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For a long time, it was a truism that great soccer players didn’t make great managers. Johan Cruyff was the established outlier, reimagining the sport as a player and then winning a European trophy as manager of Ajax and forging a dream team at Barcelona while rebuilding its youth academy.
None of the great managers of our time challenge that notion. Jurgen Klopp had a mostly anonymous playing career. Jose Mourinho had a forgettable and largely forgotten one. Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino had very good playing careers, but they weren’t transcendent.
But then there’s Zinedine Zidane. After a best-in-generation career as a playmaker for Cannes, Bordeaux, Juventus, Real Madrid and France, he is compiling a managerial resume that is already up there with just about anybody’s. Yet he doesn’t seem to be getting nearly the credit he deserves.
In January 2016, Zidane was installed as a replacement for Rafa Benitez, who had lasted just 25 games — in which he lost just three times and posted the highest winning percentage of his laureled career, but managed to irk all of his key players with his didactic style. Zidane, completely untested as a senior team manager, was viewed by most as a placeholder until a proper manager, with actual experience, could be sourced in the summer. Zizou would soothe the famously political locker room and restore the peace for the next man. Or at the very least, he wouldn’t make things worse.
Zidane finished the league season on a run of 12 straight victories and won the Champions League, making himself unfireable. The next year, he lifted the club’s first La Liga title in half a decade and won another European crown. And then, in 2017-18, he completed the first European three-peat of the modern era before promptly quitting over control issues. When his two successors crashed and burned in short order, he was lured back by March of the following season.
This season, following a third successive 1-0 victory on Sunday at the expense of Athletic Bilbao — courtesy of a VAR-awarded penalty, converted by Sergio Ramos, for a second straight week — Real Madrid stands on the brink of another league title. With four games left to play against very manageable opponents, Real Madrid retains a four-point lead over Barcelona, which finally recaptured some form by beating Villarreal 4-1 on Sunday.
If things stay like this, Zidane, the placeholder manager, will be responsible for three of the four Champions League titles the club has won in the lpast 18 years and two of the three Spanish championships won in the past dozen seasons. And he will have racked up all these trophies in less than four full campaigns.
Yet Zidane isn’t getting his due as a generational manager, as a man tied with Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti for the most Champions League titles of all time. Never mind that it took Paisley seven years in management to amass that haul and Ancelotti two decades.
When Zidane’s Real Madrid wins something, it is often viewed as the failure of some other, better-appreciated team, a victory by default. That’s as true now as it has ever been. After getting a favorable penalty call for a second straight week against Bilbao, Zidane uncharacteristically lashed out in his postgame news conference. “I am tired of being told that we won because of the referees,” he said, per Goal.com. “This is not going to change. But the players deserve respect. Nothing is going to take away from our goal.”
The absence of recognition must be due largely to the fact that Zidane is no ideologue. His Real Madrid has not played with a signature style, like Guardiola’s sides or Klopp’s or even Mourinho’s. He adjusts to circumstances. Zidane nullifies opponents’ strengths. He works with whatever he happens to have, player-wise.
He doesn’t get nearly enough credit for coaxing ever more success out of an aging core. Out of a team that never adequately replaced Cristiano Ronaldo two summers ago. Out of a team that had few younger acquisitions break through to take the burden off the veterans — instead leaning on unproven prospects like Fede Valverde and Vinicius Junior. When Ramos had a lucrative offer to finish up his career in China, Zidane evidently saw no alternative but to block the now-34-year-old’s move for a lack of viable alternatives in central defense.
In a club once run entirely by a meddlesome and despotic president in Florentino Perez, where long-serving players consolidated power and could get managers fired on their whims, Zidane has ruled with a deft hand. There is seldom talk of his clashing with players. In a locker room bursting with ego, harmony somehow wafts from the doors.
Zidane has been working with difficult, worn-out and ill-fitting pieces for years but the product has not suffered. It just doesn’t look flashy. He hasn’t shifted paradigms. He’s not charmed anybody, or said anything particularly interesting. He’s just won and won and won.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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