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Mailbag: Zinedine Zidane’s Legacy

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On Zidane’s tactical evolution, legacy, “black magic,” luck, & more.

Juventus v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Tactical Proficiency & Evolution

Zidane isn’t the greatest tactically. I don’t say that to diminish his accomplishments or take away from what he has achieved (since success is determined by a multitude of complex factors, with tactics sometimes playing a lesser role), it’s just an observation drawn from thousands of hours of studying his strategies.

However, it’s also true that such a statement is a bit unfair, for Zidane’s tactical story is far more complex than that. He has indisputably improved from his first days following the dark Benítez era, but his progression has been anything but linear. When he first started off, there weren’t much tactics to speak of. Tasked with lifting a desolate team’s spirit, the Frenchman rightly placed his focus on rebuilding squad harmony and re-establishing the never-say-die “madridismo” attitude. With no pressure and expectations, Zidane just focused on getting his team through the season, banking on his own power of personality and building rudimentary systems that allowed his side’s individual talents to take over. However, we did see sparks of Zidane’s tactical potential that season, as he showed admirable flexibility and an aptitude for set-pieces in certain games.

Against Wolfsburg in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals, he implemented his first successful counterpress. It lasted for a solid ~30 minutes and allowed Real to stun the Germans with relentless waves of pressure that eventually resulted in a thrilling comeback. Against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League Final, Zidane placed Bale on the fringes of the box to create a mismatch vs. a smaller marker. This allowed the Welshman to execute a clean flick-on to assist Sergio Ramos and help give Madrid the lead.

Afterwards, Zidane instructed his team to sit deep and cede possession to their city rivals, thus reducing the volume of Atléti’s counterpressing actions and putting Los Colchoneros in a situation they weren’t used to. While the defensive structure wasn’t perfect and Real eventually conceded, the gutsy maneuver helped push Real through extra-time and resulted in a win on penalties.

The following season, Zidane built on those flashes of promise while slowly improving on his weaknesses. In the first half of the season, Real Madrid played quite poorly, as they suffered from structural issues in possession and a discombobulated press that made it easy for opponents to counter-attack. Real survived on last-minute comebacks that stemmed from a relentless crossing game and set-piece brilliance. Taking advantage of the aerial superiority provided by the BBC and Sergio Ramos, Zidane had his forwards flood the box from a variety of angles and directions in order to overwhelm the opposition and create numerous options for accurate crossers Marcelo and Carvajal. In dead-ball situations, Zizou utilized decoy runs and flick-on sets to create high-quality looks, while also placing Sergio Ramos in the best positions to attack deliveries.

These key factors, combined with Los Blancos’ quality from the bench, held things together until the second act, where Zidane finally began to master his pressing structures in a Copa del Rey game vs. Sevilla. ZZ went with a sublime 4-1-4-1 press that suffocated Sevilla’s build-up and left pressing master Sampaoli helpless on the sidelines. But, like I mentioned earlier, these gains did not progress in linear fashion, as he switched to a 4-4-2 formation (with Kroos stepping up from midfield to press, thereby leaving a gaping hole behind him) in the second leg and watched as his press was cut apart in a 3-3 draw. Nevertheless, Zidane’s switch to a 4-4-2 diamond once Bale was injured, as well as his brilliant half-time adjustments in the 2017 Champions League Final, revealed a promising upward tactical curve.

This progression seemed to continue with sublime tactical performances in the Super Cups of the 2017/18 season, but it all disappeared after the first couple matches in La Liga. For whatever reason, he seemed intent on playing an ultra-fluid style of football in a 4-4-2 diamond that left his players confused and incapable of pressing effectively. Whether it was Eibar or Tottenham, teams figured out Real’s diamond and began to romp through Madrid’s midfield in transition more easily than ever before. Despite Zidane’s decision to drop the diamond more regularly, he never seemed to recover his old grasp on midfield structures and Real never truly pressed at an elite level again.

However, what he didn’t lose was his flexibility and his willingness to rotate. Zidane played a flat 4-4-2 in the second leg vs. PSG (Bale was dropped in both fixtures), before dumping Casemiro and Gareth on the bench at half-time to attain the same formation and stabilize a team that was in danger of choking against Juventus. In the Champions League Final, ZZ played a faux-diamond, with Isco free to switch flanks but restricted from moving into the center. This created a rough 4-3-3 shape with Ronaldo and Benzema constantly reacting to Isco’s positions to create a trio up top.

Isco’s heatmap vs. Liverpool in the 2018 Champions League Final
whoscored.com

While Liverpool still dominated the moments up until Salah’s injury, it was admirable that Zizou found a way to accommodate Isco’s press resistance without dumping Benzema and weakening Madrid’s ability to defend the flanks.

Thus, it’s clear that Zidane was never afraid to tinker and had the capacity to throw curveballs and produce good tactical sets in big games. Conversely, it’s also evident that Zidane never truly mastered the modern rigors of tactical structure; which is why Benzema and Casemiro were such trusted lieutenants. In possession, Benzema - in spite of his decline from 2016/17 onwards - papered over Real’s flat midfield structure with his intelligent deep movements and link-up play, while Casemiro single-handedly plugged holes in botchy pressing schemes and stopped dangerous counters.

Ultimately, Zidane was more consumed with his man-management duties. He spent the majority of his time trying to juggle his vast pool of talent while upsetting as few people as possible, leading him to disregard a specific philosophy in favor of changing shapes and systems that could accommodate numerous rotations.

Hence, as weird as it may seem, we will probably only be able to truly assess Zidane’s tactical quality once he manages a team where tactical factors take clear precedence.

In the meantime, this meme should act as your definitive guide on Zidane’s tactical ability:

G.O.A.T. Discussion & What’s Special About Zidane

I wouldn’t say Zidane is the greatest coach of all-time, but I would certainly place him in the Hall of Fame. Tactically, he had several limitations (as I mentioned above), but his status as one of the G.O.A.T. players gave him a level of control few managers will ever be able to match. It cannot be overstated how invaluable it is for a coach to be able to bench anyone without question at a club like Real Madrid. It opens up rare strategical avenues and allows for rotations that keep almost everyone happy. Beyond that, he possesses a personality that allows him to masterfully handle the press and connect with his players on a level that ensures he gets 110% effort.

And let’s not forget that he won three consecutive Champions League titles without ever being knocked out of the competition (there’s like 30 million records in that one sentence), and won Madrid’s first double since 1958. That alone puts him up there with the some of the best managers to ever do it.

Luck & Black Magic

There’s no denying that luck has played a role in Zidane’s successes (which is the case for every single manager), but, just like with the tactical question, the answer is a bit more complex than that.

When Benítez was sacked in 2015/16, it’s pretty hard to argue that Zidane entered an enviable situation with a lot of fortune on his side. Real were several points behind Barcelona with the league out of reach, the team wasn’t playing good football, tensions were high with the management, and the fanbase was depressed and convinced that Real had entered another dark age. That Zidane came and completely lifted the spirits of the supporters, reinvigorated the squad’s attitude, and resurrected the title race out of nowhere, is entirely down to his own power of personality and some key tactical moments (specifically his first tactical masterclass, which came in El Clásico to knock Barcelona into a near fatal spiral).

Of course, that doesn’t mean Zidane had no luck at all, as the knockout path to the 2016 Champions League Final happened to be the easiest Madrid had received in years. Roma, Wolfsburg, and City all gave the Vikingos some trouble, but the lack of relative quality of these opponents gave Zidane breathing room to safely make the errors expected of an inexperienced coach. But, as mentioned before, he made some critical tactical decisions that tipped the UCL final in Real’s favor; and it came against arguably the second or first best side in the world at the time in Atlético (the other first or second best team being Bayern).

That didn’t stop many from writing off the half season as a complete fluke, but it wasn’t until well into the 2016/17 season that critics thought, “wow, this dude is really getting away with it.” That “getting away with it” feeling is what we all mean when we talk about Zidane employing “black magic.” It’s the sense that no matter how badly Real play or how well the opposition performs, Madrid somehow always find a way to win the game. It’s another way of saying Zidane is lucky while still attributing some agency to him in the process - an unexplainable and mysterious agency.

While I think the “black magic” concept is actually an explainable phenomenon that isn’t all that mind-boggling, let me put that thought on hold to go back to the 16/17 season. This was the campaign where Madrid pulled off incredible comeback after incredible comeback; many of them resulting from extremely late salvos (i.e. 3-2 vs. Deportivo La Coruna and 2-1 vs. Sporting CP). As seemingly fortunate as these victories were, I wouldn’t put it down to luck (mostly). While it’s hard to argue that leaving things till the last minute and creating self-made holes were good strategies, Zidane must be given credit for his late-game adjustments. Drawing on his wealth of depth, he pulled the likes of Alvaro Morata, Mariano, and Lucas Vázquez off the bench in critical periods to alter results. Additionally, he employed a somewhat rudimentary - but effective - strategy of piling bodies into the box to get on the end of a glut of crosses. While the opposition found this attack plan predictable, they were almost always overwhelmed through sheer volume and intensity.

That isn’t luck.

Now back to the black magic bit, which really came to the fore in Zidane’s last season at the club. In some league games throughout the campaign - but moreso in the Champions League - Real Madrid played flat out bad/or were outplayed and still came away with results: the second leg vs. Juventus, both legs vs. Bayern, and the first 31 minutes vs. Liverpool. It is in these moments where Zidane inarguably benefited from luck more than in any other moments (Zidane has nothing to do with Bayern missing two thousand chances and Karius making two horrible mistakes), but he deserves a slice of credit here too. His “black magic” was a very real thing that contributed to these wins; in the sense that it was a specific collective mentality that allowed Madrid to endure terrible in-game periods without losing their composure and belief, therefore allowing them to strike lethally when the opportunity presented itself. Zizou literally admitted this to us a million times with his classic, “we must suffer” line.

And because this “black magic” is a collective mentality imbued into the team, I would expect it to remain even after Zidane’s exit if Madrid hold onto key veterans. It goes without saying that the team’s ability to keep their head while enduring setbacks would look a lot different without at least some of Ronaldo, Ramos, Modric, and co. on the pitch.

P.S. For some reason people keep forgetting all the luck that went against Zidane this season. La Liga was blown, not because Zidane’s management was bad, but because Real’s finishing was beyond horrendous; Ronaldo and Benzema scored a mere half of their expected goal totals by the end of the first half of the season.

It’s worth wondering if Zidane would’ve stuck to his early successful tactics if results had gone Madrid’s way. Regardless, it’s safe to say that fortune both heavily damaged and greatly benefitted Zidane in his final season with the club.

I’ve kind of touched on this already, but I’d say that both played a relatively equal role in ensuring Madrid’s success (with the previously discussed “black magic” and luck bit being more significant). While Zidane’s tactical performance in this edition of the Champions League was probably his poorest, he still made critical changes that benefited his team. His moves away from the diamond against PSG and Liverpool weren’t catalytic changes that threw the ties firmly into Madrid’s favor, but they provided his team with a better platform to succeed than most of his prior schemes. These tactical adjustments went hand-in-hand with his man-management and rotation skills, which saw him bench Bale and Isco in order to achieve the best tactical shape he could envision.

There aren’t many people that rank ahead of Zizou when accounting for his combined player-manager legacy at Real Madrid. His volley against Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League Final - widely considered the best goal in Champions League history before Bale’s stunning effort vs. Liverpool this year - became the symbol for Real’s love-affair with the competition and sparked an obsessive hunt for La Décima that shaped every aspect of Real’s management for twelve straight years. Combine that with his managerial accomplishments, and you have a legacy that probably only ranks lower than Di Stéfano’s, Santiago Bernabéu’s, and Florentino Pérez’s; perhaps staying level with Cristiano Ronaldo’s, Iker Casillas’, and Raul’s if you want to be conservative.

Zidane won three straight Champions League titles and the first double since 1981, gifting Real their most dominant period since the Di Stéfano era, before leaving his legacy untarnished by quitting on top. There has been a whole generation of fans who have had their entire footballing experience defined by unstoppable success in the Zidane era, ensuring this club millions of passionate fans for life and a mythic narrative that will eventually be looked upon in the same manner we look back on the time of the first five European Cups. Almost no one is going to remember the tactics, the trials and tribulations, the “black magic,” and whatever luck that came his way. The only thing we’re going to see are a mountain of trophies and the only thing we’re going to feel is intense nostalgia for a glorious time that will likely never resurface in our lifetimes.

Nacho Fernández’s.

I’m not aware of Zidane doing anything specific to improve Nacho’s game, but it’s evident that everyone’s favorite rotation player took a massive leap in Zizou’s first full season at the club. Capitalizing on injuries, Nacho started for Real in their shock 3-0 away win vs. Atlético Madrid, redeeming himself from the 2014/15 debacle at the Calderon with this stat-line: 6 interceptions, 5 clearances, 2 blocked shots, 2 aerial duels won, 1 tackle, and a 97% passing accuracy.

That game seemed to catapult Nacho’s self-belief into another dimension, allowing him to execute consistently superb performances that showed off his underrated pace, vertical passing, smart defensive positioning, and versatility.

I always thought Nacho was a bit underrated, but I never imagined he could be that good.

Too much squad depth in midfield - simple.

Some people have wondered whether Zidane had anything against Ceballos, but it’s just a sad fact that the former Betis man was never going to get adequate playing time no matter the rotation scheme. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are the two best midfielders in the world bar none and Kovacic - who only managed 989 minutes in the league - is far better than Ceballos at the present moment. Signing him never made sense in the first place.

The better question is — why didn’t Marcos Llorente get more than 540 league minutes when Real possessed only one other true defensive midfielder (Casemiro) in the squad?

My Top Three Favorite Zidane Games (let’s just say from a tactical perspective because otherwise this would be far too difficult):

1. Real Madrid 2-0 FC Barcelona (second leg of the 2017/18 Spanish Super Cup)

2. Real Madrid 3-0 Sevilla (first leg of the 2016/17 Copa del Rey Round of 16)

3. Atlético Madrid 0-3 Real Madrid (first league match of the 2016/17 season)

Honorable mentions: 2015/16 Clásico win, 2015/16 Wolfsburg comeback, second half of the 2017 Champions League final, 2016/17 Champions League Round of 16 first leg vs. Napoli, and the 2017/18 European Super Cup victory over Manchester United.

Zidane’s Departure

It’s simple, you just have to know when to stop. I do this for the sake of the club, it would’ve been extremely tough to keep winning with me as the coach next season. We saw this in La Liga, I don’t forget those moments.

This doesn’t have anything to do with the decisions we were going to make this summer. It’s part of the job. This is just a change we needed so that he club can keep winning.

- Zidane

Considering Zidane’s history of being, humble, straightforward, and brutally honest, I see no reason not to take him for his own word here. So yes @RosdbaRos639, I do believe that Zidane left because of the poor results in La Liga. And yes, @LaReinaMerengue, I do agree with Zidane on his decision to step down.

I think ZZ did what few of us could do and brutally quizzed himself on his strengths and weaknesses. He probably realized that with the decline and relative old age of Ronaldo, Benzema, Modric, Sergio Ramos, and Marcelo, the time for a transition from the old core to the new was coming. Managing that transition would require a partially different set of skills than what made him special — his power of personality and man-management. Greater tactical mastery and the construction of a coherent playing philosophy would be needed to provide sound footing for a new spine and the plethora of new transfers that would eventually take place. I think Zidane had the laudable humility to see this and therefore resigned because he believed it what was in the best interest of the club to do so.

I’m not sure anyone else in world football would do that.

Gracias por todo Zizou. Gracias por todo...

Real Madrid Celebrate After Victory In The Champions League Final Against Liverpool Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images