Since Zinedine Zidane’s appointment as Real Madrid manager after Rafa Benitez was sacked in 2016, the team turned into world beaters, winning three Champions League titles in a row. Until that point, nobody in Europe, in the tournament’s new format, had won back-to-back Champions League finals, let alone grab a three-peat.
Zidane was revered everywhere as an amazing man-manager — one who can get the best out of the players in his squad by keeping them happy. He was also known as a mediocre tactician. This may have been true in his first season at the helm, but he has proved time and time again that he is in fact, a master tactician.
Zidane may not have the clout of the English Premier League coaches such as Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, or Mauricio Pochettino; but he brings a mindset that none of them have. It is an open mindset.
The three aforementioned master tacticians are amazing at what they do. They are geniuses and engineers of the modern game using their intelligence to create new schemes and tactics to help their team be among some of the best in the world.
There is something all three lack, though, and that is the ability to operate their team in a different formation or scheme to allow themselves to win. Ancelotti may have helped Zidane with this mindset. Zidane was Ancelotti’s assistant for La Decima, and before Zidane even became the manager of the squad, he was influential in the team’s transfer policy — helping to bring in elite talents such as Raphael Varane.
Ancelotti had to say this about the great Zizou: “Zidane was the key for me to change my idea of football because I was always used to playing a 4-4-2. At Juventus I changed my system, to play a player like him behind two strikers because I didn’t want to change the position. He was really fantastic.” I am sure Ancelotti and Zidane have had this conversation before, or Zidane has seen the quotes of his ex-manager holding him in such high praise.
When Zidane took over as the manager of Real Madrid he had exclusively used a 4-3-3, choosing to use the BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano). At one point, he even said the three of them were undroppable from the squad. Every football fan knows the injury record of Bale, and in Zidane’s second season in charge, Bale went on a huge hiatus from the squad — missing 84 days and 17 games before coming back and re-injuring himself. Zidane had to invent a plan, because he had no direct replacement for Bale. He did have a winger in Lucas Vazquez who brings a different element to the team, but Vazquez wasn’t a game-changing player like Bale.
Zidane did something that none of the managers above would do — he switched his formation and tactics to fit two players specifically. Zidane decided to switch to a 4-4-2 diamond using the same system that Ancelotti had switched to at Juventus to get the best out of him as a player. The player he inserted into the lineup, Isco, has amazing traits, and is a 10 through-and-through. Isco thrived in that role — one that seems to be disappearing in today’s game, where many teams across Europe use a 4-3-3.
This formation not only highlighted the traits of Isco, but the traits of a newly evolved Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo was no longer that dazzling winger from United who would dribble, beat you with pace, and hit a long shot from 30 yards out. As a fan, seeing that kind of peak-Ronaldo would make your jaw drap. But that’s not the Ronaldo of today. He’s transformed his game with age, he is a predator in the box, the best in the world, and the best scorer of all time. There is no player that can replicate his movements within the box, and he still has that electric pace that he possessed when he was younger. He just uses it in shorter stints now. Some call him a tap-in king, but its more than just a tap in — he creates that space for himself running off his teammates and defenders, seeing the open space before anybody else does, and Zidane, one of the greats himself, realized this and exploited it by using Benzema and Ronaldo in a two-striker partnership. It was a formation change that made Bale obsolete.
This change in Zidane turned him into a wild card, and it turned Isco into a superstar — one of the most recognizable football players in the world. Isco before the switch was the 12th man under every manager including Zidane himself, but Zidane unlocked Isco and unlocked Isco’s true potential as a world class player. When Zidane needed to win a game this was the lineup he chose, and it became the first lineup to feature the same 11 in two straight Champions League Finals.
Fast forward to the 2017-2018 season. Madrid draw PSG in the Round-of-16 and Zidane opts for his usual lineup in the first leg which is played on February 14. The first leg at the Bernabeu was an intense match, and both teams had their chances. Zidane went for his all familiar lineup of the diamond with Isco at the point.
When Zidane started making changes he removed all of Casemiro, Isco and Benzema and brought on the likes of Bale, Vazquez, and Asensio — leaving in Kroos and Modricas the only two midfielders on the pitch in a double pivot. This formation switched to a flat 4-4-2 with the introduction of Asensio in the 79th minute. Asensio went on to win the game for Madrid grabbing two assists, one in the 83rd minute to Ronaldo and another to Marcelo in the 86th minute. Zidane was never the type of coach to sit back, but with PSG’s attacking prowess he wanted to make sure his team did not concede another away goal, but instead he put on Asensio who decided to put the tie to bed.
Over the course of the ensuing week, Madrid would lose the likes of Modric and Kroos which would not allow them to be fit for the second leg. The second leg was scheduled for less than a month later. Zidane had an idea and that was to reward the two players who had helped the team achieve that victory in Madrid the month before. Zidane decided to flex his tactical muscle and go back to the flat 4-4-2 with Asensio and Vazquez on the wings, Benzema and Ronaldo in attack, and Kovacic and Casemiro in the double pivot role.
This switch was there for two reasons. First it would help bring defensive stability to a high powered PSG team. Neymar was out for the remainder of the season, but PSG had reliable bench pieces such as Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler. Mbappe was moved to the left where Neymar usually plays, but Vazquez was there to give Dani Carvajal support all night and try to keep the Frenchman as quiet as possible. While Asensio was on the other wing to help Marcelo with the overloads that Dani Alves provides. Again the great Zidane was right and Madrid won the game 2-1. Winning on a massive 5-1 aggregate.
Zidane’s tactical ingenuity is his greatest strength and one that is overlooked by the so called intellectuals of the sport who only praise him for his man management skills. Zidane tries to get the best out of his squad by changing his tactics and formation instead of buying players to fit his tactical mindset. Some off the great managers around should take a page out of Zidane’s book because he is a legend both on the pitch and in the dugout.