How good a manager is Zinedine Zidane? Is he in the early stages of one of the great managerial careers, or just trading on his reputation as a player and acting as a stooge for Cristiano Ronaldo?
Last week’s gleeful 5-1 aggregate victory over Barcelona secured Real Madrid its first Supercopa in five years. The result showed which club is in the ascendancy, with Barcelona looking short-handed following the sale of Neymar. It was followed by a comfortable defeat of Deportivo la Coruna on the opening weekend of the La Liga season.
The Supercopa was the seventh piece of silverware won by Real in the short managerial career of Zidane and the fourth this year alone. Putting any career into context before it is over is difficult and when that career is 18 months old, impossible, but Zidane’s early achievements are so remarkable that they give pause for thought.
Retaining the Champions League last season made his Real the first team to retain the European Cup in 28 years. Real have been European Champions in three out of the last four years, beating Barcelona’s three in six under Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola, Madrid’s own three in five during the ‘galacticos’ era of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and AC Milan’s three in six a decade earlier, while Liverpool also won three in five in the 1970s and 1980s. You have to go back to the hat-trick winning Ajax and Bayern Munich teams of the 1970s to find comparable achievements.
Zidane’s Real are also the first to retain the European Cup in the Champions League era. It has become convenient to use the rebrand of the European Cup to reset statistics to zero and ignore its past, in the same way that the launch of the Premier League has been an excuse to ignore English club football before its own reinvention. Nonetheless, the Champions League era has brought a new structure and more teams, so retaining it is a genuinely different achievement to that of the early Real teams, Benfica, Ajax and others from before 1992.
Real also won last season’s La Liga title, in Zidane’s first full season in charge, all of which makes for a remarkable run since he inherited the job from Rafael Benítez in January 2016.
Whether this makes Zidane a good manager, only time will tell. Despite being the ultimate prize in club football, winning the Champions League alone is not a sign of quality and the 2012 winning manager makes an interesting comparison with Zidane.
Roberto Di Matteo inherited a talented squad of of highly-decorated veterans who disliked his predecessor, André Villas–Boas. Within a little over two months, he led Chelsea to FA Cup and Champions League titles, but was sacked only six months later. His managerial career since has been largely unsuccessful, so it seems his real achievement was to give free reign to his stars, led by John Terry. On the surface at least, Zidane’s situation has similarities. He inherited a talented squad, with major trophies already to its name, replacing Benitez, an unpopular disciplinarian, and gave players the freedom to be themselves. Knowing when to get out of the way of talented players may always not be a recipe for long-term success, but has a time and place and deserves more credit than it gets.
Certainly, Zidane’s reputation as a transcendent player buys him a lot of credit with his team, many of whom would have idolised him growing up, and he understands how to motivate them. It gives him an easier ride than Benitez, who never made it as a player and was reportedly mocked behind his back for giving strict technical instructions to players despite it. Most famously, he tried to stop Luka Modric from playing his trademark unorthodox outside of the boot passes, whereas Zidane has embraced him for it.
Zidane has done more than be a figurehead though. There was a tactical shift in his first full season, recognising the value in picking Brazilian defensive midfielder Casemiro ahead of showier attacking players like James Rodriguez or Isco. He clearly has a technical and tactical understanding, but he will need to keep evolving in order to stay ahead of the chasing pack.
It may not have been a vintage few years for European football, with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the English clubs in transition, and Zidane has had one of the most consistently great players of all time at his disposal in Ronaldo, but it would be harsh to say he has benefitted from a lack of competition. That would undersell the young and tactically sharp Juventus and Atletico Madrid teams he has overcome and if it is just down to individual talents, then Barcelona would have been in the past two finals.
Whatever he turns out to be, the great challenge for Zidane is yet to come. Unless he has the greatest managerial career of all time, he may have to struggle with peaking early, unable to get back to the summit – like to another Champions League winner, Frank Rijkaard. If his success continues, perhaps he will be the next Guardiola, moving from one super club to the next. Or maybe he is not in management for the long haul and will return to a behind the scenes role at Real when his work is done. It will be fascinating and the world will be watching.