Zinedine Zidane has done things his way as Real Madrid manager
Long-time Real Madrid socios enjoy telling an old story that illustrates the uneven balance of power between presidents and coaches where starting line ups are concerned.
In March 1989, Leo Beenhakker thought that fans' favourite forward Emilio Butragueno looked out of shape. The manager was a strong defender of a high-tempo approach and decided to bench his star for the second leg of a European Cup quarterfinal, replacing him with a less classy, but more physically talented forward named Paco Llorente.
Beenhakker thought that Butragueno would not prevent PSV full-back Erik Gerets from venturing forward but it was nevertheless a risky bet. The 26-year-old Butragueno was top scorer in the history of Spain's national team and he led the famous "Vulture Squad" -- Real Madrid's golden generation, which won five consecutive Liga titles in the late eighties. He also had the Santiago Bernabeu fans in his pocket.
While El Buitre -- the Vulture -- watched from the bench, Real Madrid won 2-1 in extra time to go through 3-2 on aggregate. (Incidentally, the PSV team featured a 23-year-old Brazilian striker named Romario, who that night scored for the first time at the Bernabeu.)
The morning after, Beenhakker received a call from the president's secretary: "Leo, Mr. [Ramon] Mendoza wants to see you in his office". The optimistic Dutchman drove to the Bernabeu expecting a pat in the back and a congratulatory hug.
Beenhakker felt Madrid, who also led la Liga, were on the right path for a great end of season. However, the usually well-mannered Mendoza did not even offer a handshake when the Dutchman entered the presidential office.
"Are you aware of what you did yesterday?" asked Mendoza.
"Yes. We made the semis!" answered Beenhakker.
"No," came the reply. "You put the wealth of the club at stake. You devalued one of the biggest assets we have. You showed no respect for this organisation."
Even though Real Madrid did comfortably win the league that season, a brutal 6-1 aggregate defeat in the European Cup semifinal round at the hands of Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan was too much for Beenhakker, who left the club in the summer.
(Incidentally, Butragueno started both semifinal legs and every league game -- except for two that preceded the clashes with Milan -- until the end of the season.)
The example serves to illustrate the pressure Real Madrid coaches suffer from the club's management. Some line-ups, for example, lead many to believe that the manager chooses expensive signings over less fashionable names, even if they're homegrown players that usually receive a more affable treatment from the demanding, and often fickle, Bernabeu crowd.
If that was the case before, current boss Zinedine Zidane has changed the script and taken advantage of his reputation among the Madridistas to make his own decisions and start his own team.
He has selected Carlos Casemiro as his main defensive midfielder despite more marketing-friendly options such €80 million signing James Rodriguez or Isco Alarcon, who cost €30m, being available.
It's hard to imagine Casemiro, who cost just €7.5m, starring in an ad campaign but the way the Brazilian's intense work has freed Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to increase their offensive participation feels strangely rewarding. It's a triumph of football fundamentals.
Casemiro is not the only example of the Frenchman's meritocratic approach. When Gareth Bale picked up (another) injury before Wednesday's match against Villarreal, Zidane could have easily turned to James or Isco to occupy the Welshman's place. Once again, he decided against it and, instead, Lucas Vazquez was his unfashionable choice.
Like Casemiro, the low-profile Vazquez can hardly be described as a star, but his work rate is second to none. Even though he might not be a world-class talent with the ball, he has enough skill and speed that defenders rarely have a second to rest. His goal, Real Madrid's second, was a great example of how hard work pays off.
Even more impressively, Zidane has made these moves while also keeping James and Isco motivated. Both have shown an enviable level of commitment when coming off the bench and the result is a team that has a solid starting XI and at least three players -- Vazquez, James and Isco -- ready to join the match and add attacking spark.
Ultimately Zidane's job will depend on results, just as did that of Beenhakker and many others before him. But if he fails to deliver, at least he'll have done so on his own terms. And that is a lot more than other Madrid coaches can say.
Eduardo is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers and has been a socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.