A single week is generally considered a short period of time, but the tale of Santiago Solari’s demise as manager of Real Madrid is a cautionary tale that, in football at least, it can feel like a lifetime.
In the space of just 7 days he oversaw two home defeats to arch-rivals Barcelona and then, to compound this misery, watched his team squander a first-leg lead to be unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League by Ajax. For a club whose sole existence is defined in terms of success in Europe’s premier competition, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back and left him stuck in limbo until his successor could be appointed; who, as it turns out, is none other than Zinedine Zidane – the very same man who left the club last summer proclaiming that he didn’t feel he could take the team any further. Before looking at why he’s changed his tune so suddenly, it’s important to understand why the club fell apart in his absence.
Both Solari and his predecessor, Julen Lopetegui, were a far cry from the coaches that have managed the club in recent years. Traditionally, their “galactico” model of hand-picking the best talent in the world of football to join the club extended to the dugout with managerial heavyweights such as José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti in the hotseat. However, appointing coaches with greater experience at youth level became their preferred strategy to create a more sustainable model of player development rather than the free-spending approach they previously employed. Ultimately, it appears that this change in tack has been directly cribbed from the handbook of the great Barcelonean team that ruled Europe under Pep Guardiola.
The comparisons with Barcelona end there given that the reigns of Solari and Lopetegui were exemplified by their staggering levels of ineptitude. In their defence however, neither of them had coached a senior team in La Liga before so to call the job a baptism of fire is probably an understatement. From the outside looking in, it seems as if the general approach from the upper management was to allow them to learn on the job which, when faced with a stadium of 80,000 angry Madridistas every weekend, wasn’t exactly conducive to a positive working environment. Putting it bluntly, they were effectively thrown into the deep end to see if they could swim and, unsurprisingly, both sank like a stone.
With two failed managers in just over eight months, at first appearance it’s easy to see why some people are questioning the decision-making by the club’s hierarchy who are seemingly failing to learn from their mistakes. However, looking into the past will tell you exactly where this blind faith originated. This was, of course, the exact strategy they followed when Zinedine Zidane was promoted from Real Madrid Castilla to take over the reins of the first-team following Rafa Benitez’s ill-fated tenure at the Bernabéu. From the second he took over, everything he touched seemed to turn to gold as he led the club to an unprecedented treble of successive Champions League trophies and a league title to boot – a fairly resounding endorsement of their new blueprint for success.
However, there is one rather glaring shortcoming to one-size-fits-all approach, it doesn’t take into account the intangible factors that are paramount when it comes to being a manager at such a behemoth of a club. Although it’s incredibly clichéd, it will forever ring true that commanding respect in the dressing room is the single most important thing you can do as a manager. With that said, it’s clear to see that the aura that surrounds Zidane due to his illustrious playing career made this very easy and insulated him against any misgivings that his players may have had over his appointment. Neither Solari or Lopetegui had anything like this level of protection and were left to wilt in the blinding glare of the job.
Despite his club legend status, it still looks a lot like Zidane, having narrowly avoided the car crash that followed his departure, has decided to test his luck by stepping back into oncoming traffic. But there are some subtle signs that he may be re-joining the club in a stronger position than he left it in. To many, the football at Real Madrid is merely a sideshow to the circus that unfolds around the club on a nearly daily basis – frankly the amount of political intrigue that goes on behind the scenes makes it comparable to the Roman Senate. In this metaphor, the club’s president, Florentino Pérez, would definitely be playing the role of Augustus, being the Imperator behind one of the greatest footballing dynasties of modern times.
Many sources speculated that the power wielded by Pérez was one of the key factors in Zindane’s original departure. As can be seen from their recent performances, this is an aging squad that is sorely missing their talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo, who is now plying his trade at Juventus – these were clear problems that Zidane foresaw last summer but was unable to get Pérez to sign off on the overhaul that he believed was necessary to solve them.
Given that he’s now back at the club, you can bet your bottom dollar that he’s been given assurances that the money tap will be on full blast this summer at the Bernabéu, allowing him to mould the squad back into a winning machine. At the top of Zindane’s shopping list is reportedly Chelsea winger Eden Hazard who, they are hoping, will be able to add his name to the illustrious list of players who have set the world alight whilst wearing the regal white jersey of Real Madrid.
It has also been reported that Pérez has ceded control of outgoings at the club to Zidane so he can further build the squad to his exact specifications – probably bad news if you’re a certain mercurial Welshman. This is a seismic shift from the traditional running of the club where the primary objective was to do what was best for the club financially rather than in a footballing sense. However, with this fresh approach, it could open the door to a new era for the club that may foster an environment that is similar to the Barcelona model that they crave.
To come back and gamble his legacy in what essentially amounts to a firefighting job is, depending on your outlook, either staggeringly bold or foolhardy to an absurd degree. However, much like when he was a player, Zizou is already two steps ahead of us mere mortals and knows exactly what he is going to do to turn the ship around. In his absence, Real Madrid have appeared to have finally hit an insurmountable wall after so much success in a short period of time, but he’s back now and I can’t think of anyone better to break it down – although it’d probably be with his head.
by Jake Sandy