Winning everything: Zinedine Zidane’s time as Real Madrid manager
Zinedine Zidane’s first stint as Real Madrid coach was about guiding a glamour outfit to great success. Back after a year’s break, the French great has this time taken the gritty route to the La Liga titleUpdated: Jul 19, 2020 07:10 IST
When Real Madrid, in 15 days between February and March, lost three of their four games, it was being said that Zinedine Zidane’s luck had run out. His tactics and use of players were questioned and numbers pulled out to show that the second tenure was not half as good as the first. Then football stopped because of Covid-19.
When La Liga resumed, Real typified what Zidane had said in his first press conference as coach in January 2016. Asked what would make him happy, Zidane said: “Winning everything.” Ten games into the restart Real have done that en route the 34th league title.
Zidane’s team didn’t have the flair of 2016-17 when they would win 6-1, 7-1, 5-1, 4-1 on way to the La Liga and Champions League titles, but they sure knew how to ground out victories. Eight of their last 10 wins have been by one goal. Real had become what former sports director Jorge Valdano had said in another context, ‘resultadista’, a team that values a win above everything.
It is said the secret to Real’s success is often not in any great coaching philosophy or revolution in football tactics—think Pep Guardiola, Juergen Klopp or Marcelo Bielsa—but in keeping the dressing-room happy. Real are known to be notoriously fickle with coaching appointments; 26 of them have come and gone since 1989 with Vicente del Bosque and Carlo Ancelotti being removed after winning La Liga and the Champions League.
The ones who have succeeded at Real are said to be good at “player whispering” (words of encouragement more than emphasis on tactics) such as Del Bosque, Zidane and Ancelotti. It is said the team has so much quality that players would win most of the games on their own, anyway.
Zidane buys that idea. “When we play with intensity and focus, with the quality we have, I am not worried,” he said after beating Atletico Madrid 3-0 away in 2016-17.
In his handling of Karim Benzema, Zidane has shown his ability at “player whispering”. Benzema’s Real career getting a second wind has a lot to do with Zidane, who, like his striker, is the son of Algerian immigrants and was born in a tough neighborhood in France. When Gary Lineker called Benzema overrated, Zidane said it was “embarrassing” that someone who understood football would say this. “For me, Karim is the best No. 9 in the world,” Zidane said in April 2019.
It certainly helps that Zidane has been a Real Madrid ‘galactico’, who has won everything in football as a player. There is a story about him winning a training ground battle of free-kicks with Cristiano Ronaldo and such stories go a long way in winning the respect of the dressing room. That first stint netted three Champions League titles in a row and a La Liga crown, besides other titles.
It also helps that he is close to Real president Florentino Perez, having first met him as a player. It was the beginning of an association that led to Zidane returning as Perez’s adviser in 2009 and then taking on different roles at the club before being appointed head coach. It could have been difficult to keep Gareth Bale, the club’s most expensive player, on the bench otherwise.
But to say Zidane the master psychologist has pulled it off undermines the tactical acumen of the man who bypassed a shortcut to coaching badges by training three years for it; and who on way to his UEFA Pro Licence got glowing recommendations from Guardiola and Bielsa. That is not all. Zidane himself has said he learnt a lot from his playing days under Marcello Lippi at Juventus. It is something he shares with Didier Deschamps and Antonio Conte.
“With great players, the coach must simply make them understand the weight of certain situations, teach them a certain mentality, the importance of putting yourself at the service of the team,” Lippi had told news agency AFP in 2018. It is an important aspect of Zidane’s coaching playbook.
It was from his time at Juventus that Zidane got Antonio Pintus over to work on the players’ fitness during his first stint. When he returned in March 2019, Zidane got Gregory Dupont, who was part of France’s backroom staff in the 2018 World Cup, in the same role.
Having taken over a dysfunctional team missing the phenomenal goalscoring abilities of Ronaldo, Zidane went back to a player from his first stint to rebuild. Casemiro became to this team what Claude Makelele was to the ‘galacticos’, the glue that held it together and made those fizzing patterns of attacking brilliance possible. Thibaut Courtois in goal; Ramos and Raphael Varane as centre-backs; Casemiro, and Karim Benzema in front, became the spine of the team that compensated for its lack of attacking brilliance by being very difficult to beat.
If Real kept four clean sheets this term for the first time in five years, if they conceded fewer goals in Zidane’s first 50 games this time than under his predecessors, it wasn’t just because a great man manager was in charge. Real have conceded 23 goals this term, the least in the competition. “Everything Zidane touches turns into gold,” Real’s inspirational captain Sergio Ramos told La Liga. “We believe in him and in his work. He’s the one who has to make the difference, he’s a person who trusts players, and few do. We hope he stays here for a very long time, he is unique.”
On retiring from football, Zidane said he didn’t want to be a coach. For a while, he reconnected with his roots in Algeria, launched products and stayed the family man who drove his sons to school. Then he realised he missed the adrenaline surge of football way too much.
From his time as coach of Real Madrid’s Castilla, the development side, Zidane’s days begin early and end late. It was also at Castilla that Zidane showed he could be authoritative when he dropped Martin Odegaard who had just been signed by Perez. That surfaced again in the way Zidane dropped Courtois, installed Keylor Navas before reinstating the Belgian once Navas was sold. “If you are soft with the boys it doesn’t work. I discovered that you have to tell players things they are not ready to hear,” he said.
When he was earning his Pro Licence, Zidane hired a personal trainer in Guy Lacombe, who was also his first coach at the Cannes academy. “What Zidane already have was a sense of the collective. He made other players play well,” Lacombe told FourFourTwo in 2015.
Anyone who remembers the 1998 and 2006 World Cups, the 2000 European Championships and the 2002 Champions League final would vouch for that. A stellar career was possibly best summed up by the virtuoso display in the 2006 World Cup quarter-final against Brazil; Thierry Henry scoring the winner from a Zidane free-kick. Brazil sacrificed their attacking quadrangle and played defensive midfielder Gilberto Silva to rein in Zidane. It was never a contest.
Zidane had given up on international football but returned for a final shot at the World Cup. France struggled through the group stages but flowered in the knockout rounds with Zidane hauling the team through to the final and scoring a ‘Panenka’ penalty in the final before that infamous head butt.
That Zidane would be able to keep in check his infamous temper that has fetched him 14 red cards, that a self-confessed introvert would become a successful manager of one of the world’s most demanding clubs is something not many would have predicted.
Michael Owen was one of them. In his book, Owen called Zidane the ‘silent’ type. “I think I have natural authority, so I don’t have to bawl out at players,” Zidane has said. In sharp suits, Zidane and Real now seem as good a fit as they were when he wore shorts and studs.