Real Madrid’s top candidates to replace Zinedine Zidane as manager

For years it’s been one of the most sought-after jobs in global soccer: managing Real Madrid, the club with the most European titles in history.

With Zinedine Zidane officially departing Los Blancos, the search for his replacement has begun. But unlike past seasons, this time it’s a little complicated.

Real Madrid: State of the club

Real Madrid are an aging squad and they may not necessarily be in position to invest heavily given their precarious financial situation made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The club’s gross debt is reportedly at $1 billion and they didn’t make any significant player acquisitions during the past season. Outside of Marco Asensio and Ferland Mendy, their most influential players are all (or will be) in their 30s, and there’s talk of a looming outgoing transfer of star French center back Raphael Varane.

So it’s no wonder club president Florentino Perez was driving the Super League bus a few weeks back and has yet to relent despite UEFA threatening disciplinary measures against the three clubs still pushing for it (Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus).

The individual tabbed to take the reins of the team will be dealt a unique situation, which will likely narrow down the field.

The Best Fit: Raul Gonzalez

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He’s Mr. Real Madrid. If there’s anyone who can put the club ahead of personal ambition and help navigate the ship during the turbulent months and years ahead, it’s the steady, dependable, and stoic Raul. His standing at the club should afford him a longer leash with the fans and his legend would only grow if he can overachieve with the squad he’s handed. 

He may also be more inclined to promote younger academy players in lieu of the star signings that won’t be coming. The 43-year-old has been coaching in the Real Madrid youth system “La Fabrica” (The Factory) for the past three seasons, and by all accounts, he has shown he has the mettle to make the jump. Reports paint the picture of a serious, detail-oriented manager who commands the locker room and demands commitment, professionalism and respect for the institution from his young players.

Those who have followed his teams describe a playing style that would also dovetail well with Zidane’s: tactical flexibility and the empowering of players to show personality and problem-solve on the field.

Back-Up Option: Xabi Alonso

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Another Real Madrid fan favorite who left a coaching job with Real Madrid’s youth teams to cut his teeth in Spain’s lower divisions with a different organization: Real Sociedad B (aka Sanse). He led the team to promotion to the Spanish second division for the first time in 59 years. (As a point of comparison, Raul’s Real Madrid’s Castilla team also competed in the third tier league, but fell short in the promotion playoffs.)

The 39-year-old Alonso is said to have strong ideas about the game — during his career he soaked up ideas from the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez and Carlos Ancelotti — and an ability to effectively communicate them to his players.

But Alonso has time and he doesn’t seem in a rush for a big job: “I want to go at my pace and follow my own path [as a coach],” he told Movistar in a recently released video. “I’m at Sanse, and it’s where I want to be.” Given Real Madrid’s current state, it’s probably wise for Alonso to be patient.

Plus, it would also not seem fathomable that Real Madrid would bypass Raul for Alonso, who might prove a better option after Raul should the latter show he’s not cut out for the job.

Unlikely: Mauricio Pochettino

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Real Madrid’s president reportedly made a move to lure the Argentine away from Tottenham Hotspur back in 2018, but the English club didn’t play ball. And Paris Saint-Germain probably won’t this time.

In the past, Pochettino has talked about managing Real Madrid being a dream of his, but he’s under contract with PSG for one more season until June of 2022. Despite reports of a strained relationship with PSG sporting director Leonardo, it would not be a good look for the deep-pocketed Parisian club to see a high-profile manager walk out on them just six months after hiring him.

Pochettino might be another back-up option to Raul in 2022 should things not work out.

Highly Unlikely: Antonio Conte

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Conte just left Inter Milan after winning a Serie A title because of the impending cost-cutting measures at the club. Why would he take a job at another club that is facing similar financial uncertainty?

He was linked to Real Madrid in the past and the rumors won’t go away as long as he’s a free agent. Conte’s uncompromising style would potentially be a great fit in a tough job, but given Real Madrid’s current predicament, it’s unlikely he’d trade one cash-challenged club for another.

And based on the latest rumors, Tottenham Hotspur and the Premier League might be calling any minute.

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