As Real Madrid celebrate their 33rd La Liga title — their first league title in five years — all eyes have been fixated on Zinedine Zidane’s impressive coaching throughout the season.
The Frenchman has dealt with the enormous pressure of being Los Blancos’ manager as cooly as he once did when playing with an unmatched confidence and swagger on the pitch.
Even more impressive is the manner in which Zizou handled his players this season. More often than not, Real Madrid’s coaches over the years have had trouble managing players’ bigger than life egos and squad chemistry, both on and off the field — I’m looking at you Mr. Benitez.
With Zidane, however, it’s different.
Aside from the fact that Zidane is considered to be one of football’s most respected figures, there has been a clear, established mutual respect between the players and the Frenchman since taking over last January. True, it helps that the players can relate to Zidane, as he has seen it all during his illustrious, professional career, but it is the Frenchman’s relentless commitment to learning that has led him to this moment in time with his cohesive squad.
Let’s take a look at his journey, which has been in the making since José Mourinho’s time at the Bernabeu.
Zidane’s Road to Managerial Success
On October, 2010, during the “Special One’s” first year as Real Madrid’s manager, Zidane would finally come into the spotlight after his retirement and brief hiatus from football.
It was Mourinho who appealed to Real Madrid’s board of directors for Zidane to work more closely with the first team. Before the appeal, however, Zidane was only acting as club advisor to club president Florentino Perez but Mourinho insisted the Frenchman should be working closely with the first team.
A month after Mourinho’s appeal, Real Madrid released a statement on their website on November 12, 2010, confirming Zidane’s role as special advisor to the first team. Shortly after being named special advisor for the first team, Zidane became sporting director for Real Madrid on July 2011.
In an interview from 2011, when announcing he will be Real Madrid’s new sporting director, Zidane said,
“Jose Mourinho has been fundamental in this, and so has the president.”
In 2013, Zidane would hit another milestone by becoming Ancelotti’s assistant coach after obtaining his UEFA B license.
The 2013/2014 campaign proved to be essential to Zidane’s relationship with the current squad.
Zidane, while under Carlo Ancelotti’s wing, saw Real Madrid lift their 10th European Cup against a strong and stubborn Atletico Madrid. The Frenchman’s presence at practice sessions and his presence in the dugout during matches also proved to be invaluable by having a manager of Carlo’s caliber managing the squad.
After winning La Decima, in June 2014, Zidane was given the task to coach the club’s B-team, the Real Madrid Castilla. And after a brief three-month suspension from coaching, due to not having the proper coaching qualifications, Zidane acquired his UEFA Pro License on May, 2015.
Everything was set. Zidane finally had the proper qualifications to manage a team, but it would be Rafa Benitez to manage Real Madrid after Ancelotti’s sacking. Benitez was appointed as Los Blancos’ new manager on June, 2015. Additionally, to add more uncertainty to Zidane’s future at the club, there were rumors circulating in the media linking him to a managerial position with the French national squad.
For Benitez, however, things did not go as planned. His short time with Real Madrid was marred with disappointment: bad results, falling out with multiple players in the locker room, and fielding an ineligible Denis Cheryshev which resulted in an embarrassing disqualification from the Copa del Rey. Benitez was sacked on January, 2016, and Zizou was named as Real Madrid’s new manager.
The rest, as they say, is history. While finishing second in La Liga, Zidane led Los Blancos to a historic 11th Champions League against their city rivals, Atletico Madrid. Zidane became the seventh person to win the Champions League as both a manager and a player.
Now, with La Liga in the bag, Zidane is in an incredible position to continue to etch his name into history. Real Madrid can go for the coveted double by winning the Champions League final against Juventus on June 3.
Zidane’s Secret Weapon
Real Madrid’s consistency, in both domestic and European fronts, has been impressive throughout the 2016/17 season. Squad depth and rotation throughout has been a key factor to Zidane’s coaching, but there’s one person who’s elevated the squad’s fitness to match the demand coming from the Frenchman.
Meet Antonio Pintus.
Before the start of the 2016/2017 season, Zidane specifically identified Antonio Pintus as the man to help improve squad fitness. Given Los Blancos’ poor injury record in previous seasons, Zizou wanted his services.
Zidane brought Pintus on-board with Real Madrid during their preseason training at Montreal on June, 2016. And, interestingly, Zidane and Pintus have history. Both worked together in 1996 and 1998, while the Frenchman was playing for Juventus.
Pintus has worked with clubs like Chelsea, Sunderland, the Russian National team, Marseille, Monaco, Udinese, and, most recently before joining Real Madrid, Lyon. Sacrifice and hard work is what makes up Pintus’ philosophy and it’s easy to see why Zidane wanted the veteran physical preparation specialist on-board.
In both La Liga and Champions League, squad rotation has been a big factor to Real Madrid’s success. Zidane and his players, on multiple occasions, have continually reiterated the message that everybody is always ready to play. Regardless of who Zidane has started, each player has slotted in their shifts with impressive sharpness.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, and Marcelo have all benefited from rotation because of being better physically prepared. Before, it was almost unheard of for Ronaldo to be rested or substituted in various stages of the season; however, Zidane has made it clear what he wants from his entire squad. And Ronaldo understands that.
It’s the mutual understanding between coach and player that has allowed Zidane to perfectly time squad rotation. As a direct result, players like Kroos, Modric, and Isco have performed incredibly during the business end of the season. It has been flying colors for Zidane and his staff.
Now, the challenge is fielding the right players for Cardiff on June 3rd for the Champions League final. With Gareth Bale recovering on time for the final, Zidane will, once again, feel the pressure to start the Welshman in front of Isco — although, it must be said, Isco has been proving himself as the better fit for the final with his incredible development during the second half of the season.
Whatever Zidane chooses, it’s for a reason. He knows his team and his team understands what he asks from them. Regardless of what happens at Cardiff, it’s been an incredible and arduous seven years for Zinedine Zidane. And, for his coaching career, it’s only the beginning.