Zinedine Zidane was appointed as coach of Real Madrid on the 5th January 2016 after Florentino Perez ruthlessly disposed of Rafael Benitez, who had lost his standing in the dressing room, lost El Clasico in humiliating fashion and tried to reduce the influence and importance Cristiano Ronaldo had in the team.
His tenure was short, bad and disastrous and he was fired before the winter break was over. Perez initially brought Zidane in as a stop-gap until the summer to smoothen relations with the fans who were calling for his head, even though he said otherwise at the Frenchman’s unveiling.
What has followed in the last 18 months has been nothing short of stupendous. Zizou led Los Blancos to their 11th Champions League title in his debut season, but the consensus back then was that he had the luck of the draw in the knockout rounds as Real Madrid drew teams like Roma, Wolfsburg and Manchester City on their way to the title in Milan.
Fans and journalists alike waited for the second season before proper judgement could be passed on his coaching ability and boy did he succeed, leading them to a Champions League and La Liga double not seen in the trophy room since the long gone days of Alfredo di Stefano.
The season was an historic one as they became the first team to retain the Champions League in its current format; not since 1990 had that been done. They played tough ties for the better part of the tournament and only then did the success feel truly deserved.
The success of his team showed his doubters how good a coach Zidane really is, but as always at a club like Real Madrid, success has to go hand-in-hand with an entertaining and noticeable style of play.
Real Madrid’s own Pep Guardiola
When Pep Guardiola led Barcelona to their first ever treble back in 2009, sweeping all before him with a style not seen in that part of the world since Johan Cruyff was boss at the Nou Camp, there was widespread acclaim for his entertaining and possession-based style.
It won the hearts of fans and neutrals alike and it was made all the more exciting as it heralded a new wave of success for Spanish teams and indeed the Spanish national team.
As this was happening at the Catalan club, Perez, as always, wanted to replicate his own version at the Bernabeu. If he couldn’t get Pep to work for him, at least he’ll try to build one from within.
Sacrificing flair for defensive solidity
Zidane was the chosen one and after showing an interest in coaching, was deployed in various capacities in the club to ensure he had an excellent understanding of the inner workings of the club. He served as sporting director, assistant coach, academy coach and was finally appointed as the first team coach after seven years.
The fans would have been justified in expecting a similar style of play to Pep as he made his name as a classy midfielder at the very top level.
The Frenchman started in an exciting fashion, winning all his matches against minnows, but when he lost in the Madrid derby, his first loss at the club, a soul searching ensued and he installed Casemiro as a mainstay in the starting XI to anchor the midfield, sacrificing flair for more midfield solidity, a decision likely influenced by his time in Italy.
The decision paid off as the Brazilian was a rock in midfield, giving his more attack-minded teammates a base to build upon and success duly followed.
The importance of crossing
The just concluded season gave a clearer understanding of Zidane’s preferred style of play: Crossing.
The team put in a truckload of crosses, often topping the 50 mark in games. The cross was reserved especially for the fullbacks and it’s worth noting that Marcelo and Dani Carvajal were high up in the assists charts last season.
However, relying on crossing alone is as basic as it is archaic, certainly not expected of a club with Madrid’s talent pool.
It’s also not what the fans would have expected to pay to see after seeing the feast of football Pep’s Barça often served up.
Does Zidane’s Madrid have an identity?
The much derided style has brought in trophies, there’s no denying that, but the reason why Pep and other world class coaches are regarded in high esteem in the coaching world is as a result of their oft revolutionary style of play.
All the top coaches have that; Pep has his tiki-taka, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino utilise the gegen-press and Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone have their ultra defensive schemes.
However, Zidane doesn’t have one yet and if it continues, he’ll be solely known as a trophy winning coach, but his team won’t be revered in years to come the way Rinus Michel’s Ajax, Sacchi’s Milan and Pep’s Barça have been.
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