Zinedine Zidane steps down: Real Madrid manager's exit on his own terms shows his immaculate sense of timing and occasion

It has always been about the timing. Among the many things he gets right, timing his moves perfectly is the enduring hallmark of Zinedine Zidane. And he does them on his own terms; never stays for too long, a man highly aware of his place in the world. This has been an enduring theme to his career.

When Zidane retired from international duty for the first time in 2004, he said, “It's important to know when your time to go has come.” He turned on his decision a year later, only because he felt confident that a return could bring back the glory days. They nearly did.

 Zinedine Zidane steps down: Real Madrid managers exit on his own terms shows his immaculate sense of timing and occasion

File image of former Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane with Champions League trophy. AP

Zidane’s eventual retirement from professional football a year later, with 12 months still left on his contract with Real Madrid, was once again on his own terms — “It’s my decision and it’s final” —as he realised that things were likely to get worse if he continued playing, in terms of his form and fitness. His retirements and return caused surprise every single time.

On Thursday, it was as if Zidane was insistent to repeat the trope. Yet again, he left when he wished so, claiming that the challenge of maintaining Real’s success was beyond him. The surprise was widespread once more;  Zidane was a step ahead of everyone else — just like his playing days. The element of surprise was so crucial to his play; he has not really changed, still.

To top it off, there was no disgrace this time. Nothing akin to a sending-off in a major final. Nor any disappointment which would be revealed at the expense of Zidane’s calm disposition. Instead, it was his opponents who may have been tempted to headbutt in frustration.

Although the bald head of Zidane was the subject of conversation last Saturday, it was only because he was stunned by Gareth Bale’s brilliance. No straining of the neck this time to fell an adversary. Instead, the expression of shock was enacted by Zidane’s hand as it landed gently on his head in admiration.

The appreciation, though, must extend to the manager, even as we accept arguments against it. Liverpool were certainly not the first side to feel they had missed a chance to defeat Real Madrid in this season’s Champions League. Juventus, Bayern Munich, and Paris-Saint Germain had suffered in a similar vein, giving weight to the sentiment that the stars had aligned for Zidane.

However, Madrid’s success under the manager is primarily down to the fact that he judges his players better than anybody else. Opponents were always left pondering the myriad ways in which Zidane’s players could hurt them. When required, the tactics were changed. Isco was brought in when Madrid’s formation had begun to acquire predictability last season, providing a new shape to the side. Zidane complemented the fluid tactics with the use of substitutes in a way that often proved decisive. The manager demonstrated a knack for changing games, the players introduced offering Madrid a tactical edge. Talk about timing.

But as Madrid’s league form showed this year, there are limits to what any coach can achieve at the top level. Although Zidane managed to lead his players to a third straight Champions League title, basic errors on the domestic front ensured that La Liga defence never really took off while an early Copa del Rey exit at home to Leganes compounded pressure. Zidane was aware that he was not very far from the sack, possibly out of the job even before the season finished if Madrid had exited the Champions League early.

But as the campaign went on and the defending European champion progressed towards a three-peat, Zidane’s bargaining chips grew taller. This meant that a lid could be kept on the supposed tension between the manager and club president Florentino Perez — the pursuit of goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga against Zidane’s wishes was apparently a bone of contention. With his players nearing a historic win, the Frenchman was ascendant and could once again assert his will.

The assertion arrived in the form of Thursday’s resignation. Unlike many hallowed figures in the past, Zidane was not going to suffer the ignominy of a sacking by Perez. He was going to leave when nobody could complain about his work, a departure when he stands at the top of the game. In the past two-and-a half-years, Zidane has guided Madrid to nine trophies — the league title of the 2016-17 campaign showed that his success was not limited to just tournament football — and no argument works better at the club than silverware.

Still 45, Zidane should go on to win more in the future, although his return to management will have to wait until his break is completed. He insisted on Thursday that he was not tired but he could not overlook the limits to his capabilities. Zidane elaborated upon the issue at hand.

“There are difficult moments when you can wonder whether you are the right person still. I do not forget the hard times, as well as the good times, and that makes you reflect. And this is the right moment. The players need a change…We always want more from the players, and a moment comes when I cannot ask them for more. They need another voice, to return to winning again,” he said.

The third year, as the great Bela Guttmann said, is truly fatal. The Hungarian coach had forcefully argued that, by the end of the third year, the coach’s message becomes predictable and this has an impact on the players’ motivation and energies. On Thursday, it seemed, Zidane sang from the same hymn sheet.

“I am doing this for the good of this team, for this club. It would have been difficult for me to win again next year. There have been good moments, but also difficult times. I do not forget that. And at this club you must know this. I do not want to start a season and have a bad time, I want to end with Real Madrid when everything is going well,” he added.

Everything is certainly going well for Zidane but not so much for the club. With Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale’s future under doubt, Madrid might be approaching a slide. Zidane maintained that this was not the reason behind his decision and that might be the case. But, as the Madrid legend knows, the clutches of entropy do not spare anyone. Perhaps, the decline would begin with the formation of a weakened squad. Madrid will certainly be worse off in the absence of either Ronaldo or Bale, or both. Zidane’s chances of success following their departure would have been significantly low.

So, content with what he has achieved, the manager has decided to walk before he loses what has been well-earned. With his resignation, Zidane has also ensured that his status at Madrid will only rise in his absence. And he could possibly find more glory in a new job, at a new place. This certainly did not seem possible anymore in Madrid. The chapter had to end now.

“I did it as a player, and now again as a coach. This is the right moment to end things well.” Zidane continues to master time.

Updated Date: May 31, 2018 21:59:04 IST