Zidane’s Youth Revolution

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Adura Adegbuyi is a Real Madrid fan based in Toronto, Canada. He is on Twitter at @aduraadura.

Zinedine Zidane replaced Rafa Benitez on January 04, 2016 as head coach of Real Madrid after a terrible mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly from the squad despite going into the season with high hopes and expectations. Benitez was hired to coach Real Madrid after Florentino Perez swiftly fired Carlo Ancelotti for ending the 2014-15 season without a trophy. Zidane took over the reins at halfway point in the season with Madrid sitting in third place, four points behind first place Atletico and two behind Barcelona.

Zidane – who retired in 2006 as one of the greatest to have graced the turf of the Santiago Bernabeu with his elegant skills – won one Spanish league title in 2003 and the 2002 Champions League. He scored the iconic volley at Hampden Park in the victory over Bayer Leverkusen to seal the La Novena (club’s ninth European title). After a few years out of the spotlight he became an assistant to Carlo Ancelotti before taking over the Castilla side in 2014. He had worked as assistant to Jose Mourinho previously but the two fell out before the Portuguese left his post and Zidane began working with the youth set up.

“I said to them that I’m very happy to be beside them, that a new adventure is starting and that we are going to try to do everything possible to complete the objectives,” Zidane said during his first press conference when promoted to Madrid manager, highlighting that his management style would be different from his predecessor’s.

That he knew most of the first team players and worked with them in competitive situations during his time as Ancelotti’s assistant played a massive role in his ability to command respect, helping him establish his authority in the dressing room. Being a club legend also insulated him from the pressure that usually comes with the job from both within and outside the ‘white house’.

When Zidane was asked if he would be Real Madrid’s Guardiola, he simply replied: “There is no need to do that. Guardiola is Guardiola and I am going to try and do things as well as possible. Guardiola is a fantastic manager and is doing really well, but I am not going to make comparisons.”

Some football pundits will compare Zidane with Guardiola due to the fact that both were former legends at their respective clubs as a player who later became the coach of their youth sides and then went on to become the head coach of their senior teams. Zidane is right. There is no need to compare him to Guardiola because he was on the bench as an assistant coach when the senior team lifted La Decima and Copa Del Rey trophies in 2014. Guardiola never worked with the senior team in any capacity before he became the head coach.

However, there is one area where comparisons with Guardiola can be made. The legacy that looks after and promotes youth. Guardiola built the spine of his team around Valdes, Pique, Busquets, Pedro and a certain 22 year old Messi who were all below 26 years of age and were La Masia graduates. Despite Zidane not having the luxury of bringing in new players through transfers and not having a summer preseason to shape the squad after his own philosophy, he was able to restore confidence to the squad and revived the camaraderie that was lost in the dressing room.

Meritocracy was the order of the day at Valdebebas (Madrid’s training grounds) regardless of price tags or status within the ranks. Youth players were given more prominent roles and the Zidane made the Madrid faithful realize that the club has been sitting on an untapped goldmine.

The most significant move Zidane made as a coach was to include the 24 year old Casemiro – a Castilla product – as part of his starting XI while the 80 million euros James Rodriguez was left on the bench. Casemiro anchored the midfield and provided the much needed balance that was lacking in the team since Xabi Alonso had left for Bayern Munich in the summer of 2014.

Next to get a more prominent role was the 24 year old Lucas Vazquez – another Castilla product. Vazquez was always the first option to start upfront whenever any one of the BBC was unavailable. Vazquez’s ability to take on and break away from opponents, explosive speed and skill on the ball make him dangerous across the front line. His work ethic, commitment and perseverance have made him one of Zidane’s trusted soldiers and a new favourite with the fans.

Dani Carvajal – another 24 year old Castilla product – also became an integral part of the side after winning back the right-back spot from the 31.5 million euro signing, Danillo. After series of erratic displays during the business end of the 2014-15 campaign – most notably the overzealous tackle on Carlos Tevez that eventually cost Madrid a spot in the Champions League final – Danillo was brought in from Porto FC to take over at rightb-back for the 2015-16 campaign. Carvajal accepted the challenge and responded. He went back to the trenches, trained harder, fought and won back his spot. The meritocracy and the trust in the Castilla graduates ensures that equal opportunities exist and that a level playing field is guaranteed in the battle for a first team place under Zidane.

The 2016-17 season has started and Zidane has continued his youth policy. Real Madrid have been unusually quiet in the transfer market by their own standards. It was widely expected that Zidane’s first transfer window would provide him the chance to bring in high profile signings. Lewandowski, Aubameyang, Hazard and Pogba were among the names linked with Madrid. Instead, the only players to move to the Bernabeu were Alvaro Morata and Marco Asensio. Fabio Coentrao was recalled from his loan spell at Monaco and Mariano Diaz was promoted from Castilla.

Morata – a 23 year old Castilla graduate was bought back from Juventus after a successful two year spell in Turin. During those years in Italy, he showed his quality over two seasons where he won the league twice, two cups and an Italian Super Cup as well as playing and scoring in the Champions League final. That experience will help him provide a stiff competition to Karim Benzema and provide another attacking dimension for the coach whenever the need arises. Due to the injuries to Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, Morata and Asensio have started all of Madrid’s games so far this season, and performed very well.

Zinedine Zidane is changing the culture at Real Madrid from a purely ‘galactico’ policy to one that also looks after and promotes youth. Wining the Champions League in his first attempt has already showed that trusting the squad’s homegrown talent can bear fruit. Now, he must build on that and prove that this policy is sustainable in the long term.

Winning trophies is Real Madrid’s lifeblood. However, a youth policy that yields results, wins trophies and creates a homegrown dynasty would be a greater feat that would perhaps surpass even the legacy of ‘La Quinta Del Buitre’.

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