Pérez made it clear that Benítez was safe as long as he picked what the president felt was his strongest team: an adventurous lineup that included the Colombian midfielder James Rodríguez. Such a selection ran against Benítez’s cautious instincts. He would have preferred the more defensively minded Brazilian Casemiro as a bulwark against Barcelona’s formidable attack, but eventually Benítez relented.
Rodríguez started; Casemiro did not. Barcelona won, 4-0, humiliating Madrid on its home field. Benítez would cling to his job for only six more weeks.
As Real Madrid and Barcelona prepare to come face to face again on Saturday at Camp Nou, Pérez will not be having any such frank conversations with Benítez’s successor. Casemiro, fitness permitting, is expected to start. Rodríguez almost certainly will not. In that one lineup decision lies not only proof of the power of Madrid’s new coach, Zinedine Zidane, but evidence of the source of it.
Almost a year into his top-tier managerial career, it is hard to find fault with Zidane’s record. He lifted the Champions League trophy after only six months, his third Champions League title with Real Madrid — one as a player, one as an assistant, one as coach — and the club’s 11th over all. His team sits atop La Liga, 6 points ahead of Barcelona. He has a win percentage of 81.8. Statistically, he is the best manager in the history of Spain’s top division.
Yet few rank Zidane, a taciturn, enigmatic Frenchman, as the equal of those super-coaches in place at many of Europe’s top clubs. The common perception is that he is not as inventive as Pep Guardiola, as inspirational as Jürgen Klopp, as astute as José Mourinho, as suave as Carlo Ancelotti.
That view has its adherents, even at Real Madrid. Among the club’s hierarchy, there were always concerns that Zidane possessed the desire but not the ability to be a top-class manager.
In 18 months with Castilla, Real’s B team, he was given every assistance: While the reserves had previously traveled to away games by bus, under Zidane’s aegis, they went by chartered jet. Still, he was hardly a resounding success.
His training methods, particularly fitness work inspired by coaches like Gérard Houllier and Marcello Lippi, were seen as out of date; long-running sessions designed to improve stamina had been phased out by many of his peers. There was no suggestion of a revolutionary tactical mind at work. The team’s results were unspectacular.
Pérez, as late as the summer of 2015, was said to have been privately expressing his hope that Olympique Marseille would offer Zidane the chance to start his managerial career there, allowing him to learn his craft and make his mistakes away from Bernabéu.
Pérez had always hoped that Zidane would prove to be Real’s equivalent to Guardiola, a genius schooled in the ways of the club. Pérez seemed resigned, though, that Zidane was more in line with Roberto Di Matteo, Chelsea’s right-place, right-time Champions League-winning coach in 2012, and Luis Enrique, a custodian of — rather than an upgrade to — Guardiola’s legacy at Barcelona.
In some ways, Zidane’s time with Real’s first team has borne that out. There are still rumblings of discontent among the players that his training sessions are old-fashioned; his closest confidant on his staff is Luis Llopis, the goalkeeping coach.
Jorge Jesus, the manager of Sporting Lisbon, insisted before his club faced Real Madrid in the Champions League last month that Zidane’s team “does some very interesting things tactically,” but Jesus declined to mention what any of them were.
A 3-0 whitewash of city rival Atlético in November aside, there have been few eye-catching performances. Real Madrid tends to be reliant on brilliance from its individuals rather than the smooth operation of the team.
The praise from Zidane’s players also has been telling: The Spanish midfielder Isco has suggested that Zidane lifted morale, while Cristiano Ronaldo pinpointed that the squad “feels his affection.” Such tributes make Zidane sound more like a mascot than a manager.
And yet results brook no debate. Zidane may not be a tactician or a visionary; his presence is so brooding that it is impossible to imagine him as a tub-thumping rhetorician. Instead, his strength may be something else entirely: charisma.
In Ancelotti’s Italian autobiography, “Preferisco la Coppa” (I Prefer the Cup), he detailed the impression he had gleaned of Zidane while coaching him at Juventus.
“He was the best player I have ever managed,” Ancelotti wrote, but what really stood out was the effect Zidane had on those around him.
Ancelotti described how the Juventus owner Gianni Agnelli had been “hopelessly lost, in love” with Zidane.
“I saw it dozens of times,” Ancelotti said. “Sometimes, his grandsons, John and Lapo Elkann, would be with him. They would say hello to the squad and go straight to Zidane. Then Luciano Moggi: to Zidane. Antonio Giraudo: to Zidane. Because Zidane was shy, and did not speak much, it was more than anything a conversation with yourself, but still, it was with Zidane.”
These were some of the most powerful people in Italian soccer, men used to obeisance from others, bending the knee. The players did likewise: In the same book, Ancelotti recounted a story from his first season in Turin, 1999, in which Zidane had been late arriving for a team bus.
Ancelotti gave him 10 minutes to show up, and when he did not, Ancelotti ordered the bus to leave. Paolo Montero, a brutish Uruguayan central defender, then told Ancelotti in no uncertain terms that “without Zidane, nobody is going anywhere.”
The bus waited.
That charisma has not receded. The best players rarely make the best managers — witness Diego Maradona — but in the case of Zidane, and Real Madrid, the fit is perfect. This is a squad that resented taking instruction from Benítez and Mourinho, who had never played at a high level, but which defers instinctively to Zidane. For all his flaws as a coach, a chronically political dressing room sits in his thrall.
More significant still, Pérez does the same. The squad had long grown tired of the president’s interventions. One comment to Ronaldo, last season, suggesting after a game in which he had scored three goals that he should have had four, went down especially poorly.
The players have mockingly known Pérez as abuelo, or grandfather, for some time; that he is sufficiently awed by Zidane not to dictate team selections, to afford him independence, naturally places the players at the coach’s back, rather than in their more familiar position at their manager’s throat.
Zidane’s power, his infallibility, is rooted in his charisma, his status. In that sense, Pérez has got what he wanted: his own Guardiola, a coach entirely in tune with his surroundings.
Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson always said he felt the manager ought to be the highest-paid employee at any team, to put him in a position of strength. Zidane is not that, but he remains more of a Galactico, to borrow Pérez’s famous label, than any of his charges.
Zidane may not produce a well-oiled collective, like Mourinho or Klopp or Guardiola, but Real Madrid has always been built around the cult of the individual. Zidane understands that. For him, and for his club, it works.
Zidane may not be the perfect manager, but he could well be perfect for Real.