It’s time to appreciate Zidane the manager as highly as the player

“Zidane achieves on the field what everyone dreams of doing just once.’
– Didier Deschamps 

When Zinedine Zidane stepped up to take France’s penalty in the seventh minute of the 2006 World Cup final, the weight of his teammates was on his shoulders, the eyes of the planet on his movements and Gianluigi Buffon was stalking him 12 yards opposite.

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‘Zizou’ casually strolled up, caressed the ball with his instep and chipped his ‘Panenka’ in via the underside of the cross bar. A moment largely forgotten about, it encapsulates the maverick genius of a player much beloved by fellow players and supporters.

Everyone remembers where they were when Zidane infamously head-butted Marco Materazzi in extra-time of the final vs Italy. In a time before social media, his strike against Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League final is one etched in the memories of supporters across the globe. Children of the 90’s will remember attempting the ‘Zidane turn’ in playgrounds worldwide. His legacy stands as one of the most iconic footballers of all time.

Yet, despite his incredible success as a manager, he is not held with the same reverence as a coach as he was as a player.

Zidane’s brilliance as a player is so clear in our minds that it possibly clouds our judgement on his managerial career. When something comes so effortlessly to someone on the pitch, it can be difficult to imagine the person behind the scenes pulling the strings for others. It’s hard to appreciate the conductor when you’ve seen the concert pianist.

In this month alone, Zidane further outlined his managerial credentials, with a comfortable 3-1 success over Liverpool in the Champions League, followed by a Clasico victory over Barcelona in a Madrid monsoon. Last night his Real side managed the dangers of the return leg on Merseyside. These victories shouldn’t really come as too much of a surprise. The Frenchman has merely carried on his managerial record of winning games when it really matters. So why is Zidane not appreciated in the same way as Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino among others?

Manager or Coach

The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome.
Phil Jackson – 11 times NBA championship winning coach

To assess Zidane’s managerial credentials, one must ask what Real Madrid are looking for when they appoint a manager. The Spanish giants don’t seek a coach to instill a culture over time in the mould of Klopp or Guardiola. Real president Florentino Perez wants results and quickly. Winning with immediacy is the only currency at the club.

Zidane’s predecessor Rafael Benitez lasted just seven months in the job. His successor Julien Lopetegui left after four and a half months. To appreciate the job Zidane has done, one must consider the tight rope that managers walk with Los Blancos.

The Frenchman recognised the qualities present in the Real dressing room upon taking over and immediately sought to align himself to the principles the man he previously assisted, Carlo Ancelotti, who once said, “You can talk all you want about tactics or techniques, but if you don’t have the players on your side, you won’t have the collective motivation to put a system in place or the players to make it work.”

Zidane empowers his players with flexibility and his teams are not defined by a rigid style or formation. He prefers his teams play direct as he ‘doesn’t think the Bernabeu would accept one thousand passes without a shot’. While this could be interpreted as a mark against his coaching ability, this approach has enabled Real to excel in the Champions League especially. Zidane analyses and plans for each individual opponent, each game seen as a ‘final’.

The relationships Zidane has formed with his squad members has been key to his successes. The Real Madrid players speak highly of him, and his presence as a former great player adds gravitas in the dressing room. As Luka Modric said, “he told me that I was an important player for him and, above all, that he saw me as a player who could win the Balon d’Or. He needed me to be a key part of the team in an era when we were truly playing well. Those words from Zidane helped me to go further in my play.’’

Zidane has managed a dressing room of serial winners effectively. With the World Cup winners from Spain and Germany in his side, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo previously in situ, Zidane provided the players with simple, flexible instructions which facilitated them to perform at the highest level. He achieved what all top managers do – he kept his best players happy and performing. Just because Zidane does not have a Gegenpress or a tiki-taka style to call his own does not diminish his role in facilitating the achievements of one of Europe’s great sides.

Record

There is arguably a certain element of snobbery when comparing Pep Guardiola and Zidane’s sides. Whilst Pep’s Barcelona teams are beloved due to their style of play, the Frenchman’s side have been largely underappreciated. Whilst style of play is important, Zidane’s achievement of winning three Champions League titles in a row stands alone as the greatest achievement of a modern-day European coach.

The beauty of the Champions League is its competitiveness, with at least five clubs with a realistic chance of winning the trophy each year. Sir Alex Ferguson is regarded as the greatest manager in English football history, but his Manchester United side only reached Europe’s holy grail twice in his 27 years in charge. Guardiola has won the trophy twice and not since 2011 with Barcelona. His crusade with Bayern Munich proved futile and he has yet to reach a semi-final of the tournament with Manchester City, despite significant investment in the team.

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Clubs at the elite level are not buying uncut gems and developing them. At the pinnacle of the sport, managers are tasked with shaping the world’s best players, giving them the tools needed to perform and most importantly the ability to problem solve on the pitch. Zidane has proven masterful at this, with his side consistently weaving themselves through the minefield of the Champions League knockout stages.

Mauricio Pochettino has taken charge of Paris Saint-Germain this season and look to be firm contenders off the back of their impressive victory over reigning champions Bayern. Will Pochettino be classed as a lucky general if he steers his team to the elusive title? He has taken over a side who were finalists last season and contain this generation’s superstar Kylian Mbappé. Should PSG prevail, the narrative will eulogize Pochettino’s influence since taking over as coach.

At the top level of the sport, there is virtually nothing in terms of quality between the elite sides. Zidane’s achievement in winning three Champions League titles back to back is not only remarkable, it is one that we will never be likely to see again. With plans to create a European Super League, Zidane’s achievement with the Real Madrid side of 2016-2018 may be one that’s immortalized. Perhaps further down the line his efforts will be truly appreciated.

Battles to come

On the back of a red-letter week, Real are a point off the summit of La Liga and have a tie with Chelsea to come in the Champions League semi-finals. Whilst Madrid rode their luck in their victory over Barcelona, the win in the tie over Klopp’s Liverpool was comprehensive both on the pitch and the sideline.

In the first leg, Real ruthlessly exposed deficiencies in Liverpool’s defence. For Vinicius Jnr’s opening goal Zidane confirmed that Real ‘knew there was something there [with the long passes forward], We know their full-backs are attacking’. Nathaniel Philips and Trent Alexander Arnold were ruthlessly exposed.

Real’s approach in the second leg differed, with his side happy to sit off Liverpool and soak up pressure at Anfield. Aside from a ferocious opening from their hosts, Real were comfortable, managing the tie in the second half and looking every inch potential challengers for the Holy Grail once more. His side exuded calm in the second half, led by the makeshift centre half pairing of Eder Militao and Nacho Fernandez.

These tactical analysis points to the further development in the story of Zidane as coach. Maybe more defined analysis points in future may secure the Frenchman further credit for his coaching acumen.

Perhaps if Zidane hadn’t hit such heights as a creative playing maestro, we could appreciate his managerial prowess more. His semi-final counterpart Thomas Tuchel didn’t have a top-level career of note. Some of his contemporaries at other clubs such as Diego Simeone, Antonio Conte and less notably Jurgen Klopp played out their careers primarily as stoppers. Even the France coach, Zidane’s former team mate Didier Deschamps, could only dream of the skills of the 1998 Ballon d’Or winner.

Zidane’s playing career carried so much success, so many vignettes of genius and unforgettably some moments of madness. Sometimes it can be hard to separate these memories of Zizou the effortless footballer, with Zidane the astute coach.

However, recent results have taught us not to underestimate Zidane and his Real side. Zidane has his team primed and ready at the optimum point of the season once more. Should his side claim domestic or European honours this season, perhaps he may belatedly get the credit and adulation his achievements as a manager deserve.

The Author

Paul O'Malley

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