Real Madrid: Country for old men

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Image by Offside
January 30, 2018

Zinedine Zidane is running into trouble at Real Madrid. The Spanish giants may be through to the knockout stages of the Champions League, but they currently lie fourth in LaLiga and have mounted no sort of challenge to Barcelona.

Zidane may have won back-to-back European cups since inheriting his position and he might also have put together a series of fine winning sequences along the way, but at this point his job security seems to depend largely on goodwill. He was a fabulous player, one of the finest in the club’s history, and that affords him more latitude than normal for someone in his position.

Florentino Perez’s appetite for change will win out, of course. Barring something miraculous, Zidane will be ushered through the exit door, accompanied by conciliatory platitudes, and a shiny new era will begin.

But then what for Zidane? It’s a strange question to ponder given the decadence of his success, but what does the world really know of his managerial abilities. In the two years since succeeding Rafael Benitez, he’s stuffed the trophy cabinet at Bernabeu in double-quick time. Europe has been conquered in successive seasons with distinguished flair and, for what it’s worth, a couple of Club World Cups have been dumped in the sack and hauled back to Spain, too.

Zidane is probably within his rights to wonder, then, why the continent seems so indifferent to his coaching career. Should he depart in the summer, no major club is expected to compete for his services.

It’s an odd situation, but one with a simple explanation: nobody can quite be sure where the influence of Real’s decadent squad ends and Zidane’s coaching effect begins. There’s admittedly something askew in erasing a manager from a team’s success but then holding him entirely responsible for their failure, but that is nevertheless the situation; if in doubt, blame the coach.

From a reputational standpoint, it also presents a caveat to any manager approached by Perez over the summer – particularly those who are currently on an upward trajectory. Superficially, it’s a dream job. It comes with a fantastic salary, the chance to work with the finest players and, perhaps most importantly, a realistic hope of winning the most coveted European trophies.

From a legacy standpoint - in the Cruyff, Ferguson, Guardiola sense - it offers deceptively minimal opportunity. It's a club with a rigid culture which is guarded on all sides by impatient sentries; from a certain perspective, it's one of the worst jobs a manger can take.

Behind that veneer of appeal lie some troubling realities, though. Real Madrid are a players’ club. Unlike their equivalents in England, Germany and Italy – or even their deadly rivals in Catalonia – their recent history makes little deference to managerial acumen. The various epochs they’ve passed through over recent decades aren’t bookended by changes in tactical direction or coaching imperatives, but by the rise and fall of marquee stars and, of course, transfer policy.

Part of that is brevity – after all, this is a club that has employed fourteen different head-coaches in the past 18 years – but it’s also describes the nature of the organisation. Managers don’t create identities for themselves in Madrid and once they depart there’s little evidence that they were ever employed in the first place. From a legacy standpoint – in the Cruyff, Ferguson, Guardiola sense – it offers deceptively minimal opportunity. It’s a club with a rigid culture which is guarded on all sides by impatient sentries; from a certain perspective, it’s one of the worst jobs a manger can take.

At least, the worst job a young manager can take.

Currently, Mauricio Pochettino is among the favourites to succeed Zidane and his case would seem to confirm that. At first glance, managing Madrid would appear a sort of validation for someone like Pochettino – the chance to endorse his talent with medals and etch his name into the European game’s stone. But that’s naive. In all likelihood, any success would be apportioned out among the dressing-room (and boardroom) egos and failure, though lucrative, would have to explained at future interviews forevermore. Pochettino would inevitably be branded as someone unable to cope with the politics of big club life and would likely find himself precluded from such positions for the rest of his career.

That seems particularly likely given the style in question. Pochettino’s influence depends on having as tight a grip as possible on as many organisational reins as he can grasp. He may not quite be an overlord at Tottenham, but his success has certainly depended on being able to dictate the local mood. The players and staff are loyal to him and there is no challenge to his authority from anywhere in the club. If those conditions have allowed him to succeed in north London then it’s reasonable to assume that he would labour in Madrid, where head-coaches are really just employees.

While it’s often said that clubs with violent hiring and firing policies present a no-lose situation, that only really applies to those who have already forged their reputations. Managers who wash through clubs like Real Madrid – or Chelsea or Paris Saint-Germain – are able to carry on regardless because of the counter-examples on their CVs. When there is enough proof of success elsewhere, it’s easy to present failure as the inevitable consequence of dysfunction. But to those who don’t – think Andre Villas-Boas at Chelsea – even underperformance under harsh conditions can form a semi-permanent blackmark.

In spite of his success at Bordeaux, an inability to handle the rare air of Paris Saint-Germain has proven particularly costly for Laurent Blanc. Similarly, English readers won’t need reminding of how scathing the post-Manchester United judgement was on David Moyes.

Real Madrid, at best, is a lucrative sabbatical – a reward for the past rather than a step towards the future. As Zinedine Zidane will soon be able to attest to, it’s a strange netherworld within which reputations are suspended rather than incubated. Once someone newer and shinier catches the president’s eye, the discarded incumbent will find himself no more employable than when he arrived.

Pick up your cheque from accounts, leave your car keys on the desk.

Whether or not it’s a job worth doing really depends on whether the individual in question has already completed his life’s work. To those who have experienced the range of challenges in the various European leagues, it offers some welcome CV gloss. But to anyone with aspirations of permanence or a desire to actually create, it’s a chance to do little more than bathe in reflected glory.

Real Madrid Zinedine Zidane
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