There was plenty of scepticism and uncertainty when Zinedine Zidane took charge of Real Madrid in January 2016. Yet, during his relatively short time as the club’s manager, the Frenchman has already proven his worth in a number of ways.
He won his first El Clásico as a coach, leading the club to a 2-1 win over Barcelona at the Camp Nou last April. He then led Real Madrid to Champions League victory last May with a penalty shootout win over Atlético Madrid in the final. And, in his first full season as boss, Zidane has taken Los Blancos to the top of La Liga.
Evidently, Zidane has had a positive effect on Real Madrid. Here, Football Whispers takes a look at why.
The Galáctico Coach
Over the last two decades, the role of Real Madrid manager has come to be seen as somewhat of a poisoned chalice. No matter how much silverware a coach lifts with the club, the future is always uncertain due to an extravagant, big name, high spending transfer policy that has often led to a mass of egos and, subsequently, the potential for a dangerously fractious dressing room environment.
However, in hiring Zidane, the club appointed someone with first-hand experience of that environment. The 44-year-old was one of the original galácticos — along with Luís Figo and the original Ronaldo — and hence has an acute understanding of the particular tensions that can arise when multiple highly paid, highly rated individuals come together in the same team.
His sensibility for the Real Madrid experience has proven to be a vital ingredient in his ability to handle the pressures of the manager’s job, though he has also made use of his own legendary status to win the respect of his players. As someone who has won the World Cup, the Champions League and numerous other personal awards, Zidane’s credentials as a player are unquestionable, even by today’s stars.
Luka Modrić has made clear just how much he has enjoyed working for Zidane.
“Every piece of advice he gives you is like gold dust and it helps you improve on the pitch,” the Croatian midfielder said of his manager.
“Zinedine was an idol, one of the players I admired as a child. I think every young player admired him because he was one of the best of his generation.”
Welsh wing wizard Gareth Bale has also benefited from Zidane’s presence.
“I am enjoying playing under Zidane. I feel I have a lot more freedom on the pitch.”
Portuguese icon Cristiano Ronaldo agrees with his team-mates, telling Marca: “He [Zidane] knows Real Madrid well which is a plus, but he also listens, which is a big advantage. Zizou is calm, very professional, and likes to work.”
Zidane’s ability to handle egos and command respect have been key to his man-management, helping him to maximise the vast talents of the individuals at his disposal.
Introducing Greater Defensive Structure
While getting players to listen is a vital skill for any manager, more important is what the players actually hear. For Zidane, the Real Madrid job was always going to be a serious test of his tactical acumen.
Previously, his only coaching experience had come with Real Madrid Castilla, the club’s reserve side. During two seasons in charge Zidane led Castilla to sixth and first-place finishes in their Segunda Division B table, but the step up from that level to the Real Madrid first team was a stark one. However, in his first year at the highest level, the former playmaker’s coaching expertise have, generally, shone through.
In recent seasons, Real Madrid have been without shape, particularly from a defensive standpoint. However, Zidane has brought about a much improved structure, making the team more resolute and harder to penetrate without the ball. Nowadays, with a deeper, more defined block and greater organisation, there are far fewer gaps for opponents to exploit in Real’s defensive shape.
Generally, Zidane has tended to use a 4-3-3 system, and the outer central midfielders often close off the channels for the opposition, making forward passes into the middle third more difficult to complete. On top of that, the introduction of Brazilian defensive midfielder Casemiro on a more frequent basis has been a masterstroke.
Casemiro sitting at the base of the midfield three has enabled left-back Marcelo to attack the left flank with greater freedom and purpose. Not only has this brought the best out of the attack-minded full-back, often allowing him to isolate an opponent where his offensive quality, pace and crossing can be maximised, but it has in turn allowed Ronaldo to drift into a more central position where the attacker’s shooting and aerial strength can be utilised more effectively.
Finding Ways to Win
When it was confirmed that Real Madrid would meet city rivals Atlético in last season’s Champions League final, most were of the belief that Los Rojiblancos would take up the more defensive stance in the match, with Real attacking more often and leaving spaces behind to be taken advantage of. However, Zidane’s side stifled the game for large periods, and in the end Diego Simeone’s side had more of the ball (52 per cent).
Real Madrid went on to win that game on penalties, and while the match didn’t live up to the spectacle, it was confirmation of Zidane’s tactical nous and willingness to adapt to the circumstances at hand in order to secure victory.
It is this adaptability that proved so critical in Real Madrid’s long unbeaten run last term as they pushed Barcelona to the wire in the Spanish title race, eventually losing out by just one point. Last September, Zidane’s side beat the previous record of 15 league wins in a row, and in January of this year they went 40 competitive matches without defeat, a new record in Spanish football.
Most recently, Zidane led his side to a 3-2 win away to Villarreal having been 2-0 down. While the football wasn’t pretty and his tactics were questioned, this result acted as the latest example of a new, more resilient Real Madrid.