How Zidane Zidane can make Real Madrid European champions again

Just as he did three years ago, Zinedine Zidane sat beside Florentino Pérez as Real Madrid's new coach.

Unveiled as Santiago Solari's replacement, Zidane has returned, charged with returning his beloved Real to the pinnacle of the European game.  

He will have to wait this time, however. There will be no UEFA Champions League final a few months down the line. There will be no Copa del Rey, either. 

Reeling in FC Barcelona at the LaLiga summit seems a big ask, too. When Zidane first took charge of Real, in January 2016, Los Blancos were four points behind Atlético de Madrid. They are currently 12 points off Barça. 

No, with little possibility of quickfire silverware, this is a rebuilding job. It's telling that Zidane's contract has been confirmed to run until June 2022. The length of his deal in 2016 was not made public. 

It has not been a season to savour for Madristas but in Zidane, they have turned to a man who has done it all before; a club legend, a universally respected leader, a man who made a living from making the impossible look effortless.

But while Zidane was a divine player to behold, his poise and grace with the ball at his feet were a stark contrast to the fierce competitive edge which burned deep within him. The perception of Zidane as impossibly – and unrelentingly – nonchalant is sometimes contrived; he is as tough as they come. To twice take over as Real boss in the middle of a trying season, you have to be. 

What remains of this season is, essentially, a free hit for the Frenchman. With no European or cup commitments, Zizou has eight weeks to tinker and experiment with the squad before knuckling down for a full pre-season, during which he is expected to be given significant funds as he looks to shape the team in his image. Again. 

And the first thing which needs to be addressed is the defence. Of the top ten teams in LaLiga, only Sevilla and Eibar have shipped more this season. There is no question Zidane needs to tighten things up at the back but establishing a parsimonious defence is not something you would normally associate the 46-year-old with.

His first reign was more synonymous with virtuoso displays at the other end, of course. In 149 matches in charge, Real scored 393 goals, an average of 2.6 per game. When they lifted LaLiga under the former World Cup winner in 2017, they scored 106 times. When they won the 2018 Champions League, they had done so scoring 33 goals in 13 games, toppling the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, FC Bayern and Liverpool. 

Just as he did during his first spell, Zidane may be best trying to outscore, not outthink, his opponents. 

And if he goes down that route, there is plenty of talent to work with. 

They haven't performed to their maximum in recent months, but Ballon d'Or winner Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos and Casemiro are among the most formidable midfield trio you can find in world soccer. 

Behind them, Marco Asensio and Federico Valverde – both of whom impressed at the 2018 International Champions Cup – are young players with extremely promising futures while Isco, one of the most gifted playmakers in recent times, requires nurturing after a tough spell out of the lineup. 

The 26-year-old Spaniard fell out of favour under Solari but can rediscover his best form under Zidane, the form that led to him being named in the Champions League Team of the Season during Zizou's first half-season at the Bernabéu. 

Up front, Zidane will hope to coax the best from countryman Karim Benzema. The 31-year-old striker, who attracted comparisons to Zidane when he was emerging as one of France's most exciting prospects at Olympique Lyonnais, has shown flickers of his best form since the turn of the year, with 11 goals in all competitions. 

As the club's biggest goal threat, Benzema, you feel, will be a key figure in Zidane's second reign. 

So, too, will Gareth Bale. The Welshman has struggled at times this season but knows how to deliver for Zidane on the biggest stage; his stunning overhead kick against Liverpool swung last season's Champions League final back in Real's favour, emulating Zidane's own showpiece stunner to see off Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. 

And, of course, there is Vinícius Júnior, the outrageously talented 18-year-old who has been a livewire in the Real attack in recent months. The world got its first glimpse of the Brazilian at last summer's International Champions Cup – most notably when he lit up FedExField to set up Asensio's goal against Juventus in a 3-1 Madrid win.

While Zidane will be given the funds to add to his squad this summer he will be expected to develop the talent already at Los Merengues. That means transforming Vinícius from an exhilarating prospect into the finished article once he returns from injury. 

The Brazilian beats opposition players with ease and has proven himself adept at creating chances. But Zidane is the perfect teacher to hone his finishing skills. If Zizou can help Vinícius sharpen up in that area, Real have a devastating player on their hands; a defence-destroying fusion of speed, skill and goals. 

But the most important thing will be mirroring one of the great triumphs from his first spell; projecting calm. As one of the greatest players to have ever graced a soccer pitch – not to mention someone who stands tall in the pantheon of Real Madrid icons – he naturally commands the respect and attention of his squad. 

This was evident throughout his trophy-laden two-and-a-half stint between 2016 and 2018. The players often spoke of feeling valued and understood. Zidane, knowing as well as anyone the intense pressure of representing the most successful club in European history, knows how to connect with his squad on a level deeper than most coaches.

What he lacks in tactical acumen he makes up for in natural leadership and excellent communication skills. Last time out, he got his players to believe they simply couldn't be beaten in the Champions League. It worked wonders. If he can rebuild their confidence once more, similar results should follow. 

There is no better man to steer the ship. It's arguably a tougher task than the one he faced when he was appointed as Rafa Benítez's successor in January 2016, but underestimating Zizou is a perilous move. With time on his side and unwavering confidence in his own long-term vision, don't be surprised if Zidane gets Real back to where they belong; competing for trophies on all fronts. 


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