By Richard Martin
(Reuters) - Zinedine Zidane brought some success and stability back to a Real Madrid side that was in freefall without him but the Frenchman ultimately proved unwilling to preside over the squad rebuild the club felt it needed.
Zidane called time on his second spell in charge of the club on Thursday, leaving on his own terms as he did in 2018 after an unprecedented hat-trick of Champions League crowns and when he abruptly retired as a player in 2006.
His second tenure was fraught with tension, which came to a head in an unusually fiery press conference in February when he demanded more respect for his team.
Zidane certainly deserved more respect for how he took a side that had become dishevelled under short-lived successors Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari and transformed them into La Liga champions a year later.
His man management skills excelled last season after the three-month pause in play due to the coronavirus pandemic, when his side overhauled leaders Barcelona to sweep to the title with a stunning 10 consecutive victories.
However, the limits of showing loyalty to a core of experienced players while having little faith in new arrivals became apparent the following season.
Zidane barely gave a rest to his trusted midfield trio of Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos or striker Karim Benzema, while marginalising the likes of right back Alvaro Odriozola, striker Luka Jovic and midfielder Martin Odegaard.
The coach also shunned two exciting homegrown fullbacks in Sergio Reguilon and Achraf Hakimi, who were sold to Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan respectively.
Zidane's unswerving loyalty to the old guard seemed at odds with president Florentino Perez's long-term vision for the club, which has led them to sign promising youngsters such as Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo or Brahim Diaz rather than ready-made stars.
The one marquee signing the club made in Zidane's second spell was Eden Hazard, who has been unable to shine due to a hapless run with injuries.
Zidane, meanwhile, always resisted talk of a long career as Real coach, saying in December: "I'm never going to be the Alex Ferguson of Madrid. I want to enjoy myself."
A sense that he was no longer enjoying it became clearer as the season dragged on, even as Real clawed their way back into the title race before losing out to Atletico Madrid on the final day and made it to the Champions League semi-finals despite suffering over 60 injuries.
Zidane's iconic status as a Real player and coach meant sacking him was not going to be easy for Perez, but the coach grew ever wearier with every story in the media about his uncertain status and in the end made the decision for the club.
It came as no real surprise given the various hints he had dropped.
"I work my socks off and there comes a point when it's time for a change," he said two weeks ago.
"But not just for me, for the players and the club, for everyone."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis)