Within seconds of Real Madrid’s calamitous Champions League exit to Ajax, Jose Mourinho surely searched Trip Advisor for Madrid hotel rooms free for the next two-and-a-half years.
It was, after all, with this disastrous result that Santiago Solari’s fate was all but sealed and many believed Mourinho, available after his tumultuous exit from Manchester United before Christmas, to be the replacement-in-waiting.
Even as the Madrid press assembled at the Santiago Bernabeu for the unveiling of the new manager on Monday afternoon, most expected Mourinho to be the one to walk through the curtain. Instead, it was another familiar face who, to the surprise of many, shook Florentino Perez’s hand in ceremonial pomp.
Only eight months after he left, Zinedine Zidane is back at Real Madrid. His name had been mentioned as speculation over Solari’s future swirled, but few could muster a coherent argument as to why the Frenchman, who left the club due to concerns over transfers, impending departures and a general lack of direction would return.
That argument is a strong one. Zidane won three successive Champions League titles during his three seasons as Real Madrid boss, going out as the joint-most successful manager, alongside Carlo Ancelotti and Bob Paisley, in the history of the competition. He has nothing left to prove in the Spanish capital.
What’s more, the dynamic of the Real Madrid squad has shifted since Zidane left at the end of last season, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s sale to Juventus leaving a number of fundamental imbalances exposed. This is a team in desperate need of rejuvenation, but with ageing stars like Karim Benzema, Marcelo and Luka Modric all on big wages Real Madrid find themselves in something of a financial straitjacket.
And yet despite all this, it’s impossible not to admire the move Zidane has just pulled. By returning to Real Madrid, the Frenchman has made the ultimate power play.
Perez has led a dictatorship at the Santiago Bernabeu for over a decade now, but Zidane has just wrestled control from him, taking advantage of the Real Madrid president’s vulnerability.
This season has been a catastrophe for the already toppled European champions, and Zidane saw it all coming. The 46-year-old never publicly disclosed the reasons for his departure just days after lifting the Champions League trophy last May, but sources close to the Frenchman detailed his concerns over Real Madrid’s transfer strategy and the unsustainable balance of the squad.
Indeed, when Ronaldo left, there was no replacement. Thibaut Courtois was Real Madrid’s only big-name summer signing and even his addition was an unnecessary one, with Keylor Navas already one of the best goalkeepers in the game.
Once dubbed the ‘Galacticos,’ Real Madrid have become scattergun merchants in the transfer league.
With Zidane back, though, that will change. Considering the circumstances of his resignation, the Frenchman has surely been promised fundamental changes this summer.
The rumour mill is already churning out juicy conjecture over potential targets, with Eden Hazard, Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, Mauro Icardi, Paul Pogba, Christian Eriksen and N’Golo Kante all supposedly braced for a move to the Spanish capital.
Of course, this level of speculation jumps the shark – it would take Real Madrid about £1 billion to sign all those players. They will, however, finally fill the void left by Ronaldo, with Hazard probably the most feasible option. Some fading stars on big wages (Benzema, Toni Kroos, Marcelo, Modric) will be moved on.
Zidane will have the freedom to mould his team in a way he was denied even during the glory days of his first spell.
Despite the unprecedented success of his three-year stint at Real Madrid, Zidane’s coaching chops are questioned by some. They claim he flew on the coattails of an immensely talented squad, only guiding them to what was expected. Now, though, Zidane will have the chance to prove what he’s about, all the while reminding Perez just how badly he needed the Frenchman back at Real Madrid.
There’s a new king at the king’s club.