The growing legend of Zidane the manager

Zinedine Zidane’s man-management skills since taking over the first-team reins of Real Madrid 17 months ago have been second to none and some are rightly suggesting that a period of dominance — similar to Pep Guardiola’s at Barcelona — could be on the cards.

Zinedine Zidane has now graduated into the pantheon of great football managers.   -  AFP

Though his appointment at Real Madrid was initially questioned, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Zinedine Zidane has now graduated into the pantheon of great football managers.

A Los Blancos legend as a player, his standing in the game gave him an upper hand over a star-studded squad that predecessor Rafael Benitez could only dream about. His man-management skills since taking over the first-team reins 17 months ago have been second to none and some are rightly suggesting that a period of dominance — similar to Pep Guardiola’s at Barcelona —could be on the cards.

It would be easy to scoff, but the synergies between the two are quite remarkable. Untested at the top level before taking their first steps into senior management at the clubs of their lives, both had instant success on the pitch whilst fostering and harnessing an incredible team spirit off it. Any dissenting voices were (and are being) quickly, and ruthlessly, shown the door.

Though the Frenchman has insisted throughout his tenure that every player in his squad was important, in the case of James Rodriguez the Colombian has felt anything but. In many respects, making an example of a player who was signed for €80m just two seasons before, was Zidane’s first master stroke. Toe the line or face the consequences.

Zidane’s intelligent nurturing of arguably his biggest talent has been something approaching Ferguson-esque capabilities, but perhaps the Frenchman deserves even more kudos because the Ronaldo of today is one at the very peak of his powers — and with an ego to match.   -  AFP

 

As James sat forlornly in the stands at Cardiff’s National Stadium, for what became Real’s greatest night in the modern era, the midfielder would attest to the steely resolve behind his manager’s often amiable facade.

Though Alvaro Morata hasn’t been as vocal as his colleague, he too has become surplus to requirements at the Santiago Bernabeu.

At a club where president, Florentino Perez, has a scattergun, ‘hire ‘em and fire ‘em’ approach — look at his treatment of Carlo Ancelotti by way of example — his total backing of Zidane for such decisions is a sea change in policy from the engineering magnate. He too has reaped the rewards of allowing Zidane to call the shots.

Benitez highlighted upon his departure that Perez could never just leave him alone to get on with the job in hand and it was the former Liverpool man that was roundly criticised for his team selection in the 4-0 Bernabeu loss that sealed his departure. An insinuation that he didn’t pick the team that night has never been rubbished by his former president. So, Zidane must be hitting all of the right notes.

In any event, the dressing room is a much more harmonious one these days. Antonio Pintus, Zidane’s fitness guru from his time at Juve, was brought in to micro-manage staff and get the best out of them at crucial points of the season.

This has never been better evidenced than via the late-season rebirth of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese has always been the player for the big occasion but it’s true that towards the business end of the last couple of campaigns, his fitness hasn’t been at an optimum level.

Zidane’s intelligent nurturing of arguably his biggest talent has been something approaching Ferguson-esque capabilities, but perhaps the Frenchman deserves even more kudos because the Ronaldo of today is one at the very peak of his powers — and with an ego to match.

It showed backbone to pull him aside and form a cogent argument to why there would be games he wouldn’t play and others that he’d be subbed off in. The rewards were there to be reaped if Ronaldo was willing to trust someone who’s been there and done it and with their king-pin onside and subscribing to Zidane’s mantra, squad players naturally followed suit. It allowed the manager the breathing space he needed to augment his earlier successes.

Isco’s re-emergence couldn’t have been timed any better either. The former Malaga man might well have been treading the same path as Messrs. Rodriguez and Morata but when he was handed the chance, he responded in kind. Ditto Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez.

To christen such players as the ‘B team’ within that particular dynamic is a little unfair because they’ve all played some part in making 2016/17 Real Madrid’s best season in half a century.

So how does Zidane build on the elevated platform he has built for himself?

As always, he will be judged on results first, performances second. A stunning start to his tenure has bought him credit within the walls of the Bernabeu and allows him time that perhaps hasn’t been afforded those who came before him.

However, he’ll need to continue to harvest silverware to ensure longevity in the position. When the dust has settled and the celebrations have died down, a contract until 2022 will be offered, in an unprecedented show of faith from the club.

That would take him a full two and a half years past the amount of time Guardiola managed to conduct the Blaugrana orchestra at the Camp Nou. Were Real still taking all before them at that stage, Zidane might well go down as one of the best ever off of the pitch as well as on it.

In the meantime, there are more immediate concerns.

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United await Los Blancos in the European Super Cup and arch-rivals Barcelona — the only team aside from Borussia Dortmund that Real were unable to beat this season — will provide stiff opposition in the Spanish variant.

Though both competitions are seen as little more than pre-season friendlies, Zidane will want to start the new campaign as he ended the last - by winning trophies.

And after a summer virtually free of competitive action, he will have the luxury of players at his disposal fully rested, relaxed and ready to go again. With new arrivals at Real rumoured to include Eden Hazard and David de Gea as a minimum, the rest of Spain and Europe need to be battle-hardened and ready from the get go because there’s some certainty to the best squad in world football hitting the ground running again.

Ronaldo has already promised that he and his colleagues want to emulate the legendary Jose Villalonga sides of the 1950s that included Alfredo di Stefano, and go on to win a third consecutive European Cup.

With Zidane at the helm, you wouldn’t bet against it would you?

The author is an experienced and UEFA accredited journalist and broadcaster

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