It has been said that different football teams have different personalities. That means a well coached team should have an identity, which can be easily traced back to the manager. So if Atletico Madrid are tough and uncompromising, then it’s because Diego Simeone is tough and uncompromising. If Manchester City play a patient, methodical and possession-based style, that’s because Pep is himself methodical. Klopp has molded his Liverpool side to match his intensity and passion.
Then there’s Zidane. If you watched football with regularity between 1996 and 2006, then you are no stranger to the elegance the bald Frenchman oozed out of every pore. One of the first superstar players of the internet era, his silky touches, impressive passing range and outrageous goals make for compelling YouTube binges. Zidane remains the most watchable player of his era. If “Zizou” was a drink, he’d be a French wine you’d never heard of. If he was a movie, he’d be an Oscar winning masterpiece. If he were a song, he’d be an aria by Pavarotti.
Now he’s a manager. But he’s not just a manager, he’s the Real Madrid manager. Fortunately for him, the results have been good. In fact, he’s been a greater success than many predicted. 2016 has been a very memorable year for the former World Player of the Year. There was the El Clasico victory at the Camp Nou (thereby ending Barcelona’s 39 match unbeaten run). There was the club record 16th consecutive La Liga victory in September. There have been the three trophies—including an 11th Champions League win for Madrid. So why does it feel like Zidane doesn’t get more credit?
Several reasons come to mind. He doesn’t have the most extensive track record. He is managing a team of superstar athletes. But I suspect one of the more intangible reasons is because people aren’t too sure what his style or “philosophy” is. Everyone knows Pep’s “tiki taka”, and by now people are familiar with Conte’s favoured 3 at the back. But unlike most super managers, Zidane doesn’t seem to have a set style. However, like his former boss, Ancelotti, Zidane seems to favour a canny pragmatism. This has been most evident in the big games. He has a tendency to pack the midfield with numbers and keep the defence narrow when Real are without the ball. When they have the ball they are probably the most potent counter attacking team in Europe. This tactic served him well in the aforementioned El Clasico, in the derby win over Atletico Madrid, and even the Champions League final against the same opposition.
It is then fair to say that he has proven to have similar pragmatic tendencies to the likes of Mourinho, Ancelotti, and Sir Alex Ferguson. These managers set their teams to attack most of the time because they are confident in their team’s attacking prowess. But what made these managers successful was understanding how to set up their teams to play the big games. If the best players are judged on their performances in the big games, then the same is pretty much true for managers as well. No one knows this better than Zidane. As a player he wasn’t just a picture of grace and elegance, he was a great big game player as well. Now he has the chance to establish himself as one of the great managers of his generation—by being pragmatic.