The Club World Cup, the Champions League, a record unbeaten streak and top of La Liga by one point with two games in hand; Zinedine Zidane couldn’t have dreamed of a better start to his managerial career.
But there is one thing that the former three-time FIFA World Player of the Year hasn’t seemingly been able to win since taking the helm at Real Madrid 13 months ago: universal respect.
Too many people have been quick to write Zidane off as lucky, but more than a year of relentless success can’t be summed up so simply.
There’s no doubt that Los Blancos have benefited from their share of dubious decisions and serendipitous deflections since their former No.5 assumed the reins at the Bernabéu. But not to such a disproportionate extent that these instances can account for Real winning a whopping 73.2 per cent of the games Zidane has presided over, losing only four times.
Luck cannot be the sole driving factor behind their record-breaking streak of 40 matches without defeat.
More than luck
Former New York Yankees pitcher Louis “Lefty” Gomez is attributed with once having said “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Zidane certainly has been blessed with a little from the former category, but he unquestionably belongs in the latter too.
Many would argue that, with the vast array of world class superstars among their number, getting a tune out of this Real Madrid squad should be a walk in the park.
But with just one La Liga title in the last eight years, José Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benítez have shown that achieving sustained success at the Bernabéu is much easier said than done.
Tactically, Zidane’s blueprint is beautiful in it’s simplicity.
Though he has toyed with different formations this season, 4-3-3 is his go-to base when there is a big game that needs to be won. From this shape, with four-time Ballon d’Or-winning superstar Cristiano Ronaldo cutting in from the left, and with pass masters Luka Modric and Toni Kroos free to weave their patterns in midfield thanks to the defensive work of Casemiro, the French coach is maximising the potential of his most gifted players.
And as one of the greatest midfielders the game has ever seen, it’s no surprise that Zidane has been able to help Modric produce the form of his career. At the heart of everything good that Madrid have done in the last year, Modric is arguably the best central midfielder in the world right now.
Zidane also deserves credit for his willingness to experiment and his efforts to foster a degree of tactical flexibility within his squad.
Shifting away from his favoured 4-3-3, he has sent out his team in a 4-4-1-1 shape at times this term and, perhaps having witnessed the rise of the back three across Europe over the last couple of seasons, he has utilised a 3-5-2 formation in recent weeks.
The European champions are understandably not yet as comfortable and fluid when fielding three central defenders, but Zidane’s keenness to teach his charges how to play within various systems will serve them well down the line when a viable plan B is required.
But the key to Zidane’s success in charge of Los Blancos is the work he has done away from the tactics board. His man management has struck the perfect balance to harness the immense talent at his disposal.
Able to call upon the likes of Ronaldo, Modric, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, there is no shortage of quality at Zidane’s fingertips. But the Real Madrid manager’s job is, at its core, a delicate balancing of egos.
One of the inherent problems that comes with a dressing room full of superstars with stuffed trophy cabinets and nothing left to prove to anyone, is that harmonising the various egos takes a precise mix of encouragement and understanding.
An advantage that Zidane enjoys over most of his predecessors is that, as a retired superstar footballer himself, he immediately commands the respect of even the best players in the world; they know that he understands what it’s like to be in their shoes.
But there is more to it than that. Mourinho and Benítez were unable to maintain a high level of performance from their respective Real squads because their authoritarian approach soon wore thin, and once the players no longer respected their methods or feared the consequences of insubordination, there was no way back.
Likewise, Ancelotti’s laissez-faire, favourite-uncle-style approach gave the players too much rope, and they ended up tripping over it.
Zidane has struck upon the perfect blend of carrot and stick. He respects his players’ ability to problem solve mid-game and trusts them to carry out his instructions without feeling the need to berate them. But he also does not suffer fools, and makes it clear that respect is a two-way street.
The elite players who currently call the Bernabéu home are all, by their very nature, finely-tuned winning machines; Zidane has simply lined them all up and got them all pointing in the same direction, creating a near unstoppable force.
Their 3-1 Champions League victory over Napoli at the Bernabéu on Wednesday was the perfect example of this. With the Partenopei in hot form of late, many were predicting an upset.
And when Lorenzo Insigne put the away side in front with a 35-yard wonder-goal, those predictions looked like coming true.
But, almost as though they felt slighted by Napoli’s temerity at scoring on their patch, Zidane’s side resolved to show them exactly why they are considered to be among the powerhouses of European football; from the moment Benzema equalised in the 18th minute, there was ever only going to be one winner.
They might not always be the prettiest, but this season Real Madrid are confident, ruthless and accustomed to winning; almost unrecognisable from the disorganised and entitled rabble that Zidane took charge of in January last year.
Better to be lucky than good? Zidane is proving that the two are not mutually exclusive.