“You don’t win three Champions Leagues, two La Liga titles and 13 out of 14 European knockout ties if you are not a good manager, this is crazy.”
When French football journalist Julien Laurens frames Zinedine Zidane’s managerial CV like that on the Euro Leagues podcast, it is hard to disagree.
People do, though. And plenty of them.
Despite seven major trophies in four-and-a-half years as Real Madrid boss, the Frenchman continues to be seen by some as more of a club suit than a skilled tactician, a manager whose chief attribute is not knowledge or nous but luck.
Before this week’s Champions League semi-final second leg between Zidane’s Real and Chelsea – with the tie locked at 1-1 – BBC Sport examines why he is yet to win universal respect despite his achievements.
|4 January 2016||31 May 2018||149||70.47||La Liga, Champions League (3), Club World Cup (2)|
|11 March 2019||Present||109||60.19||La Liga|
‘A back slapper, suit and cheerleader? Absolute rubbish’
Zidane is one of only three managers with three European Cup/Champions League titles on their CV, but the other two – Bob Paisley nor Carlo Ancelotti – did not win three in a row.
In his first full season in charge at Real, he delivered a La Liga-Champions League double (the club’s first since 1958), along with victory in the Club World Cup and over the course of his initial spell won 70% of his games in charge.
His second spell as manager saw him claim La Liga last year and Zidane could feasibly still end this campaign with another league and European double.
Going into Wednesday’s game with Chelsea, his only defeat in 14 Champions League knockout ties is the 4-2 aggregate defeat by Manchester City in last season’s round of 16.
His detractors, though, seek to undermine such accomplishments, pointing to the strength of the squad he was handed as a relative managerial rookie – especially a peak-era Cristiano Ronaldo, whose immense scoring feats dug Real out of more than one hole.
And then there are the on-field examples of fortune that have favoured the Frenchman and his side: the favourable draw and subsequent penalty shoot-out win against Atletico Madrid in the 2016 final; the 2017 quarter-final with Bayern Munich in which the German side had a man sent off in each leg, missed a penalty in the first and were denied a clear spot-kick in the second; the Mohamed Salah injury and Loris Karius howlers in the 2018 final.
To Zidane’s credit, he does not dismiss the impact of luck on his Real career.
“I accept I may be lucky,” he told reporters in January 2020. “I’ve been fortunate in life. I have to be grateful and work for this. If you think I’m lucky then that’s fine. It isn’t a problem.”
Zidane cannot control luck, but he can control the way his side plays on the pitch.
As discussed on the Euro League’s podcast, he is more tactically astute than he is often given credit for.
“There are a bunch of things Zidane does that affect the game,” says Spanish football writer Guillem Balague. “Little details like against Liverpool [in the Champions League quarter-final second leg] and an admission of inferiority by the way they played.
“They (Liverpool) are on their last legs, not much left in the tank so let’s be compact and counter attack, use the pace of Valverde.
“Klopp talked up how substitutions changed the shape and pace of the game. Zidane made the right decisions.”
Laurens continues the theme, suggesting that when Zidane makes clever moves he is not lauded in the same way as other managers are.
“What is it he has been called? A back slapper, and a suit and a cheerleader? This is absolute rubbish,” he adds.
“He might not be a Johan Cruyff or an Arrigo Sacchi or a Pep Guardiola in terms of revolutionising football, but when Joao Cancelo plays good from full-back to inside midfielder, people say this is genius from Guardiola.
“When Mendy does quite a similar job for Real Madrid, no-one says that Zidane was good.”
“This is the most valuable season in Zidane’s career as manager,” added Balague. “The absence of Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal through injury, the loss of Ronaldo (to Juventus the previous summer) – means he has had to maximise the potential he has.”
‘When Zidane talks, players listen’
Ancelotti, under whom Zidane worked as a coach at Real in 2013-14, once hinted at where the Frenchman’s true managerial talent lay.
“He (Zidane) has all the qualities necessary to be a fantastic manager: charisma, personality and experience. When Zidane talks, players listen,” said the Italian.
It also explains why Zidane is such a perfect fit for Real, a club that have historically bought players at the peak of their powers as opposed to developing talent from within.
“Real Madrid will keep signing the best players around,” says Balague. “They need a manager like Zidane that gives you a little bit but also lets them express themselves.”
Perhaps the clearest indicator of Zidane and Real’s suitability for each other is how the side performed when they were separated for the first half of the 2018-19 season.
Under Julen Lopetegui and his interim successor Santiago Solari, they finished third in La Liga, 19 points behind winners Barcelona and were embarrassed in the Champions League last 16 by Ajax.
“I don’t know why people have this perception that anyone could manage Real Madrid,” says Laurens. “No, not anyone could manage Real Madrid and we saw that when Zidane left last time.”
How the pair proceed together from here is largely down to the kind of club Real wish to be: the Galacticos-signing behemoth of old or a future-looking factory for the production and polishing of young talent.
“You can’t say Zidane is absolutely perfect because improving players is where he is not at his best,” adds Balague. “It is not about improvement with Zidane and that was the complaint of the club – can he make young players better? He gives them the time and confidence – but the detail? He doesn’t give that.”
Right now, though, it is the perfect marriage.
“When you look at the results in the big games this season, no-one has done better than him,” says Laurens. “They can win La Liga and the Champions League again – and he has already done this. Show some respect.”