Should Real Madrid have appointed a former Chelsea manager instead?

Updated: January 7, 2016

Just weeks ago, speculation in the English media was rife about the future of Louis van Gaal at Manchester United. After Jose Mourinho’s sacking from Chelsea, the speculation was that the Dutchman would be replaced by the former Chelsea boss.

Then a slightly more left-field development happened – Ramon Calderon, pushing for a Mourinho return to Real Madrid, seemed to give a hint that Mourinho would be going there instead.

Of course, the former Real Madrid president doesn’t have the say on the hiring and firing of managers that he used to. Current President Florentino Perez opted to give the job to Zinedine Zidane instead. Clearly that’s where the speculation came from – they didn’t like Rafael Benitez, and the sack was coming. Only the subsequent appointment was in doubt.

So when Real promoted Zidane to the big Bernabeu job from managing the reserve side, they were taking a risk. When Mourinho is available, when a manager is around who will almost guarantee trophies, even if he also guarantees antagonism too.

Florentino Perez seems to be hoping that Zidane is his Guardiola or his Luis Enrique, the coach who Barcelona pluck out of the B team and lo and behold, he turns into a great. But that’s always a gamble. I’m not saying that Zidane got the job solely based on his big-name status, but surely that played an important role. He may be a talented coach with revolutionary ideas, just like Pep, or he may be nothing special. And if he’s nothing special, surely that Zizou name tag will weigh him down from the start.

When you look at other men who have been given management jobs simply because they were great footballers, you see a graveyard of young managers who couldn’t make the transition, and partly because they were expected to be as good in the dugout as they were on the pitch.

Guys like Gary Neville seem to have an easier trajectory. You could never argue that Neville wasn’t a big name, but you could certainly argue that he wasn’t one of the best full backs of his generation. You could argue that it was his work rate and determination, his reliability and effort that brought him to the top and kept him there. Personally, I think that’s more admirable than having mountains and mountains of natural talent for the game and floating through your career earning millions and millions of pounds.

But the transition into management is made easier – Neville may never be a top class manager, that remains to be seen, but you do know he’ll put every ounce of effort and time into doing it. You can be sure that he’ll work hard, and that usually gets results.

Zidane, on the other hand, has other difficulties to overcome. The fact that he was so good on the pitch works against him off it. Players will have a natural respect towards one of the greats of the game, but not everyone can do. Thierry Henry once said that Zidane ‘does things with his feet that others cannot do with their hands’.

So when his players can’t do what he asks of them, when they fall short of the level that Zidane was able to produce, how will he cope with that? Will he be able to find a way to deal with it.

Like all appointments of great former players with little to no managerial experience, Zidane’s appointment at possibly the biggest club in the world can go one of two ways.

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He can be the Guardiola, the Cruyff of Madrid. When Cruyff asked his players to do something outrageous at Barcelona, his players would still do it. Txiki Beguiristain told Sid Lowe in his book, Fear and Loathing in La Liga, that the players would think he was mad, but they were all persuaded because, ‘It’s Johann Cruyff’.

On the other hand, things can go badly wrong, as the likes of Diego Maradona found out. When Maradona tells you to do something on the pitch, you wonder whether you can actually do it – well maybe Maradona could do it, but can I do it?

Giving a manager a job based solely on his name is always a bad idea. When Guardiola took over at Barcelona, it was after he totally transformed the reserve team, winning promotion in his only season and merging the Barcelona B and C sides into one.

Zidane doesn’t have that on his CV, so it remains to be seen if he’s already top management quality. And if appointing Guardiola was taking a risk, then appointing Zidane is surely taking a bigger risk. Ironically, the appointment of Mourinho may well have been less risky, even given his history at the club.

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