 death.)
It would be unfair to consider Zidane an identical thinker, philosopher and obsessive about football development to Cruyff, but he can be the Madrid equivalent. The two men share characteristics and, what is more, history.
Cruyff was on the point of being sold by Ajax to Madrid in 1973 before he rebelled and joined Barcelona instead. Twenty-two years later, he was tempting Zidane to make a similar move from Bordeaux, only to be sacked by the Camp Nou hierarchy.
Zidane joined Juventus in 1996 and moved to Madrid five years later, whereupon he began an association with the club that, in hardware alone, brought two league titles and five European Cups as player and coach.
As such, while Cruyff is the No. 1 man in Barcelona history, Zidane has become, alongside Alfredo Di Stefano, Francisco Gento and Cristiano Ronaldo, among the top Madrid icons of all time. What Los Blancos need is for him to oversee a central core of values, ideas, planning and judgement.
The brutal decline of the team in the past year is only partly because of Ronaldo’s departure (remember, they won just two Liga titles in his nine seasons at the club). It is only partly because the squad — consciously or subconsciously — became sated and less hungry after four Champions League wins in five years.
Since formally rejoining the club in 2009 and until he took over as coach seven years later, Zidane was director of football, head of scouting analysis, Castilla manager, ambassador and a link between the board and the squad.
The eminence gris, he became a trusted confidant for Florentino, who is close to few others beyond his commerce and marketing-oriented aide-de-camp Jose Angel Sanchez, and complemented the president’s desire to spend, spend, spend.
Zidane had a hand in almost everything. From whom to sign and when to sign them to whom should be moved out and which kids were to be encouraged, plus how to persuade players to choose Madrid rather than, say, Manchester United or Manchester City, he was vital.
Moving Zidane from this wide-ranging and influential advisory role to the bench certainly brought massive success.
But he was actually reaping the benefits of his own planting, harvesting and crop maintenance. Taking him away from that, to concentrate wholly on coaching, allowed a rot to set in that resulted in a lack of midterm planning and failure to anticipate what could lie ahead.
When he quit last May, days after winning the Champions League for a third straight season, Zidane not only saw a raft of problems coming down the line in terms of recruitment, athleticism, attention to detail, squad hierarchy and basic competitive hunger but was also in a privileged position to understand that nobody had adequately been doing the job he had done in the time before he took over the first team.
What Florentino could, and should, have learned from watching Barcelona’s successes is that an intelligent system, well planned and consistently applied from a central philosophy or database, will always provide an advantage over best guesses and biggest budgets over a period of seasons. The longer the comparison, the clearer the margin of advantage.
By walking away, Zidane was ensuring that the president understood that any future for Madrid that involved him must — must — include more autonomy of decision-making, specifically on the matters of buying, selling, presidential interference, training, dressing-room authority … you get the picture.
All of which is why Florentino should have swallowed some pride and made sure a fully-functioning, football-driven position of technical director was created, with Zidane filling the role. He could and should have charted the way forward in terms of his president’s wish to incorporate the cream of the world’s youth talent while remaining trophy-competitive at the same time.
Instead of acting as the next coach, for instance, he should be choosing who is suitable to take the job. Moreover, he should be taking key decisions about how to clear out certain members of the squad and who those people are. Toni Kroos, for example, passed his sell-by date last summer. Below first-team level, Zidane should be developing an idea of how to guide future generations through what Madrid call La Fabrica, their version of Barcelona’s La Masia academy.
Madrid have their version of Cruyff, of Sevilla’s Monchi, of Bayern Munich’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge-Uli Hoeness partnership. Properly used, Zidane could have become the touchstone for generations of intelligence, resourcefulness, admiration and success that is not dependent on Florentino’s current model of boom and bust.
Instead, by restricting him to the bench, the risk is being run of history repeating.