The Curious Case of Zinedine Zidane

With the win against Liverpool at Kiev in the Champions League 2017/18 finals, Real Madrid now have a hat-trick of Champions League trophies under Zidane. But “luck” has been a word thrown around so carelessly to describe Zinedine Zidane’s two and a half year fairytale story at Real Madrid, that the word itself has eclipsed the Frenchman’s efforts at the club.

When Zidane was unveiled as the manager of Real Madrid, replacing Rafa Benitez, several eyebrows were raised, and rightly so at the time. There was little Zidane had to exhibit in terms of a managerial track record. It was below average for a mammoth club like Madrid. The best he had done was during his stint as the assistant manager to Carlo Ancelotti at the club. For a manager that lacked the flamboyance of Pep Guardiola, the pragmatism of Jose Mourinho or the history of Sir Alex Ferguson, the appointment seemed incongruent with a logical decision.

The first Champions League season under the Frenchman saw Real Madrid win the Champions League. The win was immediately labelled as “luck” by rival fans and media alike owing to the easy draws that Real Madrid apparently saw en route to the finals. The second season was deemed as a “luck” once again when the red card shown to Vidal saw Real Madrid capitalise the situation against Bayern Munich.

But last night’s win against Liverpool raises questions on the “luck” factor. If a manager wins the same trophy 3 years in a row, luck has no relevance in the feat. That is because luck doesn’t exist. Philosophically, what some people perceive to be ‘luck’ is just a positive mindset and corresponding actions manifested as favourable situations. If Ralph Waldo Emerson was alive, he would have emphasised the fact that “Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

In Zidane’s case, he built what appears to be “luck” by perpetuating a dressing room ambience that focused on cordial relations, happy egos and fearless motivation. Being an understudy to Ancelotti has massively helped Zidane pick up social skills that go beyond the pitch and the tactical board. The importance of such skills were stressed by Julian Nagelsmann when he said, “30% of coaching is tactics, 70% is social competence.” And Zinedine Zidane is the perfect embodiment of the 70% that Nagelsmann speaks about.

In the two and a half years as a manager, one hasn’t seen Zidane embroiled in any controversy, make a harsh statement, have a fallout with players or be labelled as domineering. He has managed to create a sense of peace and calm that surrounds him while keeping his players and staff content with the ongoings at the club. Perhaps Steve McManaman was accurate when he said that there are different types of ‘leaders’ in the world and Zidane’s type of leader was earning the players’ respect. Zidane has done just that, but through sensitivity. This is why Zidane is such a hit with the players and the club staff. He speaks a language that they understand which makes the whole atmosphere more conducive to results.

Jurgen Klopp, who has a similar attitude, looked on course to stopping Real Madrid’s third consecutive Champions League trophy bid until Mohamed Salah was forced off with a gruesome injury. While Salah exited the pitch in tears, the world cried with him for the fear of missing the World Cup. A World Cup without the Egyptian magician would not be the same, especially having worked so hard for the qualification. A similar fate saw Carvajal exit the pitch in tears with a doubt cast over his World Cup.

In the past, questions have been raised on Zidane’s tactical aptitude. It has often been harshly said that Zidane lacks the same tactical nous as his peers and there is no imprint of the manager on the club’s football. But this is a bit unfair for a Champions League winning manager. Such a feat cannot go without a certain level of tactical intelligence. As a player, Zidane was amongst the best and as a manager, he’s the best in Europe at the moment.

Sending Gareth Bale on was Zidane’s masterstroke, as Bale’s 2 goals sealed the win for Real Madrid, although aided by Karius’s calamitous errors. Karius was left in tears, walking alone after the game and such errors on a stage like the Champions League finals could haunt players for years to come. Apart from Bale, the decisive change against Bayern Munich in the semis to bring on a tactically disciplined yet quick Asensio to replace Isco turned out to be a class move that lead to a goal.

Late substitutions to bring on Asensio & Vazquez against PSG changed the tide of the game for Real Madrid. Casemiro’s rise under Zidane cannot go unnoticed. Zidane knew the importance of the defensive midfield role to shield the back four and Casemiro has played a pivotal role in many crucial games. His bold move to break up the BBC partnership of Bale-Benzema-Cristiano to add defensive cover by using the 4-4-2 formation is another testament to his tactical ability.

“He doesn’t get enough credit. It’s always the same result: trophy, trophy, trophy. They would be shouting from the rooftops if Pep Guardiola did this.” -Steve McManaman on Zidane

Prior to the Champions League final, Zidane had said in the press conference, “I’m not the best coach, and I will always say that. I am not the best coach tactically. And, well, I don’t need to say that…because you lot always say that, anyway.” Zidane may have said that with a smile and with politeness but his ability to stay away from spotlight and his humility have been misconstrued as him being tactically inept. His humble smile could conceal more than it reveals. He is not as bad as the media have made him look.

Zidane did what the Mourinhos and the Guardiolas couldn’t but yet the media portrays a feeling of not being convinced by his achievements and not considering Zidane on the same pedestal as the others. There is always a trap of “prove yourself” which goes along with a managerial job in modern football. Whether it is Guardiola having to “prove himself in the Premier League” or Zidane having to prove himself tactically, there is always a sense of uncertainty that creeps in, a skeptical feeling of not being convinced that is nested in our minds by the media.

But for a manager, focusing on pleasing the skeptics may be of the least priority. If the methods adopted yield results and everyone associated with the club is happy, there is no reason to convince the world. Zidane was right to point out, “What matters is how you feel and I feel satisfied because I give everything. I can’t control what people think. And that doesn’t matter.”

It is not a coincidence that 2 managers that highly prioritise relationships and a happy and positive mindset at the club made it to the Champions League finals. It is primarily for this reason that Real Madrid get by playing bad football. In fact, they play the best bad football and yet thrive in these situations. Rival fans and opposing media can say “La flor de Zidane” all they want, but there are factors that go beyond luck, subtle plays at work that go beyond the physical, elements that need as much focus as the tactics; and Zidane seems to have mastered them. Like him or not, Zidane will go down in history books for his ability to win.

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