Real Madrid Zinedine Zidane a manager who knows how to win faces Champions League final

ESPN FC’s Dan Thomas and Stewart Robson head to Hydropark in Kiev to put their innovative way of predicting the Champions League winner to the test.

Zinedine Zidane smiled that Zinedine Zidane smile, the one that sometimes seems to disarm them all.

“I’m not the best coach, and I will always say that,” he said. “I am not the best coach tactically. And, well, I don’t need to say that…” There was a pause, and that was when that smile crept across his face and he added: “… because you lot always say that, anyway.” They laughed, but they knew he was right. Many a true word said in jest and all that, but beyond the smile, there was a hint of edge in his words, a point made.

It was the Open Media Day at Valdebebas, Real Madrid’s training ground, out near Barajas airport, held because they were preparing for the Champions League final. For Zidane, it was the third time he’s sat there before the world’s media on the eve of the biggest club fixture in the world, the third time he has reached the European Cup final as coach of Real Madrid. And he hasn’t even been there for three full years. He has won a league title as well, plus two European Super Cups, two club World Cups and a Spanish super cup.

In his first 18 months in charge of Madrid, Zidane won as many European Cups as Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. He has won two in a row just like Arrigo Sacchi; if Madrid win Saturday night, he will have won three — as many as anyone else, ever. Yet somewhere, somehow, it doesn’t always feel like it. This is as good an era as any in the game since Madrid won the first five, but it doesn’t always feel like an era and it doesn’t always feel like dominance.

It is as good a managerial record as anyone anywhere too, but it doesn’t always feel like Zidane is one of them either. Which is odd, only it doesn’t feel that odd. And perhaps it should? At what point does a manager who has won it all get people to say “this guy is pretty good?” How many European Cups does it take? Three? Four? Five, maybe? Or maybe never?

“I’ve been at Liverpool longer than he has been a coach and he could win the Champions League three times in a row. That’s never happened before, so either he’s lucky or he’s brilliant. I prefer to think he’s brilliant, like he was as a player,” said Jurgen Klopp.

But another point was raised when discussing Zidane’s accomplishments in Madrid.

“He doesn’t get enough credit,” said Steve McManaman this week. “It’s always the same result: trophy, trophy, trophy. They would be shouting from the rooftops if Pep Guardiola did this.”

That may not be entirely fair: Zidane has been credited, and often. He is admired and well-liked. Cases have been made for him, and not by him. “I’m not the best manager in the world,” he said a few months ago, “but nor am I the worst.” Many have dismissed suggestions that he’s not all that and McManaman is certainly not the only one to speak out for him, although he did so with rare knowledge, experience and incision, and there is something in what he says: a portrait of a resistance to recognition that is real. The very fact that those suggestions even exist says something.

Zidane's managerial style or tactics might be hard to pinpoint but one quality is indisputable: he's there to win. And he's good at it.
Zidane’s managerial style or tactics might be hard to pinpoint, but one quality is indisputable: He’s there to win. And he’s good at it.

Zidane paused, flashed that smile again. “What matters is how you feel and I feel satisfied because I give everything. I can’t control what people think. And that doesn’t matter.”

Being 17 points behind in the league doesn’t help of course, nor does getting knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Leganes. “That was a failure and it hurt,” Zidane admitted. Nor does having arguably the best collection of players ever assembled: it helps you win, but not be seen as the cause of that win.

It doesn’t help that there have been moments of good fortune en route, either. This season, Madrid have had their share of them. This has not been an imperial march to the final; it has, though, been a difficult pathway and they have found a way past Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern. Somehow — goodness knows how, if you prefer — but they have. Zidane has always said that he felt like he had a “lucky star,” especially in this competition. But he would rebel against the suggestion that it was all about fortune, and he would be entitled to.

It also doesn’t help that they had won the European Cup two years earlier when, incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally, Zidane was assistant coach, as that reinforces the sensation that it didn’t take much and most things were already in place, even if McManaman insisted that Madrid were “dysfunctional” then.

Maybe there is something else too, which Zidane was getting at. Something in the construction of Madrid and something in what it is coaches are expected to do. At heart, maybe that question is the key one: What is a coach there for? What does a coach do?

“I’m not the best tactically,” said Zidane, “but I have passion and ilusion… and that’s more important.” Ilusion means hope, enthusiasm, the joy with which you work. It is more important, Zidane says, but for some it is not enough.

That tactical point is a significant one; there is a sense (and there is something in it) that this Madrid team is not one that has been constructed or has a clear identity — that, to use the Spanish phrase, you can’t see the manager’s hand in the way it plays; there is not a tactical model. Asked for a view of Madrid, Real Betis coach Quique Setien talked of a kind of “anarchy.” It was not a criticism, and he recognised the value of that unpredictability, while there’s a case for valuing a coach’s willingness to embrace that, it was just a tactical analysis. But some will read it as a criticism and some will apply it as one.

As Jurgen Klopp joked in his pre-match news conference, “If he’s not a good tactical coach, I’m not a good tactical coach either… and here we are in the final — with no tactics!”

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“Vicente Del Bosque was not a screamer or a super architect with elaborate training sessions, but he kept the egos happy [and] Zizou appears to have the same approach,” said McManaman.

That wasn’t meant as a criticism either — quite the opposite — but for some it falls short of what it is they think a coach should do. Even though there have been key tactical interventions too in this year’s Champions League — Marco Asensio and Lucas against PSG, Asensio in Munich, Gareth Bale out, Casemiro out, Karim Benzema out in key moments — it is not always enough. Some feel that to be considered a great coach, he should build something, create something. He should read the game and change the game.

“Screamer” was another word McManaman used. It was also striking that the word Zidane used was “passion” — it is not one most would apply to him, although they would apply it differently to him. If there is a characteristic that most would apply to the coach, it is calm. Zidane doesn’t feed pointless controversies, doesn’t contribute to crises — given that he faces the media around 130 times a season, it is astonishing how rarely he puts a foot wrong — and isn’t a dominant figure. There have been no conflicts with his squad. As a player, he was quiet; as a coach he is too.

And maybe that too is not what people think a coach is there for: to be talked about, to influence and (and maybe this is the point) to be seen to influence, to impose. Zidane doesn’t. He is calm… importantly, he also believes he should be calm. After the Bayern game, he admitted that he was suffering on the sideline but that he hid that from his players; what he transmitted mattered. They looked to him and took their lead from him, which says something in itself.

As Real Madrid prepare for Kiev we go behind the scenes at the Bernabeu as Ronaldo grabs a lift to training, Zidane speaks about Liverpool and Kroos talks Klopp.

“He is a leader,” said McManaman to El Pais, “but when people talk about leaders, they don’t normally think about that kind of leader. What kind of leader do you want? Do we want a shouter? Do we want an aggressive type? Do we want a communicator? Do we want someone like Del Bosque, who makes sure everyone is happy? There are lots of types of leaders and they can all lead if they have their players’ respect.”

Zidane has that; he doesn’t need to invent it. As Sergio Ramos puts it: “Zidane was able to manage a difficult dressing room with sensitivity.”

Again, you return to thoughts about perceptions and ideal types. Sensitivity, latitude, freedom: they’re not qualities with which great managers are often credited or associated. Good man-management is regularly presented as a backhanded compliment, offered up in the absence of anything else. But it does matter. And not everyone is able.

Del Bosque won two European Cups and the World and European championships with Spain. There are some parallels with Carlo Ancelotti and Bob Paisley too — Paisley especially. Few really talk about Paisley as a manager who marked the game and few include him in those lists of great managers — a personality, a creator, a master tactician — but above all, coaches are there to win and the man who shuffled about in his carpet slippers won. A lot. There is a reason those two examples are significant.

Ancelotti and Paisley are the only men ever to have won three European Cups as coach. Saturday night, Zidane may have something else in common with them.

Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.