Few expected Zinedine Zidane to leave Real Madrid and even fewer expected him to come back as coach.
And yet almost 500 days later, he has won the La Liga title, without fuss, without even the improvements he was promised.
On Thursday, in an empty Alfredo di Stefano Stadium at Real Madrid’s training ground, he hoisted another trophy, his second in La Liga and 11th overall as coach.
Zidane currently wins a trophy every 19 games on average and while three Champions League titles out of three was historic, this might be his most impressive yet.
When he was reappointed in March last year, Madrid president Florentino Perez said Zidane had come again to launch “a glorious new era”.
But standing next to him was Madrid’s third coach of the season, taking over a team 12 points behind Barcelona, having just been knocked out and outplayed by Ajax in the Champions League.
Most thought it was a mistake, the coach that had gone out on the highest of highs returning to a team in tatters.
Cristiano Ronaldo was gone and it seemed those that remained had lost the hunger. “We will change things, for sure, and for the years to come,” Zidane said.
Change, though, would have to wait and then it never really came at all. Zidane saw out a miserable 11 games of last season where performances grew worse not better.
Anticipation of a summer overhaul increased as Madrid’s newspapers published polls revelling in which of the world’s best players should arrive.
Kylian Mbappe or Neymar? “I would like them both,” said Perez.
Zidane did not want them all but there was one he desperately wanted, Manchester United’s Paul Pogba, who he was convinced could change everything.
Yet Pogba stayed put and so too did Gareth Bale, who Zidane was assured would be sold. “It would be best for everyone,” he said.
Hazard did sign, for 100 million euros ($114 million), but arrived overweight and then got injured, the opening sequence of his nightmare first year in Spain.
Instead of a sparkling new era, Zidane was handed more of the same but when the inevitable questions came about broken promises, he refused to stoke the fire.
“The decisions that are up to me are on the pitch,” he said.
The trouble was those were no better. Draws against Valladolid and Villarreal were followed by humiliation in Paris. Defeat by Real Mallorca in October left Zidane on the brink of the sack.
“I know how this works,” said Zidane, with Jose Mourinho ready, but perhaps that jolted the players, who beat Galatasaray 1-0 and began to turn the tide.
Zidane grows bolder
Zidane escaped and grew bolder. Fede Valverde came into his midfield and proved the catalyst for change, the Uruguayan bringing dynamism and chaos to an all-too predictable midfield.
“He’s amazing,” said Kroos. “I love this player.”
The defence tightened too, conceding nine goals during a crucial run of 21 games unbeaten either side of Christmas.
Ferland Mendy proved a more reliable alternative to Marcelo at left-back while in goal, Thibaut Courtois blossomed.
“Even as someone who prefers exciting, attacking football, the defence is the most important thing right now,” Zidane said.
In attack, he trusted two young Brazilians, Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo, and between them, Karim Benzema found arguably the best form of his entire career.
“My job is to transmit a sense of calm in the difficult moments,” he said. “To be quiet, patient and positive.”
That ability to exude confidence and diffuse pressure appeared even more valuable as Barcelona descended into turmoil and sacked Ernesto Valverde, the coach that at least kept the team happy, and winning.
And when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Madrid’s players reacted better, coming back revitalised, more determined than ever that an 11-match sprint would end with a trophy.
“After lockdown there was something very particular,” said Zidane on Wednesday. “I could see it in training. The players wanted something.”
Zidane had a bigger squad than Barcelona’s but his willingness to rotate became key.
Tournaments have also been his strength and perhaps he rekindled that mentality. With no time for training, the message was simple: Win.
In that sense, Zidane has silenced the doubters, even if it remains to be seen whether he can rebuild a team or replicate his success elsewhere.
But just as this Madrid were a mess without him, with him they are celebrating again.
Few expected him there but Zidane was right in his first press conference. “Change is for the future, The important thing is I’m back.”