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MUNICH — Unlikely as it seems, it may be time to consider the distinct possibility that Zinedine Zidane — winner of the Champions League in each of his first two seasons as a manager, and now on the brink of guiding Real Madrid to the competition’s final for a third year in a row — may be quite a good coach.
That his brief managerial career has thus far delivered eight trophies in not quite 30 months should have made that perfectly obvious, of course; by this stage, the fact that he could steer his team to a 2-1 victory at Bayern Munich in the first leg of a Champions League semifinal should barely be worthy of note. Zidane the coach, not unlike Zidane the player, has known nothing but success.
And yet the sort of acclaim that flows so freely toward some of his contemporaries, the breathless paeans of praise, the lavish adjectives, the exclamations of genius have, for some reason, continued to elude Zidane, even as he has picked up prize after prize.
He often does not receive mention in discussion as to who, precisely, are the finest coaches of this generation. Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho, of course, would be the first to spring to mind; Zidane has won the Champions League as many times as either of them, and in a fraction of the time.
With the exception of his one-time boss Carlo Ancelotti, Zidane’s résumé, on a continental level, compares favorably to all of the other contenders who might warrant a mention, too: Massimiliano Allegri, Jürgen Klopp, Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte have never won club soccer’s greatest honor, and yet all seem to be held in higher esteem than Zidane, the first coach to retain the Champions League, a man just two games away from becoming only the third coach ever to win the competition three times, and the first to do so in consecutive years.
Why might that be? Perhaps it is, in part, because of the perception — one not rooted entirely in fantasy — that this Real Madrid team requires less coaching and more gentle calibration, that it is a side of such precision and finesse that the manager is reduced to something between a mascot and an administrator: there to hand in the lineup sheet and to cheerlead.
Perhaps — and here, too, there is some reason — it is because of the great cult of the individual, one individual in particular, that has enveloped this Real Madrid for most of the last decade. No matter who the manager is, this will always be Cristiano Ronaldo’s team: its triumphs are his triumphs, its trophies are his trophies, almost always achieved through his own, divine intervention. Ronaldo always takes center stage; at Real Madrid, the coach is relegated to the supporting cast.
But perhaps there is something else at play, too, a sense that Zidane can be overlooked because he does not fit the criteria we expect from a great 21st century coach.
This is an age of the manager as visionary and philosopher, there not simply to hone the skills, maintain the fitness and direct the energies of elite athletes but to deploy them in the service of some grand idea; not just to make them a team, but to make them a story, to give them a purpose, an identity.
That idea is appealing, of course, because it creates the illusion that someone is in control of the general chaos that defines even the most rarefied level of soccer. For fans and owners invested, emotionally and financially, in the sport, the idea that much of what happens on the field is down to random chance is deeply unsatisfactory; it is much more appealing to believe that one transcendent figure can master the mayhem. It is soccer’s avowed belief that the manager alone has that agency, that power: less coach, more guru.
If that belief has plenty of historical antecedents — from Helenio Herrera of Inter Milan to Matt Busby of Manchester United — then it has found its greatest modern expression in Guardiola, designer of the first truly great team of the 21st century, the Barcelona of 2008-2012.
Fans, and clubs, see Guardiola as a managerial paradigm: consumed by prophetic zeal, purveyor of a distinct, unequivocal style.
He paces relentlessly on the touchline, trying to communicate his ideas to his players, to obtain his own inner peace through some sporting perfection. He talks at almost impossible speed, ideas forming and tumbling out of his brain almost too fast for him to verbalize them; he operates on a different level, sees the game more deeply, more clearly, than we can realize.
Zidane does not fit that mold at all. He speaks slowly, deliberately, as if he is fastidiously refusing to say anything noteworthy. He is by nature taciturn, bordering on shy. He does not pretend to be the standard-bearer for a school of thought, to have some higher purpose, to wish to transform the game.
He selects his team, and his team plays well, and — in the Champions League at least — invariably wins. In a culture that demands complication, he represents a simplicity bordering on asceticism.
His successes, of course, are the most powerful proof that he is more than he seems, but there are the small details, too, the way he fulfills the most basic, most important requirement of a manager: to influence the course of an individual game.
Wednesday’s victory was a case in point. Real Madrid did not, by any measure, play well. Bayern Munich took the lead, through Joshua Kimmich, and only conceded out of the blue, a momentary lapse in concentration allowing Marcelo to shoot home from the edge of the box.
At halftime, Zidane discovered that he had to remove his playmaker and most impressive performer, Isco. He introduced Marco Asensio, instructing him to try to hold the ball, to relieve the insistent pressure on Real’s defense, and to lead his team on the counterattack. Ten minutes later, Asensio, on the counterattack, scored the winner.
More impressive still was Zidane’s reaction to seeing Dani Carvajal, his right back, forced from the game through injury. He eschewed logic: Leading 2-1, he introduced Karim Benzema, a striker. Asensio switched to the right wing; Lucas Vázquez, a forward-thinking wide player, dropped to right-back. He wanted the pair’s pace to try to counteract Franck Ribery, Bayern’s vastly experienced winger. It worked; Bayern struggled to create chances of any sort in the final half-hour.
Once might be dumb luck, but this is a pattern. In the first leg of the round of 16 game with Paris Saint-Germain, Zidane introduced Vázquez and Asensio; it was 1-1 when they came on, and 3-1 at the end. In the second leg of the quarterfinal against Juventus, he removed Casemiro and Gareth Bale at halftime, to try to limit the damage. Vázquez came on then, too, and won the penalty that saved Real.
It is a characteristic all great managers share: a sense, spoken or not, of how a game is going, of how the balance might be altered.
Zidane has it, in spades. In last year’s final, against Juventus, the game was finely poised at halftime. All he asked of his players, then, was to move five meters further forward. Real, tied 1-1 at the break, won 4-1.
That skill is not quite as enticing, quite as compelling, as listening to a preacher expound his great vision of what soccer can be; it does not fuel the belief that someone is in control of the chaos. Rather, it embraces it, proves that even the slightest change can have vast consequences.
It almost seems too easy to be worthy of comparison, too basic a task to be significant. Complexity, though, is not always importance. Zidane does the simple things well. He might, just might, know what he is doing.
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