Zinedine Zidane leads Real Madrid in to their second consecutive Champions League final on Saturday. Is the Frenchman a great manager, or is he just blessed with a great squad?
Zinedine Zidane has achieved a great deal in very little time as Real Madrid manager. The Frenchman is now on the brink of becoming the first man in history to lead his side to back-to-back Champions League titles. The trophy would be his third since taking over Los Blancos, an amazing achievement considering his lack of managerial experience. So, has Zidane vaulted himself into the upper tier of managers, or has he simply been blessed with a lot of world-class talent?
The Real job is, if nothing else, an intensely high-pressure environment, one that has chewed up and spat out such esteemed coaches as Fabio Capello, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez, to name a few. Zidane is still in only his first full season, so there’s plenty of time for the spotlight to wear him down, but he’s handled the pressure excellently since being promoted from his role in charge of Real Madrid Castilla in January of 2016.
Zidane won the Champions League last season after only five months at the helm, and so it was understandable the players took most of the plaudits. This season, he’s guided Real to their first La Liga title in four seasons and their third Champions League final in four years. His managerial credentials must be taken seriously.
As with every manager at one of Europe’s superclubs, even the likes of Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, Zidane will be doubted by some because of the immense talent at his disposal. Real’s second XI, which the Frenchman relied on heavily in the final games of the league season, is better than most teams first XIs. There are tougher jobs.
But to criticize Zidane for the quality of his players is to ignore exactly what’s made the Madrid job so difficult throughout the Galacticos era. The ability to manage egos, including that of club president Florentino Perez, is a real skill, and something Zidane clearly excels at. These are the kind of players that need their egos massaged while at the same time not being over-managed.
In this area Zidane has done remarkably well. He seems to manage from the shadows. It’s rare that he’s over-opinionated, he doesn’t clash with his players and, most importantly, he’s happy to let them do their thing on the pitch. He obviously makes tactical decisions — his willingness to drop James Rodriguez for the defensive midfielder Casemiro last season was critical — but he’s happy for his players to express themselves.
Unlike many before him, he doesn’t make them stick to a rigid system. The performances of Marco Asensio, Alvaro Morata, Isco and even James are testament to that. The squad rotation Zidane employed down the stretch in La Liga was successful largely because he kept a lot of fringe players happy and focused. Isco was so good as a backup there’s a good chance he’d start ahead of Gareth Bale in Saturday’s final even if the Welshman were fully fit.
Zidane hasn’t shown much to suggest he’s a brilliant or original tactical mind like many of his predecessors, or his opponent on Saturday, Massimiliano Allegri. He’s also been lucky enough to compete in La Liga this season against a less-than-vintage Barcelona side. But he’s had a huge impact on this squad. He’s taken them from a very good team to, potentially, the first one ever to win back-to-back Champions League titles. As good as the players are, they’re not the only ones that deserve credit.