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Real Madrid: To be world-class, Zidane must develop his own identity

Zidane has been successful in the last 18 months, but will his lack of style stop him from becoming a managerial great?


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

  1. POLL: Will Zidane be remembered as a world-class manager?

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Marshall Carletto

I'm a football loving guy like most guys my age and I love to talk about it and give insights on how things should pan out as well as write articles about La Liga but mostly about Real Madrid.

  • Richard Firth

    Plenty of successful managers haven’t had a revolutionary style of football. Ferguson’s style of attacking play, with the use of wingers was seen plenty of times elsewhere, but most people will agree that he was the greatest manager of all time. Also you kind of contradicted yourself saying that he didn’t have his own identity, by mentioning the defensive solidity and the use of crossing being something that he has brought in.

    • Ab Ade

      Well, both ideas aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Ferguson’s probably the greatest manager of all time, but not a single one of his trophy-winning sides will be remembered–except, perhaps for the 1999 treble winners.
      One of the reasons Ferguson is considered so highly, paradoxically, is because he could win so much with such banal, forgettable teams. And win he did, but no-one would claim that Ferguson had any influence whatsoever on the way football is played.
      Coaches today don’t have the luxury of 20+ career years at the same club, so Zidane cannot rely on a long span of wins to get him in the conversation. In a compressed time frame, he needs to set himself apart stylistically to enter the all-time great conversation–as a manager.

      • Marshall Carletto

        That’s the main point. When coaches are referred to as world class, they tend to have a set aside style of play that’s noticeable in their games which Zizou doesn’t have right now.

        • Arinze Uzoukwu

          I still believes it makes you predictable.

      • Richard Firth

        Banal and forgettable? I guess we’ve all forgotten about teams that had players like Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes. The football that United played for much of those 20 years was dull stuff I guess (which if you really think that, then, well, I’m pretty sure you have no idea what you’re talking about). This notion that a manager needs some wonderful philosophy in order to be seen as world class is nonsense. What was Marcello Lippi’s philosophy? What was Guus Hiddink’s philosophy? What is Antonio Conte’s philosophy? What is Carlo Ancelotti’s style? It doesn’t matter since they won things, and that’s what matters. Being a manager is about managing men, not solely about being some tactical wizard. Zidane can handle that dressing room, whereas others could not, hence why he is getting the success. Furthermore, of course coaches can have a long span of wins. Just because Zidane won’t be at Real for 20 years, doesn’t mean that he can’t win elsewhere.

        • Arinze Uzoukwu

          You have said it all.
          Please help me asked the writer which rule book said a multi title winning manager must have style before he is called world class.
          Well said Richard.

          • Abe

            Rule book? Do you get your thinking from rule books?

          • Arinze Uzoukwu

            If it is his thoughts, i shouldn’t be bothered.
            Zidane is already world class.

        • Abe

          I think you know very little about what the writer is saying, and frankly your post is so simplistic it’s laughable.

          Listing names like Cantona, etc, is ridiculous. Completely tangential to the point being made in the original post. Look up the term ‘straw man’.

          Essentially, let me boil down what the writer is saying in simple English. There is a hierarchy of managers. The very greatest–not just the great, or the very good– are defined by their influence on the way the game is played. Helenio Herrera developed catenaccio and changed soccer in the 60s. Rinus Michels–Total Football. Pep Guardiola–tiki-taka. And so on. Arigo Sacchi, and a few others belong in the tier of stellar coaches who altered the shape of the game and made innovations that decisively changed football .

          There have been other successful managers who have been more prosaic,but Ferguson is the exception that belongs in the very top tier, mainly for a completely different set of characteristic–force, drive and the ability to mould multiple title winning teams as well as breaking the Old Firm in Scotland.

          If you don’t understand what’s written so far, well, I can’t help you further. In my opinion this is simple enough that a child could understand this.

          Your simplistic argument is: “Every financially successful entrepreneur is a great entrepreneur”

          The writer’s argument is: “Steve Jobs, a great innovator, was one of a short list of truly great entrepreneurs.”

          • Richard Firth

            The writer’s argument is that to be world class, you have to have your own tactical identity and philosophy. My point is that you don’t. Ferguson is an example. Lippi is an example. Hiddink is an example. Conte is an example. Ancelotti is an example. Bob Paisley is another example. Bill Shankly is an example. Ottmar Hitzfeld is an example…. I could go on. These are all world class managers who didn’t have a defined tactical style, but were able to be tactically flexible and inspiring in their man management. In order to be world class, you don’t have to be innovative.

    • Marshall Carletto

      Defensive solidity ans crossing is not a style of play in my opinion plus crossing for a team with those resources is too archaic.

      • Arinze Uzoukwu

        If u re a madrid fan n u re watching 95% of madrid matches, u will know that Zidane only adopts crossing when playing teams dat u re ultra defensive. That is only he opens play when the middle is extra packed.

        • Marshall Carletto

          That’s when crossing shouldn’t even be used. A packed box is the least susceptible to break down under a barrage of crosses.

          • Arinze Uzoukwu

            It won us d champion’s league bro. Re u kidding me? All d goals apart from Casemiro`s came as a result of crosses.

  • Arinze Uzoukwu

    Your writeup is a matter of opinion . Zidane shows he is world class by watching his opponents n adjusting his formation with the players available to counter his opponents play. That makes him unpredictable and that is class. (Remember he kept Juve guessing his formation until kickoff, we all knew how Juve will play immediately they qualified for the finals). All other coaches you mentioned are predictable n once they re found out, they don’t usually have a plan B. Eg. Pep and Klopp.

    • Richard Firth

      I agree with you. Being able to be tactically flexible is much better and makes you less likely to be caught out.

    • Marshall Carletto

      Having a plan B is quite different from having a style, a plan B is supposed to serve as make do when the original style isn’t working, right now Zidane has no specific style and that’s the point.

      • Arinze Uzoukwu

        Your so called world class manager does not have plan B. Re u saying that if your style will be inferior to the opponents, you wont change bcos u want to proof a point. I will really appreciate if you understand your write up is just your opinion and many people disagree(check your poll above). I am one of them. His inability not to have a style is his own style. Thank you.

  • LSZ

    What if being flexible and unpredictable IS Zidane’s style? The same way he was as a player, opponents didn’t know what he was going to do making it hard or even impossible to counter him, same thing he’s doing now as a coach.

    Also the fixation for a popularly known style is a recent thing because of marketing as plenty of other coaches were successful yet their style was not as well marketed so this whole thing is pointless.

    Seems to me like a case of missing the forest because of the trees.

    • Marshall Carletto

      The idea is not about success, it’s about being remembered as a revolutionary manager, that’s why the likes of Sacchi, Cruyff and of late Pep are still revered, they changed the way we say football. That’s the point. He’ll be remembered for winning but that’s how far it’ll go.

Real Madrid: To be world-class, Zidane must develop his own identity

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