Despite being one of the most successful managers in the game, there are still doubts over whether Zinedine Zidane is just lucky or the Real deal for Madrid
A three-point lead (with one game less under its belt) over Barça and moving on to the UEFA Champions League semifinals (ref controversy aside) should be big enough talking points to back up the claim that Zinedine Zidane is one of the best managers out there, and on the brink of another Clasico. And yet… there’s something that just doesn’t click, regardless of any bias there ought to be for or against the former French midfielder.
Again, we’re going to try and keep this as clean and factually accurate as possible. Let’s start with sheer numbers: Zidane took over Rafael Benitez’s squad on January 4th 2016, fifteen months ago, and since then has amassed a 40-game unbeaten run, bagged a Champions League title last May, is seven games away of conquering this season’s La Liga trophy and has managed to squeeze itself into this year’s Champions League semifinals. The only factual disappointment came in La Copa, where Madrid was knocked out by Celta de Vigo.
What about performance assessment? Under Zidane’s command, Real has somehow mastered the art of comebacks in the final minutes of any single game. Undeniable proof can be found in many La Liga matches this season: while they have a grip on the top spot right now, conquering it required up to eight comebacks between September and March, when they finally put their foot on the first place in the standings. No other team has shown that resilience and sheer willpower to turn things around in 2017.
In order to discuss the Frenchman’s prowess as a coach, though, we need to look at many other key aspects of his management. It can be argued that the football style Real preaches is not the prettiest one: winning above all other things, regardless of the way it is attained.
Not that the Bernabeu crowd cares, though… or do they? This season, fans have booed the team several times even when they ultimately won the game, because of its lack of spirit, character or overall laziness. Anger has been focused in specific players: Keylor Navas, James Rodríguez and even Cristiano Ronaldo himself have been targets of the aficionados during Zidane’s stint in the bench.
It may seem madness to suggest otherwise after his five goals in both legs against Bayern Munich, but many consider that Cristiano’s performance under Zidane (stats aside) has actually not been that impressive, especially regarding his collective contribution to the team. The 32-year old Portuguese player has obviously lost some of his physical dominance both in the wing and in the midfield, and has retreated into the box in order to become a player who is mostly a (lethal) finisher. But that doesn’t aid much when the team is struggling to create football in the midfield or needs to put pressure on the opposite side.
Zidane has also delved into controversy this year with many decisions regarding his lineups and confidence placed on players at the expense of others. Sure, Isco Alarcón is shining lately, but his fight to claim a spot in the starting XI has been a long, bitter one. Yes, Marco Asensio seems to be the real deal and may become a key player for the next decade, but he has had few chances of showing his quality this season. The coach seems to be much more comfortable handing the responsibility to brawny players such as Casemiro, a ball-recovering machine who punts anything that steps into his area of influence.
Sure, it’s not easy to strike a balance between flair and practicality, more so when you’re talking about a club which is obsessed with having as much football stars as possible on the pitch. With the looming eye of president Florentino Perez always watching, Zidane has had to impossibly juggle the needs of the team (again, winning under any condition) with some of the cravings oozing from the executive lounge ie. watching the so-called BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano) playing together anytime there are fit to do so.
However, one of the hottest takes to unlock Zidane’s secret formula is one that I tend to agree with: the man is just as lucky as a four-leaf clover. He has ‘it’. When the game is on the line, the coin always shows heads and benefits his team. We saw it on last season’s Champions League final, we have seen it this year in numerous games.
Also, Real can sometimes rely on ref complacency on set-plays that may unblock tricky games, as we all saw last Tuesday in its showdown against Bayern Munich in one of the most disgraceful performances a referee has completed lately in the UCL.
Therefore, we could argue that the man is the total package. With the most expensive squad under his command, full of top-quality players, with his club’s legendary resilience and attitude to spearhead any comeback it may need, and having shown he’s a two-legged lucky charm himself… Zinedine Zidane doesn’t need to prove he’s the biggest technical, tactical or strategic mastermind in the football world.
He’s too busy winning game after game.