In the mother of all mic drops, Zinedine Zidane called a snap press conference today and announced that he was quitting his post as manager of Real Madrid, mere days after winning his record-setting third Champions League trophy in a row. It was the perfect cap to a perfect marriage of coach and club.
The announcement came as a total shock, and it came on the day that the Spanish Parliament debated a vote of no confidence that could lead to the fall of the Prime Minister. Some said Zidane’s decision eclipsed the news that there may be a new head of government. They were only half joking.
Zidane leaves the club after an immaculate tenure at the world’s biggest and best club. He’s won more trophies than all but one other Real Madrid manager. What’s crazy about that is he squeezed all that silverware into what was just a two-and-a-half season stint in charge. Nearly as important as his success itself was the fact that he always comported himself like a total gentleman. Not a single obnoxious comment, not a single unsportsmanlike action, not a single bit of drama behind the scenes. At the end of his final press conference the reporters gave him a lengthy standing ovation.
This is no small feat at Real Madrid, a club that often seems more like a giant powder keg than a soccer club. When you manage Real Madrid you know have to deal with superstar players who are basically enormous multinational corporations unto themselves, a ferocious press that lives to make mounts out of the tiniest of molehills, and most of all its megalomaniacal president, Florentino Perez.
Zidane’s masterful handling of that last aspect of the gig might’ve been his most valuable attribute as Real Madrid coach. Pérez is an infamous meddler, known for phoning up his managers and demanding that his favorite players play when, where, and how Pérez wants. Often Real Madrid managers don’t have the wherewithal to stand up to him, which usually ends badly for everyone involved. The most famous recent example is perhaps when Rafa Benítez started a completely unbalanced, suicidally attack-heavy lineup against Barcelona in a 2015 Clásico. By all reports Benítez would’ve preferred to use the defensively sound Casemiro in midfield, but Pérez insisted on the presence of his new favorite toy, James Rodrígez, at Casemiro’s expense. Real Madrid were thrashed 4-0 in that game and Rafa’s fate was sealed.
Zidane soon replaced Benítez after Pérez had fired him. Demonstrating his independence from presidential interference early on, the iconic Frenchman wasted no time in benching James and Gareth Bale—Madrid’s two most recent Galáctico signings who’d cost €70 million and €100 million, respectively. Zidane balanced the side by featuring Isco and Casemiro, and the team went on to win the Champions League. It’s hard to overstate how brave this was. In the past you just didn’t bench one of Florentino’s Galácticos, let alone two of them. Zidane—once Pérez’s favorite Galáctico himself, back in his playing days—did just that, and handled it all with overwhelming calm and self-assurance, the kind that comes with the confidence of knowing that when you were a player you could do things like volley a ball with your weak foot and put it in the top corner and make it look easy.
While Zidane’s resumé and reputation are unimpeachable, his greater legacy is a slightly more ambiguous one. On the one hand, he won three Champions Leagues in a row, something that may never happen again. On the other, he never really imposed a definitive and recognizable style of play. His teams were more like shape-shifting amoebas, able to adapt to any circumstance, to rise to any occasion. This proved effective in the Champions League, where versatility and single-game tenacity are the currency of the realm. But it wasn’t as effective in domestic league play, which is more about consistently imposing your will on weaker opposition. Zidane’s Madrid regularly lost concentration and form against the smaller teams of Spain, and only beat Barça for the league title once, extending the club’s paltry La Liga record of just two titles in the past 10 years.
Zidane was never viewed in the same “genius” category of the Pep Guardiolas and Jürgen Klopps of the world—guys with a specific, crystalline vision of how they want their players to play and an ability to implement it. Instead, Zidane was more passive, allowing the players the freedom to express themselves as they best saw fit. This isn’t to say Zidane hasn’t been a savvy strategical manager. For example, in the second leg of Real’s Round of 16 clash against PSG, Zidane changed the team’s shape, switching to a flat 4-4-2 and starting Marco Asensio and Lucas Vázquez on the wings. It was as unexpected as it was successful. Asensio and Vázquez combined to create the Cristiano Ronaldo goal that sealed the team’s passage to the quarterfinals.
Above all the rest, Zidane’s most definable quality was his ability to connect with his squad. He was convinced that the only way to get the best out of them was to make it perfectly clear that he would live and die by them until the bitter end. An indicative example of this came this past January. The club had agreed on a transfer for Athletic Club’s young goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga, but Zidane blocked it at the last second. He didn’t want to send the message that there were doubts about his current goalkeepers in the middle of the season. Again, it was remarkable how Zidane was able to stand up to Pérez, and the move paid off. Keylor Navas came up with crucial saves when it mattered most.
In the end, everything that made him so great of a Real Madrid manager is probably what convinced him to leave now. His calm self-assurance, the same trait that won over what had been a highly fractious dressing room and earned him such unprecedented leeway with Pérez, always gave him the air of someone who would have no problem leaving his post the instant he felt like he’d done the job he came to do. His tactical and motivational techniques led directly to wild Champions League success, but proved much less effective in La Liga; probably realizing the squad needed new ideas to translate their European dominance to the league, he decided to step away and let someone else take a crack at it. No doubt foreseeing a big overhaul of the roster he’d invested so much faith in to great reward, maybe Zidane felt he didn’t want to be the one to ship out some of the big names who’d given him their undying loyalty.
Better to leave on top than to stick around for things to get bad. Better to leave in style. In so many ways, Zidane’s stellar managerial career has mirrored his legendary playing one.