Zinedine Zidane: Mr. Inscrutable!

Zinedine Zidane is not an aesthete in the mould of Johan Cruyff or Jorge Valdano; neither does he come across as an overtly political figure, albeit he led France to a World Cup title which was seen by some as an assertion of the country’s multiracial identity. But over the past year, as the coach of Real Madrid, Zidane has given us more to think about than we anticipated.

Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid’s French head coach, is hard to study. But he is giving results.   -  Reuters

Who is Zinedine Zidane? It is a question that has befuddled journalists, writers, filmmakers and fans. The confusion is wreaked further by Zidane’s refusal to project a self defined by his achievements or a philosophy. Yet, such is the pedigree of the man that we cannot help but speculate the workings behind the stern visage.

It is within this chasm that Jean-Philippe Toussaint operated when he wrote his richly evocative essay, Zidane’s Melancholy, about the French darling’s headbutt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final. Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parrano, in their film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, also exploited Zidane’s quietude as they followed him in a Real Madrid jersey to understand what went on in the master’s mind. Zidane is not an aesthete in the mould of Johan Cruyff or Jorge Valdano; neither does he come across as an overtly political figure, albeit he led France to a World Cup title which was seen by some as an assertion of the country’s multiracial identity.

But over the past year, Zidane has given us more to think about than we anticipated. When he was appointed as the manager of Real Madrid, he was seen as a politically convenient choice. After Rafael Benitez’s chaotic stint at the club, President Florentino Perez was an unpopular man. To boost his ratings, he needed someone who would take the pressure off him.

Although Zidane had previously worked as an assistant to Carlo Ancelotti and then managed Real Madrid Castilla, the B team, Perez was known to have misgivings about him. He no longer maintained the low-key profile which had characterised him during his time with Ancelotti; the Frenchman adopted a more assertive stance once he was handed his new role.

Zidane, when he was the assistant coach of Real Madrid, picked up a lot from the head, Carlo Ancelotti.   -  Getty Images


Even though there was a serious risk of incurring Perez’s wrath and Castilla’s form remained inconsistent, Zidane was adamant that he was not going to pick players on their reputation. The young star Martin Odegaard was not an automatic starter for the B side when left out of the first team squad. It is a trend which has continued with the selection of Carlos Casemiro, Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio at key points this season, ahead of illustrious names like James Rodriguez and Isco.

Interestingly, the selections of Casemiro and Vazquez were first made by Benitez. Yet, it is a measure of Zidane’s popularity that his unpopular decisions are viewed differently. The results have also ensured that the pressure has not exceeded manageable proportions. The lowest point for Zidane in this job has been the 0-1 loss to Atletico Madrid at home in February last year. Zidane seemed vulnerable then but an 11th European Cup in the summer meant that he would not be just a stop-gap choice.

When the Real Madrid manager assumed his role, Pierrot Labat — who had mentored the 1998 World Cup winner at Bordeaux in his early 20s — told The Guardian, “You see, with him my work was always more psychological than technical because, like many exceptionally gifted people, he doubts a lot. He needs to prove things to himself. But when he talked for the first time about his ambitions to become a manager, back in 2012, I told him straight away that he had the qualities to be a very successful one. I think he is going to become the Alex Ferguson of Real Madrid.”

While that may be a step too far for Zidane — considering the club’s volatile relationship with managers — he was never going to accept a role which did not satisfy his expectations. After all, it was not the first job he was offered in football. Zidane refused an offer from Bordeaux in 2014 because he knew that financial limitations may not allow him to develop a side in his own image. It is interesting that while studying for his coaching badges, he spent most of his time analysing the work of Marcelo Bielsa at Marseille and Christian Gourcuff at Lorient — two managers who are known to emphasise an attractive brand of football.

His preference for attacking flair may explain his continued selection of Casemiro as it has allowed Luka Modric and Toni Kroos to operate in a more offensive role. It is, perhaps, no wonder then that Real Madrid’s longest winning streak in La Liga (16 matches) and the historic unbeaten run (40 matches) have been masterminded by Zidane. At the time of writing, Los Blancos had scored for a record 53 consecutive games in all competitions.

Yet, Zidane can barely be drawn on his tactical designs. He often chooses to explain his side’s display by resorting to buzzwords like ‘intensity’. This is a trait he shares with the man who gave him an opportunity to work as his assistant at Real Madrid, Ancelotti. The duo’s partnership flourished as the club won its 10th European Cup in 2014, bringing an end to the barren years in continental football.

Ahead of last year’s Champions League final, Sergio Ramos spoke about the relationship between his current and past manager. “He learnt a lot from Ancelotti; he has a lot of things about him that Carletto had.” As is the case with the Italian manager, in spite of the richly talented squad at his disposal, Zidane’s tactics are often reactive. As the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had once opined, “In football, everything is complicated by the presence of an opponent.”

Yet, Zidane can also cause the odd tactical surprise. When Real Madrid visited Vicente Calderon earlier this season, Atletico Madrid was swatted aside 3-0. Zidane fielded his side in a 4-4-1-1 system with Isco playing off Cristiano Ronaldo in an unconventional front two. Gareth Bale and Lucas Vazquez started on the wings. Atletico was caught out by the tactical switch and Ronaldo finished with a hat-trick.

The successful results have continued, even though Zidane’s best combination has been rarely available thanks to injuries. The doubters are silent now. There is a sense that Zidane has drawn much from his playing days. During his stint at Real Madrid as a player, he would often stress that he could not have excelled if Claude Makelele had failed to do his exceptional defensive work. Once the club sold his compatriot to Chelsea, the Galacticos could not replicate their success.

Zidane likes to be in the company of his family and close friends. They act as stress busters. One such friend is the Real deputy manager David Bettoni.   -  AP


Therefore, when he was appointed as manager, the 44-year-old Frenchman demanded that his players do not neglect their defensive roles. Zidane put his charges through an intense physical regime to improve their work rate. But all of this was done in a conciliatory manner, considering the players had not taken kindly to Benitez’s stricter ways. It helped that Zidane was one of the best players of his generation.

However, it is unlikely that he could have achieved this without surrounding himself with his family and friends. “Zizou puts so much pressure on himself to do his maximum that he needs a circuit breaker to ensure there is no explosion and that is what the people close to him do for him,” Pierrot Labat told The Guardian.

Therefore David Bettoni, Zidane’s friend from his teenage years at Cannes, was a natural choice to be his assistant. Although the Real Madrid number two had an unremarkable playing career, he stayed close to his illustrious friend and the duo started working together at Castilla in 2015. Bettoni’s ideas are known to be heavily influenced by another monumental figure from Cannes, Arsene Wenger.

Zidane seems like a natural fit at Real Madrid now but it was not until he turned 40 that he decided to move on from the ambassadorial role at the club. He realised that working as a coach might be his calling, after all. Although his name may have helped him to land one of the biggest jobs in football, Zidane has shown himself to be alive to the demands of the job. At a club like Real Madrid, he has avoided any political disagreements with the owner Florentino Perez while gradually stamping his own image on the squad.

Zidane may not demonstrate the obsessive disposition of an Antonio Conte but it would be unfair to belittle him as just a good man manager. There is more to Zidane than that. But once again, his quietude masks the activity and thoughts which burn inside him. Do you want to know who Zidane is? Perhaps, you could start by watching his Real Madrid play.