In an exclusive interview for the 2017/18 UEFA Champions League technical report, Zinédine Zidane - who led Real Madrid to three consecutive UEFA Champions League titles - reflects on the keys to his extraordinary success.
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The celebratory songs were still echoing round the streets of Madrid when Zinédine Zidane, with his customary elegance and aplomb, announced that it was “time for another voice to be heard in the dressing room”. His departure added a new dimension to expressions about leaving at the top. No coach, not even during Real Madrid’s run of five successive titles when the competition was launched in the 1950s, had ever achieved a hat-trick of victories.
Foundations for unparalleled success had been laid in 2014 when he sat on the Madrid bench in the Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica as assistant to Carlo Ancelotti. After his first solo success two years later, the technical report commented: “The debutant’s impact can be traced to man-management rather than tactical issues.” Zidane himself insisted: “It’s all about unity, effort, companionship and, when the time comes to play, quality and leaving everything on the field.” This interview provides confirmation that he remained loyal to those principles.
Which of the three titles are you most proud of, and why?
All three titles were fantastic. They were all special for different reasons. The first stands out because it was my first as a coach; the second was both symbolic and intense – with us facing Juventus and turning in an exceptional second-half performance. And the third topped off my three seasons as coach of Real Madrid.
Your third title, in 2017/18, was a result of some highly effective and very solid away performances against top-class opponents. What, in your view, was the key to that success?
I always remained faithful to the footballing philosophy that I had conveyed to my players, regardless of who our opponents were.
In contrast, you were more vulnerable at home. Do you know why that was? Do you think that away teams were a bit bolder in this season’s UEFA Champions League?
Very often, we managed to achieve very good performances away from home, which might explain a slight loss of concentration during the subsequent return legs. At the same time, I never had the impression that the team were panicking. When you work with high-quality players, they know how to manage those periods of games when you’re not playing well, and they get things back on track very quickly. My job was to keep people calm!
What do you think of Tottenham, who beat you and topped your group?
They’re a good young team – well-balanced and very committed. We didn’t manage to get our game going or deal with the periods where we were on the back foot. Ultimately, however, that poor performance helped to make us stronger, as we made sure that we learned lessons from it as a team.
And what about Juventus – the only other team that beat you?
That was definitely a case of us thinking that we already had the tie sewn up. That’s the beauty of football, even at the highest level. You have to remember that a tie is never over until it’s over, even if it looks like you have a comfortable cushion. You have to make sure that you avoid any loss of concentration by focusing on your game plan.
Was it difficult to select a team and decide on tactics for the final? Your starting 11 was the same as in Cardiff, but the team seemed to be set up in a different way. To what extent were your instructions different from last year?
Our game plan was indeed different. We didn’t play in a diamond formation, like we did in Cardiff. I asked Isco to drop into midfield, and we played with two forwards. We also sought to occupy space by pushing Marcelo up. He had a lot of freedom to go forward, with Sergio Ramos providing defensive cover on his side.
The same 11 players started the final in Cardiff in 2017, and nine of those players had also started the final in Milan in 2016. Are stability and big-match experience key assets in your eyes? To what extent?
There’s no doubt about that. Experience always makes the difference in major competitions, as the players find it easier to take a step back.
People watching your matches praised the balance that Casemiro, Modrić and Kroos gave you in the middle of the pitch. Can you tell us a little more about their respective roles?
I asked Kroos and Modrić to defend by pushing up and trying to deny our opponents space, while Casemiro gave us balance across the pitch by providing cover for those pressing midfielders. His role was key – both on the ground and in the air.
How would you define a modern forward? Benzema is often criticised, but what did you think of the work he did for the team?
Karim was important for the balance of the side in terms of how I wanted the team to attack. He helped to implement our possession game by playing his team-mates in. He makes himself available and is a real team player.
Is possession important?
When you have the ball, you’re not trying to win it back, so you’re normally in less danger. You can also make your opponents run and tire them out. Knowing that my players had the necessary skill set, I felt an obligation to strengthen our identity as a possession-based team – not possession for possession’s sake, but possession for the purposes of attacking our opponents. At the same time, having possession is no guarantee of victory!
To what extent do you rely on analysis – both of opponents and of your own team? How do you communicate that analysis to your players? How much time do you spend talking about what your opponents might do?
At Real Madrid, my coaching staff and I used to spend time on team-level analysis, but we limited what we passed on, as I wanted our team to remain focused on our own game. However, I spent time on individual analysis during the week, and I had a word with each player before each match.
Liverpool brought a bit of fresh blood to the competition. What, in your view, are the strengths of their style of play? What problems did you think that Liverpool would pose in the final?
They’re a counterattacking team that do a lot of pressing and are very quick to get the ball up to their three forwards when they win possession. They’re also a team that never give up.
Did you give Marcelo and the rest of the defence special instructions before the match on account of Liverpool’s three forwards, particularly Mohamed Salah?
Not at all! Our game was always the same, regardless of who we were facing. However, we told players about the individual characteristics of opposing players, so that they were aware of specific things that those players did. I didn’t want to do too much of that, as I wanted my players to focus primarily on our own game.
Over the last few seasons, people watching Real Madrid’s games have often praised and commented on the performances of Marcelo and Dani Carvajal and highlighted their importance for the team. How important are full-backs in general, and how important were those two players for your team?
They were a very important part of our system, as they had that ability to do something unexpected and create uncertainty in the minds of our opponents. When the ball went out on to the wing, there was always the possibility of something happening. Indeed, we often managed to break teams down by keeping hold of the ball and then launching moves from out on the wing.
In Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos, you had two extraordinary players at opposite ends of the pitch. Can you tell us a little more about each of them – about their leadership qualities, and about their importance for their team-mates, and for you, as their coach, both on and off the pitch?
They are both players with a lot of energy and influence within the squad. Sergio Ramos is a natural leader and a big presence in the dressing room, and Cristiano Ronaldo is a leader on the pitch who inspires his team-mates. They complement each other well.
To what extent is the job of a coach different in the UEFA Champions League? Are the challenges the same as in La Liga?
For me, there is no difference. I have always prepared for all matches with the same level of application. In any event, when you’re coaching Real Madrid, you have to win everything, while maintaining a certain standard of play – that’s my philosophy.
What were the main lessons that you learnt during your three title-winning campaigns?
When you’re working with talented and experienced players, the most important thing is to keep them calm. That’s what I needed when I was a player, so that’s the approach that I try to adopt.
Some people play golf, while others read. How do you escape the stresses of life as a coach?
I play sport, and I like to read. I also spend time with my family; that’s very important to me.