Why it is back to the future with Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid

Why it is back to the future with Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid

With his low key, no frills style of understated management Zinedine Zidane can rightly say that his ascent of La Liga, on target attempt at defending Real Madrid’s Champions League crown and that record run of 35 games unbeaten is not getting the acclaim it deserves.

© Real Madrid

But that fact isn’t something that is likely to concern him overly much. Zizou doesn’t appear to need or 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 of managers, 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 does 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 scale guys like Neil Warnock, Sam Allardyce and Harry Redknapp 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 you should pick the right man accordingly and set the time-bound brief.

Primarily these second category managers are either training ground coaches with a simple, easily understood plan (rather than their philosophy) or they are charismatic transfer wheeler dealers that throw money at gaining quick results (or a combination of both).

There is a third group of managers too, a pragmatic job 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 ‘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 radically changing eras and also to build a succession of radically different sides that nonetheless were unequivocally ‘his’ in their character.

Vicente del Bosque is another outlier, Ottmar Hitzfeld was another. Kenny Dalglish another, as was Juup Heynckes. Martin O’Neill is one and Ronald Koeman will likely prove to be another over time.

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.

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 am now equally enjoying 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 with an understanding of team ethic, tactics and mental strength (and an ‘Italian’ will to win). 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.

Indeed, it must be easier for Zidane to be managing in the superstar stratosphere of Real Madrid’s first team than in a youth or B team context. Elite first team is Zidane’s natural home and also the level Zidane is likely to be most comfortable in. It should be easier for him the higher the level he is working at. And there is nowhere higher currently than La Liga’s big two.

In terms of players’ respect, even awe, there is equally no issue there and the comparison could be akin to Cruyff at Barcelona if he adds cups and title to his CV as a manager.

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.

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 so-called analysis paralysis.