Zinedine Zidane the artist has downed his brushes, Zinedine Zidane the sculptor and has picked up his tools.
2016 was a special one for a certain team in white- 53 games played, 40 wins, 11 draws and just 2 losses in a calendar year. Add in their 11th UEFA Champions League, another European Super Cup and a Club World Cup, it’s safe to say Real Madrid have had a phenomenal year.
As organisations, Real Madrid along with Barcelona are extremely political in nature. Zinedine Zidane, a Real Madrid hero, was hence the right fit for the club. His calming presence, sense of authority, stature in the community and experience of being a world-record signing meant that he is uniquely equipped to handle the circus that a Real Madrid manager is usually central to. Currently, he along with Raul and Vicente Del Bosque are the only 3 people to have enough stature within the Madridistas that their word will be automatically taken as gospel.
Foresight and planning are words that are rarely associated with Real Madrid and especially Florentino Perez, but make no mistake, Zidane’s appointment has been building up for a while. Stints as the Special Advisor to the first team, Sporting Director, Assistant Manager, Real Madrid Castilla Manager means Zidane has been thoroughly embedded in the club’s organisation across various levels.
It is a part of a larger process by Real Madrid to have more ex-players in coaching and managerial positions. For instance- Santi Solari at Castilla, Guti at the Juvenil A and Alvaro Benito at Juvenil C levels. Zidane’s phenomenal footballing career where he literally won every major trophy a player could win, along with a few of those Ballon d’Or or FIFA Player of the Years and scoring THAT goal, ensures that his word carries weight on the training ground. And if someone tries to act up in training they always remember the minor fact that Zizou has a slight mean streak leading to cases of mild stamping on player chests, head-butting in a World Cup final, etc. You know, the normal stuff.
Yet for some reason, Madrid’s exploits under Zidane have been dismissed as lucky. You can only beat the team that is in front of you and despite everything Atletico did, all the teams they beat to reach the finals, when push came to shove, they did not play that well in the final and deservedly lost. Lest we forget, Real Madrid faced Atletico and Barcelona 5 times last year and only lost one game, winning 3 and drawing 1.
The main thing about Zidane’s first year in management has been the motivation levels of the entire squad, “squad” being the key word. Even the bit-part players are supremely motivated and come in and do the job whenever called upon. It could be a 10-minute cameo or an entire game.This is something Carlo Ancelotti struggled with; his tendency to pick his favourites unless they physically couldn’t play meant that when injuries piled up, the substitute players often suffered terribly due to a lack of match fitness and motivational issues. That is not an issue now.
Players like Kovacic, Lucas, Nacho, Isco, Mariano, Morata and Asensio have all come off the bench or rotated in due to injuries, and had a positive impact on the team. James Rodriguez, the last Galactico signing, has been consigned to the bench and is effectively a 3rd choice substitute simply due to the meritocracy that Zidane has inspired among the team. Zidane being Zidane means that he has the authority within the club and the fans to simply ignore a player of James’ calibre just because it is for the collective good of the team.
Zizou’s tactical approach is pretty unrefined at times. A simple 4-3-3, Casemiro shielding the back four of Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo with Modric and Kroos pulling the strings either side of him and the BBC up top. However, Zidane is not a glorified cheerleader despite what you may think. What he does well is he accepts his limitations and lets his coaching staff handle the technical and tactical aspects. He has the players compensate for a lack of tactical sophistication with immense work rate and intensity.
The 11 on the pitch work as a team, closing down space, pressing, winning the ball back and getting it forward. Big-game Real Madrid are truly a sight to behold at times with every one working their collective socks off. That said, calling Zidane a tactical dullard is off the mark too.
Three particular instances pop into mind where he showed his speed of learning the tools of the trade. The 4-4-2 switch in the Madrid Derby this season was an effective change and took Atletico by surprise. A far more subtle change was in the second game against Sporting in this group stage when Ramos, who usually plays on the left of the centre-back pairing, was moved over to the right because Zidane wanted Varane’s burst of ridiculous pace to counter Gelson. That said, my absolute favourite is the training ground routine which was used in 2 successive games to score late goals by Ramos. Look closely and you realise that whoever is going to pick Ramos up, for instance Pique, has Lucas Vazquez to deal with. The loveable dynamo made sure he was a bloody nuisance; getting in the way, blocking, shoving and doing everything he could to just put off the opposing player. The ball comes in, Ramos finds himself in space and Ramos does what Ramos does and sends all the Atletico Madrid fans into another bout of PTSD breakdown.
Zinedine Zidane’s coaching style, in fact, reminds me a lot of Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho’s approach. They were never reinventing the wheel or coming up with new-fangled tactical approaches like a Sacchi, Cruyff or Pep. Instead, they got the basic tactical organisation spot on and had a group of well drilled, highly motivated players working effectively together as a unit. That is exactly what Zidane aims for. Granted, he often plays quite a seemingly reckless formation having Kroos, James Rodriguez, Asensio, and Isco on the pitch simultaneously and trusting them to work and compensate for the lack of a designated holding midfielder.
These are exciting times to be a Real Madrid fan. You simply do not go 40 matches in a row unbeaten by some nebulous concept of luck. This streak, the titles, the games, all have been won by hard work on the pitch. Zidane’s leadership has imbued the squad with spirit that hasn’t been truly seen since the peak Real Mou-drid team in 2012. With Juanito’s spirit coursing through their veins (refer to the stupid number of late goals scored to get points this season) and the sheer quality of the first team and the bench means Real Madrid are hopefully on course for their first league title since 2012. While the UEFA Champions League would be nice, Zidane surely has to prioritise the League title considering the 2 point gap over Barca, a game in hand, plus a neutral head-to-head record which means Barca effectively are 6 points behind.
Zidane the player’s legacy is cemented, now Zidane the manager is forging his legacy. Having traded the jersey and the football studs for a suit and boots, Zidane has taken to remaking the team in his own vision.