Just days after Real Madrid won their third straight Champions League title last May, Zinedine Zidane, the architect of each of those triumphs, shocked the world by resigning from the manager position. The former Juventus and Real Madrid legend had been installed as the head coach in 2016, after infamously fickle Madrid president Florentino Pérez cut Rafael Benítez loose following a rough start to his first season. Fast forward to Monday: Pérez has fired his second manager of the season, relieving interim coach Santiago Solari of his duties and re-installing Zidane as Madrid boss.
Zidane joins Madrid at one of its lowest points of the decade. In the span of a week, Los Blancos were knocked out of the Copa Del Rey by Barcelona in embarrassing fashion (losing 3-1 at home), essentially lost La Liga to the same Barcelona team at the same stadium in a 1-0 defeat a couple days later, and finally conceded one of the biggest Champions League shocks in recent memory by losing, you guessed it, at home to Ajax 4-1 after winning the first leg 2-1 in Amsterdam.
Anyone who paid attention to the summer Real Madrid had could’ve foreseen this season being a struggle, but no one thought it would be quite this bad. Aside from replacing Zidane with disliked journeyman Julen Lopetegui, the club also lost its greatest player ever in Cristiano Ronaldo, who left to Juventus on a €100 million transfer. Pérez decided against bringing in a real Ronaldo replacement, preferring instead to bank on young players like Marco Asensio and Vinícius (admittedly, the later had been awesome before his injury against Ajax) and his current stars, such as Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modrić and former world transfer record player Gareth Bale.
In fact, let’s talk about Bale. His utter failure to replace Ronaldo as The Man in Madrid can’t be stressed enough; partly due to being made of glass and partly due to being inconceivably washed, the closest thing Madrid had to a world beater after Ronaldo left has suffered one of the worst seasons of his career so far. He’s only contributed seven goals and two assists for Madrid in the league, and his disappearing act (both due to injuries and lack of form) has left Madrid gasping for goals.
For Zidane to walk back into this minefield, he must have been assured of a certain level of control over a crucial summer transfer window for Madrid. Top on his list will likely be getting a forward who can, you know, actually score goals. This probably all but assures Bale will be gone in the summer, especially since he and Zidane famously didn’t get along during the manager’s first stint and there was a credible report in the aftermath of Zidane’s resignation that it was Pérez’s refusal to sell Bale last summer that inspired the Frenchman to quit. Whether this new forward is the long-rumored Eden Hazard from Chelsea, or a more ambitious move (could they sell Neymar on Madrid after PSG had a similarly ignominious end to their own Champions League campaign? Or maybe Kylian Mbappé?), or just by filtering out the olds and ineffectuals, Zidane will need to rebuild a Madrid side that fell short of every pre-season expectation its rabid fans had.
Is he the right man for the job? It’s impossible to say. Yes, Zidane won three Champions Leagues in a row, something no one had done in the current iteration of the competition (hell, no one else has won TWO in a row). But he did that with a team that was ready-made to be at the top of Europe: Just two years before Zidane took over, Madrid finally captured their long-awaited tenth Champions League title after a 12 year wait. It’s not like the team Zidane walked into back then was under-performing by all that much (though other than in 2017, his Madrid weren’t great in La Liga either), and especially not to such a brutal degree as this year.
Zidane will be playing with house money for the rest of the season, and he should use that time to evaluate who stays and who goes. One player to watch for is Isco, who thrived under Zidane but was largely shunted aside by both Lopetegui and Solari this year. Rumors have been hot and heavy of late in linking the Spanish midfielder with a move away from the Bernabeu, but maybe Zidane’s return will convince him to stay. On the other hand, it’s not hard to imagine a number of big names from this recently closed era of Real Madrid success finding themselves shoved out the exit door along with Bale.
The immediate goodwill of Zidane’s return will, as it always does in Madrid, eventually evaporate. (Just ask Jose Mourinho, who until today was considered the big favorite replace Solari this season, which would have been great for neutrals but perhaps too much drama even for Madrid). In the very possible scenario that Madrid botch a second transfer window in a row, and/or if they falter again in the Champions League come next season, Zidane could be throwing a three-year legacy of historic, blemish-free success down the trash chute.
Of course, if he succeeds, his legendary status will be strengthened even more, with no one, not even the most ardent Barcelona fans, able to contest his place in history as on of the managerial greats. As always, with great rewards come with great risks.