Zidane must pursue perfection to catch up with Pep’s legacy

Andy West 00:25 05/06/2017
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  • Not bad, Monsieur Zidane. Not bad at all.

    And for your next task, you just need to ensure Real Madrid maintain their current excellence.

    Saturday’s victory over Juventus was the climax of a spectacular 18 months in charge of Los Blancos for Zinedine Zidane, who has now seen his team become the first to win consecutive Champions League titles as well as ending their five-year wait for supremacy in La Liga.

    Those achievements are even more impressive when you consider their sorry state when Zidane replaced Rafa Benitez in January 2016. Back then, Madrid were a disunited and directionless bunch of pampered superstars who looked a long way from challenging Barcelona for bragging rights in Spain, never mind conquering Europe….twice.

    Although Zidane is no tactical mastermind, he has undoubtedly played a major role in his team’s march to multiple silverware.

    First and foremost, he has maintained a happy camp, finding the balance between massaging egos and leading with authority to keep everyone pulling in the same direction.

    He has also made some big technical decisions, starting early in his reign when he reacted to his first defeat – a home derby loss to Atletico – by installing Casemiro as an undisputed member of his starting eleven.

    It was not an easy call to make, but the Brazilian is now Madrid’s most important player in terms of maintaining the team’s shape.

    Zidane’s management of Cristiano Ronaldo has also been superb, firstly by changing his playing position to allow him to become an out and out striker, and secondly by protecting his physical welfare by regularly resting him throughout the season.

    The French coach has also encouraged his team to evolve in other ways, such as finally giving Rafael Varane first-choice status in the centre of defence, and jettisoning the 4-3-3 formation in favour of a midfield diamond which has allowed Isco to excel and provided a generally more stable collective structure.

    So there’s no denying that Zidane has done a tremendous job, or that he has transformed his team into the best in the world.

    But it’s inevitable that Real Madrid will forever be compared to Barcelona and vice-versa, and now Zidane is challenged with making his team the dominant force in world football, in the same way that Pep Guardiola did at the Nou Camp nearly a decade ago.

    Because, to be honest, it’s only really in the last couple of months that Madrid have looked totally convincing.
    Last season’s Champions League title was surrounded by a sense of “Yes, but…”.

    They had benefitted from a series of fortunate draws against inferior opposition (Wolfsburg in the quarter finals…and they nearly managed to lose that one), and needed a penalty shoot-out against Atletico to become champions after a pretty ordinary performance in the final.

    Even earlier this season, Zidane’s men relied on fortune, stubbornness and sheer determination for much of the campaign, with their weaknesses exposed as recently as late April when Barcelona won 3-2 at the Bernabeu.

    Since then, however, they have responded magnificently, securing their first league and European double since 1958 in emphatic fashion with a run of eight wins in nine games, and for the first time they now genuinely look like world-beaters.

    To remain so, Zidane will have to keep his team evolving. James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata will probably be sold this summer, and Keylor Navas – despite doing little wrong – is set to be replaced by David de Gea.

    Perhaps there will be bigger decisions as well, with maybe even Karim Benzema or Gareth Bale heading through the exit door if Kylian Mbappe is recruited from Monaco.

    Zidane also must decide whether Isco should remain a core member of his strongest starting eleven, or whether he should return to his previous bits and pieces role.

    So there is work to be done. But if Zidane gets it right, the glory days at the Bernabeu have only just started.