In Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid have found their own Diego Simeone to unify the club
Zinedine Zidane's immediate mission is to end Real Madrid's domestic woes against Atletico, one of only two sides to inflict defeat on the Frenchman thus far
It isn't often that Atletico Madrid is the subject of an envious look from those at Real Madrid. But Diego Simeone's dynamic presence, and exploits, in the Atletico dugout since joining in late 2011 have earned the club more than just a jealous glance.
Simeone is an Atletico man, having played at the club for five seasons across two stints. He was a key part of the club's La Liga-winning team of 1995/96 (which won the league and cup double that season) and later returned as manager to revive Atletico's fortunes and guide them to their next league title in 2014 — which will remain one of football's greatest feats.
The Argentine returned as a legend of the club, as somebody the fans identified with instantly. He also understood the club inside out, placing the interests of the team above everything else and wearing his heart on his sleeve. His transformation of Atletico has been among the finest in the modern era.
It has been a matter of great pride for the supporters that Simeone, who they consider one of their own, is the club's main man, and conversely, a great honour for Simeone to be leading "his club". The unity has been there for all to see and feel. An infectious positive energy has made a difference at the club.
This is something that had been missing at Real Madrid. Rafael Benitez, a man of science over emotions, couldn't be more disconnected with the fans, the players and the club. Prior to him, Carlo Ancelotti was a respected neutral figure with a great coaching pedigree and the man who ended Real's wait for 'La Decima' (the 10th European Cup) — but he was still someone who had made his name elsewhere, both as player and manager.
Jose Mourinho, Manuel Pellegrini and Juande Ramos — Real managers before Ancelotti — none of them had any previous connection with the club. Bernd Schuster did, but hardly a deep one considering he spent more years playing at Barcelona than Real, and even turned out in Atletico colours!
Enter Zinedine Zidane.
A man of few words, great aura, very little coaching experience, but the rarest of footballing pedigrees. Zidane is Real's Simeone in his own right: A club legend who spent five years (2001-06) as a 'Galactico' at Real, and won La Liga and the Champions League trophies, along with winning the Ballon d'Or for the third time in 2003. He has the respect and backing of fans, and he's somebody who's in tune with the demands of modern Madridismo and the club itself. Those white handkerchiefs at the Bernabeu? They're unlikely to ever be out for Zidane — a more respectful method will likely be sought if at all required.
His appointment in January had not come out of the blue. Prior to him joining as manager, Zidane had already been at the club in various roles: Advisor to Real president Florentino Perez in 2009, sporting director in 2011 (basically a liaison between Perez and Mourinho), assistant coach to Ancelotti in 2013, and head coach of Real Madrid Castilla in 2014, the club’s B team in the Spanish second division.
Zizou's methods, though, naturally differ from those of Simeone. Where the Argentine aims to extract every last inch of commitment from his players, who are technically inferior to Real's, the Frenchman focuses on ensuring a suitable environment, both on and off the pitch, for his flair players to flourish on the pitch, only demanding they do not forget their defensive duties.
There's no maniacal jumping around in Zizou's dugout and no heading of each ball or making of each tackle. Or even micromanaging every little detail. A calm, understated figure patrols the touchline; one who, for most part, realises the stature of the players he's dealing with and lets them get on with their jobs on the pitch.
Efficient man-management of Real's superstars has been Zidane's biggest weapon. He has repaired the damage that Benitez had inflicted on the squad, and got the best out of most of his players. Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema are happier, and feel wanted again; James Rodriguez is back in the fold; Isco is no longer overlooked.
The mood at the club changed significantly on Zidane's arrival in January and it yielded results too: Real won their 11th Champions League (beating Atletico no less) and lost La Liga only by a point to Barcelona.
It certainly helps that, in comparison to a Benitez, Zidane can wave a list of his career achievements as a player to squash the giant egos at the club. Or maybe he doesn't really need to; it is an implicit understanding. Instead, according to players and staff, his humility has been the standout trait. This isn't to suggest that the Frenchman isn't well-equipped tactically, or will not be in the future. But he has largely chosen to keep things simple.
Barcelona legend Pep Guardiola, dare we say it, is his inspiration in the coaching world. Zidane attended and closely observed Guardiola's training sessions at Bayern Munich and those of Marcelo Bielsa at Marseille as part of his coaching licence course.
But he has generally stuck to the same system: A 4-3-3 (though reports suggest he may deploy a 4-4-2 to counter Atletico). His tactics may have been unspectacular but they're consistent. Substitutions have been straightforward. Four straight draws at the end of September raised questions and represented a blip of sorts, but his side is still sitting two points clear of Barcelona at the top of the league and six ahead of Atletico, while currently on a brilliant run of 23 league matches unbeaten.
Zidane's immediate mission is to end Real's domestic woes against Atletico, one of only two sides to inflict defeat on the Frenchman thus far (the other being Wolfsburg in the Champions League, which counted for little in the end). Simeone's men have successfully stifled Real's threat in recent years. Cristiano Ronaldo hasn't scored a goal in the last six derby fixtures; Gareth Bale has only ever managed one.
In 11 meetings since the 2014 Champions League final — spanning La Liga, Champions League, Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup — Real have only beaten Atletico twice and only once in regulation time. Both came in the Champions League, one of them in the 2016 final. Real managed only seven goals in these 11 meetings, a sign of the stranglehold Simeone has had on the fixture.
Saturday will be a huge test of Zidane's credentials, especially in the absence of the injured duo of Toni Kroos, a metronome in midfield, and Casemiro, who has played an important role in shielding the defence. Also missing are Alvaro Morata and Pepe, but Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos, the scourge of Atletico in Europe, are both expected to make a timely return.
It's believed that a mid-season 0-4 defeat at the Vicente Calderon stadium accounted for Ancelotti's departure at the end of the 2015 season. That's how important these derbies are. This one is even more special to Atletico: It could be their last ever at their iconic stadium. In the 'Calderon' of hate, can Zidane's calmness prevail and stem the derby tide?
Akarsh Sharma is a New Delhi-based writer. He tweets at @Akarsh_Official
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