With his low key, no frills style of understated management Zinedine Zidane can rightly say that his ascent of La Liga and successful defending of Real Madrid’s Champions League crown is a major achievement for a first time boss.
But it remains to be seen if he’ll get the time he needs to consolidate upon that early success of his first 90 matches while he is in a process of rebuilding, preparing for the inevitability of life after Cristiano Ronaldo.
This is a world where a number of Real’s great rivals – like Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich – also appear to be approaching a similar point in their cycle, at a varying rate of knots. And the teams that do succession management best will be the ones to emerge victorious from what is an uncertain future.
Rebuilding is a challenge of a kind that Sir Alex Ferguson faced many times in his 37-year career as a manager.
And as per the great Scot at Manchester United, comparisons are unlikely to concern Zidane overly much as he considers the task in hand at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Zizou doesn’t appear to need or indeed enjoy the oxygen of widespread profile or acclaim. Nor does he ever exhibit the need to show his working, to dazzle us with his undoubted football intelligence.
The problem for younger fans, that is anyone who came of age in the Mourinho – Guardiola era, is that Zinedine Zidane is so very hard to place. He is so very hard to get a sense of. And that’s why what he regularly looks low key, insubstantial or even a bit lucky.
For older fans though, his approach feels refreshingly familiar.
At this current time, the world of managers at the peak of the game can broadly be split into two camps.
On the one hand, there are the ‘philosophy’ managers, football’s sexy thinkers like Guardiola, Klopp, Lobanovskyi, Bielsa, Jemez, Junma Lillo, Van Gaal, the extended Michels-Cruyff school, Wenger, Simeone, amongst them.
These coaches play their football from a particular point of view, based either on the marshalling of possession as the best form of defence (and attack), or on the control of space as the basis of quick transitions, fast breaks and neutralising opponents through a dynamic, yet compact shape without the ball.
The second competing camp might be called ‘job’ managers. They are the arch pragmatists with a three year plan. These coaches fit their solution to the path of least resistance and the idea that the brief they have been given sets the time-frame for success.
In the case of a Mourinho or Ancelotti that brief is almost always: win domestic titles and the Champions League.
A manager like Guus Hiddink, Dick Advocaat or Rafa Benitez can stabilise the ship or take middling teams to a level slightly higher.
At the bottom of the job manager scale are guys like Neil Warnock, Sam Allardyce and Harry Redknapp and further back managers like Harry Bassett. These guys are fire fighters charged with enacting a short-term battle against relegation, or they get the call when the task at hand is gaining promotion to the top flight.
They are always short-term appointments. And depending on requirements clubs try to pick their ‘right man’ accordingly and set the time-bound expectations.
Primarily these firefighter managers are either training ground coaches with a simple, easily understood plan (rather than a ‘philosophy’) or they are charismatic transfer market masters that throw money and their contacts book at gaining quick results (or a combination of both).
There is a third group of managers too, a pragmatic job manager national subset. These are the tacticians from the Italian school (guys like Conte, Mancini, Capello, Trapattoni, Lippi) – managers you’d associate with the dark arts of game management and defensive organisation. In their own country they are ‘Italian philosophy’ managers. As exports in other countries they are exotic ‘job’ managers.
If you imagine the current coaching scene plotted as a graph, there is a continuum that places Guardiola and his acolytes on the extreme left of the page and Mourinho et al at the opposite end of the spectrum.
There are a few outliers in there too probably, if we choose to think of them.
Sir Alex Ferguson is the most obvious one as an empire builder whose tactical flexibility was his greatest strength. This allowed him to orientate himself through shifting sands eras and also to build a succession of radically different sides that nonetheless were unequivocally ‘his’ in their character.
And at this early point in his career, and if he survives at Madrid, Zinedine Zidane looks like the man most likely to carry on Sir Alex’s ‘out of fashion’ approach, with simple teambuilding solutions based on available personnel and tactical flexibility.
If you are looking at other outliers, then Vicente del Bosque, Ottmar Hitzfeld and Juup Heynckes also fit the profile.
And what unites them all is that they are players’ managers that keep the game simple by configuring the talent at their disposal to either the opposition facing them or a straightforward way of playing and managing the game (or both).
A few from the job managers list could arguably also be listed as outliers without complaint. I’d also put Zinedine Zidane in this grouping as a top class hybrid that aims to fulfil the short-term brief in the process of pursuing an empire-building project.
Most notable amongst the ‘players’ bosses’ would be Carlo Ancelotti and Vicente del Bosque. And you will note that both Vicente del Bosque and Carlo Ancelotti are both closely linked to Zidane’s mature career at Real Madrid.
I especially loved watching Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid and I have equally enjoyed watching Zizou’s Madrid too. Zidane, of course, was part of the Italian’s back-room staff and has a similar quiet authority, like Ancelotti, gained from a sublime playing career.
Tactically I think Zidane is very good. He’s a veteran of Juventus, of Serie A – a ‘finishing school’ league that has augmented the technical qualities emphasised in the French system. Zidane learned to play in France but he gained an understanding of team ethic, tactics and mental strength (and an ‘Italian’ will to win) in Serie A. Zidane came of age in Italy as a player and personality and I think that those people who forget that are inclined to under-estimate him now.
And of course, Zinedine Zidane has also been around all of the greats of the game as a player, coach and observer. And he will have soaked up that experience like a sponge. Internationally with France and at club level in Serie A and La Liga he has been schooled in the best possible way for a career in elite management.
In terms of players’ respect, even awe, the comparison for Zidane could be akin to Cruyff at Barcelona as he adds further cups and titles to his CV as a manager. Cruyff at Barcelona would have to be his benchmark as a world star turned manager in Madrid.
Like Cruyff, Zidane can show anyone his medals and highlights reel and face any current player down. No doubt, even Ronaldo and Messi will take inspiration from Zidane and he is one of just a few men anywhere within football’s dugouts that has the requisite level of gravitas and status for the job based on his exploits on the pitch as well as on the training ground.
As a noted club legend, the erstwhile great number five, is best-placed of all to win the battle of hearts and minds that beat both Mourinho and Benitez in the Spanish capital.
Following Zidane’s appointment I wrote: “I am struggling to think of anyone else who could say that currently and who might also be considered a realistic managerial candidate.”
And I am not changing my view about a manager who is a breath of fresh air precisely because he says so little and goes out of his way to contribute nothing to football’s 24 hour cycle of hype.
Like Ancelotti and also the very underrated Del Bosque, he has started with the personnel he inherited and has then found interim solutions that makes the most of them.
There really is nothing more ‘car-crash’ in football than watching a manager come in all guns blazing to impose a ‘philosophy’ that doesn’t fit the staff he has or the task at hand. And it is a folly associated with first time managers in a hurry, in particular. So it is always refreshing to see subtle and safe hands at big clubs.
The mature imprint of Zidane’s identity can happen in time – if in fact his ego demands it. However, there has to be sensible transition to the moment when a manager can say: ‘I now have my own team’. And a sensible realisation too that philosophies don’t win games – hearts, minds and players do.
And this is why we should both recognise and celebrate Zidane’s achievements in his first elite level role as a manager. In tactical and presentational terms, the greatest of the Galacticos ironically represents a welcome cleansing of the palette and proof that football’s great deeds are done on the field as opposed to in press conferences, coaching seminars or in Mac-book presentations.
Just as he played the game, this is a timely lesson from Zidane the manager, a jolt back to a refreshingly simple rationale. The worldview of a proper football man.
Strip away all the hype and bluster, tear up the heat map diagrams and endless reams of stats. Football is and remains the most simple of complex games and the most complex of simple games.
In going back to the future, by drawing on the great influences of his playing career in Italy and Spain, Zinedine Zidane represents a timely return to beautiful simplicity for a game in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own navel gazing.
And if that sounds like a parallel to Ferguson in terms of simplicity then I think that it is a justified comparison.
Like Real Madrid who so inspired a young, then-Alec Ferguson in the keynote 1960 European Cup Final win at Hampden Park, Glasgow, Sir Alex’s teams always played to win. Like Real Madrid, the Scot’s teams looked to be brave, to pass the ball, to impose their football. Like the team of Puskas and Di Stefano, Fergie’s teams, had a point of view too. They all looked to play a Scottish attacking style.
Sir Alex’s teams were aggressive, dominant and resilient, never giving up, regardless of the game situation and you can see these characteristics in Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid too.
Ferguson created a brand of football that was local and global in tone – a refraction of Real Madrid and the 1960 European Cup Final at Hampden, of The Old Firm in Glasgow, of his mentor Jock Stein and The Lisbon Lions, of the Scottish scout John Barr of Leeds United who visited him at Love Street as a young manager at St Mirren and told him all about Don Revie’s innovations at Elland Road.
This background shaped his view that the manager should control every aspect of club culture. Zidane will never be able to exert total control in Madrid. No-one can. But what he can share is the Scot’s one game at a time simplicity of solutions.
Though the philosophy remained the same, Sir Alex’s teams were tactically very versatile in terms of shape. Sir Alex Ferguson has used a variety of formations – 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1 – and even a 4-6-0 against Greenock Morton at Cappielow while manager of Aberdeen around 1985. That probably 27 years or so ahead of that formation gaining prominence with Spain in 2012 and over a decade ahead of Romania’s use of the same formation in 1994. Luciano Spalletti used the 4-6-0 in 2006 with Roma before Ferguson again revisited the formation in 2007-8, winning the Premiership and Champions League.
In short, SAF’s teams were always more tactically diverse (and interesting) than the pigeon-holing of his teams as direct and broadly 4-4-2 in shape.
Crucially though, the philosophy always remains the same – a commitment to dynamic, romantic attacking football.
Tactically SAF was far more adroit than appreciated – a master team builder who adapted his systems to the players at his disposal and also the players available in the transfer market (he was a master long-term planner).
As well as his team-building problem-solving ability that led to United playing all sorts of shapes and styles, SAF’s use of setpieces (dating back to Aberdeen v Bayern Munich) and game-changing substitutions was superb – and led to one of the great football comebacks of all-time in the CL Final of 1999.
When I look at Zinedine Zidane’s teams from afar I can see the same combination of short, medium and long term planning and simply employed ‘football’ ideas.
Zinedine Zidane’s career may not ultimately enjoy the same longevity as that of Sir Alex Ferguson, simply as a function of a lack of patience in the modern game. Nonetheless, and on the basis of some fantastic achievements so far, I’d have to consider that Zinedine Zidane is the one young coach working today that appears to have most in common with Sir Alex Ferguson.