MADRID (Reuters) - Zinedine Zidane risked tarnishing his record by diving back into the Real Madrid coaching job 10 months after resigning, but in securing the La Liga title in his first full season back, he has showed yet again that no-one is better suited to the role.
One of the finest midfielders of all-time and a league and Champions League winner as a Real player, Zidane collected his second La Liga title as the club’s coach after his side beat Villarreal 2-1 on Thursday, adding to his triumph in 2017.
“He has been the key, he is the captain of this ship,” said Real captain Sergio Ramos of his coach.
“I hope he lasts a long time at the club and that he is appreciated, because he is unique.”
In spite of his remarkable record in two and a half years with Real before resigning in 2018 after winning a record third consecutive Champions League crown, Zidane was often dismissed by some as little more than a smiling motivator.
Described in the Spanish media as an “alineador”, doing little more than picking a starting 11 from one of the world’s most talented squads, his success has also often been put down to being blessed with good fortune.
But this season Zidane has proved to be a superb manager in every sense.
Key to the team’s success has been the bolstering of the defence, which let in 46 goals last season under Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari, before Zidane was persuaded to make a shock comeback in March 2019.
Real continued to look shaky in defence as they shipped six goals in their first four matches this season, but they responded by keeping 10 clean sheets in their next 15.
Their defence has got even better since the coronavirus stoppage, conceding three goals in nine matches and keeping five consecutive clean sheets for the first time since 2008.
They now boast the best defensive record in Europe.
“Zidane is a blessing from Heaven above and I hope he stays with us for a very long time,” said Real president Florentino Perez.
“People can criticise him all they want, we’ll keep on winning trophies with him.”
The coach has also overcome a series of obstacles.
He was in deep trouble when his side were thrashed 3-0 by Paris St Germain in September then beaten by promoted Mallorca in October, as Spanish media speculated he could lose his job and be replaced by a then unemployed Jose Mourinho.
But the coach weathered the storm by leading Madrid to an unbeaten run of 15 league games.
Zidane has also had to grapple with serious injuries, such as losing Spain winger Marcos Asensio for 11 months due to knee surgery, while star signing Eden Hazard’s season has been plagued by ankle problems.
Zidane’s use of his entire squad is evidenced by having 21 different goalscorers in La Liga, while he has also rejuvenated senior players who had been widely dismissed as past their best, including Luka Modric, Marcelo and Isco.
“He is the one who made the difference, the person who put all his faith in the players, something very few coaches do,” Ramos said.
“We always feel that he has our backs and we believe in him.”
Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Ed Osmond