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Zinedine Zidane: Real Madrid’s Tightrope Walker

Written by Matt Clark

On August 7th, 1974, Philippe Petit made the perilous walk between New York’s Twin Towers, walking across nothing more than a cable high-wire. This reflects Zinedine Zidane’s coaching career at Real Madrid. Audacious, risky, often precarious, but ultimately emphatically successful. Funambulismo is the fabulous Spanish word for this, and Zidane is the master of the art.

Unquestionably a legendary coach at Real Madrid, only the imperious Miguel Muñoz has won more trophies than Zidane at this iconic club. He has won every single final he has led the club into, nine out of nine. A clean sweep of three consecutive Champions Leagues – a feat that no other coach in the history of the game can equal – as well as collecting European Super Cups, Club World Cups and Supercopas de España. Quite simply, he is at the pinnacle of the game. But how has he managed to achieve this? What makes him so proficient in one of the hardest, most scrutinised environments in world football?

His incredible record in the Champions League speaks for itself, and it is a competition in which he has been eliminated only once; last season’s COVID-interrupted tie against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. In Spain too, he has a terrific record in the biggest clashes. Against Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid, Zidane has only lost twice in 12 meetings, conceding only six goals in the process. The first defeat was in his first experience of the Derbi Madrileño, and the second was inconsequential to the outcome of a knockout tie, with Madrid still progressing. Most famously, Zidane has triumphed against Los Colchoneros in two finals: in Milan in 2016, and in the 2019/20 Supercopa in Jeddah.

In Clásicos – a fundamental yardstick against which all Real Madrid coaches are judged – he performs superbly. In 10 matches against the Catalan side, Zidane’s outfit have lost just twice, and he remains unbeaten at Camp Nou, a phenomenal achievement. In the 2017 Supercopa, Real Madrid comprehensively dismantled Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate. Such was the overwhelming nature of the result that Gerard Piqué conceded that for the first time since his return to Catalonia, he felt “inferior” to the Madrid giants. This was the height of Zidane’s first spell at the club.

Following the historic 2018 Champions League victory, Real Madrid’s 13th European Cup and their third in succession, Zidane abruptly announced that he was leaving. There was surprise, but also an understanding that there was little more he could achieve to embellish his bulging CV.

Fast forward 10 months and he was back. Real Madrid were in a mess: out of every competition, struggling for goals without Cristiano Ronaldo, and low on confidence. Florentino Pérez had to persuade Zidane to return. The man with the Midas touch. From the outside, Zidane appeared as the apex predator of coaching. Gliding in and winning trophies as he did on the pitch, only to walk off into the sunset. But perhaps the better analogy is the tightrope walker: the high-wire, adrenaline performer, on the point of balance, teetering precariously, but always taking that confident step forward. Zidane had no reason to return; his legacy was cast-iron at the club. As well as the three-peat, there was LaLiga to accompany the European Cup in 2017 – the first such double in 59 years.

He had shown he could coax his squad to grind it out over 38 games. But return he did, when called upon in March 2019, stepping back into the tempest. He couldn’t resist, possessing the same insatiable desire for football and for winning as any fan. Perhaps he felt unfulfilled, that there was unfinished business, something left to prove, to himself maybe? Only he can answer that.

It may only be coincidence that the beginning of Barcelona’s decline coincided with Zidane’s return, but there are correlations. Ernesto Valverde’s side had dominated the domestic scene in the months without Zidane. But within weeks they had suffered the humiliation of Anfield and lost the Copa del Rey final. Of course, the Catalan club’s myriad of problems are not directly related to Zidane, but the mere suggestion that it could have had an impact illustrates the mystique of the man. Barcelona haven’t won a trophy since, while Los Blancos won LaLiga and the Supercopa last season.

When Real Madrid go through a rough patch of form, they always find a way to bounce back. The Guardian’s Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) summed up the paradox expertly: “To describe the most successful manager the European Cup has had as a survivor is a bit absurd, but it is also true”. Indeed, Zidane has faced the heat on numerous occasions. But Los Blancos have never lost three successive matches under the Frenchman’s leadership. When the pressure ramps up, when they really need to pull out a result, they find it. Like any elite level of sport, performing under pressure is what sets the best apart from the rest.

What are those key reasons for his success then? For Euan McTear (@emctear), La Liga Lowdown’s podcast host and a regular contributor to @managingmadrid, Zidane’s vast experience as a legendary player counts for a lot. “I think a major reason for Zidane’s success in big games is that he was a big-game player back in the day. Think of all the goals and big moments he himself had in finals or crucial knockout ties. We all remember the goal in the final against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, but he also scored in the semi-final which was a Clásico against Barcelona. He actually scored four Champions League semi-final goals, which isn’t maybe remembered enough”.

Zidane has been there, seen it and done it, many times. A serial winner in multiple countries, a World Cup winner on home soil, a Galáctico with the suave and sophistication of a Hollywood leading man. “It comes down to his calmness, I think”, adds Euan. “When there’s a huge game, his tranquil presence can bring overexcited players back down to earth. He’s the parent who stops buying sugary cereals. But that’s also sometimes his curse.

When there’s a less important game where there’s a need for a boost, it’s harder to gee the players up for it.”

This suggestion of a father figure is a fascinating and crucial element. It’s clear that players respect and admire Zidane; he has that special, intangible aura surrounding him. In addition to those Champions League goals to which Euan refers, Zizou scored a brace against Brazil in the final of his home World Cup in 1998. Eight years later, his last act as a professional was to headbutt Marco Materazzi in Berlin and walk past the World Cup trophy in isolated ignominy. For the good and the bad, that resonates with players. Like a father to his children, they are seen for their virtues and their flaws, at their best and at their worst. That bond is powerful, as true in football as it is in life.

A glowing and erudite comparison was made by Graham Hunter (@BumperGraham). In an article for ESPN, Graham contested that Zidane “possesses qualities that remind me of a young Sir Alex Ferguson”. He recalls some of Ferguson’s stalwarts who “cringed at the thought of letting him down”. For them, Ferguson was “a guru; someone who convinced, who inspired and who cajoled all at the same time”. This sophisticated understanding of player mentality is fundamental in modern football, and getting it right is a delicate task. Clearly, there are parallels with Zidane, having this all-encompassing effect over some of the best players in the world.

Graham also refers to “instinctive risk” in taking decisions boldly and often against the common consensus. Many of Zidane’s critics argue that he is tactically limited, and plays the same way without much appreciation of the nuances of the modern game. Some even argue that he is lucky, inheriting a quality squad that just needed freshness. There is often talk of the ‘flower of Zidane’, whereby things always seem to fall his way. But as the old adage goes, you make your own luck. It’s spurious and even insulting to suggest that Zidane ‘doesn’t do tactics’. Having played under Marcelo Lippi and Carlo Ancelotti, two of the brightest minds to come out of Coverciano in recent decades, Zidane will have absorbed a lot of specific information at impressionable stages of his career. When he first started coaching, it was alongside Ancelotti once again, the coach who he most closely resembles in terms of character, style and approach.

Scott Martin (@CoachScottCopy) is a tactical analyst and author of Revitalizing Real Madrid: The Tactics and Stats behind Zinedine Zidane’s Success. Having quite literally written the book on the subject, he identifies the adjustments Zidane has undertaken to benefit the club. “When I reflect on 2019/20, Zidane’s two greatest accomplishments were fixing the team’s leaky rest defence and renewing the club’s identity”. He adds that “they were phenomenal against the top half of the table. Their point accumulation against the top half was far better than either Barça’s or Atlético’s haul”.

Sid Lowe also acknowledged that Zidane had addressed the defensive frailties which had previously let Real Madrid down. “There was variety in their formations – 4-3-3, 4-5-1, 4-4-2 – they pressed higher than before and the ball was brought out cleaner now, while there was also a tighter structure than in Zidane’s first spell”. This demonstrates that he has evolved and developed from his first chapter at the club, and was willing to diversify to keep them at that competitive level. “Solidity and seriousness were the foundation stone”, Sid added. Zidane wanted to demonstrate that the 2017 LaLiga success wasn’t a one-off, that he could navigate a successful course through a long, arduous season. He wanted to win again.

Being at their best against the best is a theme which has been echoed by both Euan and Scott. Real Madrid always ‘turn up’ for the biggest games, with their elite mentality coming to the fore. “We hear Zidane speak of ‘finals’”, Scott adds, “which is quickly becoming a code word for ‘let’s think about showing up today’. When they bring that mentality, they’re nearly impossible to beat.” Used with almost comedic regularity in recent weeks, Zidane’s emphasis that every game is ‘a final’ highlights the pressure he has been under recently. After defeats to Alavés and Shakhtar Donetsk, Real Madrid were dropping points in their title defence and staring a possible Champions League group stage elimination in the face. They responded with three consecutive wins over Sevilla, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Atleti without conceding. As always, they produced the results when they desperately needed them to get out of trouble.

La Liga Lowdown’s resident Madridista Hasan Karim (@TheHasKarim) describes Zidane as “a cornerstone of Real Madrid’s history”, and believes a combination of skills enables him to flourish. “Historically, he’s shown his tactical flexibility in these big moments, often throwing up curveballs. When Real knocked out PSG [in the Champions League] in 17/18, his switch to a 4-4-2 proved vital. In 16/17, his use of the diamond proved to get the very best out of the entire squad”. This corroborates Scott’s analysis that Zidane modifies his systems to get the best out of the players at his disposal, as opposed to many elite coaches who arrive with a system and demand that players are signed to suit that.

Hasan also agrees with Euan on the personality and man-management aspect: “Perhaps most importantly, however, is the calmness he oozes. Whether in the pre-match presser or on the touchline, he paints a picture of cool. Something which seemingly translates to the players who never look phased, even when facing adversity”.

Tactically underrated, enigmatic, a motivator with mystique, Zinedine Zidane possesses a wide array of qualities, though none of this alone is a guarantee of success. Taken together however, and fused with experience and an unerring mentality, that is a safe recipe for victory. The French funambulist has plenty more wire left to walk. Zidane isn’t ready to leave the tightrope just yet.

If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news, match information or are looking for information on Zizou’s hair-care regime - you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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