Warning: the following contains controversial viewpoints: The news on Monday at first didn’t come as a shock, Rafa Benitez sacked. Despite a record in the league that would see Real Madrid top of the Premier League and easing into the Champions League, their manager had lost the dressing room with rumours that Ronaldo had told Isco not to join Man City because Rafa would be sacked soon. Well Cristiano you got your wish, adios Rafa. The shock came an hour later when the maverick legend Zinedine Zidane was announced as his replacement.
Now it is public knowledge that Perez has been looking to emulate Barcelona in moulding Zidane the way the Catalan club did with Guardiola. Zidane has spent the last few seasons at Real Madrid Castilla carefully managing the youngsters, just as Guardiola took the students of La Masia before taking on the top job. However Zidane has immediately claimed he is nothing like Guardiola, and I believe he is spot on to say this., Guardiola won everything there was to win in the game with Barcelona and then he won it all again before leaving for Bayern Munich. In my opinion Zidane will last two years at best with a potential Copa Del Ray as his legacy.
There’s the controversy out of the way then let me justify this with a broader statement: Flair players do not make great managers. Think of the best 5 players who have excited fans with skill and ability that are now retired off the top of your head. Most people’s lists will contain Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Zico, Platini, Rivaldo, Zidane, Henry etc, yet of the players I’ve listed only one can be called a successful manager and Cruyff studied the game throughout his career essentially developing a brand of football while playing, the rest have avoided management like the plague, with Maradona having an abysmal spell as Argentina manager.
Now think of the top 5 current managers in the world: Guardiola, Diego Simeone, Jurgen Klopp, José Mourinho (stop sniggering) and Arsene Wenger. What do their playing careers all have in common; they all played in a position where their job was to read the game. Zidane may have spent 3 years preparing for this role as Castilla manager, Guardiola spent 11 years at Barcelona observing the game around him, thinking about the exact position he should be in. Is it any surprise that the unsung hero of the modern Barcelona team is Sergio Busquets. Busquets was a nobody who forced Yaya Touré out of the squad but his reading of the game is superb, he knows exactly where to be to stop the forwards and allows Alba and Alves to go on mazy runs.
What does this have to do with Zidane though? Well think about the role of Zidane on the pitch: receive the ball, ignite the game, do something special with it, see the run. Now players like Ronaldo, Bale and Rodriguez don’t need coaching on how to produce something special. Take the Rodriguez volley at the World Cup against Uruguay, that’s as close to art as football can achieve, that cannot be coached. What can be coached and drilled into players is defensive positioning, how to counter from a corner, runs to make from throw ins, attacking set pieces etc you get the point, and this is why flair players do not glide into management the way for example Klopp went from captain at Mainz to manager at Mainz in Germany.
On the pitch flair players don’t have to read how their opponents are going to set up, Lionel Messi doesn’t need to know who he’s playing, the full back is still going to get nutmegged. Whereas the defensive leaders who marshal the team have to know exactly what they’re facing and focus for 90 minutes, they have to live and breathe the game.
Before I conclude I’ll use an example closer to home, the good old English Premier League. Now at this point you might be thinking surely there are some flair players out there who’ve made it as managers but you’re scratching your head to get to 5. Looking at the “Prem”, 19 of the current managers played the defensive enforcer role as a player, be that in midfield or in defence. The one who bucks the trend? Mark Hughes at Stoke – a target man throughout his career playing with his back to goal again observing always what was going on throughout the match. Furthermore none of these managers will be remembered for having illustrious careers except one or two, Ronald Koeman immediately springs to mind as a legend on the pitch, but without the aid of Wikipedia could you tell me who Steve McClaren or Mauricio Pochettino played for?
Contrast this to the Sky Sports Studio, the shining beacon to the retiring moths of football, on a Saturday you can listen to Paul Merson and Matt Le Tissier squeal with delight as Bradford equalise at Colchester United, both exquisite footballers in their day, particularly Le Tiss who did unimaginable things from free kicks. On a Monday you can watch Jamie Redknapp and Thierry Henry debate the finer points of the game, the same Henry who terrified defences for years. Not fancy a role in the dugout Thierry? To top it all off we have Michael Owen commentating (if you’re awake to watch) a brilliant attacker in his day but no desire whatsoever to go into management.
Therefore to succeed Zidane isn’t just going to have to succeed where no other has, he’s going to have to succeed where many haven’t even bothered to try in the first place. Why don’t the flair players need coaching though? Well Henry said it better than ever I could on Monday Night Football: “Guardiola told us: My job is to get you to the final third, your job is to finish it”. Therefore I wish you luck Zizou, you were a fantastic player to watch but for now I’ll keep that slice of humble pie chilled for if/when you can prove me wrong and lift the Champions League with Real Madrid, and with Perez presiding even that might not be enough.
by Hugh Van de L’Isle