Rafa out, Zidane in. It seems strange that Benitez was allowed to limp on for a few weeks after the mauling at the hands of Barcelona. Perhaps he was meant to get the sack immediately, but Zizou wasn’t quite ready to take the reins. He probably still isn’t; it’s easy to point to Pep as evidence that a club legend managing the B can come through, with little experience, and achieve success. It’s probably a bad comparison, though. Pep is a remarkable individual, a supremely talented manager who should be considered an extreme case, not the norm.
Perhaps – as former Real President Ramon Calderon insists – Florentino Perez had tried to appoint others, but nobody particularly wanted to sip from his poisoned chalice. After Perez’s ill treatment of the popular and talented Ancelotti, sacking him a year on from a Champion’s League win for essentially no reason beyond “we’re Real”, it’s clear that no manager will have any notion of job security.
On top of that, they clearly don’t have much control over the transfer kitty and it seems that Perez leans heavily on the managers in terms of team selection. In short, a manager faces this situation: they have 12 months from starting to win the Champion’s League, and must do so with a fundamentally unbalanced squad while also favouring Perez’s vanity signings when it comes to team selection and then follow that up with a La Liga or CL title the next year too.
Additionally, in order to control the rampant egos of Madrid – looking at you Ronaldo – and pacify the unrelentingly demanding fans, they have to be a big enough name to command respect. In short, this sets up what I call the Perez paradox: any manager talented enough to succeed in this situation will be clever enough to avoid it like the plague.
Pelligrini, the first manager of Perez’s current tenure, put it this way: “I didn’t have a voice or a vote at Madrid. They sign the best players, but not the best players needed in a certain position. It’s no good having an orchestra with the 10 best guitarists if I don’t have a pianist. Real Madrid have the best guitarists, but if I ask them to play the piano they won’t be able to do it so well. He [Pérez] sold players that I considered important. We didn’t win the Champions League because we didn’t have a squad properly structured to be able to win it.” Pretty damning.
With a situation like that in place, it’s not hard to see why the best managers aren’t available to such a huge club. With the best managers off the table, Rafa Benitez stepped into the breach. On paper, he has an excellent CV, but the two stellar achievements – his duopoly-breaking Valencia and CL-winning Liverpool – were over a decade ago. It’s hard to imagine that Madrid faced off fierce competition from Europe’s top sides for his signature. With no recent success, Benitez lacked authority and with his aloof style he couldn’t inspire loyalty. Combine that with the Perez straitjacket of an unbalanced squad, and the failure was predictable.
Now we come to the Zidane appointment, and with the Perez paradox in mind, the appointment makes more sense. After the 0-4 rout, Perez called around. Mourinho picked up, and shouted something about referees, physios and the end of days. Pellegrini rejected his call three times. Ancelotti picked up and told him a polite “no”, Pep picked up and just laughed. No manager “big enough” for Madrid considered this job a career step-up, and Perez was increasingly desperate.
In steps Zizou – a unique solution to the Perez paradox. He has no managerial career that can be wrecked by a disastrous spell with Madrid, yet his obvious ability as a player and footballing intelligence will ensure that the players at least listen to him. He’s familiar with the squad already, and the fans love him enough that they won’t mind him getting the job. The appointment could turn out with Guardiola-like results, but it doesn’t need that to be considered a success. Right now, Madrid need some discipline and stability. Zidane – the legend more than the man – might just be the one to bring it.
In the long term, however, this is not a viable solution to the Perez paradox. Unless Zidane can start a dynasty, the same problem will occur, but this time there won’t be a club legend waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces. Even if Zidane does remarkably well, a dynasty would be hard to set up – eventually Florentino will grow angry at Zidane’s refusal to reply to his daily email extolling the benefits of the 2-0-8 formation, and sack him. In the long term, getting rid of Perez is the only Real option.