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Zidane’s Biggest Test Awaits

The Frenchman has gone beyond the likes of Ancelotti and Mourinho, but what’s next?

Real Madrid v Espanyol - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Everything that Zidane has touched since becoming Real Madrid manager has turned into gold. He is arguably Madrid’s best manager of the past two decades. If he keeps up at his current rate, he will likely become the best of all time, surpassing the likes of Miguel Munoz. Of all the managers that have passed through in recent seasons, be it Benitez, Ancelotti, Mourinho, or Pellegrini — Zidane has taken a piece from each and yet lacks their glaring flaws.

Carlo Ancelotti won the hearts of all Madridistas, but how frustrating was it to see such a talented team bottle the big games and fall apart from exhaustion by the end of the season. Zizou has taken on and beaten the likes of Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Manchester United, Manchester City, and the list goes on. Needless to say the boys come to play in the big games. Most importantly, they are fresh. Zidane adheres to the science and believes in rotations above all his other methods. The club spends thousands, if not millions, each year on data and software that tracks the players every movement, their heart-rate, their miles logged, their hydration levels, even measuring their likelihood of injury. Despite the data, many managers — be it pressure to get results or old school way of thinking — have refused to surrender to the overwhelming evidence. Zidane has been revolutionary in the way he has utilized his squad and taken advantage of the technology that Madrid has afforded him.

As Madrid fans continue down the managerial food chain, all credit has to be given to Mourinho who helped build the base from which Madrid used to win three champions league trophies in four years — but his last six months nearly decimated all his work. He was a tactical mastermind, he brought a winning mentality, and he demanded the best; yet he failed to control the squad and divided the club, the players, and the fans.

Even if the Portuguese had won the Champions League, it would not have been the Madrid way. He lacked the class and dignity required by the club and despite the devastating counter attacks, his ultra defensive set-ups against teams like Barcelona left a sour taste in the mouth, it simply didn’t feel right.

These two juggernauts, for all that they brought to the team, Zidane adds similar value— and then some! He goes above and beyond in that he checks every box. Coaches have come and gone because they failed to manage the squad, or play attacking and aesthetically pleasing football, or most importantly, they failed to win trophies. The legendary Arrigo Sacchi was recently interviewed and asked about Zidane, his words rang true and the football world has certainty noticed the Frenchman’s impact:

''He's been a fantastic surprise. Real Madrid aren't only winning but they're playing well, positive football and everyone's helping. Zidane's a great manager and the Cardiff Final is proof; he avoided the tactics that Allegri would've killed him at.''

This season is proving to be, and will continue to be, the Frenchman’s biggest challenge since taking over. After so much success, it becomes every opposing manager’s desire to find the chink in Madrid’s armour. Now more than ever, the bulls-eye is on Zidane’s back. The now de-facto system used to stop Madrid is putting as many numbers behind the ball as possible. It is an ultra-compact and defensive system, often with 10-men behind the ball, where opponents clog the middle of the field. Before the Espanyol match, Zidane recognized that teams shift from their normal philosophy in order to get a result at the Bernabeu:

“We come up against a team that has the players to play good football, but it's a different matter when it comes to playing at the Bernabeu and they may well come here and sit back.”

What makes this Madrid team so special is that they do have every type of player available to play in any type of system. It is now up to Zidane and his staff to stay ahead of the curb and continue proving their tactical nous as the biggest tests come after so much success. It’s fast pace, high intensity, high defensive pressure, and possession-dominant football that will unlock the toughest of defensive lines. Madrid may not be playing high-octane football right now, but come the business end of the season, one can usually bet Zidane will have his team firing on all cylinders. By season’s end, the ultimate narrative will be answered. Will lessons be learned from an early run of poor results and inefficiency or will success bog Zidane and the team down?

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