The timing of Zinedine Zidane’s departure from his role as Real Madrid manager was very shrewd. Despite winning a thoroughly deserved third Champions League in a row against Liverpool, the writing has been on the wall for this Real team all season.
A history-making campaign in Europe could not paper over the cracks that have formed in an ageing team that endured a disappointing season domestically. Of the 11 players who started the Champions League final, five are aged 30 or over, with Raphael Varane being the youngest member of the starting line-up at 25.
Additionally, nine of that starting 11 played in the team that won the Champions League in 2016 – Zidane’s first of three – with Gareth Bale starting in 2016 and coming off the bench in 2018 while the reverse is the case with Isco.
The next few years will be tumultuous at Real Madrid. The likes of Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Toni Kroos are rumoured to be departing the Bernabeu in the next few seasons as the fallout of the Zidane era takes hold.
On top of this, the task of appointing Zizou’s successor will not be easy. There are few managers in world football with the resumé that he has assembled, just two and a half years into his senior management career.
What Zizou accomplished at Real Madrid cannot be underestimated. He has succeeded in the one area that so many Real Madrid coaches in the past have failed in since the turn of the millennium. He has managed to take a team of megastars, with big-game personalities, and forge a truly great team.
Sergio Ramos has evolved from the erratic troublemaker to the methodical rearguard general. Isco has come into his own as the creative spark in front of a Toni Kroos-Luka Modric tandem that has cemented itself as the best midfield partnership in world football, while Casemiro is the defensive rock that accommodates the work of Kroos, Modric, and Isco. Meanwhile, Marcelo has overcome the 2014 World Cup fiasco with Brazil to become the best left-back on the planet.
Of course, what each of the above players have in common is that they are all senior members of the Real Madrid squad. It is the future of the Los Blancos, where Zidane has had such a considerable impact.
Look deeper into the Real Madrid squad and you will find the likes of Theo Hernandez (20), Borja Mayoral (21), and Mateo Kovacic (24).
Then there is Dani Ceballos who, despite only making 22 appearances for the club last season, is still a future Spanish senior international who won the player of the tournament at the 2017 UEFA U-21 European Championships. This is even more impressive seeing as he was part of the same team as Marco Asensio who is destined to be the heir apparent of Cristiano Ronaldo, as the star of Real Madrid.
In fact, since Zidane replaced Rafael Benitez as Real Madrid manager, the club have spent £103.95 million, with their most expensive signing coming this past May when they agreed on a deal to sign Vinicious Junior from Flamengo for £40.5 million.
What all of this is to say is that, rather than spend big money on big name players in a similar vein to clubs in the Premier League, Zidane opted to place faith in young players such as Asensio, Kovacic, and Ceballos. This is a truly admirable trait to have, for a manager in the current era of Real Madrid. It helps that this approach to building a team has paid dividends for Zidane, especially in the case of Asensio who has played a starring role in the success that the Frenchman has had at the club.
Three consecutive Champions Leagues – making Real Madrid the only team to accomplish such a feat in the modern Champions League era – means that Zidane has tied Carlo Ancelotti and Bob Shankly as the winningest manager in Europe’s premier competition.
When you add his single La Liga title, two UEFA Super Cups, two FIFA Club World Cups, and Supercopa de Espana to those Champions League medals, Zizou has won nine titles as Real Madrid manager. This is the second most by a Real Madrid manager ever behind Miguel Munoz (15).
That is not all, his win over Barcelona in his second match as Real manager put an end to their rivals’ 39-game unbeaten run, while he led Real to a 40-game unbeaten run the very next year.
This piece has certainly left out many other records that Zidane broke during his time at Real Madrid. The Frenchman achieved incredible success at the club without spending as much extortionate money as has been spent by the likes of Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain.
Despite this, there are critics of Zidane’s tenure at Madrid. There is the question of whether or not his Real Madrid team is a great team, when they were never able to capture the imagination of fans as much as Barcelona did on a frequent basis during their peak under Pep Guardiola.
He also shares a similar critique as Guardiola, in that there is a question of whether or not he would be able to succeed at other clubs, with football writer John Carlin saying: “He’s been unbelievably successful [as manager of Real Madrid], and yet if you were to ask me would he be successful if, say, next season he went to Tottenham Hotspur or Chelsea or Manchester United, my instinct would be to say, ‘No. He’d be a failure there.’ But who knows?”
A lot of this is down to the quality of player that he inherited. After all, he inherited the likes of Ramos, Kroos, Modric, Isco, Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, and more when he succeeded Benitez in 2016.
In truth, it is not at all surprising that Zinedine Zidane decided to step away from the Madrid hot seat. He had achieved more in two and a half years than most managers would hope to achieve in 10. He had taken the current squad as far as he could.
Despite this, Zinedine Zidane did a spectacular job at the Bernabeu. He took a squad of big personalities and moulded a winning machine. Their style was not always pretty but, when it came to Europe, they knew exactly how to win.
Has he done enough to be considered alongside Pep Guardiola, Arsene Wenger, José Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson? Absolutely not. However, when it comes to the UEFA Champions League, he managed to conquer Europe in a way none of those greats ever managed to.