In Valdebebas on Thursday afternoon, Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane announced he would be leaving the club — just five days after his team won the Champions League for a third consecutive year. It’s a pretty stunning turn of events — Real Madrid are the biggest club in the world, and with that status, it kinda goes without saying that the decision has far-reaching implications for the rest of Europe’s elite. But the impact of Zidane’s resignation may most be felt about 10 miles southeast of Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, where Atlético Madrid could take full advantage of this unexpected managerial shakeup.
Zidane’s a smart man, even if his tactics didn’t always show it. He understood that leaving on top was infinitely more preferable than overstaying his welcome. Take his team’s domestic campaign — a shock Copa del Rey quarterfinal exit followed up by a third place finish in LaLiga, 17 points behind champions Barcelona. While a trainwreck isn’t imminent with a squad that’s just won three consecutive European Cups, changes are afoot, and that weighed on the Frenchman’s mind — you could see that during some tense exchanges with the press, particularly during the season’s second half.
Diego Simeone just completed his sixth full season as Atlético boss, and he’s outlasted four Real Madrid coaches now. His side also finished above Madrid in the table for the first time since 2014 despite operating under a transfer ban and moving into a new stadium. Atleti also claimed silverware — something I didn’t expect them to do this season, although it seemed somewhat inevitable once they dropped into the Europa League.
Simeone and Zidane are similar in one key aspect: man-management acumen. Cholo’s tenure in the dugout has resulted in Atlético’s most successful period since the 1970s — and while the Argentine is a very good tactician, the ability to keep his players on his side for as long as he has done is simply remarkable in today’s game. But for the better part of three years, his French counterpart rivaled him — and he arguably exceeded him, trophy haul considered.
The stability Zidane brought to a turbulent dressing cannot be overstated. Coaches brought in before him tried and often failed to launch a project at the Bernabéu, usually stymied by immense player power. Manuel Pellegrini lasted a year. José Mourinho lost respect after two seasons. Rafa Benítez was laughed out of the capital after only six months. In Zidane, Madrid finally had someone who united all these explosive personalities with a near-unanimous respect for their boss. What’s more, he took a very laissez-faire approach allowed them to express themselves on the pitch.
(There was quite a bit of black magic involved as well, but that’s for another time.)
So not only has the stability pendulum swung back to Atlético’s side, but Zidane’s exit also throws into doubt los blancos’ summer transfer plans — this after they operated so methodically over the past few windows. Said plans apparently include José Giménez (yeah, I don’t know, either). The Giménez “chase” is what will most immediately be impacted — the player has given assurances he will stay with Atleti anyway — but Gareth “Señor Final” Bale’s future is up in the air, and there’s always at least a small chance that Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t simply angling for a massive pay rise.
Meanwhile, los rojiblancos moved quickly to wrap up a deal for midfield pearl Rodri and are working quickly to keep Antoine Griezmann while making ambitious ploys to add around him. Of course, there are always unexpected moves in the aftermath of an international tournament, but Atlético are in a position where the 2018/19 squad more or less could be finalized by the time July begins.
Real Madrid possibly will have just introduced a new coach by that time, and there’s little doubt this team will look quite different when they play Atlético in the UEFA Super Cup on Aug. 15. But whether they will retain the Zidane mystique under new management is up for debate. If they lose it (at long last), several clubs will benefit — and few could be more dangerous than Atleti. Certainly, none will be more local: a more immediate threat just down the road.