Assistant Coach, Real Madrid 2016-2018; 2019-2021
I arrived at the Cannes academy at the age of 16. It was a club with young players at a high level, but there was one who stood out above all the rest: Zinedine Zidane.
We quickly connected and became friends. It was a connection that grew stronger every day, almost by chance. Players who came from abroad lived with host families, but Zizou is from Marseille and I am from Saint-Priest, a village very close to Lyon.
Zizou’s house had a bidet. I think it was the only one that did. After training, I would go there to get some relief from the blisters I had on my feet from my boots. As a result, we spent a lot of time together.
After that, our paths were very different, but as friends we never separated.
In 1992, Zizou went to Bordeaux. My career was much more modest. I went through several teams in the French second division, before landing at Avezzano Calcio, in Italy, in 1996. That same summer, Zizou arrived in the same country. He was now a big star at Juventus.
From time to time we managed to get together, but mostly we would talk on the phone to see how things were going for each of us. It was very interesting for me to get to know the coaches Zizou had at Juve through his own words.
Later, of course, he signed for Real Madrid, while I continued my career with different small teams until I retired from playing in 2004. By then, I was already showing an interest in the coaching side of things – everything that surrounds a coach’s work and management.
"zizou is very intelligent, but i think the time with castilla was important for him"
Zizou played for two more years, until the 2006 World Cup in Germany. In that time, I started to give some shape to my next step. He would call me to ask how my new experience, and my work with young players, was going.
In those chats, we talked a lot about football, training, concepts. Little by little, I think the idea came to his mind: “Why can’t I be a coach?”
Later, when he stopped playing, he invited me to Madrid several times. There, the project of us working together when he decided to take that step towards coaching was born. Then, in 2013, he called me to tell me that he was going to be assistant to Carlo Ancelotti (below) at Real Madrid. He wanted me to be part of the scouting department, preparing reports on rival teams, while getting to know a bit about the club.
One year later, Zizou’s time came to be a head coach. He took charge of Castilla, Real Madrid’s reserve team. He proposed, as we had agreed, that I be his assistant. Of course, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I think that time with Castilla was important for him. He knew a lot about football, the dressing room, the players, but perhaps he needed a person like me to help him with the organisation, to structure the training sessions, the tactics and the principles of the game.
But Zizou is a very intelligent person, and he quickly learned how to develop his work. He has lots of ideas and knows his own mind, but he is also capable of changing his opinion when he thinks that is the best thing to do.
The first year at Castilla, we said to each other that it was going to be an apprenticeship for both of us. Every coach, no matter what your name is, needs that time. In our second season, we had very good results. The lads played very well.
"there is a lot of pressure at real madrid, but that's football – and we are passionate about it"
However, in the first team, things were not going well. That led to Zidane’s name appearing in the media as a possible option to manage Real Madrid. He ignored the headlines, though. He was 100 per cent focused on achieving the best with Castilla.
Until early in 2016, when everything changed. The coach who was in place – Rafa Benítez – left and the president, Florentino Pérez, called Zizou to ask if he wanted to take over. Zizou then called me.
“How about it?”
I told him it was his decision. “I’m going to follow you,” I said. “I believe in you as Real Madrid’s first-team coach, and I’m going to support you in everything.”
It’s true that there is a lot of pressure at Real Madrid, and a lot of obligation to get results. In the end, though, it’s football – and we are passionate about it. We had the right energy, and we were going to have the best players to work with.
Zizou accepted the challenge.
The first day I walked into the Real Madrid dressing room, I was struck by the great players there. But we quickly spoke the same language. We were there to accompany the players, and Zizou, a master of group management, knew how to connect with them from the very first moment.
We started to work in the simplest way possible, preparing quality sessions the players would enjoy so that they could come back the next day eager to train.
"atlético madrid is a team that waits for your mistakes and punishes you mercilessly"
But that doesn’t exempt you from defeat.
We had a very difficult moment after the first leg of our Champions League quarter final against Wolfsburg. Nobody expected to lose, let alone lose 2-0. We were sad, as is normal after a defeat, but Zizou quickly had positive words in the dressing room. They immediately started to turn things around for the second leg.
“There are 90 minutes left. If we score a quick goal in the second leg, a team like Wolfsburg, with little European experience and at the Santiago Bernabéu, may have doubts.”
There was something else that struck me: the leadership of the captains. Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo and Pepe connected with the coach to quickly give the group a positive energy.
An example of that positivity came from Cristiano, the day before the second leg against Wolfsburg. It was usual for him that, before every game, he would call me at the end of training to practise free-kicks. We would both stay on the pitch for a while, but that day was different. He told me what was going to happen.
“Tomorrow, I’m going to score three goals.”
“Only you can do it,” I told him. And Cristiano kept his promise: he scored three goals in a 3-0 win (above), and we qualified for the semi finals.
Coming back from 2-0 down in the Champions League is not easy, but after that moment we all knew that we could really win it. To do so, after beating Manchester City in the semi finals, we had to overcome the final barrier: Atlético Madrid. A team that concedes few opportunities, waits for your mistakes and punishes you mercilessly.
"we had to think about how to manage a whole season with a squad of great players"
We prepared the match with great care for the small details, aware that any minimal error could be decisive.
On an emotional level, we knew what a derby meant – and even more so in a final. We wanted to give the players the calm and inner peace to play our football. Then, once the referee blows the whistle, there’s little you can do.
You can only manage the situation at half-time. We led 1-0, and Zizou told the players that they had to stay focused and stick to the game plan. “Don’t concede anything to Atlético.”
However, it was not possible. After their equaliser in the second half, the final went into extra-time (above). There were some difficult moments, because both teams were physically exhausted.
In the end the final was decided by penalties, but for us it was a very nice moment. Winning on penalties is another emotion; it was a new sensation for me.
With the momentum of the Champions League triumph and then the European Super Cup win over Sevilla in the summer, we looked to our second season. Things were going to be different, because we had to prepare the team from the beginning of the campaign. We had to think about how to manage a whole season with a squad of great players.
"there was an incredible union between players and coaching staff, between the team and the city. Everyone was happy"
Zizou’s idea was that all the players should feel important. And, to feel important, a player needs to play. But how to do that for everyone? We came up with our rotation policy. We explained to the players who were playing more minutes that they were going to have to rest. That would give them more energy and mental freshness across the whole season.
Those words look good on paper, but at first it was difficult because players want to play all the time. Zizou convinced them that it was for the good of the squad, though, and that it would help us win as many titles as possible.
We also knew that rotation was a safe bet for us. We had Álvaro Morata, Mateo Kovacic, James Rodríguez, Danilo and many more players who ensured that the level of the team did not drop.
The 2016/17 season was one of many trophies. It started with the European Super Cup I have already mentioned; then the Club World Cup (above), La Liga and the Champions League. For me, though, the most important thing was that it was such an interesting human adventure. There was an incredible union in the dressing room, between the players and coaching staff, but also a special connection between the team and the city, the fans, the president. Everyone was happy.
After that, you might think that all that follows would be easier. But it wasn’t like that. The third season was more complicated for us.
Many of the players who had been part of the rotations left, and a lot of young players came in – like Dani Ceballos, Marcos Llorente, Theo Hernandez and Achraf Hakimi. Perhaps rotating at the start of the season, with these young players, was not the right thing to do. They were at a high level, but they had to take on a lot of responsibility.
"zizou wanted the players to keep winning. he didn't think that was possible with him as coach"
Results in La Liga didn’t go our way. We lost ground at the top of the table and, after Christmas, we were eliminated from the Copa del Rey by Leganés. I don’t want this to sound like an excuse, but it was not just a sporting issue; it was also a mental problem. In football and in any sport, it is very difficult to stay on top all of the time – to ask the players to win every game.
In the end, you lose mental freshness.
Those results had an impact on Zizou, too. He started to receive a lot of stick from the press, very harsh criticism that perhaps influenced his decision to leave the club. I could see it throughout the year, when he told me how the pressures at Real Madrid are psychologically draining. “How does this end and how can we start another season?” he would ask me.
In his mind, he still had an idea of being able to change things. However, with little time left before the end of the season, he told me that he had made a decision.
“If we win the Champions League or lose it, I need to take a break.”
As his assistant coach, I supported him in the decision because I think it’s what had to be done. Zizou also told me something important he had learned from his experiences as a player.
“The players need to see another person,,” he said. “Another coach, with different words and another methodology.”
He wanted the players to keep winning, and he didn’t think that was possible with him as coach. That speaks of his humility.
"our third champions league was the most beautiful of all"
Despite all the difficulties, we reached a third consecutive Champions League final, this time against Liverpool (below) The pressure was greater than ever because of our poor season in La Liga and the Copa del Rey. In the build-up to the game, we looked for a way to relax the group – and we found it in basketball.
Many of them liked basketball, so we went to the Real Madrid basketball team’s facilities in Valdebebas and organised a game. The players had a great time; they were able to disconnect and put aside the pressure.
A few days later, we won our third Champions League in a row. It was the most beautiful of all.
Once Zizou had announced his departure from Real Madrid in a press conference with Florentino Pérez, the first thought we had was to rest with our families. But that didn’t last long.
We soon started watching matches – I’d never had so much time to do so – to continue improving our working methodology. Every month I met with Zizou to talk about what we had seen. Football is evolving, and one way to evolve with it is to watch a lot of games. It allows you to think about different things with a perspective further away from the day-to-day work.
Zizou’s plan had been to coach a team in Europe, but in March 2019 – less than a year after we had left – we returned to Real Madrid. Honestly, I didn’t expect it. I thought he wanted to coach another team. It was a surprise, but the reason he made that decision was very simple.
“They need us there. The club, and the players.”
"we needed to balance the team – we weren't going to have 50 goals a season from cristiano"
Zizou made that decision from the heart, even though he was aware that the challenge was going to be very difficult. Much more so than the first time.
We arrived in March, with no objectives for the team: we were nowhere near the top of La Liga, and eliminated from both the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. We had to maintain a competitive level despite all of this, and to start to prepare for the following season – when for the first time we would no longer have the goals of Cristiano, whose presence had already been sorely missed that season.
What we did was to rethink the team tactically on a defensive level. We needed to balance the team to keep winning, as we weren't going to have those 50 goals a season from him. We made a tactical change at full-back; instead of both full-backs pushing forward, as in our first spell, only one would do so. Sometimes we also defended with a lower block, leaving space to target on the counter-attack.
The pandemic forced us to rethink everything as we approached the end of the season, with 11 matches to be played in unfamiliar conditions. With the coaching staff, we designed an unusual kind of pre-season, where we approached each game as if it were a Champions League final. We had to win no matter what, and for that we needed to be physically very well prepared from the first game. If we wanted to win the league, we couldn’t fail.
The results could be seen on the pitch: 10 straight wins and a draw to finish the season. We finished top of La Liga by five points – a well-deserved title because of the way we had prepared everything.
The following season, however, it was difficult to find a good plan. If I remember correctly, I don’t think we could once repeat the same starting XI all year because of injuries.
"i trust in my own leadership, and i have a strong capacity for resilience"
But we don’t regret it; that experience helped us to learn a lot. We grew as coaches, because we had to vary our systems – we started to play with three at the back and prepared the youngsters to play. Every match day ended up becoming a challenge to produce a competitive team at all levels.
It is true what people say – finishing a season without titles at Real Madrid is a failure. For us, however, failure is not trying. I think it was a positive season in the sense of how, despite the difficulties, we fought for every trophy.
For me individually, there was a key moment when Zizou had Covid. That’s when I had to take charge of the team for a few days. It turned out to be a great experience. I saw that I had the ability to manage a team in training.
Then, when Zizou told me he was going to take a break, he said to me: “You must continue. You are capable, and you have the tactical knowledge to do your job. But you also have the management side of the players. You have got on very well with the players at Real Madrid, which is not easy.”
The idea of being a head coach started to cross my mind.
After the summer of 2021, I felt that I had a lot of energy and the desire to take the next step. I am a person who trusts in my own leadership; I have my personality and my idea of the game, but I also have a strong capacity for resilience. In football, that’s the day-to-day pressure, and I have been lucky enough to experience it at the highest level thanks to Zizou.
He was the first person I told that I had made this decision.
The time has come, and I’m ready.
Author: Tony Hodson