Zidane the Poster Boy, but La Liga's Curious Mid-Season Hits Go Beyond Madrid

Tim CollinsFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2016

LAS PALMAS, SPAIN - MARCH 13: Headcoach Zinedine Zidane (R) of Real Madrid CF shakes hands with Quique Setien (L) of UD Las Palmas during the La Liga match between UD Las Palmas and Real Madrid CF at Estadio de Gran Canaria on March 13, 2016 in Las Palmas, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Zinedine Zidane and Quique Setien quickly shook hands before going their separate ways. It was late on a Sunday night of retrospective significance at the Estadio de Gran Canaria, Spain, in mid-March, and for an instant, the pair shared something: empty stares, a common frustration; confirmation of what they'd already suspected. 

That was it, though. That's all they shared.

Or so it seemed. 

As a pair, the managers stood on the touchline that evening could barely have been more contrasting.

Setien, despite enjoying a long and successful playing career, would be known to few outside Spain, and to get to his current post at Las Palmas, he had taken a managerial path involving stops at Racing Santander, Poli Ejido, Equatorial Guinea, Logrones and Lugo. 

Zidane, meanwhile, is Zidane. 

As such, at the end of that night in Gran Canaria, those stares, that frustration and that confirmation were all that they shared. 

Two months on, though, there's something else: Both thriving after despair, both having orchestrated pronounced turnarounds, Zidane and Setien are part of a curious group in La Liga currently justifying an element of football's haste, its perverse way of thinking and its habit for mid-season upheaval. 

They are, after all, success stories among the league's mid-season appointments.

And they're not alone. 

At Real Sociedad, Eusebio Sacristan could be considered the same. At Valencia, Pako Ayestaran has performed a late salvage operation. Ditto for Jose Gonzalez at Granada, while Juan Merino at Real Betis and Juan Esnaider at Getafe have overseen small but important rises for their clubs in the table. 

Zidane is the poster boy in this respect, but it doesn't always work this way. 

Real Madrid's French coach Zinedine Zidane gestures during the Spanish league football match Real Madrid CF vs Valencia CF at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on May 8, 2016. / AFP / JAVIER SORIANO        (Photo credit should read JAVIER SORIANO/AF
JAVIER SORIANO/Getty Images

In Ron Howard's Rush, a film depicting the Formula One rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt in the 1970s, there's a wonderful opening scene in which the voice of Lauda explains the perilous nature of such a career. 

"Twenty five drivers start every season in Formula One, and each year two of us die. What kind of person does a job like this?" he asks. "Not normal men, for sure. Rebels, lunatics, dreamers."

Football managers are not Formula One drivers, no, but such a line is a nice way of thinking about their existence. There is, after all, something daring and almost kamikaze about what they do.

Year on year, they come and go with staggering regularity—football's figurative equivalent of perishing, albeit temporary—most of them pushed, others prepared to jump. As each departs, a hastily arranged replacement steps in, and before the whole campaign is said and done, he too has often gone.

Such a process often makes little sense, reeking of impulsiveness and the absence of planning, but this is La Liga, and this is football. 

Managerial turnover reigns. 

In 2015-16, as is often the case in the Primera Division, the list of coaches thrown on the scrapheap is extensive: Paco Herrera, Lucas Alcaraz, David Moyes, Nuno Espirito Santo, Sergio Gonzalez, Rafa Benitez, Pepe Mel, Jose Ramon Sandoval, Gary Neville and Fran Escriba. 

That's 10 managers across nine clubs; 11 if you count Merino having recently been relieved of his caretaker duties at Betis by Gus Poyet. To put that into perspective, that's one managerial change every 24 days, and it's nothing new (La Liga is not alone in this respect, but other leagues are not the focus here). 

Before this term's upheaval, the number of mid-season managerial changes in Spain's top division in 2014-15 reached 11. Two seasons before that, it was eight. A season before that, it was 10.

Sports Direct with its zero-hour contracts offers more guarantees. 

MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 08:  Real Madrid manager Rafa Benitez looks on during the UEFA Champions League Group A match between Real Madrid CF and Malmo FF at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium on December 8, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Why such a process unfolds so regularly is easily understood. 

Football has an economical landscape in which the outlooks of those that inhabit it change by the day. In La Liga, for those at the top, mere places represent colossal differences in cash, while at the bottom, survival in a sporting sense can also mean survival.

Thus, slides of any description must be halted; a reversal of any kind will be accepted. And the new always carries anticipation—new managers, new ideas, new stimuli, new dynamics. 

Except the new often brings more of the same. 

Last season, Cordoba went through three managers in Albert Ferrer, Miroslav Dukic and Jose Antonio Romero, and never left the foot of the table. Almeria went through three of their own in Francisco, Juan Ignacio Martinez and Sergi Barjuan and dropped two places while doing so. Ditto for Getafe with Cosmin Contra, Quique Sanchez Flores and Pablo Franco. 

The season before, Osasuna were relegated despite replacing Jose Luis Mendilibar mid-season with Javi Gracia. Real Betis were also relegated despite changing bosses twice. Valencia's situation didn't change after appointing Juan Antonio Pizzi. 

That's just the most recent selection, too. 

"One wonders what some businesses would be like if they were run on the same haphazard lines as most football clubs still are," wrote Derek Dougan in the 1970s in Football as a Profession, as revisited by the Guardian's Daniel Taylor earlier this month. "The amateur director has been kicked out of most industrial and commercial boardrooms. But not in football."

Four decades on and such an assessment remains pertinent, as clubs everywhere are guilty of acting with haste and with little sense of direction or vision. Year after year we see it, managers too-often discarded against a backdrop of unrealistic expectations, and subsequent change is regularly not forthcoming. 

And yet here we are in La Liga in 2015-16, and for several the lamentable upheaval has worked. 

Real Madrid's French coach Zinedine Zidane (L) greets Real Sociedad's coach Eusebio Sacristan before the Spanish league football match Real Sociedad vs Real Real Madrid CF at the Anoeta stadium in San Sebastian on April 30, 2016.
 / AFP / ANDER GILLENEA
ANDER GILLENEA/Getty Images

Admittedly, a number of this season's cases could be classed as having too-small sample sizes for definitive assessments, and thus could potentially fall into the pattern studied by Sue Bridgewater in her paper "What is the Impact of Changing Football Manager?"

Bridgewater, who examined the results of Premier League clubs between 1992 and 2008, found that, statistically, a change of manager brought about a small "honeymoon period," before performance regressed to the previous mean, the conclusion that long-term benefits were negligible. 

For the likes of Granada, of Valencia, that's perhaps still relevant here. 

But for others, the sensations leave you inclined to think they've gone beyond that. 

At Las Palmas, the extent of the reversal overseen by Setien has been nothing short of extraordinary. When he took over from Herrera, the man who'd brought the club up from the Segunda Division the previous season, the islanders sat 19th in the table. From eight games they had one win and six goals; five points from a possible 24. 

For Setien, the situation presented familiar issues for a mid-season appointment—the need to work with a squad he hadn't picked, the absence of a pre-season, the demand to win while changing—but heightening the difficulty was the nature of Las Palmas as a club. 

This is Las Palmas' first season back in the top division for 14 years. An outfit based on an island off the coast of Africa—a distance from Spain that makes the simple matter of away games in the league like UEFA Champions League journeys in length—resources border on non-existent. The squad is packed with locals by necessity. Their record signing, Sergio Araujo, cost €2.5 million. There wasn't the ability to make major mid-season moves. 

But it hasn't mattered. 

Las Palmas' players celebrate after scoring during the Spanish league football match UD Las Palmas vs Real Madrid CF at the Gran Canaria stadium in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria on March 13, 2016. / AFP / DESIREE MARTIN        (Photo credit should read DESIR
DESIREE MARTIN/Getty Images

Though change took time, once it arrived Las Palmas exploded. In the lead up to their clash with Madrid and Zidane, Setien's men had given Barcelona a genuine fright, had defeated Eibar at the Ipurua, had hammered Getafe and had ended Villarreal's 14-game unbeaten run. 

Then Madrid arrived, and Las Palmas dominated—even if the scoreboard said otherwise.  

Crisp in possession, confident on the ball, clear in their encompassing idea, the islanders—"whose entire squad cost less than Mateo Kovacic," AS' Luis Nieto had noted in the buildup—were everything their guests weren't, showcasing that Setien has transformed them into one of the most entertaining sides in the division, full of purpose and incision, their identity one of thoughtful creativity.  

On the night, they had more shots and more on target than Madrid, per WhoScored.com, more touches, more passes and more corners. Madrid led all the defensive stats, because for almost an entire half, defend is the only thing they had done. Again, goalkeeper Keylor Navas had been his team's standout. Somehow, Casemiro had nodded home an 89th minute winner. 

"Victory without playing," read the cover of AS (in Spanish) the following day. "A Real-ly spiritless display of disarray," said Marca

For Setien, since dubbed "Mr Midas" by AS, it was confirmation that things had changed, the three straight victories that followed reinforcing it. 

For Zidane, though, it was confirmation that things needed to change. "Playing like this we won't go anywhere," he said that night. 

And that's the thing: Madrid haven't played like that since. 

LAS PALMAS, SPAIN - MARCH 13: Head coach Zinedine Zidane of Real Madrid CF gives instructions during the La Liga match between UD Las Palmas and Real Madrid CF at Estadio de Gran Canaria on March 13, 2016 in Las Palmas, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Mo
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

If that night was one of endorsement for Las Palmas and Setien, it could now be viewed as a seminal one for Madrid and Zidane.

Looking back, that trip to Gran Canaria almost looks like a line-in-the-sand moment for the men from the capital. Since, Madrid have found a sense of structure and identity that was previously missing, with Zidane demanding something from his side, shaping it to his designs and no one else's, and pragmatism standing at the heart of his approach in a way few had foreseen. 

The shift has been immense. Exuding authority, calm and conviction, the Frenchman has changed the entire mood at Madrid, and the club have stormed back into the league title race and marched to a European final. 

This is what the club envisaged when they appointed him. In terms of dynamic, sensations and performances, it's what all clubs envisage when opting for mid-season upheaval, but too often the anticipation or optimism is crushed by realities. By an absence of planning. By the rediscovery of the old despite the presence of the new

It's this, though, that Zidane has overcome. Setien has done the same. Taking Real Sociedad away from the identity crisis of Moyes' tenure, Eusebio has achieved something similar even if the transformation has been less dramatic.  

Gonzalez at Granada and Esnaider at Getafe could follow suit. 

It's a curious season in this respect. Of the La Liga's 10 mid-season appointments in 2015-16, seven have taken their clubs up the table. Some of those rises are still in their early stages, yes, but several are now sustained and definitive. 

It doesn't always work this way.