He was a B-team flop who looked like becoming just another playing genius who could not transfer his talents to the dug-out. But 17 months after taking over the toughest job in football Zinedine Zidane stands on the brink of history, becoming the first coach to retain the Champions League.
Where did it all go right for Zizou?
Was he really that unimpressive as B-team coach?
He was awkward in front of the media, so it was assumed with the spotlight that much brighter on the first team he would really struggle. On the pitch his B-team struggled and he compared unfavourably with Pep Guardiola who won the third division with Barça’s B-team but then Pep had better players.
There was no Sergio Busquets and Pedro for Zidane to call on. He did have teen Galatico Martin Odegaard who he failed to nurture but he has done little more out on loan. The sessions he put on were said to be uninspiring and the team failed to win promotion but managing the first team is so very different and he has excelled.
How is he with the media now?
He flashes the blue eyes and the smile and charms his way out of most difficult questions. He is even allowed to drop in the odd swear word describing the squad’s physical condition as ‘de puta madre’ – the Spanish equivalent of ‘fu****g great’.
He’s speaking his second language and he’s doing it with a smile so it’s accepted. He seems to have enjoyed the focus even more than he expected.
What is his coaching philosophy?
The team is built on the solid defence and midfield that characterized the 1998 French side. That doesn’t mean they don’t score an incredible amount of goals but that owes as much to the players he has than to his particular style.
There is a heavy Italian influence. This is a player who played under Marcelo Lippi at Juventus and alongside that very Italian Frenchman Didier Deschamps for so many years.
Will the job get easier or more difficult?
Win the Champions League and you have to say it would be very tough to top his first full season in charge. There will be other tests around the corner too. Last summer was his first pre-season and he didn’t have to deal with any new signings as the club had a rare summer off in the transfer market.
This time things will be different. David de Gea could be the first potential problem. Zidane is a big fan of current keeper Keylor Navas but De Gea is being signed to replace so that’s a selection dilemma right there. Beyond the Real Madrid job France manager surely beckons one day. He is passionate about the national team and many see him as Deschamps’ natural successor.
He didn’t sign any players but he did make important decisions.
True. His choice of No two was spot on and reflected his loyalty too. When he took the reins most thought there would be a high-profile assistant drafted in but he rejected the idea insisting instead that his number two with the B-team remain by his side. David Bettoni has known Zidane since they were 16 and 17 years old in the youth team at Cannes.
They shared a flat together in the Mimont neighbourhood of the city. Bettoni was a second and third division defender and he had retired by 2004 while Zidane was still two years away from his last World Cup but the friendship endured and Zidane resisted those calls to bring in a big name No 2 over his friend’s head even when it was pointed out that Bettoni lacked the FIFA badges to be his official number two when he first took over.
How have the team improved during his time in charge?
The biggest difference is probably a physical one. Last summer he called in the Italian fitness coach Antonio Pintus who was at Lyon. Pintus was also fitness coach at Monaco in 2003 when they reached the Champions League Final.
He was taken to France by Deschamps who is a huge fan having worked with him at Juventus and then at Chelsea. The players are finishing the season fresher than at any time in recent years. Ronaldo in particular is flying.
Is Ronaldo his biggest success story?
Ronaldo would say yes! Of the last eight away games Ronaldo only started three. He was often left resting at home even if that meant missing out on the shooting fish in a barrel matches where he would usually have been racking the goals up.
Zidane asked Ronaldo to, in effect, surrender the Golden Boot by telling him that he would be fresher when it mattered most and that he’d win the Golden Ball instead. It may well work out that way.
Is it not true that tactically he is not the most astute though?
Not according to rival coaches. Eibar manager Jose Mendilibar whose side won a point at the Bernabeu at the start of the season says: ‘The played with two styles.
‘You have the power and pace that we have come accustomed too and then when the younger players played they play with this rhythm and passing that is also very effective.’
It’s true Zidane has an incredibly strong squad but he has made the most of his options.
And he has done it without upsetting anyone?
That would be the other big change after Rafa Benitez. Before there always seemed to be one or two players who were not happy. Zidane has made sure everyone has felt useful.
Even James Rodriguez has been made to feel important – off this summer – but having played a part in the team winning the league and reaching the Champions League final.
So he really has gone from beyond consideration as a top coach to beyond question the manager of the year?
Well, let’s see if he wins in Wales but if he does then he will have made history. No Madrid coach has led them to a League and European Cup double since 1958 and no one has won back-to-back Champions Leagues.
He is currently averaging around one title every 100 days. In the league it is 146 points from a possible 174 in his 58 games in charge and he has reached two European finals. Maybe you can fluke it once but twice? In spite of all the doubts he is starting to look like a very special manager.
Credit All Football