It was the clearest evidence yet of an evolution - or perhaps revolution - in management. Earlier this season, one Premier League player was privately discussing his previous spell working under Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, and what exactly it is that makes the Argentine such a good manager.
The individual started talking about Simeone’s supreme defensive organisation and the intense motivation he derives from his teams, before pausing, and then speaking with real awe.
“It’s also that he’s been there and done it,” the player explained. “He’s asking you to give what he gave, and that brings out more in you.”
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In other words, Simeone’s experience as a top player means more to his squads - and it may yet mean something to the future of elite-level coaching. It does feel both symbolic and significant that a large reason for Real Madrid’s surge to the Champions League final - and the revitalisation of their season - was Zinedine Zidane replacing a 'technocrat coach' like Rafa Benitez mid-campaign.
As such, we have yet another final between two managers who used to be elite players. That does mark a trend, and a definite change from a decade ago.
Back between 2004 and 2007, so much of the discussion in European football was about how a new breed of coaches were starting to dominate the highest echelons of the game. They were almost academic theorists who had as much experience in coaching conferences as on pitches, bringing admirable new ideas and sophistication to the game, and were legitimised at the top level by Jose Mourinho’s Champions League win with Porto in 2004 and Benitez’s success with Liverpool in 2005.
Since Mourinho won the trophy again in 2010, though, every single victorious coach has previously played in the competition at an exceptionally high level: Pep Guardiola, Roberto Di Matteo, Jupp Heynckes, Carlo Ancelotti and Luis Enrique.
That timing may not be a coincidence. The 2009-10 season was just at the mid-point of a period when so many of the financial changes in the game began to take proper effect, creating a group of super clubs at a level way above the rest. That meant they accumulated expensive players - and thereby egos - far more than ever before. In the last few years, the top sides have not just had a core of five or six stars, as was the case even up to around 2005; they have entire squads of them.
It has meant that just applying good tactics to these players has often not been enough, and sometimes didn’t even work. Their abilities - and personalities - had to be facilitated as much as shaped. Different skill sets were needed. Former France manager Raymond Domenech recently argued to the Wall Street Journal that that has created new requirements of managers.
“You need the experience of having been a high-level player, because the psychology of players has changed so much. With their outsize egos… you need someone who is still able to put the lid back on.”
What happened at Real this season is illustrative of Domenech's point. Benitez just couldn’t get the required response out of the players, with many of them resenting his control. Those same players, however, instantly responded to Zidane. They were no longer looking at someone many of them felt above in terms of achievement; they were looking at someone whose playing career they aspired to match. There was just a gravitas from his time in the game that added to his charisma.

Real Madrid's coach Rafael Benitez (CR) walks on the pitch among his players during a training session at Valdebebas training ground in Madrid on December 7, 2015, on the eve of the UEFA Champions League Group A football match Real Madrid CF vs FC Malmo F

Image credit: AFP

It said much that Cristiano Ronaldo was so gushing about him. “I love working with Zidane,” the Portuguese said. “I love his personality and the way he manages us. I'm very happy.”
That is also why it has not been so important that Real’s tactics have often been rather basic, or that they have not always looked truly cohesive as a team. The extra level of application in response to Zidane’s presence has compensated for that.
None of this is to say that the 'technocrat coach' is finished at that level, especially as Mourinho takes over at Manchester United. There is still nothing that convinces in football like good results. They transcend anything, and there are many ways to get them.
New tactical insights will still prove influential, good leadership skills are still inherent, astute decision-making remains essential. If managers have any of those qualities, it doesn’t matter what their background is.
It’s just that there is growing evidence from the super clubs to suggest that, if that background does involve having been there and done it, it will greatly maximise the effect of any of those attributes.
It means there is greater weight to what is being said, to what is being demanded.

Simeone: The final is a very important step for Zidane

It is the perfect trump card in any issue. It is one reason why Simeone has emerged as almost a perfect coach.
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