Everyone knew it was coming, it was just a question of when: After seven months in charge, Rafa Benitez was relieved of his duties as Real Madrid manager. As his replacement, the club named club legend and former World Player of the Year, Zinedine Zidane.
On a certain level, the appointment makes perfect sense: A World Cup, European Championship, Champions League, La Liga, and Serie A winner, the 43-year-old Frenchman has a football pedigree that’s second to none.
He also served as assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti during the 2013-14 season, when the Italian succeeded in delivering Real Madrid’s long-awaited 10th European Championship. However, in his one season in charge of Real Madrid Castilla, he led the youth team to a rather undistinguished 6th place finish in Spain’s Segunda Division B.
Zidane may have one of the best football brains in Europe, but that’s not a lot of coaching experience to draw from when it comes to stepping into arguably the most high-pressure job in international football.
Especially considering that, despite his unpopularity, Benitez wasn’t doing that badly. Real are still alive in the Champions League, and at just four points behind league leaders Atletico Madrid, remain within striking distance of the top spot in the table. It’s not Benitez’s fault the club fielded an ineligible player and got kicked out of the Copa del Rey.
While unspectacular, Benitez is one of the most experienced coaches in world football. Although his appointment was likely doomed from the start, he’d been doing well enough at least be allowed to finish out the season.
As we saw at AC Milan over the past couple of seasons, sacking an unspectacular but experienced manager and replacing him with a club icon isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. The back-to-back appointments of Clarence Seedorf and Filippo Inzaghi by the Rossoneri did little to improve the club’s standing in the table; the appointments of the two bright, but inexperienced managers mainly succeeded in slightly tarnishing their legacies at the club where they’d become legends as players. Regardless of whether you’re a Real Madrid fan or not, it would be unfortunate to see Zidane suffer a similar fate.
It seems that being a brilliant player and finding a modicum of success as a youth coach doesn’t always equal being a natural for stepping in and coaching at the highest level. But then, sometimes it does. Real Madrid need only look as far as their greatest rivals to find a template for the kind of success they’ll be hoping Zidane can achieve.
When Pep Guardiola took charge of Barcelona in 2008, the then 37-year-old had been a highly successful player whose only previous coaching experience had been in charge of Barça’s youth team. He then went on to win six trophies in his first season at the club and to become the most in-demand manager in modern football.
As to whether Zidane is capable of pulling off a similar feat, we shall have to wait and see.