The set of circumstances surrounding the Frenchman taking over at Real Madrid were so unique that there is no way to repeat that magic at Old Trafford
On the surface there would appear to be some similarities between what is currently going on at Manchester United and the situation Zinedine Zidane walked into at Real Madrid when he first took the coaching job in January 2016.
Two big institutions pitifully underperforming. A thinly disguised discord running through the camp between coach and players. For Jose Mourinho now, read Rafael Benitez then. On top of it all was a frustrating sense that the club should be running much better.
It is tempting to describe the current Manchester United crisis as a mess of Mourinho’s own making but that would be to ignore the dysfunction elsewhere.
Mourinho doesn’t help himself in certain ways, such as his ill-judged war with United’s best player Paul Pogba or his insistence on playing odd formations like he did at West Ham on Saturday.
His football has never set the pulse racing; his most effective characteristic has always been to get clean sheets from seven members of his starting 11 while making space for the other four to win matches. That skill has malfunctioned at Manchester United.
The game in a sense has passed Mourinho by as coaches at other clubs coordinate attacking moves while he still relies on improvisation.
But there is a hotchpotch quality to the players in the United dressing room and that is not necessarily Mourinho’s fault.
Few would get their game at other top clubs these days – only David De Gea, Pogba and Romelu Lukaku – and others are nowhere near the standards set by their predecessors at Old Trafford.
On Saturday, Mourinho opted to praise the scout who discovered the 21-year-old West Ham centre-back Issa Diop, signed from Toulouse in the summer.
Why not congratulate the player himself?
Well, ask yourself why a manager who failed to get any of the central defensive targets he wanted in the summer transfer window would praise the scouting work of a team who acquired one of the most promising ones in Europe.
The money Mourinho convinced United executive vice-chair Ed Woodward to spend on Alexis Sanchez was very much wasted but he is not the only problem.
United are about six or seven £100m-rated players away from where they should be. That fact alone is one reason among many why Zidane should avoid United.
He would not only be inheriting Old Trafford with its 75,000 fans a week, the league titles, the Champions League, the history and the heritage. He would be taking on all the baggage and turmoil of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
Madrid was Zidane’s home. His boys were – and still are – playing for the youth academy. By scoring that goal in Hampden Park in 2002 he etched his name into Madrid’s club history forever. There was already an indelible bond between Zidane and the club before he took over from Benitez.
He had missed the smell of the grass and no number of administrative roles offered to him by president Florentino Perez – his great champion – could deter his comeback. And so, it was a remarkably specific set of circumstances which paved the way for Zidane to return to Santiago Bernabeu and work his alchemy.
And when he walked through the door he saw Sergio Ramos not Chris Smalling. He saw Toni Kroos not Nemanja Matic. He saw Luka Modric not Jesse Lingard. And he saw Cristiano Ronaldo not Alexis.
That group of players were champions once before and there was clearly another level or two they could go up. Working under Benitez had damaged their morale and left them dissatisfied.
The players who won la Decima saw themselves as custodians of Madrid’s history and Rafa was seen by some as the infiltrator. Those players needed to be put back on their pedestal and who better to do it than one of their own in Zidane, who was with them that magical night in Lisbon.
Arguments will rage forever over just exactly what Zidane did to get three Champions League titles in a row for Madrid. His ability to communicate with the players was clearly a part of it. There were subtle tactical tweaks and most remarkably of all a desire to work with the players already on the books.
Zidane rarely saw the market as a solution to the team’s woes. He knew the players were good enough and it was up to him to make them achieve. The same, respectfully, cannot be done with this United squad.
And besides Zidane’s natural habitat was the Champions League. Don’t forget they were 17 points behind Barcelona in La Liga last season. There is a school of thought in Madrid which would have you believe that Zidane would have been sacked if Real hadn’t beaten Liverpool in the Champions League final.
They failed to win 16 games in the league in total. Zidane had won the league the season before in a record-breaking campaign, but he really had no answer as to how the squad could maintain concentration, motivation and consistency throughout the slog of a 38-game season.
United are not the kind of club Zidane can come into, dust down and turn into multiple Champions League winners. They need someone for a rebuild, for a grind, for the hard yards. He is not that type of manager.
Real Madrid was in Zidane’s heart. He lived and breathed it. He is not a gun for hire like his mentor Carlo Ancelotti who will guide any kind of super club to whatever objective they set out to achieve.
The reasons for the Frenchman’s arrival and for his subsequent success were utterly unique. United would be kidding themselves if they think he could repeat it at a club with whom he has no great love affair.
And for Zidane, what is there for him? Unrelenting pressure, a fanbase totally displeased with how the club is run from top to bottom and a first-team squad of uneven quality. The last few seasons have wrecked both Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho – two far better and more consistent managers than Zidane.