Zidane’s next challenge at Real: Make Europe’s champions a champion side.
Exhausted from giving his all, the victorious Gareth Bale could barely describe what he was thinking.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” the Real Madrid forward said in the early hours of Sunday morning, after his side defeated Atletico Madrid in Saturday’s Champions League final.
“I can’t describe how it feels. It’s amazing and the boys gave everything. The club, the fans have been amazing on this journey and they deserve it.”
“Journey.” It’s an interesting word. Players say things like that about Champions League wins because it’s the standard language of the celebration, and because of the history and prestige attached to the competition.
But Real are different from most European champions.
Throughout the competition’s 61 years — and especially when only title winners qualified — the trophy has been the final consecration of a great team who had won everything else. It has been the end of a journey, the final conclusion.
That is emphatically not the case with Real. They are a side who have now won two Champions League trophies in three years — but only one league in the last eight, and none in the last four.
That is an inversion of Champions League history, and the great contradiction of this team. They can again proclaim themselves champions of Europe, but not of their own country. They can win the Champions League, but not the league. It also creates a great challenge for Zinedine Zidane.
He needs to add to Real’s record of 32 Spanish titles. He needs to get this great club winning the most again, rather than just taking what Barcelona don’t win. He needs to properly complete the journey, to ensure every step is taken. If good teams win leagues and lucky teams win cups, great teams win both.
To do that, Zidane is going to have use the job security he has earned with this victory to make some changes. He’s going to have to complete the side.
It is not hard to understand why Real have struggled to win the league, and why they have become an effective cup team, suited to the unpredictability of knockout competitions.
Some close to the club like to put it down to the historic genius of Lionel Messi, and how he elevates Barcelona to a level above everyone else, meaning the Catalans have claimed six of the last eight league titles.
The reality is that is too easy an excuse, even if Real did get close this season. Sensational as Messi is, he is made better by the fact that — for all Barca’s own political issues — there is a core football philosophy guiding the club, and thereby a proper football plan.
That has not been the case at Real. Their team have had vague guiding principles but, as a consequence of president Florentino Perez’s obsession with stars and big-money signings, they have looked like less than the sum of their very expensive parts. They have often been unbalanced or not fully cohesive the way that Barca and — despite their lesser quality — beaten finalists Atletico Madrid have.
That trait was underlined throughout this Champions League, when Real were often unconvincing, but could rise above opponents in single games thanks to their supreme individual players. As Zidane himself said: “When you’ve got players of this calibre, with so much talent, you can achieve something big.”
That kind of talent is one of the classic traits of cup teams, but it’s not as influential when it comes to the long-term rigours of a league campaign, when you are up against equally wealthy but better-organised sides. Then, a team’s deeper issues will tell.
The signing of James Rodriguez symbolises so much of this. Bought partly because of his justifiably celebrated status in South America, the excellent playmaker doesn’t have an obvious place in the Real Madrid team.
It said much that the key juncture in their season was when Zidane replaced him with defensive-midfielder Casemiro, but only because the French legend’s legacy as a player allowed him to drop a star in a way that Perez just wouldn’t accept from the sacked Rafa Benitez.
That transaction does give reason to hope that Zidane can change even more at the cub, that his clout can will allow him to make the moves other managers couldn’t, the moves Real need. Winning the Champions League only increases that clout.
Even if the French manager does start to struggle next season, which will be his first full campaign as a manager, the double arguments of his status and the European medal will make it even more difficult for Perez to sack him. There’s also fact that, as to finally winning the league again, Real’s domestic form under Zidane has been brilliant. They pushed this Barcelona all the way in the title race and only lost by a point.
But even as they won the Champions League and almost won the league, it’s still difficult to tell how good Real are as a team and Zidane is as a manager.
The ease of their run has already been noted: they are the first Champions League winners to win it without eliminating a previous champion. Of their actual opponents, all of Roma, Wolfsburg and Manchester City suffered more difficult seasons than usual. There is also an argument that, in the final, Atletico were unlucky to face a local rival after doing the real hard work of defeating Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
It’s not Real’s fault they got easy draws, of course, but part of the problem is how misleading some midseason changes can be. Chelsea can testify to that with Roberto Di Matteo.
Sometimes, ailing teams only need subtle changes to get them back on track, at least for the short term, and Zidane provided that with his presence and status. That is a very different job, however, from instilling team principles and properly creating a manager’s own team in the long term.
That is the next challenge for Zidane, and overcoming it will be crucial to meeting his biggest challenge: reclaiming the Spanish title for the country’s most successful club. The players were more than willing to talk about his Carlo Ancelotti-like easy man-management after the final, which is clearly a strength.
During the game, though, he made some big mistakes in what was the biggest test of his brief managerial career so far. Zidane got all of his substitutions wrong, removed Real’s control when he removed Toni Kroos, and arguably should have been brave enough to take off a clearly unfit Cristiano Ronaldo.
He got lucky that Atletico couldn’t seize their momentum when it was 1-1, and that Ronaldo then scored the decisive penalty. Zidane has to build on that and learn from those mistakes. They are the type that even the most successful managers made earlier in their career, and everyone is entitled to an adjustment period.
But that’s just the point: Zidane will likely learn as he goes because for Real, this Champions League is really the start of the journey, which is a remarkable thing to say about winning club football’s ultimate prize. Then again, these are European champions of many contradictions. The next step is to conquer all — including their own country.