Zidane bound for coaching greatness after ending Real Madrid title drought
Real Madrid's five-year wait to win LaLiga is over. That's a long time for any club; for the most successful in Spain, it's an eternity.
Sunday's 2-0 win over Malaga was a fitting way to clinch their 33rd top-flight triumph, and a first since Jose Mourinho was in charge in 2011-12. Madrid were imperfect, but resolute, as they have been so often across the 38 matches.
Zinedine Zidane has made that redoubtable belief part of the fabric of the squad. He deserves bigger credit than anyone for this most coveted of titles – more so because praise of the Frenchman has been in short supply.
Zidane's appointment as head coach in January 2015 came at a turbulent moment. The Rafael Benitez experiment had resulted in Clasico humiliation, Copa del Rey embarrassment and mutiny among the players, not least Cristiano Ronaldo. Naming the Castilla boss as his replacement smacked of desperation to some; to others, it was a ham-fisted effort to copy Barcelona's Pep Guardiola era.
"For Zidane, it is like winning a lottery," ex-Bayern Munich boss Ottmar Hitzfeld told Blick at the time. "It is a crazy decision. He is a manager without any experience. He only lives on his famous name as a player.
"He hasn't proved anything as a coach yet and now he has to deal with the best players in the world."
Zidane has proved himself to Hitzfeld and every other naysayer now. He has dealt with players, tactics and expectation with the kind of grace and assuredness that made him the world's best footballer. He's made Madrid fun to watch but dependable when it comes to winning points.
In effect, he's married the best qualities of Carlo Ancelotti and Mourinho – the last two Madrid coaches to bring significant success – and used them to mould his team, his way.
He won back a dressing room that had never really forgiven Florentino Perez for sacking Ancelotti. Ronaldo, in particular, was a problem case, frustrated with Benitez's training methods, tactics and selection policy. They are all things he admires about life under Zidane.
"The boss has managed things very well this year," he said, fresh from scoring twice in the 4-1 win over Celta Vigo this week. "We have a very good squad with lots of good young players and others with experience.
"I have been rested a bit more this year in order to be in good shape at the end of the season. It has worked well as this is when things are decided."
25 - Cristiano Ronaldo has become the second player to score 25+ goals in eight La Liga seasons in a row, after Lionel Messi. Monster. pic.twitter.com/7hMRLTRxXs
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 21, 2017
The rotations have been masterful. Key players have been kept fresh for the major matches, allowing Madrid to clinch LaLiga and become the first defending European champions to reach the final of the Champions League since Alex Ferguson's Manchester United in 2009.
The players have (mostly) been kept on side, speaking positively of Zidane's human touch when it comes to balancing the demands of the squad – very much an Ancelotti quality. For those who have found themselves more marginalised – Alvaro Morata and James Rodriguez, in particular – the treatment has been well handled, yet ruthless. You can't help but think of Mourinho.
Zidane's quality extends to his tactical acumen, too. He has helped Ronaldo to transition into a number nine while keeping the balance in the attack, using Karim Benzema as an unselfish foil. His faith in Casemiro at the base of midfield has liberated the more gung-ho players: full-backs Marcelo and Dani Carvajal, for instance, have scored or assisted 29 goals between them. In recent matches, a shift to a 4-4-2 diamond has made the most of Isco's exceptional form and yielded big wins against Celta, Granada and Atletico Madrid without the injured Gareth Bale.
10 - Marcelo Vieira is the first defender to reach 10 assists in Europe’s top five leagues this season. Hurricane. pic.twitter.com/ioqfV38wWq
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 17, 2017
But it's when the system hasn't quite prevailed that Zizou's personal impact has shone through. The flakiness that has undone Madrid's recent league campaigns is gone. Goals in the last 10 minutes have yielded wins over Athletic Bilbao, Celta, Deportivo La Coruna, Villarreal (from 2-0 down), Sporting Gijon and Valencia. Last-minute equalisers in the Clasico at Camp Nou and at home to Las Palmas – when down to 10 men – have helped keep Barca at bay. It's hard to imagine Ancelotti or even Mourinho drawing that kind of sheer gut-busting effort from a volatile squad of enormous ability and even bigger egos.
"I always said he had what it takes to be a good manager," Ancelotti said before his Bayern Munich side were beaten in the Champions League quarter-final by Madrid.
"Your experience as a player is only partially useful when you become a manager, because you also have to study, you have to keep up to date and gain your own experiences, and Zidane has done that. He's charismatic and the players really respect him, and that's very important."
It still feels like Zidane is waiting for his own plinth in the Pantheon of great coaches; perhaps that will change now. Either way, he deserves to celebrate every second of this success. After all, it's been five years since anyone at Madrid had the chance.