Requiem for a Team

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When Florentino Perez hired Zinedine Zidane as manager, the prevailing narrative was simple: he had messed up the hiring of Rafa Benitez in the summer, and Zizou would play the part of the Di Stefano “player-coach” who filled in coaching gaps. Instead, he’s showed a touch of Del Bosque: a manager with a gift for managing egos and clear tactical ideas plus a bit of game-planning.

Which is why he will be fired much too soon by Real Madrid.

Zinedine Zidane’s France teams were always well built for summer tournaments and single elimination games: the muscular 4-2-3-1 featured at least one holding midfielder, backtracking wingers, a single striker, and Zizou enjoyed the freedom and responsibility to seek the ball anywhere and everywhere. Few recall that Zizou’s France strangled the life out of tiki-taka in the 2006 World Cup before succumbing to Italy in the final. They were a team that was impossible to defeat and almost impossible to score against.

In a sense, Zizou’s France combined the possession and care for the ball of Guardiola’s Barca with the muscular midfield and defense of Mou’s Madrid. They rarely threw bodies forward, but were never caught out on counter attacks. Instead, they strangled the life out of midfield and attacked on the flanks with patient and intricate passing. And in a matter of weeks, Zizou’s imposed a similar 4-3-3 system on Madrid that helped the merengues to their 11th title.

As a player, Zizou’s game was also 33% technique, 33% intelligence, and 33% physicality. Zidane used to step on the ball and invite defenders into him just to use very muscle and inch of his length to tease them. Zizou never let a defender even push himĀ  to the ground: he only paused to taunt them, to show them the ball they could never pluck. His 4-1-2-3 at Madrid has similarly cared for the ball, and Casemiro gave Modric the freedom to express himself and dazzle with technique underneath Benzema and alongside Ronaldo.

Zizou’s system and clear instructions were so effective, even when a weak and depleted roster looked like a death spell, squad players shined like diamonds despite lacking the athleticism or technique one would demand of a galactico. Zizou took a team of talented individuals and created a coherent team – which is why he will be fired sooner than I’d like.

In his second season, Mourinho cut loose: he gave up trying to win games by default (1-0), threw bodies forward, and enjoyed a record-setting season and La Liga title. He learned that you play one way to succeed in Europe, and another to win the regular season title. Zizou’s Real Madrid enjoyed a nice run to end the season, but you’d expect his muscular midfield possession will struggle to unlock tighter defenses. In La Liga, his team could easily go a month without conceding a goal, but still go winless. And Perez will fire him.

Still, I’m fretting for the future because the present tastes too sweet. The eleventh title. A team that played as a unit and to their own tune, one conducted by a player who once threw away a World Cup because a tattooed Italian called his sister a whore. This is the stuff dreams are made of: and it’s okay dream for another day I suppose.

If you like Elliott’s nonfiction soccer writing, check out his debut novel (also about futbol).

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