In Champions League, a Coach With the Right Résumé Can Still Get It Wrong

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The strangest thing about Zinedine Zidane’s rise into the ranks of the finest coaches in the world should, really, be that nobody saw it coming, not even those at Real Madrid who had been observing him up close as he learned the craft.

After retirement, Zidane scratched around a little, looking for direction. He spent time as Real Madrid’s technical director. He served an apprenticeship under Carlo Ancelotti. Eventually, in 2014, he seemed to set his course: He was handed the reins at Castilla, Real’s second team.

Zidane’s 18 months there did little to create the impression that he would emerge as one of the best coaches of his generation. In his only full season, Castilla finished sixth in its pool in Spain’s regionalized third tier, despite being able to call on players with the promise of Marcos Llorente and Martin Odegaard.

For Real’s president, Florentino Pérez, that presented something of a headache. Zidane was an idol to the club’s fans. Pérez knew, at some point, public pressure would mount to hand him control of the first team. In private, he wondered if perhaps Olympique Marseille — Zidane’s hometown team — might ride to the rescue. Maybe Zidane could cut his teeth in the elite game there, then return to Madrid when he was ready.

As it turned out, of course, there was no need to worry. From 2016to 2018, in only two and a half seasons in charge of Real’s first team, Zidane won three consecutive Champions League crowns and a Spanish championship. This year, having returned to the job, he has added another La Liga title to his coaching résumé.

It turned out his performance as the coach of Castilla was no guide to how he would perform as the coach of Real Madrid. In hindsight, the strangest thing about Zinedine Zidane’s rise in the coaching ranks is that anyone at Real Madrid thought that it might be.

Deep down, Maurizio Sarri had to know that his tenure as Juventus manager was over on Friday night. He might have secured the Serie A title in his first — and as it turned out, only — season in Turin, but domestic titles — this year’s was Juventus’s ninth in a row — have ceased to be a relevant barometer by which Juventus judges the success of a campaign.

Everything, instead, rests on the Champions League. Sarri is no fool: He would have been well aware that elimination, even on away goals, at the hands of Olympique Lyon in the round of 16 would not have been seen as meeting expectations. His predecessor, Massimiliano Allegri, was dismissed for falling in last year’s quarterfinals. And Allegri could point to five Serie A titles as mitigation.

Still, it was somehow a surprise when, after a meeting of the club’s executives on Saturday morning, it was announced that Sarri had been fired. If the speed of the decision was startling — brutal, almost, though maybe it is kinder that way — it was nothing compared to the identity of his replacement.

Juventus, as one of the most prestigious clubs in European soccer, would not have been short of qualified candidates. Perhaps Simone Inzaghi, Serie A’s outstanding coach over the last couple of years, could make the step up from Lazio. Mauricio Pochettino, who transformed Tottenham from an also-ran into a Champions League finalist, would have been a coup. Even Zidane might have been willing to listen to an emotional appeal from a former club.

Instead, just a few hours after Sarri had departed, Juventus announced that Andrea Pirlo would step into the role. A statement on the club’s website described in glowing terms Pirlo’s playing career, his appreciation for what Juventus means, his appetite for the challenge of restoring the club to Europe’s pinnacle.

But the statement rather glossed over the fact that Pirlo had taken on his first coaching job, with the Juventus under-23 team — its equivalent of Castilla — just eight days earlier. He has never managed a single senior game. Zidane, in comparison, was a grizzled veteran when he replaced Rafael Benítez at Real Madrid.

At first glance, it is hard to interpret such an appointment as anything other than a reckless gamble. The thinking of Andrea Agnelli, the Juventus president, is opaque enough to prompt the question that Pirlo might effectively be a seat-filler until the club’s great unrequited love — Pep Guardiola — becomes available.

A cynic, of course, might suggest Pirlo’s appointment is a natural sequel to the club’s decision, in 2017, to change its crest, a move that was supposed to signify that Juventus was no longer just a soccer team. Pirlo is, after all, exactly the sort of coach a digital brand able to “deliver lifestyle experiences” would covet.

But there is another possibility: that there is no ulterior motive, no cunning scheme, no kneejerk impulse, no decision made while Friday night’s anger was still hot. It is possible that Agnelli and his colleagues have reached the conclusion — counterintuitive, but not entirely incoherent — that not all experiences are equal.

There is, according to received wisdom, a pattern to how a managerial career should work. A player retires, qualifies as a coach and sets out to learn the ropes at a club. The coach rises through the ranks, maybe becoming an assistant manager. After a while, the decision is made to strike out on their own, to take charge of a smaller team: with a limited budget for their ambitions, but limited exposure for their mistakes.

If they are successful, teams in bigger stadiums or bigger leagues start to take notice. There is an unexpected run in a Continental competition, an appearance in a cup final, a couple of impressive league finishes, given their team’s limited spending power. The coach wins another job, and maybe a title challenge materializes. Eventually, they become sufficiently expert to command the attention of one of the game’s elite.

The stratification of the game over the last decade or two, though, has rendered that pattern obsolete. What useful experience for managing Real Madrid, for example, would Zidane have acquired at Marseille? Real Madrid’s squad is stuffed with vastly experienced internationals. Despite its rich history and its ardent fan base, Marseille, like most clubs in most leagues, must cobble together a side from hopefuls and castoffs.

The skills required to thrive in those positions are as diametrically opposed as the environments themselves. One requires a soft touch and a nose for politics; the other demands an overarching vision and a demagogue’s rhetoric.

At Marseille, a coach might have to correct technique; at Real Madrid, at least one of Zidane’s predecessors found the mere whisper of advice was treated as a mark of disrespect. Marseille would require stout organization and, at times, a defensive approach; Real’s expectation is that it will have the ball.

There are a handful of coaches, of course, with the talent and the reputation to straddle those worlds. Guardiola is both teacher and inspiration, as is Jürgen Klopp. Until relatively recently, José Mourinho would have fallen into that category. Zidane himself almost certainly would now.

For the majority, though, the border is a hard one. Sarri himself is as good an example as any. A hero at Empoli and Napoli, thanks to his expansive style, he has in the last two years been deemed a failure at both Chelsea and Juventus despite winning two trophies in two years. The same fate befell Ernesto Valverde at Barcelona and Niko Kovac at Bayern Munich. None of them are bad coaches. They were just not good coaches for a superclub.

Increasingly, soccer’s elite are heeding that lesson. It has been the case for some time that major clubs would rather appoint from one another than grant the coach of a smaller team the chance of a step up. Coaching Borussia Dortmund, say, offers a better grounding for coaching Paris St.-Germain than coaching Rennes or Nantes.

Now that trend is reaching its apex. Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal all have coaches with comparatively little experience in managing clubs of their status; in making their choices — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Frank Lampard and Mikel Arteta — the clubs’ focus has been less the length of a résumé and more the relevance of a candidate’s background.

If a Guardiola or a Klopp is unavailable, then a recently retired player with charisma and authority is as likely — if not more likely — to succeed as a coach who has worked his way up from the bottom. Pirlo is an extreme example of that, having never coached a game. But in many ways, he is the natural conclusion of the pattern.

There are no guarantees it will work out, of course. There is an element of risk in any appointment, and that is magnified when the appointment has no track record at all to fall back on.

But then Juventus has, by its own estimation, underperformed this season. It has fired two managers in successive years. It has won Serie A on both occasions. Pirlo’s appointment is a risk, but a risk is not the same as a gamble. After all, a gamble implies there is something to lose.

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