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Less Luck, more genius: Zinedine Zidane's managerial stint with Real Madrid

Zinedine Zidane is the only manager to win three consecutive Champions League titles.
Zinedine Zidane is the only manager to win three consecutive Champions League titles.
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Modified 22 Feb 2019, 18:44 IST
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A World Cup winner with France in 1998 and a three-time FIFA World Player of the Year, Zinedine Zidane is a footballing legend. But, he is now also an impressive manager.

After the sacking of Rafa Benitez in early 2016, Zidane was appointed as Real Madrid's manager. He inherited a team which were thrashed 4-0 by Barcelona and looked rather subdued. His appointment drew criticism due to his inexperience in management.

Rebuilding the squad

When he took the reins of the club, it was a total mess. The players had no idea what was going on with them. They had forgotten to play and were exhausted physically and mentally. Back in November, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Raphael Varane and Dani Carvajal all started in the 4-0 thrashing by Barcelona and made an of a mockery of themselves. Isco was shown red for kicking Neymar. Zidane had quite a lot of rebuilding to do.

He listened to his players and understood their problems. They didn't need a strict tactician, instead, all that required was a friendly touch. So he resorted to his best technique: 'man management'. His status meant that he commanded his players' respect.

He brought Antonio Pintus as the fitness coach. The goal was to bring the squad in shape. First, he took up the defence and provided the backline with what they needed the most; confidence and belief. Casemiro was deployed as a defensive midfielder with the duty to protect the back four.

His next mission was to strengthen the midfield. Being one of the best midfielders to grace the game, he surely had a soft corner for them. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were relieved of the defensive duties and were tasked to pull the strings in the midfield.

His was next tasked with resurrecting the 'ailing Galacticos'. Both Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez looked lesser versions of themselves. Karim Benzema was misfiring too. Ronaldo was in a rough patch of his own. He solved this by lining up a fixed front three, whom he called 'untouchables'.They were Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo. This meant that Isco and James had no place in the starting lineup. However, owing to his affinity for attacking midfielders he tweaked his 4-3-3 formation into 4-4-2 to accommodate an extra midfielder. He knew he had to keep his squad happy.

Playing football the Zidane way

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Zidane started his senior managerial career with a 5-0 win over Deportivo La Coruna. Benzema scored a brace and Bale netted a hattrick. It was followed by a 5-1 win over Sporting Gijon.

He had a clear game plan; win at any cost. They would have had to win because they were obliged to. Real had a dynamic style of playing, rather, they adapted according to the situation. Against high pressing teams like Sevilla, Valencia, long balls and crosses became the norm. Against tighter defences like Atletico Madrid, slick passing was deployed with Kroos and Modric controlling the tempo of the game. Isco and James were brought as impact subs to unlock such defences. Their game was based on soaking pressure, nullifying attacks and pouncing on their opponent's mistakes with fast counters. It was their bread and butter. They would easily change defence into offence within the blink of an eye and score for fun. Their winner in the 2-1 win over Barcelona at Camp Nou was a breathtaking example of that.

The fruit of the hard work

Zidane trusted his players and got the same in return. This created a sense of healthy competition within the squad and there were no signs of a power struggle. Gradually, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane's performances improved. Marcelo once again became the world beater he was known as and Dani Carvajal started challenging for the title of best Spanish full back. Modric and Kroos repaid their manager's faith by quickly morphing into one of the finest pairings of central midfield in the world. All this was possible by a simple tweak; which would go on to become the turning point of their season; the 4-3-3 system with Casemiro as a pivot. The Brazilian made himself vital to the team, earning the nickname 'destroyer'. Zidane had turned him into one of the best defensive midfielders of the game; a player Real had been missing since the departure of Claude Makélélé. The gaps in the leaking defence were covered. Slowly the defence started transforming itself into an armour. Ronaldo also had found his mojo back and had started to show his excellence. The free-flowing Real Madrid were back to their best. Although they won the last 12 games off the bounce, they narrowly lost in La Liga by a single point.

Although they won the last 12 games off on the bounce, they narrowly lost La Liga by a single point.
Although they won the last 12 games off on the bounce, they narrowly lost La Liga by a single point.

Conquering Europe: La Undecima

In the Champions League, they didn't have an easy passage. They made light work of Roma in the round of 16(winning by an aggregate of 4-0). However, in the quarterfinals, they were almost knocked out by Wolfsburg. Trailing 2-0 from the first leg they took responsibility for their mistakes and replied by a dazzling 3-0 win in the return leg at the Bernabeu. They wanted to win for themselves and for their 'manager'. The semifinal against Manchester City was a drab affair. A single goal was enough to propel Real Madrid to their 14th final; a Fernandinho own goal forced by Gareth Bale.

Real Madrid were the winners of the 2015-16 Uefa Champions League
Real Madrid were the winners of the 2015-16 Uefa Champions League

The 2016 Champions League Final was a repeat of the 2014 showpiece. Atletico had suffered heartbreak in Lisbon. However, in Milan, there was more to come. The match went to penalties as the score remained 1-1 after extra time. Sergio Ramos's strike was cancelled by Yannick Carassco's sublime effort.

We all know what happened after that!

Cristiano Ronaldo scored the final spot kick and won his team their 11th Champions League. 

Zinedine Zidane had won the Champions League in his maiden season. From an inexperienced manager to the master of Europe in just five months. And this was just the beginning.

In the next season, he gave the world a gem in the form of Marco Asensio. He also sanctioned the purchase of now-beloved Vinicius Junior. Dani Ceballos, Theo Hernandez, Jejus Vallejo, and a host of young players followed. Their manager trusted in youth and wanted to build a squad for the future.

He would go on to win eight more trophies; 1 La Liga, 2 Champions League, 2 Uefa Super Cups, 1 Supercopa de Espana and 2 FIFA Club World Cups in the following two seasons; thereby becoming the first manager to win three consecutive Champions League trophies in its current format.

People often forget that managing Real Madrid is notoriously difficult. The sword of the sack is always hanging on the manager's neck. Zidane tool this job with his own calm and positive demeanour. Sure, people would argue that he had the best players at his disposal and he was assisted by luck too. But, luck always favours the brave. He took the club from obscurity to where it belonged to; and became an integral part of the second golden era of Real Madrid.

After leading Real to an unprecedented 13th European title in May 2018, he silently left the scene. Even if Zidane has left, his philosophy is still there. He had always been a Madridista and will continue to be one.

No wonder why a lot of clubs are lining up for his signature.

Published 22 Feb 2019, 18:44 IST
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