Every time Real Madrid wins a tough match, or loses one they should have won, the pundits weigh in on the merits of the team’s coach. The latest such effort (Zidane Just Wins; Will Praise Follow? NYT April 26, 2018, pg. 13, internet version here) comes on the heels of Real’s 2-1 away win over Bayern Munich in the first leg of their 2017-18 UEFA Champions League (UCL) semi final, this time from Rory Smith of the New York Times, one of the better futbol writers around on one of the most coveted sports beats.
In succinct terms, Smith argues that despite the general perception that great player Zinedine Zidane has not translated into great coach Zizou, anyone who can coach a team to eight trophies in three years must be doing something right, and that Zidane’s Champions League success should be reason enough to consider him worthy of comparison with other greats of his generation.
The paper-tiger-argument Mr. Smith proposes, and in fairness, so do others who are fans of the player coach Zidane once was, is that the way to compare Zidane to his contemporaries is to note that while he is not in the mold of the philosopher-king or system-uber-alles-guru in current fad, he is instead a pragmatic and effectual coach who knows the managerial nuts and bolts necessary to pull his team through to success.
I beg to differ.
First, Zidane—much like, for example, Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti, or Jose Mourinho, for the majority of their careers—has had the luxury of coaching one of the top clubs on the planet from day one. So, let’s begin with a reality check that simply posits that if you are coaching a team that should win many competitions, and you win many competitions, your contribution as a coach has to be somewhat proportionate.
Second, let’s take a look at what that vaunted nuts and bolts knowledge means and at how we have seen it exemplified. Smith selects only Champions League games to showcase Zidane’s strengths. Given that the team plays 38 La Liga games, a maximum of nine Copa del Rey games, and a maximum of 13 Champions League games, we would be zeroing in on 22% of the coach’s yearly duties to accept this argument in his favor. What about the other 78%?
Third, let’s take a close look at those examples Smith proposes.
At the 67th minute of the match at Bayern Munich, Zidane substituted striker Karim Benzema for the injured defensive wingman Dani Carvajal. This forced Lucas Vazquez to play in Carvajal’s place and Asensio to move to the wings. This was done, according to Smith, to counter Franck Ribery’s rampant onslaught on the left wing, the right side of Real’s defense.
The problem with the argument is that a better understanding of Zidane’s La Liga and Copa del Rey nuts and bolts would have yielded that, regardless of what is happening on the pitch, he always substitutes someone between about the 65th and 80th minutes, that Frenchman Benzema is substituted routinely into any game he does not start in, and that this dual occurrence takes place regardless of the results of their previous iteration.
In point of fact, in Benzema’s time on the pitch in that game at the Allianz Arena he had nine plays with the ball and muffed every single one of them—from simple missed passes, to shots right at the goalie, to dribbling into an opponent, to critical errant passes on counters where that one pass he muffed was the difference between putting a teammate in on goal and simply having the opportunity evaporate. Why he comes into a match at all has been a season-long query? Putting him in did not help Real’s cause.
Similarly, of Lucas Vazquez’s seven confrontations with Franck Ribery, the Frenchman got through to make a cross three times (including one in which Keylor Navas needed to dive to intercept), was stopped fairly by the Spaniard once, and was fouled by Vazquez the other three times. Not really an endorsement for a future as a defensive winger nor an example of a strategy that worked.
As to Asensio, he has played on both wings, interchangeably, all season long. Nothing new there. Now, that Asensio and Vazquez were the speedy ones lucky enough to pluck Rafinha’s slip up, well yes, but Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo are somewhat speedy too, only neither was playing where the misstep took place because of Zidane’s nuts and bolts decisions regarding each of them. Should we reward Zidane for Real’s piece of sheer luck?
Smith then argues that bringing Asensio and Vasquez in as subs against PSG when the score was 1-1 in the first leg of their UCL encounter, was the critical issue in Real’s eventual 3-1 win. Again, a more current understanding of the other 78% of the matches Zidane coaches would have yielded that Asensio has already made his case for a starting role on the offensive wing and that an Asensio-Bale-Cristiano (ABC) front line is what the team and its fans have been screaming for incessantly all year long. The better question would be why wait over half the match to do what should have been done from the opening whistle?
In the second UCL game against Juventus, Smith points out, it was substitute Vazquez who had the penalty called on him that led to Ronaldo’s tie clinching goal. The problem is that the only reason Vazquez played was to make sure Bale would not complete an entire match, another of Zidane’s season-long dictates, rather than any strategic decision-making. Anyone playing opposite Ronaldo on that play would have been the recipient of that fateful headed pass.
Smith’s ultimate point in favor of Zidane’s stature as a coach was: “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.” Allegedly this leads to timely, proactive, game-changing decision making.
Wrong. Anyone who has watched Zidane the player knows he was a master at managing the on-pitch action for his team. But anyone who has witnessed his time as a coach likewise knows he is years away from being able to discern, in real time, and often during the additional time available at half-time beaks, what is happening on the pitch–let alone react to it in a timely manner, let alone in a manner that helps his team.
In short, we would not be talking about Zidane if he were not at Real Madrid. The relative greatness of an Eibar, Mainz, or Chievo coach, pragmatic and effectual though they may be in maintaining their much less well funded and star-studded sides in their respective top tier leagues, is rarely a subject for discussion.
A coach whose team should arguably be competing for everything and yet has long been out of contention for both Spanish domestic titles, 78% of his job, is not exactly an exemplar of great management. Whatever else Zidane might be, and he was one of the great players, he is a work in progress as a coach and certainly not yet one to be compared with the good, let alone great ones.