Zinedine Zidane’s playing career is often associated with Real Madrid. One of the greatest players in the illustrious history of Los Blancos, his place within Real Madrid folklore has already been cemented due to his Champions League Medals as player, assistant, and manager. No matter how his current managerial tenure ends, Zidane will always be a Real Madrid Legend.
Though, many forget Zidane spent 5 formative years at Juventus where he was teammates alongside now Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, and current French National Team manager Didier Deschamps. Young Zidane, 24-years-old at the time of his transfer from Bordeaux, would need to adapt to the tactical and physical demands of Italian football and legendary Italian coach Marcello Lippi. The Serie A was at the pinnacle of European football at the time, and in the 1995-1996 season (the year prior to Zidane’s transfer to the Italian Club), Juventus had won the UEFA Champions League. Zidane’s time at Juventus was a success. He won two Serie A championships, an Intercontinental Cup, and a UEFA Super Cup. He also made two consecutive Champions League Final appearances with Juventus, famously losing his 2nd to none other than Real Madrid. Adding to all his accolades, Zidane was twice named Serie A’s ‘Foreign Footballer of the Year’.
Despite all the success, there was an adaptation period for the Frenchman. Lippi is known to be extremely demanding of his players and physical fitness was made a priority. Interestingly, Alvaro Morata, who spent two years at the Italian Club before returning to Real this summer, has made similar comments on his first training sessions at Juventus. Morata felt he needed time to adapt to the training methods, and in particular, the high-intensity fitness regime when he first arrived. It seems the methods at Juventus have not changed, and Zidane, as a player, understood the difference that peak fitness levels make in individuals and a team. There is a shift in a player’s mentality when they know they have that little bit extra in the tank, confidence levels rise. It’s what makes a record 11th Champions League title after 120 minutes of gameplay all the more feasible. When Zidane took charge last January, the number one priority was to get the physical condition right and with an early Copa Del Rey exit that year, Zidane took advantage of that time to implement his fitness regime. Both the players, Zidane, and most fans would argue without that period to build fitness in January, there may never have been an 11th Champions League Title sitting in the Santiago Bernabeu.
Zidane’s obsession with his player’s physical levels did not end in January. He hired Italian fitness coach Antonio Pintus from Olympique de Lyon this summer. Pintus coincided with Zidane at Juventus as he was the fitness coach at the club from 1991-1998. Again, there is a direct correlation to Zidane’s time in Italy and his belief in those methods. Antonio Pintus has overseen a number of clubs’ fitness programs, including a second stint at Juventus in 2006 and he was the fitness coach at Monaco in 2003 when they made a shock run to the Champions League Final. The Italian made the same impact on Didier Deschamps as a player. The pair linked up twice during Deschamps’ playing days-- at Juventus and Chelsea. When Deschamps became manager of Monaco, Juventus, and Marseille—Pintus was made a priority and brought along with his coaching team at each club. At the highest level, it is the details that make the difference and Zidane hired Pintus to produce results in April and May, the final and crucial part of the season. Time will tell if Zidane’s decision pays dividends by season’s end, with Madrid fans hoping to see silverware in hand.
Peeling back the layers, it is easy to see that it was not just the physical aspect of the game that was imposed on Zidane in Italy, but the tactical as well. Lippi, like Ancelotti (who coached Zidane at Juventus for two years), believes that a coach must adapt his tactics to the players available, rather than vice versa. Ancelotti has often cited this as his biggest lesson in football.
“I said, ‘No, you have to play striker.’ Baggio went to another club. That year Baggio scored 25 [actually 22] goals – for Bologna! I lost 25 goals! Big mistake.” — Carlo Ancelotti speaking to Simon Kuper of the Financial Times in 2014, recalling his biggest regret in football, choosing a system over a generational talent.
Both coaches have the philosophy that it’s about selecting your 11 best players available and then building a system and a formation which can get the most from those players’ characteristics. We have certainly seen this philosophy imposed by Zidane, in particular, in his first full season in charge. In the first half of the season, with Madrid plagued by injuries, Zidane had to adapt. A trip to the Calderon ensued without Benzema, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Casemiro, and Kroos. Five first team regulars out of the team. Instead of sticking to the default system of 4-3-3, Zidane tweaked his formation to 4-4-1-1 in order to give Isco total freedom as a pure #10 behind the striker. The system adapted to Isco’s characteristics, which in turn would provide Cristiano Ronaldo the service he demands as a pure #9. To further supplement Ronaldo’s new role, Bale and Lucas Vázquez were kept wide on the flanks, in order to utilize their speed and of note, kept on their strong foot flank (Bale on the Left, Vazquez on the Right) to capitalize on their crosses and Cristiano’s aerial ability. The team ran out 3-0 winners in the Madrid Derby and Madrid fans were left impressed with Zidane’s tactical impetus. The system was built to adapt to characteristics of his players and in particular to get the best out of a generational talent, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Much of Zidane’s tactical decisions have mirrored that of his former coach and colleague, Carlo Ancelotti. Whenever the team is in need of balance and defensive stability, or as Carlo would say, equilibrium, Zidane -- like Carlo -- places the team in a 4-4-2. In the Champions League semi-final last season at home against Manchester City, Madrid were incredibly solid with a strong base out of the 4-4-2. They comfortably defended a 1-0 lead. Players feel defensively secure in a 4-4-2, as it allows for two tight lines of four or what as many coaches refer to as a ‘block of 8’. Madrid fans saw the move to a 4-4-2 formation again in the most recent match against Athletic Bilbao. Zidane surprisingly replaced Luka Modrić with Lucas Vázquez in order to give Madrid solidity in midfield. It provided cover on the wings for the full back with an extra midfielder placed within the lines.
On a podcast, “The Big Interview with Graham Hunter”, Paul Clement, former assistant coach to Ancelotti along with Zidane back in the 2013-2015 seasons, talks about his time in Madrid and the preparation for training sessions and matches. Every day the coaching staff got together to prepare the session for the day and to breakdown video of their next opponents. Clement said that each coach had input and each were learning off one another. Zidane’s time as Carlo’s assistant was crucial in developing him for his current role as first team manager and he has implemented similar tactics to Carlo since taking over, hence the move to 4-4-2 for solidity.
Many have questioned and criticized Zidane for the constant chopping and changing of personnel and systems. At Real Madrid, there are 18+ players that could start for virtually any team in the world. Flexibility in the system provides options for different personnel and different characteristics. Kovacic is not the same player as Kroos and James is not the same player as Bale. Although they play in similar positions, they have different characteristics and different qualities. Each player can slot into the system due to their versatility, but for Zidane to reap the full benefits of the players at his disposal, slight tweaks are essential. In a recent match against Eibar, James was placed on the right wing, but given total freedom to roam and dictate the tempo of the match. He produced one of his best displays for Madrid this season, racking up a goal and two assists within the 90 minutes. The tactical switch and changing of personnel has not always worked, as evidenced by the match against Las Palmas, but few, if any, coaches in the modern game get it right on every occasion over the course of a season.
When taking a step back and examining Zidane’s decisions, the base from which his ideas and his philosophies stem are oftentimes from his experience with Juventus and his time with Italian coaches. Being a world class player is a huge advantage for Zidane as he can fall back on what resonated with him as a player, what he felt made the biggest impact in winning trophies and improving his form. When a Zidane coaching decision seems to be baffling or random, take the time to step back and analyze where it could be coming from because they are never random. Data analytics, assistant managers, training observations, and Zizou’s time as a player and assistant under some Italian legends are behind the scenes dictating his every decision.
Hawkey, Ian. "Italian Football Helped Sculpt the Artistry of Real Madrid Coach Zinedine Zidane." The National. The National, 16 Feb. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.
Kuper, Simon. "Interview: Carlo Ancelotti." Financial Times. Financial Times, 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.
Piñero, Alberto. "Así Es Antonio Pintus, El Nuevo Preparador Físico Que Ha Fichado Zinedine Zidane Para El Real Madrid." Goal.com. Goal.com, 19 July 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.