Charismatic Zizou ready to join ranks of elite managers

Zinedine Zidane can create history today if Real Madrid beat Juventus to become the first team to retain the Champions League title.
Zinedine Zidane can create history today if Real Madrid beat Juventus to become the first team to retain the Champions League title.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • Seventeen months into his top-level managerial career, Zinedine Zidane, the greatest, most scrutinised player of his generation, remains an enigma.

His previous coaching experience, helming Real Madrid's junior team, Castilla, revealed nothing exceptional. His press-conference utterances are determinedly unilluminating. His coaching philosophy and tactical blueprint are unclear.

Only one thing about his Real tenure is obvious - its extraordinary, unmitigated success.

Within six months, he had won the Champions League. In his first full season he won LaLiga with Real's best points haul in five seasons and now stands on the brink of becoming the first manager to retain the Champions League.

Even Zidane himself seems not to have suspected he was cut out for greatness in an industry where self-belief is usually considered a non-negotiable part of the package.

"When I retired, I didn't want to be a coach," he said.

"I wanted to dedicate myself to something else."

When Zidane - nicknamed Zizou - was appointed manager in January last year, few expected him to be a roaring success. Perhaps, in hindsight, we should have been more optimistic. This was, after all, one of the most cerebral players of his era.

"You could tell by the way he moved around the pitch, the way he analysed the game, the way he anticipated the game, you need some deep thinking for that," Zidane's former Juventus team-mate Vincent Pericard said.

"It doesn't surprise me that now he's applying that kind of skill to understand people's minds, people's behaviours, what they need, and how to manage them."

Certainly, Zidane's charisma, and the respect he inspires in a notoriously mutinous dressing room, is a crucial part of his armoury.

His predecessor, Rafael Benitez, was mocked and resented for his less-than-stellar playing career. Zidane's aura insulates him.

"Zidane is a god in human form," Raymond Domenech, Zidane's former France coach, said.

"He embodies talent and creativity. He has the gift of not needing to say much. He has that bit of mystery that surrounds stars."

Nobody rates tactics as one of Zidane's key strengths, but even in this respect he is improving.

In the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Bayern Munich, Real were 0-1 down at half-time and thoroughly outplayed. But Zidane made a brilliant change, bringing on Marco Asensio and switching to 4-4-2, which allowed Real to wrest control.

Still, the consensus is that Zidane has not yet accomplished enough to be regarded on the same plane as Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.

But beat Juventus today and he will achieve something that proved beyond them - retain the Champions League.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2017, with the headline 'Charismatic Zizou ready to join ranks of elite managers'. Print Edition | Subscribe