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Santiago Solari: The right man at the right time for Real Madrid

23:00 GMT 16/11/2018
Santiago Solari Real Madrid
Antonio Conte looked set to succeed Julen Lopetegui as coach but Santiago Solari has quickly won over the president and the players at the Bernabeu

Whether by design or good fortune, the appointment of Santiago Solari as Real Madrid's permanent coach may well turn out to be a case of perfect timing for the current European champions.

It was probably only ever going to be a matter of time before the Argentine found himself in the Santiago Bernabeu hot seat. But when Solari was first named as interim manager following the departure of Julen Lopetegui, it was thought he was just keeping the seat warm for Antonio Conte.  

Spanish Football Association (RFEF) rules only allow clubs 14 days' grace before demanding that they 'stick or twist' on caretaker coaches. 

And with four wins on the bounce in all competitions – and 15 goals scored in the process – Solari showed right from the start that he was ready for the top job.

Once again, Sergio Ramos' input would have certainly influenced the final decision. Asked about the reputed 'iron fist' approach of Conte, Ramos replied pithily, "Respect is earned, not imposed," before adding that, "Sometimes knowing how to manage a dressing room is more important than technical knowledge."

Game over for Conte!

Consequently, Solari has been handed a contract until June 2021 and the feeling is that, for the time being at least, normal service has resumed at the Bernabeu.

Comparisons between Solari and Zidane are inevitable, certainly in terms of their way of handling and massaging the colossal egos that inhabit the hallowed portals of arguably the most famous football club in the world.

Characters such as Zidane, Solari, Carlo Ancelotti and Vicente del Bosque were clearly suited to that particularly tricky task; Rafa Benitez, Jose Mourinho and Lopetegui were not. 

The coaches who place a priority in group dynamics and have a relaxed approach to management tend to succeed at Madrid.

It would be a mistake, though, to dismiss Solari as merely a good man-manager; he is much more than that and his two-and-a-bit seasons as coach of the Real Madrid Castilla side is evidence of that.

Solari, of course, had been a successful player at Real from 2000 until 2005 and returned to the club in 2013 to coach one of the youth sides. He was in his third campaign when he was entrusted with the responsibility of leading Real's reserves during the 2016-17 Segunda B season.

When he took over that Castilla side, the media was often obsessed by the team’s league position, which was often only mid-table. They missed the point. The target there was never promotion but rather the task of turning great potential into great players.

Under his tutelage, youngsters like Mario Hermoso (currently at Espanyol and recently called up into Luis Enrique's Spanish squad), Achraf Hakimi (starring on loan at Borussia Dortmund), Oscar (on loan at Leganes), Phillip Lienhar (Freiburg) all blossomed. Meanwhile, Javi Sanchez, Federico Valverde, Alex, Reguilon, de la Fuente, Fran Garcia, Sergio Lopez and Vinicius Junior have all 'graduated' into first-team contention.

What he showed in his time at Castilla is that he is a man who loves coaching young players and, more importantly, knows how to motivate youngsters because he understands them.

His family is imbued with a football DNA, with the sport coursing through their veins. Father Eduardo and Uncle Jorge – as well as two of his four brothers, Esteban and David – all became professionals. All apart from David represented Argentina.

Yet Santi is not just your run-of-the-mill product of a footballing family.

I have known him for a long time but we really got to know one another when I was researching my biography on Leo Messi. I was looking for details and anecdotes about Messi and his hometown of Rosario, where Solari also hails from. I toured the city with Santi and found him fascinating. 

A worldly, scholarly, unfailingly polite and educated man with a respectful understanding of the football industry and all those elements that are contained within it, Solari understands the importance of having a comprehensive knowledge of the club and the personnel that you are representing. He also recognises that there must be respect for the hierarchies within a changing room.

He took me to some of the dreadful pitches and pieces of wasteland that the young Messi used to train on and I dared to suggest that this was great for him on the basis that if he could play there, he could play anywhere.

He swiftly corrected me, pointing out that bad pitches did not make for good players but rather bad habits, and that to make good players even better you needed good facilities, not bad ones. Two days of discussions ensued, and I realised that he was, and is, right. But he let me reach that conclusion on my own, instead of imposing it upon me. Again, intelligent man-management.

It remains to be seen how long he will remain in charge at Madrid and whether the club will look to attract a higher profile manager at the end of the season. I believe that the club wants to protect him and use him to put out fires for the next few years but, whatever happens, the likelihood is that there will always be a job of some sort for him at Real Madrid.

He is a humble man but one who will know how to deal with superstars. If he can combine that with an understanding of the psyche that rules the roost in the Madrid dressing room, then he will almost certainly get the best he can from his Galacticos.

He has already shown tactical flexibility in his four matches as a caretaker and has made it clear that it is important to him to play with the widest possible pitch, which means the full-backs will be crucial in his approach to the game.

Replacing injured players like Casemiro with Dani Ceballos, and also introducing youngsters like Javi Sanchez – who had made his debut days before against Viktoria Plzen in place of Reguilon – showed his intent. Age will not be a determining factor when it comes to picking players.

He has left Isco on the bench for three consecutive games because he still hasn't totally recovered from an appendicitis operation and he has also given Marco Asensio a break for two reasons. Firstly, the winger is not in the best form. Secondly, Solari wants to take some pressure off Asensio, who many were, erroneously, beginning to look to as the club's match-saver.

Solari is aware that he needs more from Gareth Bale and he has not been shy about mentioning it in press conferences. The Welshman still looks disconnected from the play at times but Solari will be buoyed by the fact that Karim Benzema has already enjoyed an upturn in his fortunes in front of goal. 

Elsewhere, the 18-year-old Vinicius will continue playing, primarily because Solari believes that regular game time is the best way to improve young players. However, there’s also the fact that the new boss understands that a €60 million signing (if one includes commissions) cannot be left languishing on the Bernabeu bench.

In short, Solari knows how things work at Real and, right now, Real are working well under him. Indeed, they are already back to within four points of Liga leaders Barcelona.

Santi’s smile and subtle approach has won everybody over and now he wants to convert that early success into trophies.