Is Real Madrid's Zinedine Zidane a genuinely good manager or just an inspirational presence?
Despite the Champions League win and an lengthy unbeaten run, it's still tough to tell if Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane is a genuinely good manager, writes Miguel Delaney.
In the build-up to the 2016 Champions League final, as everyone else around Real Madrid talked about the quest for that historic 11th trophy, there was one big question being asked of all the players.
Just what is it that stands out about Zinedine Zidane as a manager? How, in short, had he got them to this stage?
All of the squad were more than willing to talk gushingly about the boss... but there was an oddity to it: most didn’t actually have much to tell. Beyond vague words about the “feeling” and “intensity”, they weren’t really able to articulate what it is he does. There were no specifics; no tactical explanations.
In other words, it’s difficult to say.
And, if you’ve actually concentrated on the performances – divorced from the results – it’s been equally difficult to see. Real have generally been pretty unconvincing in the vast majority of games since Zidane took over as manager at the start of the year. There’s very rarely been a sense of cohesion, and they’ve often been overly dependent on one of a few hugely expensive stars overcoming a generally underwhelming game to produce a fine decisive moment.
The Champions League campaign seemed to sum much of this up, and sum up the nature of the competition itself. You don’t have to be performing like European champions to become European champions. Real ground through some forgiving ties, before punishing Atletico Madrid in a penalty shoot-out in the final.
The overriding feeling at that point was that it was all someway unsustainable, and that a fall had to be coming; that, really, Zidane wasn’t actually doing much that suggested there was a sustainable future under him as a manager.
The first few months of this league campaign only deepened that. It all seemed to be building up to a bit of a buckling, and this run of fixtures involving away games at Atletico Madrid and Barcelona in two weeks seemed especially dangerous.
It was just then, however, that Zidane’s Real produced something genuinely brilliant. They produced something not even a manager as exceptional as Diego Simeone could handle. The Argentine had been out-thought, outmanoeuvred.
Real Madrid's Pepe celebrates with the trophy after winning the UEFA Champions League as Cristiano Ronaldo looks onReuters
Sure, Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick in the 3-0 win away to Atletico might have ensured it was a star individual that again dominated the headlines, but this was not just about the Portuguese. Instead, his goals had been the consequence of a hugely convincing and cohesive team display, one that was also a consequence of a clear tactical change from Zidane.
With no Alvaro Morata and Karim Benzema out injured, the Real manager went from the staccato 4-3-3 to a 4-4-1-1 - and it was like everything immediately fitted together. Zidane’s side were battering Atletico as much as beating them, and just looked the better team; the superior collective.
That's something that hasn’t happened too much in their recent meetings, and is all the more ominous for an under-performing Barca ahead of Saturday’s Clasico. Just like Atletico, the Catalans have had the best of most of their recent meetings with Real, but now find themselves on a poor run just when Zidane’s team are flying.
Zidane hugs RonaldoReuters
That win over Atletico does not just change the dynamic, though. It also alters perceptions of the last few months, and potentially Zidane as a manager. It gives more of a feel that the French great was merely finding his feet for the first few months, and is now ready to really stretch himself.
He might just be the real deal as a manager, someone that has those intangible inherent qualities that means he just knows how to get results out of players. It’s certainly difficult to argue with his record, and a run of results that has by now surely gone on too long for there to be much expectation poor performance will eventually tell: 55 games, 36 wins, nine draws, just two defeats - and that big Champions League trophy.
All of this type of language and all of these results, however, raise another question. Because of the mythic way managers are talked about - especially in England – is it possible that their effect is overstated, particularly at modern super-clubs? When a squad like Real’s have so many players of such intelligence like Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, and so many stars of such outrageous talent like Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, is it possible they don’t really need the old-fashioned traits of management? Maybe they just need the right overall framework, and the right mood – with the odd nudge here and there – to produce? That mood might also be helped, of course, if it is set by a player who has achieved as much as Zidane has but doesn’t feel the need to rub the squad’s faces in it?
Real Madrid's Croatian midfielder Luka Modric (R) vies with Sporting Gijon's midfielder Nacho Cases during the Spanish league football match Real Madrid CF vs Real Sporting de Gijon at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on November 26, 2016.AFP
Or is this doing Zidane a disservice? Does he genuinely have rare and distinctive managerial qualities, even if the players can’t yet articulate what they are?
It’s going to take a long while to properly tell, but that debate is all the more pointed this weekend, because it’s still so hard to tell with his opposing manager. Luis Enrique has faced many of the same questions as Zidane and, despite all that he’s won, we still don’t really know how much is down to the quality and class of a squad featuring Leo Messi and how much was down to the coach’s moves to maximise what he had. This season's troubles have certainly complicated the discussion.
Mere mention of Enrique, however, also raises another aspect of all this. In his own first treble-winning season with Barcelona, he was facing more critical questions than Zidane, especially when Carlo Ancelotti’s Real were on that sensational run. It was a run, in fact, that was even superior to the current side’s surge of form.
Real Madrid's Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti speaks with Real Madrid's Welsh striker Gareth BaleAFP
While Zidane’s Real have gone 21 games unbeaten since the start of the season, Ancelotti’s managed 22 consecutive wins. Once it was ended, though, it was like they couldn’t restart in the same way. It was suddenly as if so much of their form had merely been down to a psychological momentum.
It was much the same in one of Zidane’s most-discussed seasons as a Real player. David Beckham had been signed in the summer of 2003 to bring the Galactico project to its peak. Real started the campaign supremely, only losing twice in the first 18 games and playing brilliant football along the way – only to badly lose their way. They ended up falling apart, going out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals to Monaco, and losing the last five league games.
Will the same kind of thing happen here, or is Zidane genuinely a different type of manager?
This weekend, the Clasico should tell even more than usual.