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Zinedine Zidane has steered Real Madrid to their first La Liga title since 2012 and put them on the brink of back-to-back Champions League triumphs, but how exactly has he done it? Nick Wright examines how the Frenchman – in his first major managerial role – keeps on proving the doubters wrong.

A few months ago, long before Real Madrid had clinched La Liga glory or booked their place in another Champions League final, Zinedine Zidane smiled as he recalled the moment Florentino Perez offered him the chance to succeed Rafael Benitez at their Valdebebas training ground.

“I was with Castilla when the president called me,” he told a small group of journalists. “We spoke and he asked if I felt ready. We made the decision and that was it. I had just been preparing for a game on an artificial pitch against a team called Ebro. But my time with Castilla was over.”

That weekend, instead of travelling with Real Madrid’s third-tier B team to Ebro’s tiny La Almozara stadium in Zaragoza, Zidane took his seat in the Bernabeu dugout for the first time as head coach. The Frenchman only had 18 months of managerial experience behind him, but in front of a rapturous crowd of 71,000, he began his reign with a thumping 5-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruna.

It was the first of many small steps towards vindicating the decision to fast-track his coaching career. Zidane guided Real Madrid to their 11th Champions League win just four months later. And now, two weeks after clinching Madrid’s first La Liga title since 2012, he is a game away from becoming the first coach to retain the European Cup since AC Milan’s Arrigo Sacchi in 1990.

Zinedine Zidane celebrates with his players after clinching La Liga
Zinedine Zidane celebrates with his players after clinching La Liga

Regardless of what happens in Cardiff on Saturday, Zidane has already achieved more in 16 months than many great managers do in their entire careers. And while he may not be a coaching visionary like Pep Guardiola or a master tactician like Jose Mourinho, the Frenchman looks more and more like the perfect man for Madrid.

Crucially, Zidane has mastered a notoriously difficult dressing room in a way many of his more experienced predecessors never managed. From big egos like Cristiano Ronaldo to academy graduates such as Lucas Vazquez, Zidane has extracted the best from every player at his disposal. It is a balancing act which has required careful man-management.

“For a manager, there are many things to think about every day,” added Zidane back at Valdebabas. “But the most important thing is that I have 24 players, and they have to be happy and they have to work hard. I have to look after that. What are the players thinking? How can we improve things? Managing a group is not easy but it’s a part of the job I like.”

Zidane’s constant squad rotation seemed a risky policy as Madrid vied with Barcelona in La Liga, but by showing faith in his second string, he kept them motivated and committed. Isco, James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata know they are unlikely to start when the biggest games come around, but this season they have been focused enough to contribute 33 goals between them in La Liga alone.

Zidane’s use of Ronaldo is perhaps even more impressive. The Portuguese has played fewer La Liga minutes than in any season since 2009/10, but by allowing him plenty of rest, Zidane has conserved his energy for an outstanding run of 14 goals in his last nine appearances.

“What you have is a Ronaldo primed for the last third of the campaign,” said Sky Sports Spanish football expert Guillem Balague recently. “In previous years he has been injured at this point. Now he feels completely sharp when it matters.”

Convincing Ronaldo to accept a reduced role was a bold move by Zidane, but the 32-year-old’s reaction says a lot. “I’ve been very happy with his work,” he said this week. “Zidane has managed the squad cleverly. It’s not easy here. It’s not a simple situation because all the players want to play a lot. Zidane’s done a very smart job. That was key to us reaching the final and winning the league.”

Zinedine Zidane has got the best out of Cristiano Ronaldo this season
Zinedine Zidane has got the best out of Cristiano Ronaldo this season

Ronaldo is not the only Madrid player to have credited his influence. “When you feel that a coach believes in you, it gives you the confidence to perform better,” Luka Modric told Sky Sports recently. “Zizou has been able to translate the humility and talent he had as a player into handling the dressing room,” added Sergio Ramos.

Zidane’s critics might argue that he is merely a facilitator, but sticking to a policy of wholesale rotation and adjusting Ronaldo’s workload were not his only brave decisions. The 44-year-old may be a former Galactico, but he is also a pragmatist who saw the need to place the workman-like Casemiro at the heart of his team. At no point has he bowed to pressure from outside or above.

“In the end, you have to do what you feel inside,” added Zidane. “If not, it’s never going to work. I’ve got things wrong and I will get things wrong again, but the important thing is that I transmit what I feel inside. If it works, great. If not, I know I might have to think about changing things.”

Right now, it’s working perfectly. From the artificial pitch at Ebro to a second Champions League final in 12 months, Zidane’s extraordinary rise has exceeded everybody’s expectations. And as he eyes his most historic trophy yet, the sceptics are rapidly running out of reasons to doubt him.

Source: Sky Sports