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Is Zinedine Zidane A Great Manager Or Just A Club Figurehead?

Despite Real Madrid’s 3-0 victory on Sunday, questions are still being asked about Zidane’s coaching ability after their Copa del Rey elimination.

Real Madrid’s 3-0 victory over Real Sociedad has silenced many critics, especially after both Sevilla and Barcelona dropped points. Real now have a four-point lead with a game in hand at the top of La Liga. But such is the nature of the beast at the Santiago Bernabeu that Zinedine Zidane is still facing questions over a poor January that included a stretch of one win in five matches and elimination from the Copa del Rey. 

With Madrid barred from reinforcing during the January transfer window, the question is being asked again and will be determined over the coming months: is Zidane really a great coach or just a figurehead in the locker room? 

So, what does it actually mean to be either?

Great Coach

  • Tactical awareness and reading of the game. 
  • Able to make tough personnel decisions.
  • Man management skills.

Figurehead

  • The core players dictate the team.
  • Inconsistency with selecting players on the basis of ability.
  • Struggle to make a big change.

This is a personal opinion, and it pains me to say it because I have a lot of respect and admiration for Zidane, but I think he falls more under the category of being a club figurehead. 

People will point to the fact that he won three titles with Real Madrid in 2016, went on a 40-game unbeaten streak and currently sits in first in the La Liga standings. That’s true, and Zidane deserves credit for that, but he’s also managing a team that is considered by many one of the best teams of all time.

Real Madrid can win 90% of their games on talent alone and without Zidane having to showcase his coaching abilities. However, when Madrid go up against a well organized side and can’t rely solely on their talent, that’s where Zidane shows his tactical limitations. 

When it comes to reading the game and making the necessary changes, a lot of his substitutions are mostly like for like and are made too late in the match. 

Let’s use last Wednesday’s game against Celta Vigo as an example. Real Madrid needed to score two goals, but were struggling to create many opportunities and were being dominated in midfield. Despite this, not only did Zidane not make a change at halftime, he didn’t make his first substitution until the 75th minute of the second half. It wasn’t even a tactical change, he just made a like for like switch by substituting Marco Asensio for Lucas Vazquez.  

He has shown some great man management skills and all the players have backed him publicly, but Zidane is so entwined with the club that it looks like he’s given into the core players and even the media. He’s been unable to make any big decisions with regards to personnel. 

This doesn’t mean that the likes of Sergio Ramos, Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo are the ones running the show but that Zidane’s idea of keeping the locker room happy is by showing full confidence in the core players. 

It’s not a bad idea, but what do you do if they continue to struggle and those on the bench are actually doing better?

Cristiano Ronaldo: It’s evident that he doesn’t have the speed he used to have, but Zidane continues to put him on the left wing because that Ronaldo’s favorite position — something that the Frenchman has admitted publicly to the press. This comes despite the fact that his best games this season have been playing as a No. 9.

The No. 9: I found this interesting statistic last week before the return leg against Celta Vigo and it will alarm a lot of people.

  • Karim Benzema: one goal every 136 minutes
  • Alvaro Morata: one goal every 126 minutes
  • Mariano: one goal every 44 minutes

Yet Mariano can barely get a game under Zidane. Is it his trust in Bezema and Morata or the fact that he’s afraid of how the locker room and press would react to a big name being dropped? 

Goalkeeping Situation: Keylor Navas was key in Real Madrid’s success last season, but he hasn’t been the same this campaign since returning from his injury. He’s made several notable mistakes that have put Madrid in bad situations, he's conceded many soft goals that could have easily been stopped and his command of the box has been a glaring weakness.

Kiko Casilla has done a very good job this season every time he’s been called to action, and he’s even kept Real Madrid alive in matches. Navas has still been solid in goal this season and isn’t currently a liability for the team. However, if he continues to struggle and starts to become a liability, will Zidane have what it takes to sit Navas in favor of Casilla?

2015-2016 Season: It all ended well for Zidane last season, but let’s not forget that his coaching tenure started off by playing all the creative playmakers (Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale, Modric, Kroos, James and Isco) and leaving out a holding midfielder. This was a change he made two months later after some injuries and poor player performances forced him to start Casemiro. From that moment on, the team was more balanced and played better.

  

Despite some of these issues, there are some good things Zidane has managed very well.

  1. Getting Ronaldo to rest more often this season in order for him to be better physically fit for the final stretch. 
  2. His handling of James Rodriguez. At times it hasn’t been perfect, but Zidane has been able to get the most out of the Colombian this season when called upon. 
  3. He’s slightly improved tactically this season, which we saw in the Madrid derby with the execution of a 3-5-2 formation. This has not gone unnoticed and even received praise from fellow colleagues Jorge Sampaoli and Eduardo Berizzo. 

Zidane is still a young manager learning the trade. Up until now, he’s done a very good job, but he needs to improve on these weaknesses if he wants to manage Real Madrid for many years. He already has good man management skills, but now he has to improve on his tactical awareness and decision making if he wants to become an even better coach.

As previously mentioned, people will probably bring up Zidane’s current success with Real Madrid when I wrote that I didn’t think he was a great manager. Let’s not forget that there have been other managers that had similar success with big teams and haven’t done much after leaving those clubs.

Vicente Del Bosque: Won 2 La Liga and Champions League titles, but only had one coaching stint after leaving Real Madrid in 2003 and being hired by the Spanish national team in 2008. That only coaching stint was in 2004 with Besiktas where he was sacked before the end of the season. His success with Spain is extraordinary but less so outside of Madrid at club level.  

Frank Rijkaard: Won two La Liga titles and one Champions League trophy with Barcelona. Despite his success, his only coaching position since leaving the Blaugrana has been one season with Galatasaray and two years with the Saudi Arabian national team. 

Roberto Di Matteo: Won the Champions League in 2012 with Chelsea but was then fired early on the following season. Since then, he coached Schalke 04 for one year and took over Aston Villa in the summer before getting the sack in early October.