Were it not for Rafa Benitez, Zinedine Zidane wouldn’t have been Real Madrid manager. Very quickly, Benitez became a scapegoat at the Santiago Bernabeu. The players mocked him, dubbing him ‘El Trenador.’ The trainer, referencing his lack of playing background. The appointment of the former Chelsea and Liverpool boss was a major misstep in the minds of both players at fans in the Spanish capital.
Zidane was the interim crowd pleaser. A living legend at the Santiago Bernabeu, his temporary appointment until the end of the season was designed to get the supporters back on side. To stem the growing protests against club president Florentino Perez. In more serene circumstances, without the noise of protest growing outside the boardroom, Real Madrid probably would have gone for a more proven manager.
Antonio Conte left Juventus that summer. He could have pitched up at the Santiago Bernabeu. Unai Emery had just won his third straight Europa League title as Sevilla manager. He would have been a logical choice. But two and a half years later, Zidane still remains as Real Madrid manager, winning back-to-back Champions League titles in his first two seasons. He can make it three from three against Liverpool in Kiev this weekend.
Despite this unprecedented success, there are some who still question Zidane’s ability as a manager. They say the Frenchman has been lucky, that his team consistently get favourable decisions from referees. That opposition sides have a tendency to spurn golden opportunities against Real. That Zidane only gets by on the strength of his squad.
Of course, this criticism is grossly unfair. Zidane has more than once proved his credentials as a tactician and a man-manager. Should Real Madrid beat Liverpool this weekend, Zidane will join Carlo Ancelotti and Bob Paisley as the manager with the most European Cup wins to his name. That doesn’t happen by good luck.
In some respects, scrutiny of the former Ballon d’Or winner is understandable. It can be difficult to quantify Zidane’s legacy as Real Madrid manager. The team he will take to Kiev to face Liverpool, two and a half years after his initial appointment, still isn’t his. Transfer dealings, at least at the top level of the market, have been sparse in recent years.
Indeed, Zidane has been denied the chance to build his own team, instead working with what he already had at the time of his appointment, also bringing a number of youngsters into the fold from the academy ranks. This has contributed to the feeling that Zidane has yet to truly put his stamp on this Real Madrid side.
What’s more, Real Madrid don’t play with any sort of strong ideology under Zidane. The best teams, the ones that stick in the memory and define zeitgeists, are often synonymous with a certain type of football – look at Holland’s ‘Total Football’ or Pep Guardiola’s ‘Tiki-Taka’ at Barcelona. What does Zidane stand for as a manager?
Pragmatism is perhaps the answer to that question. Zidane is a Swiss Army Knife of a manager. He, and therefore his team, adapts to the challenge at hand. He is reactive in his nature. This isn’t meant as a criticism. Zidane is exceptionally adept at adapting and reacting to scenarios, particularly mid-game. That’s one of his best qualities.
But this lack of identity holds him back in the eyes of some. It’s why even if Real Madrid clinch a third straight Champions League this weekend, Guardiola’s legacy will outweigh that of Zidane’s, at least in the opinion of the majority. In binary terms, Real Madrid will take their place in the pantheon of great European teams, but there will be many caveats to that.
The quality of this Real Madrid is undeniable, their achievements undoubtedly impressive. If they have an ideology, it is winning. Zidane has instilled that hardened mentality over the past two and a half years. If he is to have a legacy at the Santiago Bernabeu, it will be defined by how many trophies he lifted. This weekend, he could get his hands on another.
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Also published on Medium.