Guillem Balague is the host of BBC Radio 5 Live’s Football Daily podcast on Thursdays covering European football. Here he gives his view on Real Madrid’s current situation.
Just 10 months after telling Real Madrid “I would stay but as you don’t want to follow my lead, I better go”, Zinedine Zidane has returned to the Santiago Bernabeu hot seat.
He left after winning three Champions Leagues in a row and a league title, and now returns to a club in disarray – a club with nothing left to play for this season other than qualification into next season’s premier European competition… and pride.
In fact, next season starts on Tuesday when he takes his first training session.
Zidane said his goodbyes just 283 days ago, announcing that after two and a half years in charge: “This was the moment and the best for everyone.”
He will be the club’s third coach of the season after Julen Lopetegui, who lasted until 29 October, and Santiago Solari, who in less than a week oversaw a collapse of monumental proportions.
In what is probably the worst six days in the club’s history – between Wednesday, 27 February and Tuesday, 5 March – they were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Barcelona with a 3-0 home loss and a 4-1 aggregate defeat, finally lost any slim remaining chance they might have held of winning the league (a 1-0 loss to Barcelona), and suffered humiliation and elimination against an unfancied Ajax in the Champions League (4-1 defeat at home, 5-3 on aggregate).
The 4-1 win against Real Valladolid on Sunday was never going to be enough to save Solari’s skin and moves were afoot to appoint a successor before the match had kicked off.
Zidane had left previously because he argued the team “has to keep winning and for that to happen it needs a change”.
He went on: “I am a winner, I do not like losing. If I can not see things clearly, as I would like, and that we are not going to continue winning, it is better not to carry on and not mess about.”
Club president Florentino Perez promised the Frenchman control over the big decisions the team requires in order to entice him back. The idea that he would have decided to return without such a pledge is unthinkable.
Which is bad news for some, not least Gareth Bale. The Welshman and Zidane do not get on. When Bale needed an arm on his shoulder and someone telling him he was not just good, but one of the best in the world, Zidane gave him silence.
The relationship broke down by the time the 2017-18 season finished, hence Bale telling the world he was considering his future at the end of last season’s Champions League final.
Zidane does not want to work with Bale but it will not be easy to get rid of him. About to be 30, who will pay more than 75m euros for him and the 12m euros net he is earning at the moment?
Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy tried to bring him back to the club with a one-year loan deal and a payment of not much per week, a cheeky proposal that did not reach Real Madrid as everybody knew what the answer was going to be.
Bale is deflated, unable to find the passion that should take him to the levels we know he can reach. He needs someone to motivate him to push himself again. Zidane is not the man, but if nobody pays what it is required to take him away, the Frenchman will have to test his managerial skills with someone who has the potential to win games despite their past.
It will very probably be good news for Eden Hazard and, if so, very bad news for Chelsea. Hazard has made no secret of his desire to join Los Blancos as well as play under Zidane. Real Madrid might try to exchange Bale for Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen, another summer target, but Spurs cannot afford Bale’s wages. And right now he is not willing to reduce them.
While Real’s eyes have been focused for a long time now on the talents of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, Paris St-Germain’s steadfast refusal to agree to the sale of either player, combined with Zidane’s desire to bring Hazard to Spain, might become one of the first tangible examples of the new coach’s strengthened hand.
The incident in the dressing room
So how did we come to this situation?
Captain Sergio Ramos did not play in the last-16 second-leg match against Ajax but, after the match, was more involved than just about any other Real Madrid man that actually did play that night.
For a man who has admitted to making a mistake by getting himself booked deliberately in the first leg in order to be eligible for a quarter-final match that they never actually reached, the casting of Ramos as the hero of the omnishambles that unravelled at the Bernabeu after that game would at first sight seem unlikely.
Here’s what happened.
It is the custom of club president Perez to visit the dressing room after home matches. Needless to say on this occasion it was not to offer his congratulations.
My sources tell me what followed was a tirade against the players, accusing them of lacking professionalism, taking too much time off and effectively blaming them for the dire situation the club had found itself in.
The only player to respond was Ramos. What ensued over what I am reliably told was little more than one or two minutes, was what media sources euphemistically refer to as a “frank and robust exchange of views”. Ramos told the president that if he really wanted someone to blame for the club’s plight he might like to take a look at himself in the mirror.
Ramos conceded that the club was sick but added that Perez, rather than treat the patient, had done his best to kill it off.
Perez responded by telling Ramos that he would get rid of him, which was met with something akin to “show me the money and I’ll be on my way”.
And while this carried on, from all corners there came a deafening silence that said much more about the lack of captains, generals and leaders in the Madrid dressing room than mere words ever could.
This isn’t the first time the two men have fallen out, the last time being when Ramos was up for a contract renewal and nothing was happening.
Perez had told previous managers that he wanted rid of Ramos and not giving him what he wanted in a new contract seemed the perfect way of doing it. Then when Manchester United came close to signing him it suddenly dawned on both men that they needed each other and an agreement was reached.
Since the altercation president and captain have spoken and some kind of service – though hardly normal – has been resumed.
This is a crisis and Real Madrid have turned to Zidane to try to restore order.
Bonne chance, Zizou!
Should Perez and players share the blame?
What of Perez, a man that has overseen a gradual decline in the fortunes of a club with just two La Liga titles won over the past 10 years and victories in the Champions League papering over the cracks, flattering to deceive.
For a club keen to be seen signing the best players in the world, it’s worth noting that the last Galactico to be recruited was James Rodriguez in 2014.
It will be interesting to see in what direction Zidane takes the club both on the pitch and in the transfer market because the players currently available to him must also take their share of the blame.
If Perez is true to his word then Zidane will almost certainly have a free rein to go for the players that he wants. And to get rid of a few big names.
Isco played his best football under him but the club had backed Solari in his stand against the player, following discipline issues. Let’s see how Zidane plays that card.
His ‘laissez-faire’ approach to management has certainly had the approval of the majority of players and that, combined with the fact that there will be money available to buy the top players, will help him to create the side that he wants. However, Real feel they cannot match the fees and wages the likes of Manchester City or PSG can offer. Add to that the disruption that can occur from paying big wages, because other high earners at the club would want their salary to be retouched.
Contracts with Adidas and Fly Emirates will guarantee Madrid 125m euros per year and the rebuilding of the stadium will, according to the very optimistic predictions of Perez, bring in another 150m a year – but in around four years’ time.
It’s going to be fun.