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Managerial replacements series: Zinedine Zidane

Next up, Zizou?

Manchester United v Newcastle United - Premier League - Old Trafford Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images

In the first part of this series, we looked at Antonio Conte. We’re now going to shift our attention towards his former teammate at Juventus and the other high-profile manager who is currently available.

SkyBet currently has him at 10/1 to be the next Manchester United manager.

Zinedine Zidane

Zinedine Zidane was an enigma in his playing days. The manager is perhaps an even greater one. There’s an interesting dichotomy to be drawn between the player and the manager.

There’s a sense that players from previous generations like Zinedine Zidane, Paul Gascoigne, and Roberto Baggio were greater in the international set-up than the club football set-up and have perhaps had overrated careers because football wasn’t broadcasted like it is today. This left the general audience in a state of wonder till the big international tournaments came about.

This isn’t to say that they weren’t great players but their greatness might’ve been amplified by our imagination. Football was definitely not microanlaysed to the degree that it is today with all the public data that is available and the tactical discourse that takes place on the internet.

Where that might’ve helped the reputation of Zinedine Zidane the player, Zinedine Zidane the manager has perhaps been slightly underrated because of all this new information that is available to us and how it has changed the way we perceive the game.

Despite the 3 Champions League titles on a trot - something no other manager has achieved since the competition’s inception - there are always questions about Zidane’s standing in the managerial apex.

Football media and history have always been kinder to pioneers of the game like Johan Cruyff, Rinus Michels, Valeriy Lobanobskyi, Arrigo Sacchi and Pep Guardiola or those with fiery personalities like Alex Ferguson, Brian Clough, and Bill Shankly.

The likes of Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti, who have also won three European cups, aren’t reverenced like the former. Zidane sits at that table.

In the first instalment of this series, it was clear that Antonio Conte — despite the reservations surrounding him – could solve the tactical limitations of the United squad, which feels like the most urgent need based on the reports that have come out recently. Those thoughts have also been lingering within the United consciousness for a while till they were exposed in last week’s game.

Let’s find out if Zidane can fill that need.

Ole Gunnar Solskajer brought vibes. Does Zidane bring greater vibes?

Zinedine Zidane’s often dismissed as this tactical neanderthal and there are patterns that you see in his Madrid sides that are similar to the teams he was successful in as a player. Now, he found success in many different set-ups as a player and he seems to have picked bits from all of them to become this extremely adaptable manager.

Of course, he had an incredible ensemble of stars to pick from at Madrid, which allowed him to change things up when required but it’s still quite impressive that he was capable of identifying when those tweaks were needed.

Before moving on, here’s a little thread from Managing Madrid’s Om Arvind on how Zidane’s Madrid teams have evolved tactically over time and some of the characteristics that stand out.

With that out of the way, all of these tactical traits can be traced back to the three most important phases in his playing career.

Moving to Juventus under Marcello Lippi was the first one. The Italians — as we’ve learnt in the previous instalment — pay great attention to little tactical details and Lippi was one of the great managers of his time. Zidane was allowed a free role in this set-up ahead of the midfield trio of Antonio Conte (that guy again), Didier Deschamps, and Edgar Davids.

Like Zidane the player, Cristiano Ronaldo was indulged during that great Champions League run. Isco was used a bit like Zidane was in the 2017/18 season as well. Lippi’s influence was even felt by Sir Alex. The two would become great friends after their great clashes in the ‘90s, often exchanging bottles of wine and other pleasantries.

The other important segment of his career was with the French national team. Stéphane Guivarc’h, who played as the centre-forward for the national team during the 1998 World Cup, did not score a single goal in that successful campaign but started most games in that run.

History was to repeat itself with Olivier Giroud 20 years later. They were players quite capable of scoring goals themselves but performed a different function for the side, which allowed superstars like Zidane, Henry, Griezmann, and Mbappe to flourish.

Now, Karim Benzema is a better forward than both Guivarc’h and Giroud but was used similarly during those glittering years at Madrid.

We then come to the Champions League winning Madrid side of 2002 under Vicente del Bosque. Om’s thread highlights how Zidane’s sides can be quite laboured in possession and Zidane had the luxury of doing this with players like Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.

Del Bosque was a manager who had a singular vision of the game but it never really caught the world by storm. It was all about keeping possession of the ball but the not kind we associate with Guardiola and his many imitators. This has often led the Spanish national team’s football in those successful del Bosque years to be conflated with Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Del Bosque’s Spain were Tiki-Taka, which is a derogatory term associated with passing football. It’s passing for passing’s sake and del Bosque has always adored this and Zidane’s perhaps picked this idea from the moustachioed veteran. Del Bosque’s Madrid sides also had the likes of Claude Makelele and Steve McManaman, players who had obvious quality but also put a shift in, which allowed the Galacticos to work their magic.

Zidane’s been effusive in his praise of these former teammates for years and there are parallels to his Madrid sides. The likes of Casemiro and Fede Valverde fit the bill.

To sum things up, there is a tactical motif in all the sides Zidane played for that we’ve seen see him carry to his successful Madrid side. There are some great players and those that allow them to be great. A great trade-off.

But that’s something Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been practising for a while until recently. He picked these tricks up under Sir Alex. It’s why we see the industrious McFred midfield and saw Daniel James in big games. They’re all trade-offs.

It’s why Anthony Martial’s best performance last season was against Manchester City, a game where he didn’t register a goal or an assist. It’s why Solskjaer’s team has played to the strengths of certain individuals – in Solskjaer’s case, it was Bruno Fernandes. The only thing missing is the incessant crossing that Zidane’s sides are popular for.

Does Zidane bring better vibes or did he just have better players to make those trade-offs work? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has got better players this season with disastrous consequences.

The issue is less tactical if we’re going to go by Solskjaer’s history. Tactical cohesion has always been a shortcoming but it’s now been left bare because of his inability to pick a balanced line-up without potentially upsetting some big personalities in the dressing room. Zidane’s far from the tactical panacea United need but this is one of his great strengths as a manager and could come in handy for United.

A Galactico solution to a Galactico problem?

When Zidane was working on his coaching badges, he had paid a visit to Marcelo Bielsa when the Argentinian was managing Marseille, the club Zidane grew up supporting.

There was a fascinating revelation from Bielsa after their meeting that went like this:

Where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s legendary status is confined to the Manchester United faithful, Zidane’s transcends that. He’s a global icon and has this understated regality. He’s almost a reluctant leader and that might be what draws people to him unless that person happens to be Gareth Bale.

But the Bale example is relevant. It suggests that Zidane has more subtle tools in his armoury than a head-butt to get players in line and that he will make the tough decisions if he were to come to United and those decisions need to be made right now.

He’s available and one of the few managers today who has proven he can be successful under these special conditions. But the Bale example also indicates that not everyone will fall in line because of Zidane’s station within the game.

It’s hard to guess who Zidane might leave out. Zidane’s worked with a few like Ronaldo and Varane. He’s courted Pogba in the past but United are a different entity with very different politics to Madrid. The guessing game would be a futile exercise, which brings us to the final considerations.

Why Manchester United?

Zidane could’ve still been Madrid manager if he wanted to. He was a player, a director, a coach at Castilla, and assistant to Carlo Ancelotti before getting the permanent gig. He’s been raised at this fishbowl of a club that could have any player in world football and worked in so many positions within its structural hierarchy.

Besides featuring in the Class of 92 documentary, his many battles at Old Trafford as a player, and his friendship with David Beckham, his ties to United are limited.

Now, that’ll be the case for most of the managers in this series but tapping into the fan base, understanding the expectations at the club, and macro managing its affairs is evidently his strength but can he really do it at Manchester United? He’s also a man of few words but doesn’t really have a command of them in the English language.

That’s not going to stop the links to the United job, of course. The noises have been there since Jose Mourinho’s tenure. The United job is a big one and it might just tempt him to leave his solitary island for a voyage in the rockiest waters. We never know with the Frenchman. Like the depths of the ocean, he’s a bit of a mystery.

Disclaimer: These are the views of the author.