He seemed an unlikely coach. A quiet man off the pitch and a player who relied upon his extraordinary technique to win matches, not many would have predicted a bright future for Zinedine Zidane as a manager.
When he took over from Rafa Benitez as Real Madrid boss in January 2016, he was seen by some as a last throw of the dice by president Florentino Perez and described as a “plaster” by Catalan sports daily El Mundo Deportivo. But some 20 months on, he has seven trophies to his name - including two Champions League crowns - and only seven defeats.
Perhaps it was the logical next step. Because after drawing a line under a successful playing career at Real Madrid in 2006, Zidane returned to the Spanish side as an advisor, before becoming an assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti, then youth team trainer at Castilla and finally taking the top job last year.
“Before he was a manager, he was in many roles at Real Madrid,” former France team-mate Christian Karembeu told Goal. “As an advisor, and an assistant coach, also he went to school to be in management, to learn about sports management, and of course later he went to the cantera where he decided to test himself as a manager. Therefore, what he has built and with his experience as a player, he has made it happen.”
There can be little doubt about that. Because even if last year’s Champions League win was derided by some following a relatively easy route to the final as Madrid knocked out Roma, Wolfsburg and Manchester City before edging out Atletico on penalties in Milan, the successful defence of that title in 2017 was much more impressive as Los Blancos beat Bayern Munich and Atletico over two legs and then thrashed a much-fancied Juventus side in Cardiff.
“He has been successful and some people are very surprised, but when you talk about his career, it was good for him to come back to the cantera, to come back into sports management,” Karembeu, a Madrid player prior to Zidane’s arrival, added. “This is very humble. That has given him a pathway to go far.”
In the media open day ahead of last season’s Champions League final, Zidane told the press how he was enjoying every moment as Madrid coach and trying each day to be better.
“It’s a passion for him,” Karembeu said. “It’s a devotion. Zidane is this kind of guy. He is engaged in what he is trying to do and I think also, to be a footballer or to be a coach, you have a virus and he has it. We know that he doesn’t like to lose. He is a winner. He has that ambition and of course, Zizou always tries to fire up his team and make his team better and that is what he is doing also as a coach, as a manager.”
As a player, Zidane was part of an exciting project at Real Madrid as Perez brought in some of the world’s most expensive footballers in a side that was dubbed Los Galácticos because of its amazing array of stars. And another idea at that time was to combine the best signings with talented youngsters from the youth academy: Zidanes y Pavones.
Defender Francisco (Paco) Pavon provided the second part of that moniker and he told Goal: “At that time, we were just playing football and we weren’t thinking of who would be a coach later on. But he was the best player back then and now he is the most successful coach. He always comes out as the winner, as the number one - as a player and now as a coach.”
Pavon played alongside Zidane between 2001 and 2006 and the 37-year-old believes the Frenchman’s time in Italy with Juventus helped him to learn tactically for his current role as Madrid coach.
“More than playing in Spain, I think having played in Italy left a mark on him tactically and defensively," he said. "As a player, despite the tactical system, he was so good that he broke the rules. He could beat rivals anywhere on the pitch. The two things together help you as a coach. Knowing where to be positioned tactically on the pitch and having players like him, who can unlock defences, as Madrid have now.”
Nevertheless, Zidane is not given too much credit for his tactics and is considered by many in the game as a coach who is successful because he is able to manage the egos in the dressing room.
“Managing a dressing room is very difficult,” Pavon said. “But you don’t win all the titles Zidane has won only by managing the dressing room. It’s a mix of everything: tactical work, managing the dressing room, psychological work with the players and having a group of players like the one he has - that are very talented and play at such a high level.”
And although he did not appear to be especially expressive on the pitch, Pavon says Zidane is different behind the scenes.
“I don’t think he has changed,” he said. “I think he has always been perhaps introverted with the outside world and the media, not shy. But in the dressing room, he was always open and spoke to everybody.”
Former France international Julien Escude, like Zidane, started his career at Cannes and went on to face the current Madrid coach as a player in La Liga with Sevilla.
“There was great expectation and for him it was very important to do the preliminary work and to learn from the best,” he told Goal. “He spent time studying and that helped him to be able to manage such an important dressing room as Madrid’s.
“But it’s a mixture of everything. In order to be a coach, you have to be very intelligent when you are dealing with the players, you need a working method, because it’s not easy at all to manage such an important dressing room. However, he has known great dressing rooms as a player. There are many aspects and then, tactically, it’s the message you communicate to the players.
“And the success of a person is the success of his whole team at work, starting with the president, Florentino Perez, the players and also the staff. All of that has had an influence in Zidane’s success.”
Having won seven out of a possible nine trophies so far, the 45-year-old has also gone some way to debunking the theory that the greatest players do not make great coaches, with Johan Cruyff perhaps the notable exception to that rule up until now.
“I think that with the exception of Johan Cruyff, that’s how it has been,” Pavon said. “It’s true that the great players, it’s hard for them to win titles as coaches. But Zidane has put that theory to bed in just a few months. He is working very well: how he is managing the squad, on a tactical level and how the players are prepared physically. Real Madrid fans can be very happy at the work he is carrying out.
“He has a spectacular squad, but there are other clubs with great players and it is important to get the best version out of every player and Zidane is doing just that. He is getting the very best version out of all the players in his squad. And that is the merit of the coach.”