As Rafa Benitez packed his bags and headed for the exit door in January 2016, the inexperienced Zinedine Zidane was prepped to take over the reins of the struggling Real Madrid. If anyone knew the level of pressure that comes with such a mammoth job, it was Zizou. Having ushered in the famed Galacticos era which saw constant coaching changes as well as being placed as Carlo Ancelotti’s protege during his short but successful stint as manager of Los Blancos, Zidane had witnessed first hand the level of scrutiny that comes with the post. As a player, the Frenchman had achieved everything he possibly could on the pitch. Now he was being asked to replicate that success off it.
In truth, the Benitez experiment was doomed to fail from the start. An appointment that would have made far more sense in 2005 when he was in his prime as a tactical genius was dowright bemusing in 2015. He had just been forced out of a potentially permanent job by a large number of Chelsea fans despondent with his hiring as an interim manager before failing to make his mark with Napoli- a shocking Europa League semi-final defeat to Dnipro encapsulating his time there. The manager’s market at the time wasn't exactly rosy, with the likes of Antonio Conte already employed and a recently jobless Jurgen Klopp lacking the motivation to carry the burden of taking over one of Europe’s top clubs. Benitez was just in the right place at the right time, his reign containing more misery than excitment as a 4-0 home defeat to Barcelona left him at the point of no return. A few weeks later he was handed his p45 with Zidane quickly instilled as the replacement.
Zizou quickly changed the fortunes of his former club around, as convincing wins over Roma and Sevilla coupled with a victory in his El Clasico debut produced a positive atmosphere in the Spanish capital. Buoyed by such results, Real completed an unbelievable comeback against Wolfsburg in the Champions League quarter-finals enroute to pipping city-rivals Atletico to yet another European triumph. Zidane’s preparation for the biggest match of his managerial career, and the biggest match of Real’s season, was intensely under the microscope. They don’t celebrate finals in Madrid, they celebrate trophies, which left the inexperienced head coach with little margin for error.
Not only did Zidane pass his first big test, but he done so with flying colours. Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema were asked to drop deep in a bid to starve Ateltico’s forward line of any service while Gareth Bale also assisted with defensive duties. Diego Simeone was bewildered, as Real’s stubborn organisation and team cohesion was similar to the rigid system so often seen at the Vicente Calderon. Zidane had trumped his counterpart on the biggest stage of club football, and Real had added another European Cup to their impressive collection.
Of course, as is typical in football, the need to continue success is deemed more important than achieving it in the first place. Zidane’s next task was to dethrone Barcelona as Spanish Champions, a job made much harder considering Real had only won one league title since Bernd Schuster guided them to the top of the Primera Division in 2008. Their lack of consistency through the years became their kryptonite. Capable of topping Barcelona in their match-ups before dropping points at Sevilla or Valencia was often the downfall of a side so talented, yet so feeble in a title race. Zizou was keen to rid the players of those bad habits.
His ability to switch between a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 with the introduction of a Lucas Vasquez or Gareth Bale in place of the third midfielder has often been the formula for his success. Despite being unable to offer James Rodriguez the game-time he craved, Zidane was still able to adjust his system to fit the Colombian’s play style when he was called upon. Instead of asking James to take up the role of an out-and-out winger, as he would request from Bale or Vasquez, the former Monaco man was allowed to cut inside, controlling play from a more central position while allowing the full-back to make an overlapping run in an attempt to stretch the opposition. Zidane’s unpredictability, and his ability to revert to different tactics depending on the personnel being used, was a key feature of Real’s title success last year. Once again, the 45-year-old had answered his critics, who questioned whether he had the managerial capability to guide a side through a league campaign. As Zizou lifted the La Liga trophy over his head, an image which was the norm back in his playing days, he had offered his rebuttal to such doubts.
A couple of weeks after, on a sunny evening in Cardiff at the start of June, Zidane came up against one of the more tactically astute managers in Europe as Max Allegri sat in the opposite dugout. A Juventus side, who had steamrolled anyone who came across their path, had built their success on a strong defensive base while allowing for individualism to carry their offense. It created a problem for Real, who relied on the midfield of Toni Kroos & Luka Modric to supply the BBC forward line. A strategy which had seen them triumph over the Juve-lite Atletico in the semi-finals and a solid Bayern Munich team in the quarters, was now seen as a potential downfall for Real. However, Zidane, as he often has done, found a solution, opting for Isco ahead of the hometown man in Gareth Bale to expose Juve’s incompetence in the full-back slot. The veteran Andrea Barzagli was continuously dragged centrally as Isco roamed around looking to create for Real, which allowed Marcelo to take advantage of the space left by the Juve defender. Dani Alves was unable to continue tracking his countryman’s runs and Real benefitted. It was a similar occurence on the opposite flank as Madrid ran rampant to become the first team to successfully defend their title as European Champions. Zidane had written his name into the history books just a year and a half after stepping into the most prestigious role there is.
This year looked to have been the beginning of the end as Zidane’s fairtyale run had taken a turn for the worse. Real were stuggling in the league, and the distraction of the Club World Cup had led to a scheduling disaster with Madrid returning from Japan to face arch-rivals Barca in an early Saturday kickoff; a 3-0 loss all but ended their title hopes. A shocking Copa Del Rey elimination to Leganes soon followed with the Champions League ping-pong balls leaving them with a mouth-watering clash with the new flavour of the month, the big-spending French giants of Paris Saint-Germain. There weren’t many pundits comfortable with favouring Real over a club which consisted of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, especially giving their season-long struggles. A monumental effort was required if Real were to stay alive in the only competition left for them.
With their backs against the wall, and facing a humiliating exit, Real rallied. The first leg wasn’t so much a tactical masterclass from Zizou, with Madrid simply taking advantage of Emery’s naivety. Ronaldo, who has been on a tear since his dormant run at the start of the year, inspired a 3-1 victory which left the defending champions with some breathing room for the return leg. It’s there where Zidane continued to show his evolvement as a manager. Despite opting for a 4-3-3 in the first leg, the fear of Paris’ full-backs being offered a similar amount of space as they were for the first fixture, led to Zizou reverting to his favoured 4-4-2 system. The absence of Modric & Kroos, who had barely recoved from injury in time for the contest, was irrelevant with Matteo Kovacic and Casemiro playing their double pivot role to perfection. Zidane’s plan to cut off any passing lanes was insturmental in affecting PSG’s momentum, heightening their frustration which led to Marco Verratti’s dismissal.
Asensio and Vasquez were trusted with doubling up on any progressing full-back, which led to consistent trapping by the four wing players of Madrid (Marcelo & Dani Carvajal being the other two of course). A deeper back-four suffocated space for PSG’s forward line, and the desperation of needing two goals left plenty of room for Real to counter attack. It was as perfect a gameplan as Zidane could have constructed, with Madrid powering past their French counterparts to secure yet another quarter-final berth.
There’s no doubt that Zidane, for all his succcess in his short stint as manager, still has a way to go before he fully masters the occupation. His insistence on selecting Casemiro in matches which call out for more offensive-minded players is frustrating, while picking Gareth Bale as a false nine is mind-boggling, the 1-0 loss to Espanyol being a prime example of the latter. However, he’s earned the right for patience as he learns from his mistakes and attempts to work on them while continuing to guide Real to the highest of highs. The contests with Juventus in next month’s quarter-finals are bound to be nervy and tense, with the spoils usually going to the better prepared side in those type of matches. It’s going to be another gigantic battle for Zidane, but if we’ve learned anything over the last two years, its that he’s more than capable of coming through in the big moments.