Madrid: Cristiano Ronaldo was asked earlier this season to sum up Zinedine Zidane in a word and the one he picked was “winner”.
At a Real Madrid media day on Tuesday, half a dozen players were rolled out to answer questions ahead of Saturday’s Champions League final against Liverpool, and one journalist made a point of quizzing each of them about their coach.
“Zidane is one of the best I have ever had,” said Marcelo, who has played under a few, including Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez.
“He was one of the greatest ever to play football,” Isco said. “Anything Zidane tells you, it stays with you.”
“We never get the impression he’s nervous,” Dani Carvajal said. “Whenever he speaks, your eyes are like saucers.”
So why is a coach, backed by the most high-maintenance squad in the world and on the brink of a third consecutive European success, still not considered much good?
After two and a half years, Zidane owns as many Champions League titles as Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. Beat Liverpool, and he will move above all three.
This time last year, his team were the first to defend the European Cup since AC Milan under Arrigo Sacchi in 1990. They were also the first Real side to do a La Liga-European Cup double in 59 years.
Some might point out Zidane is simply blessed with the best players but Real’s squad is not markedly, if at all, superior to rich rivals like Barcelona, Manchester City or Bayern Munich.
Perhaps Ronaldo’s assessment helps explain the apathy. Zidane wins, but in the current era of elite coaches, he does not fall easily into any bracket.
— Passion and motivation —
He is not the young, training-ground coach, preaching the virtues of high-pressing football. He is not a defence-first pragmatist, adamant solidity is the fastest route to results. He is not, yet, the established statesman, known for soothing egos and accommodating demanding owners.
“I am not the best coach, I am not the best tactician,” Zidane said on Tuesday. “But I have other things. I have passion, I have motivation, and those are worth much more.”
Certainly, he has won the confidence of his players. When Benitez was sacked in January 2016, Barcelona daily Mundo Deportivo described Zidane as merely a “sticking plaster”, but, 28 months on, Real’s star-studded dressing room has stayed stuck.
In fact, their run to the Champions League final has owed far more to grit and unity than any sense of aesthetic style or attacking brilliance.
Zidane may downplay his tactical influence but his decisions have played a big part too in Real beating Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich.
Against PSG, he switched seamlessly from a 4-3-3, that freed Isco, to a 4-4-2 in the second leg, with the diligent pairing of Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio out wide.
He was not afraid in the second leg against Juventus to bring off Gareth Bale – perhaps the one player dissatisfied with the current regime – and Casemiro at half-time, and against Bayern Munich in Germany, he replaced the injured Isco with Asensio, who went on to score the winner.
But most of all, Zidane has brought continuity off the pitch to a club that had hired eight different coaches in 10 years. On the pitch, he could conceivably name the same team against Liverpool that won last year’s final and the same but one, Pepe, that started in 2016.
“In my first few years there were a whole host of coaches, there was no stability,” captain Sergio Ramos said. “When you have stability in everything surrounding the team, everything is much quieter. Under him, we are all rowing in the same direction.”
There are some asterisks. Real Madrid barely laid a finger on Barcelona in the league, finishing 17 points behind their Catalan rivals, a gap that is unlikely to be tolerated again next season.
They have ridden their luck in Europe, where they were a dubious penalty away from going out to Juventus in the quarter-finals and fortunate to face PSG without Neymar and Bayern without at least half of their best players.
Real also have Ronaldo, the Champions League’s greatest ever player, who has delivered his second, third and fourth highest scoring totals in the competition under Zidane’s watch.
Third will become joint-first if Ronaldo scores twice in Kiev but Zidane is surely due credit for the Portugese finding the most lethal version of himself in the years after his 30th birthday.
With Ronaldo, as with the team, Zidane lets the player take centre stage. “If we played in the same team, he would be the star, for sure,” Zidane said, as Real celebrated winning last year’s final. “He scores goals and that’s the hardest thing of all.”