Zinedine Zidane knew when to leave and, it turns out, when to come back.
It was clear last May that Real Madrid weren’t as indomitable as they let on. Winning a third consecutive Champions League title didn’t hide the fact that Madrid – at least in Zidane’s eyes – lagged behind the competition in its own backyard. Los Blancos finished 17 points behind eternal rivals Barcelona in the 2017-18 La Liga campaign and needed a bit of luck just to progress in the Champions League, earning a penalty well into second-half stoppage time to dispatch Juventus in the quarterfinals.
“I feel it’s going to be difficult to continue winning,” Zidane said upon resigning, “and because I’m a winner, I’m going.”
It’s widely believed Zidane left because he understood how big an overhaul Madrid required. Club president Florentino Perez did little to rejuvenate the squad in the summer that followed, not even bothering to placate supporters following the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Now reports suggest Zidane will have a bigger say on transfer dealings, which is perhaps what he wanted all along. The same way he’s done his entire career, as both a player and manager, Zidane has dictated his own terms.
Perez is expected to give Zidane around £300 million to spend this summer, according to The Independent’s Miguel Delaney, which could facilitate a move for one of Zidane’s preferred targets, Eden Hazard. He’ll have the financial backing and the authority to truly make Madrid his own.
Zidane didn’t have that luxury during his first spell in charge. Instead, he squeezed the most from the crop of players he had. He believed in Casemiro’s abilities when few did, knowing the Brazilian could provide the balance that Madrid needed, and often fielded the same lineup. Though many of the players at his disposal were already talented, Zidane neither received nor requested the kind of statement signing that defined other managerial eras at the club. The status quo was enough for him.
But he had the foresight to see what others within the club refused to acknowledge. The midfield needed to be revitalized and the attack was begging for reinforcements. Madrid relied on so many late winners that it masked the fact that the club struggled, sometimes mightily, to create chances and finish them.
Perhaps it was arrogance on the part of Perez to believe Real Madrid could remain as they were and win again. He unsettled Spain’s World Cup preparations to poach Julen Lopetegui, who wasn’t afforded the time or the resources to properly lead a rebuild. Lopetegui was ousted in October and Santiago Solari was promoted from the youth ranks in the hope that, as a former player, he’d have the same calming effect that Zidane did when he replaced Rafa Benitez in early 2016.
But no one fixed the problems that Zidane anticipated from the very beginning. The only positive from this wretched campaign is the emergence of Vinicius Junior, and it’s a massive risk to overburden such a player at this stage of his development.
In trying to convince Zidane to return, Perez seemingly made enormous concessions. If the Frenchman wasn’t trusted with rebuilding the squad before, he is now.
Not only will he have the budget to handpick his own players, but Zidane will also have the rest of the season to determine which ones he wants out. He returns as a savior in 2019 just as he did in 2016, his reputation intact and the burden of expectation under control. He left before the storm hit, and he’s arrived in time to clean it up.