There can be more behind a smile than one might assume. When Zinedine Zidane took charge of Real Madrid in January 2016, he looked like a panic hire armed with little but charisma and a golden past. Out of options, president Florentino Perez had bet big on the fairytale in which a club hero returns to lead his team to glory.
It was a romantic thought, but Perez isn’t Walt Disney. Fixing Madrid shouldn’t be that simple. A year earlier, Zidane had failed to reach the play-offs with Madrid’s reserve team in the Spanish third division – yet went on to win the Champions League three years running and lead Madrid into their greatest era since the 1950s.
Three years on we might be seeing a second instalment, that in which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer galvanises Manchester United.
More than a manager
After two Norwegian league titles and a relegation with Cardiff, Solskjaer got the United gig with a managerial CV that, in its own right, might well have ousted him from job interviews in the Championship. But United have won each of their eight games under the former striker.
Like Zidane did, Solskjaer now appears to be teaching us lessons about the demands put on coaches at top clubs. They seem different to those at other clubs. At United or Madrid, perhaps more so than anywhere else, you need to be not just a tactician, but a politician.
The talent, after all, is already there. United want Mauricio Pochettino because he has improved players at Tottenham, but a club with their resources can merely go out and buy the biggest names. Zidane never had to develop players; he just needed them to play at their best.
That hadn’t been the case under Rafa Benitez, who had arrived at Madrid the previous summer. The press had warned that his defensive approach would suit neither the club nor the players. They were proven right: a squad filled with attacking talent seemed restricted and uncomfortable. The players duly fell out with Benitez, who was sacked on January 4, and Zidane replaced him a day later.
Similar woes hit Jose Mourinho, who had arrived at United in summer 2016. The press had warned that his defensive approach would suit neither the club nor the players. They were proven right: a squad filled with attacking talent seemed restricted and uncomfortable. The players duly fell out with Mourinho, who was sacked on December 18, and Solskjaer replaced him a day later.
Like politicians, Solskjaer and Zidane made promises from the start.
Zidane said that Madrid should always entertain, play the big names and try to win everything. Solskjaer has ditched Mourinho’s self-centred discourse for an emphasis on club values: United should attack, play youngsters and thrill the fans. Just yesterday, Solskjaer was asked about making the top four this season. “That’s not the dream, though,” he said. “We’re Man United: you should always aim to win the league.”
Such messages were everything the fans and directors wanted to hear. But unlike politicians, Solskjaer and Zidane have also delivered on their promises.
Their courageous debuts drew similar metaphors, namely that the players had been unshackled. Allowed to attack, stars who has struggled for months smiled as they waltzed past their opponents, unburdened by orders to stay back or avoid mistakes. United beat Cardiff 5-1; Real Madrid hammered Deportivo La Coruna 5-0. The last time United had scored five goals in a Premier League game before that was Sir Alex Ferguson’s last in charge – that mad 5-5 draw with West Brom in May 2013.
One early theory in both cases has been that the new coach merely benefited from being someone different than his predecessor; anyone could have lifted the gloom. But Zidane and Solskjaer have shown that there is substance behind their smiles.
Particularly, Zidane was so skilful as a player that his strategic qualities were overshadowed. Few ever expected him to enter management. But Guy Lacombe, his first coach at Cannes and his personal tutor for the UEFA Pro Licence, has told FFT that Zidane always had managerial qualities in him. “He has this intimate skill to feel the collective thinking of the team,” Lacombe said. “He has always understood other players.”
Solskjaer wouldn’t just leap off the bench and hit the first ball that dropped. He would write down in a book the chances he missed, then mull over what he could do better. When benched, he would analyse the opponent to find out which spaces to attack if or when he came on. As United coach, he is now dispensing advice to Marcus Rashford on how to finish better. Since Solskjaer took charge, United have been one of the most clinical teams in the league.
This is more fun
There is another parallel between Solskjaer and Zidane: that their teams can wobble at the back. But United and Madrid have so much firepower they outgun most teams. Since Solskjaer took charge, United have scored 17 goals in six league games, the joint-best record in the division.
If their attacking style succeeds, it also matters that it’s fun. In the weeks after Zidane was hired, the players lined up to say how much they were enjoying the new regime. “Things are much better now,” said Luka Modric. As for Solskjaer, the players have talked around the same theme: now that we’re playing the way United should play, we’re happier.
Will Solskjaer get anywhere near Zidane’s success? It is still unlikely, though he has some advantages that Zidane lacked. The pressure on Solskjaer isn’t as great as that put on Zidane, whose Madrid still had a chance to win the league. Where the Frenchman never created a clear tactical identity, Solskjaer doesn’t need to; he has inherited one from Ferguson.
Beyond that, the goodwill Solskjaer has created feels similar to that under Zidane. By summer, the latter had done so well that Perez had to keep him – the players, the fans and the press all wanted Zidane to stay.
Though a caretaker for now, Solskjaer will also hope that, come summer, his job application will have become impossible for Ed Woodward to reject.