Eight trophies in only two years on the job. Just how has Zinedine Zidane done it?
Well, a common perception is that the Frenchman is the perfect man manager, an ego whisperer who can motivate the talented players of Real Madrid’s squad to perform to their best and to fulfil their potential. As a former Galáctico, he has been in their shoes and knows the pressures of the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu dressing room better than anyone. But is Zidane really as good a man manager as he’s made out to be?
As much as Zidane seems to understand the pressures facing the most important Real Madrid players, like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos, it seems that the 45-year-old is less in touch with the fringe players of his squad. It’s logical. Back in his playing days the Real Madrid squad was split into two groups, superstars and youth teamers, with the former even dubbed ‘the Zidanes’ and the latter labelled ‘the Pavones’, after academy graduate Francisco Pavón. President Florentino Pérez’s master plan didn’t quite work out in the long term, partly because there was such discord in the squad. Players were sorted into separate groups, rather than embracing an ‘all for one and one for all’ attitude.
It should be noted that Zidane was a little more aware of the squad imbalance than most, and was one of the most vocal critics of the decision to sell Claude Makélélé because he wasn’t deemed glamorous enough to justify the top wages. “Why put another layer of gold paint on a Bentley when losing the entire engine?” he remarked. But Makélélé was somewhere in the middle, like Casemiro is today. Not a Galáctico, but not a fringe player trying to make it either.
It’s these backups who Zidane seems to struggle to get on board, although it’s not for a lack of trying. Last season he famously rotated more vigorously than any other manager at a top European club, with all but two of the members of the first team squad having featured in at least 1,000 minutes by the season’s end. However, Zidane was uncompromising when it came to the biggest matches, playing every available member of his so-called ‘Gala XI’ in the blockbuster occasions. The players not considered part of the Frenchman’s best XI were getting minutes, but mostly in the final 20 minutes of games or in fairly simple away trips to the likes of Gijón and Leganés.
This is partly why Real Madrid lost so many players last summer. Álvaro Morata, James Rodríguez, Danilo, Mariano Díaz, Pepe and Fábio Coentrão all departed with the stated goal of increasing their playing time elsewhere, when the only one of this half a dozen who the club actually wanted rid of was the aging and increasingly frail Coentrão. “I would have liked Morata to stay, but he wanted to play more first-team football elsewhere,” Zidane said of the most high-profile departure. “That was his decision,” he added. But wasn’t it Zidane’s job to make it seem as though a path to the starting lineup wasn’t impossible?
Zidane’s struggles in motivating backups has continued into this season, and the Frenchman is finding it even more difficult now that he can’t really risk playing his B team in a league where no more slip-ups can be tolerated. There were calls at the start of the season for young up-and-comers like Marcos Llorente and Dani Ceballos to be allowed to go out on loan, but they have stayed and have played just 250 and 203 LaLiga minutes respectively.
Ceballos was even left humiliated last midweek when Zidane put him on for the final 29 seconds of Real Madrid’s trip to Leganés, during which he unsurprisingly didn’t touch the ball once. He hadn’t featured in a single league match since December 9th, so it seemed that Zidane was trying to throw the 21-year-old a bone. Instead he threw him into the spotlight of ridicule in the Spanish media. “I didn’t mean to embarrass him,” Zidane later said, admitting he’d made the kind of mistake the best man managers usually avoid.
There is still no doubting that Zidane has been a good man manager, in terms of his ability to motivate the best 11 players at Real Madrid, the kind of players who the former Ballon d’Or winner can relate to. But he has work to do if he is to live up to his reputation as the game’s best motivator and if he is to better understand the mentality of a young prospect or an experienced backup, the kind of players who have left the club because they felt there was a glass ceiling under Zidane. The Frenchman has, of course, only been in the job for just over two years, so it should be expected that he’s not yet perfect in this respect. Give him some more time, and he might soon be.