Number Five: Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid

Words By Blair Newman Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 28, 2018
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5. ZINEDINE ZIDANE (REAL MADRID)

Win percentage: 6 Position change: -2 Position to value: -1 Knockout points: 17

Points: 20

Domestically, Zinedine Zidane was given several headaches throughout the 2017/18 season. His Real Madrid side couldn’t hold on to the league title they had won the previous term, slipping well behind Barcelona and, more disconcertingly, falling beneath Atletico Madrid to finish in third place. There was a similarly underwhelming finale to their Spanish Cup exploits, where they fell at the quarter-final stage to Leganes, an opponent they simply should not be losing to.

Assembling only the above information, the story of Zidane’s post-season resignation would be a sad one. It would be a tale of how a team filled with elite talent and led by one of football’s icons failed to accomplish anything of note, and how a great era concluded without silverware. But the above information presents only one element of Real Madrid’s campaign. On the continent, they once again secured their elite status, winning the Champions League for a third consecutive year.
It was that success, rather than the domestic failure, that prompted Zidane to leave. There was no way he could top being the first manager to guide a team to three Champions League titles in as many years. Not even before the competition’s re-branding, back in the days when it was known simply as the European Cup, did a manager accomplish this feat. Several greats went close, namely Bob Paisley, Brian Clough, Arrigo Sacchi, Stefan Kovacs, Helenio Herrera, Bela Guttman and Dettmar Cramer. Yet, in this particular field, Zidane now stands above all of them.

Some, ignoring the results, will scoff at that last sentence. Perhaps they have good reason to, for there were several moments that seemed to suggest Zidane and his players simply didn’t have it in them to win Champions League once more. There was a 3-1 group stage humbling away to Tottenham Hotspur, and a narrow aggregate quarter-final win over Juventus in which Real almost threw away a 3-0 lead from the first leg. There was also a nerve-jangling encounter with Bayern Munich in the semi-finals that the holders arguably deserved to lose.

Their combination of success and luck meant many neutrals preferred the idea of a Liverpool victory in the final, but Zidane’s side – as they have done so often over the last few years – showed little interest in the aesthetic or narrative preferences of others. They fought and fouled and, just when they needed it, demonstrated the sort of attacking inspiration only the finest teams possess. Some attributed their win to an injury suffered by Mohamed Salah early on; others knew better.
Strategically, Zidane was at the heart of the victory. Just as he had masterminded a final win over Atletico in 2016 by yielding possession to a side built on exceptional defence and precise counter-attacking, he managed to neuter Liverpool’s most important tactical attribute – their pressing. He did this by focusing his team’s attacks predominantly down the wings, where Liverpool’s intensity in central areas became no longer relevant.

Zidane also knew when to make personnel changes. Gareth Bale, who spent large periods of the season subject to ceaseless transfer speculation, was brought off the substitutes’ bench six minutes after Liverpool had equalised to make it 1-1. Within three minutes the Welshman had scored one of the greatest goals in Champions League history, finding the net with a superlative overhead kick.

Having been a top-level manager for less than three years, Zidane still lacks definition tactically. He seems to fit more into the Massimiliano Allegri mould of adapting to the circumstances – a philosophy maybe lacking the pride or romance to sway purists. But while his tactical ideas may not inspire, he obviously has the decision-making and motivational capacity to lead top players, as well as a knack for navigating prestigious knockout competitions.

These qualities were emphatically underlined in 2017/18, which allowed Zidane to do something few Real Madrid managers have been able to do: leave on his own terms.

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