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The Frenchman led Real Madrid to three consecutive Champions League triumphs between 2016 and 2018 – yet doubts remain over his greatness
On the eve of the 2018 Champions League final, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp found himself in a rather bizarre position.
The Reds hadn’t featured in the biggest game in club football in 11 years and the German had tasted defeat in his one and only previous appearance, with Borussia Dortmund in 2013.
Yet Klopp felt compelled to defend the coaching credentials of his Real Madrid counterpart, Zinedine Zidane, who was bidding to become the first man to lead a club to three consecutive European Cup triumphs.
“If people think Zidane has no tactical knowledge – because people think the same about me – it would be really funny if two managers in the final had no clue about tactics. What would that say about the game?” Klopp exclaimed.
Yet that very game strengthened the widely held belief that Zidane is not a great coach – merely a lucky one.
Madrid had started tentatively, defending deep in an attempt to negate the threat posed by Liverpool’s front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane.
However, the whole shape of the game changed dramatically when Salah – who had accounted for 33 per cent of his side’s goals that season – was forced off with a shoulder injury sustained after a tangle with Sergio Ramos.
In a further hammer blow for Liverpool, Loris Karius then gifted Karim Benzema the opening goal by throwing the ball straight at the Frenchman’s outstretched foot.
Klopp’s men equalised through Sadio Mane but Gareth Bale put Madrid ahead with a stunning overhead kick – just seconds after being summoned from the bench by Zidane – and then netted again after another clanger from Karius.
Zidane, thus, became the first coach to win three Champions Leagues in a row yet, for his critics, the game perfectly summarised his Real Madrid tenure: Madrid hadn’t played particularly well but managed to prevail thanks to a combination of outrageous good fortune and timely individual excellence.
As with any good myth, there is a modicum of truth involved here.
During Zidane’s first Champions League victory in 2013-14, the draw was particularly kind to Madrid, who didn’t face a single previous winner throughout the entire tournament.
They were also second best to city rivals Atletico Madrid in the final. Diego Simeone’s side are renowned for their defensive football but it was they who had more possession and more shots on goal in Milan. Real, though, prevailed on penalties.
Madrid produced a far more impressive showing in the final the following year, crushing Juventus’ hopes of a first Champions League win since 1996 with a devastating second-half showing to triumph 4-1 in Cardiff. However, the critics would argue that Zidane’s side should never have made it to the Millennium Stadium.
In the quarter-finals against Bayern Munich, the Bavarians had two men sent off, missed a first-leg penalty while leading 1-0 at the Allianz Arena and were denied another for a clear handball from Marcelo in the return fixture at the Santiago Bernabeu. Even then, Carlo Ancelotti’s side still managed to force extra time, only for their 10 men to eventually run out of steam.
Bayern battered Madrid in the semi-finals following year, racking up 39 shots to Real’s 16 across the two legs, yet paid a heavy price for both their profligacy and the dreadful Sven Ulreich error which was immediately punished by Karim Benzema.
The one saving grace for Ulreich would be that his mistake would be completely overshadowed by Karius’ catastrophic performance in Kiev just over three weeks later. However, high-profile gaffes should not detract from what Zidane achieved during his first spell at Madrid.
It is clear that he inherited a stellar squad of players when he took over in January 2016 but one should also remember that the team was in utter disarray after Rafael Benitez’s reign.
Madrid had lost three of their previous eight Liga fixtures, including a humiliating 4-0 loss at home to Barcelona. They would be beaten just once more under Zidane, though, winning 12 games on the bounce to finish just one point behind the Blaugrana before beating Atletico to lift their 11th European Cup.
The role that Zidane played in bringing stability and serenity to a disgruntled dressing room should not be overstated.
Having already played for Madrid, and then worked for the club as Ancelotti’s assistant coach, the former Ballon d’Or winner proved the ideal man for such a treacherous role. “Real and Zidane were made for one another,” as Ancelotti later told the Corriere dello Sport.
Drawing on his wealth of experience, he masterfully managed a group of players renowned for reacting negatively to disciplinarians like Benitez and Jose Mourinho.
Sergio Ramos even publicly warned the club against hiring Antonio Conte in the summer of 2018, which perhaps said more about the centre-half than the Italian.
However, it was also borne of his admiration for the way in which Zidane had handled Madrid’s superstars. “Not everyone is able to manage a dressing room,” Ramos pointed out in an interview with RMC. “Or, at least, not in such a natural way as he does.
“Regardless of whether they get more or less game time, he’s got all of the players motivated and that’s one of his big strengths.”
Zidane’s man-management of Cristiano Ronaldo was arguably his most impressive – and important – achievement at Real.
Madrid have not found goals as easy to come by since the Portuguese departed for Juventus and it has prompted claims that both Real and Zidane would have won nothing without Ronaldo. However, one could just as easily argue that Ronaldo wouldn’t have won his last three Champions Leagues without Zidane.
As the forward himself has admitted, it was the former France international who persuade him to sit out games on a more regular basis – which was no small feat given Ronaldo’s obsession with goals as well as individual records and prizes.
“I think Zidane knows how to handle the team in an intelligent way,” the Juventus forward told RMC. “It’s not an easy situation because all the players like to play a lot, but he knows how to work intelligently and he manages to involve all the team.”
Remarkably, a man renowned for his unwavering self-belief has also previously credited Zidane with instilling him with confidence.
“You need to feel like you are an important part of the group and Zidane made me feel special,” he explained. “He helped me a lot. I already had a lot of respect for him but working with him made me admire him more. That’s because of what he’s like as a person, how he talks, how he led the team and how he treated me.”
Of course, Zidane’s tactical acumen has been called into question, primarily because Real were such a strange team for the analysts to work out, given the treble-winning side practiced a kind of organised chaos on the field.
For Zidane, “football is a simple game”, one all about damage control. Therefore, there was nothing revolutionary or even particularly complex about his approach: allow Marcelo and Dani Carvajal to push forward; protect the centre-halves with Casemiro; move the ball intelligently in midfield through Toni Kroos and Luka Modric; and get it as quickly to Ronaldo in dangerous positions as possible.
Zidane is, as Jorge Valdano pointed out, “a simplifier”.
“He believes in talent, he knows that there are better and worse players, and relates to football in a natural way,” the former Madrid forward and sporting director told Time. “This is a guy who knows everything but who keeps the essentials of football simple.”
That is not to say that he didn’t make important tactical tweaks during his first Real reign.
Gareth Bale’s persistent fitness issues may have played a part but Zidane’s decision to embrace Isco’s talents and move from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 played a pivotal role in the team’s league-and-European Cup double in 2016-17.
That historic feat – which no Real coach had managed since 1958 – owed much to Zidane’s wonderful rotation of his first-team players, with the likes of Lucas Vazquez, Marco Asensio and Nacho all playing particularly prominent roles in La Liga.
Zidane essentially put his faith in his entire squad and was rewarded spectacularly. It was clearly something he learned from Ancelotti, who believes that the most important thing for any coach is “the relationship he has with the players.
“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.”
There is a tendency nowadays to belittle those coaches who tend to rely more on powers of motivation than tactical genius but as even the new boy wonder Julian Nagelsmann once said, “Thirty per cent of coaching is tactical; 70% social competence.”
Zidane is perhaps the best embodiment of that belief in the game today.
“I was a player for 18 years, I dealt with lots of coaches, lots of very good players, lots of egos,” he said ahead of that Champions League final with Liverpool. “I know dressing rooms very well and I know exactly what goes through the head of a footballer.
“That’s very important for me but it’s not the only thing. There’s a lot of work and a philosophy behind this. I’m not the best coach, I’m not the best tactically, but I have something else: passion and hope. That’s worth a lot more.”
Some would disagree. In truth, though, Zidane doesn’t need to defend himself against allegations of being nothing more than a lucky coach. Nor does he need Ronaldo, Ramos or Klopp to speak on his behalf.
His record of three Champions League in a row does that for him. It really is that simple. Just the way he likes it.