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Tactical Philosophy: Zinedine Zidane

While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. Raghunandhanan Narasimhan writes about one of the most legends of the game who’s now impressing as a Manager, Zinedine Zidane.




Zinedine Zidane. The man needs absolutely no introduction. A truly world class midfielder during his playing career, Zidane has won virtually everything. The individual honours he amassed were a testament to the genius he was. During his playing career, Zidane always maintained that he had little interest in a managerial career once he was done playing. After retirement he was chosen as ambassador for Qatar’s attempt to host the 2022 World Cup.

In 2009, after Florentino Perez was elected as Real Madrid’s president for the second time, Zidane was appointed as Advisor and was to be involved in the decision making side of the club along with the General and Sporting Directors. Later, in 2010, at Jose Mourinho’s appeal, the then manager of Real Madrid, Zidane was chosen as a special adviser to the first team and was expected to interact more with the first team and travel along with them.

Zidane then became the Sporting Director of Real in 2011 and later became Assistant to Carlo Ancelotti in 2013. The signs were there that Zidane was more intent towards managing now and the process was gradual.  He was then announced as Real Madrid Castilla’s coach in 2014. Despite not having the required badges for being a manager, he was involved in the thick of things at the club’s B team. After Rafa Benitez’s dismissal last season, Zidane was brought in as Real Madrid’s manager. Since then, Zidane has done incredibly well and Real have been performing admirably.

Tactical Philosophy

There is a widespread belief that Zidane’s role as a manager of this Real Madrid side involves him with only managing the egos and keeping them happy. To an extent, it is true that Zidane’s primary job is man management. Having been a star himself during his playing career and also a part of the Galacticos at Real, Zidane knows what the expectations are like at the Madrid club. He has experienced everything first hand and knows the problems involved inside the football club. Having been a part of the Real Madrid set up for seven years before his appointment as a manager, Zidane knows the club well and also has a good relationship with the players. His legend status as a player also gives him the respect from the squad, something that was a problem for the players previously under Rafa Benitez.

During his study for the licensing badges, Zidane watched Guardiola at Bayern Munich and attended a few sessions. However, he showed an inclination towards Marcelo Bielsa, manager of Marseille and Christian Gourcuff who was managing Lorient, at the time. Gourcuff is known for building fluid attacking sides with a stringent budget. Zidane’s influence in a managerial aspect comes from these encounters.

As a manager, with a vast assortment of stars, Zidane continued with a 4-3-3 using Modric and Kroos along with Isco/ James as part of the midfield trio. The BBC partnership up front was preferred. Kroos was chosen to be the lone pivot in this system, having been moulded into an excellent ball player in that role under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich.


However, playing Kroos as a lone pivot in a midfield trio consisting of Modric and Isco/James would mean that the defensive structure of the team would falter. After suffering a 1-0 loss against Atletico, Zidane decided to play Casemiro instead of Isco/James. This proved to be a master stroke as Casemiro proved to be an able shield for the defence while the more attack minded players flourished up front. This led to a late flurry of wins towards the end of the season. The 16 consecutive wins is a joint La Liga record and Madrid have gone 31 games unbeaten since.

Even when he was at the helm of Castilla, he would often drop Martin Odegaard to the bench, despite the buzz around the wonderkid. This was done so that he could play players who were suited to the team and also based on their form. This shows how he doesn’t feel the necessity of playing a big name just for the sake of the buy.


Before Zidane took over, there were a few structural issues in the Real team. To initiate play, Kroos and/ or Modric would drop back in to the defensive line. With the full backs pushing out forward and James moving to the front line, there were no viable passing options in the midfield to progress with the ball. This was especially the case during Madrid’s 4-0 loss to Barcelona at the Bernabeu. This was rectified with his 4-3-3 by using Kroos as a deep lying playmaker. Added to this, Modric is a great initiator of play and can run with the ball and play one twos. Also, the ball near winger (Bale or Ronaldo) would drop back and help in build up. Benzema is excellent as a false nine and he drops deep as an extra ball receiver.


Once Casemiro started in the line up, Madrid usually looked for swift pass combinations using their attacking players and looked to attack. With the ball near winger (Bale) dropping deep, Carvajal and Modric link with him. Kroos offers another option if they need to switch play to Marcelo on the far side who has a 1v1 against the opposing full back. Benzema drops down if the center is packed and there is a need for a passing option. When the cross can be delivered, the forwards (Ronaldo and Benzema) position themselves in between the opposing centre backs. The full back cannot get too tight to Ronaldo due to Marcelo’s presence. There is also a late run into the box by the ball far midfielder (Kroos) or Modric arrives late for a cut back.

The front three are usually well equipped in interchanging positions. Benzema often turns up on both flanks to aid in build up play. Ronaldo and Bale also swap wings when moving forward. A great emphasis on wing play is in place in Zidane’s system, where he looks to tap into the aerial threat offered by Bale and Ronaldo, with the added presence of Benzema up front.

Whenever the ball is in one flank, say right, the advancing full back (Carvajal) would link up with Bale and Modric and the ball is brought to the final third for the cross. Ronaldo, who happens to be the ball far winger will move into the box along with Benzema and anticipate the cross. The opposing scenario would see Marcelo and Ronaldo linking up along with Kroos. Now, Bale moves inside the box with Benzema and waits for the cross. An ideal situation would see a late run from the ball far midfielder making a late run into the box. A high number of goals have been scored by Real via headers, with the Clasico winner coming with a cross from Bale turned in by Ronaldo in their 2-1 away win last season. Casemiro usually stays back in order to negate counter attacks. Whenever Benzema is not in the box for a cross, the advancing full back or a midfielder ( Kroos or Modric) would make the run into the box.

The wing play is also initiated by creating overloads on one half of the pitch and then switching play to the other side for a free wide player. This generates a 1v1 on the wing and creates an opportunity for a cross. Below we see an illustration showing this.

Overloading one side of a vertical axis, with at least two passing options for the player in possession, Real draw the opposition to one side and switch play to the other flank, with Kroos and Modric more than capable of doing so. This also stretches the opposition in addition to creating a 1v1 on the wings or at times even a 2v1 with the ball far winger joining the full back. The stretching of the opposition back line leaves space in between the defenders and this is used by the forwards to position themselves as mentioned before.

The problem they face is that the play is a bit stagnant at times in build up.

The problem they face is that the play is a bit stagnant at times in build up.

At times, Real have too many players dropping deep trying to aid in the build up which means that they suffer against teams that are organised. With too many players dropping deep, there are no runners beyond the opponent lines and the play becomes very passive and predictable. With no runners, the ball is either pinged long or repetitive passing combinations are seen.


Zidane has to be credited to have induced a solid defensive structure in the Real spine, with Casemiro providing the shield in front of the back four. When defending, Real usually play in a 4-5-1 or a 4-1-4-1, with Bale and Ronaldo dropping back into the midfield. Benzema is the lone player forward. Real do not press very high up the pitch with the front three covering their zones when the ball is deep in the opposition half.  There is sporadic pressing in the opponent half and more emphasis is on retaining the structure.


Once the ball reaches the half line though, Bale and Ronaldo drop back into the midfield. Casemiro makes sure that there is not much of a gap between the midfield and defense, which was a problem for Real earlier. Bale shows greater defensive contribution than Ronaldo and sometimes, even a lopsided 4-4-2 is seen when without the ball. In a 4-5-1 /4-1-4-1, the central midfield pair press the ball carrier in their respective zones. Ronaldo and Bale flank out wide but make sure that the half spaces are not left free with a degree of compactness maintained. If the opposition retain the ball for longer periods, Casemiro joins the midfield line and it becomes a compact 5. This was the case in the Clasico win at the Nou Camp last season, with Madrid successfully stifling Barcelona. When Casemiro joins the midfield, the whole team stays compact in their own half. Modric and Kroos patrol the central half spaces and Casemiro destroys play.

Real have switched on and off at times with their defending, as they tend to leak goals at times. The central defenders have made costly mistakes and let in cheap goals. Real are still learning under Zidane and Zidane himself is learning the trade by the day. The flaws are there in the team but with time Zidane will make sure he sees to them.

When defending, the central defenders sometimes try to gauge the gap between the midfield and defense by moving out of position and leaving the channels open for the opponents to exploit.


I have illustrated an example here when Pepe moves out, the defensive line breaks and there is too much free space to exploit behind him. This has to be attributed to individual errors but as a team if they leave gaps to exploit in behind the midfield, there is always going to be a problem for the defense to cope with.

Tactical flexibility:

Zidane has proven himself to be a shrewd reader of the game and has made tweaks in his system, according to the opposition and his team’s availability. In the game against Legia Warsaw, he fielded a 4-2-4 with Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo and Morata all playing with Modric and Kroos as the midfielders.  Despite the 3-3 draw, which was more due to flaws in the new system tried, Zidane has not shied away from trying new systems. The 4-2-4 tried here shows that he is confident that the quality of players he possesses would take him through against relatively easy opposition. Though this was a bit reckless, Zidane is still relatively new to the managing field and will learn from experience.

However his most impressive tactical win so far has been the 3-0 away win at Atletico. Real were without Pepe, Ramos, Kroos, Casemiro, Bale and Benzema. He fielded a 4-4-1-1 with Modric and Kovacic as the central midfielders. Bale and Lucas Vazquez acted as wide midfielders and were expected to contribute defensively. Isco operated behind Ronaldo. The banks of four stifled Atletico’s 4-4-2 and the central midfielders were press resistant and were able to build up play well. Real showed defensive solidity and were adept at dealing with the Atletico attack. The win must surely go down as a huge triumph for Zidane and co as the result was a massive one and also ended their recent woeful form against Atletico in the league.


The choice of players used and the way he set up the team shows how Zidane can be flexible and also read his opposition well. After taking the lead, Real sat back and defended in numbers looking to break forward quickly, which is not exactly the Galactico way, but it paid dividends.

On that note, it has to be said that even dropping Isco or James in favour of Casemiro must be credited to his stance on football and the way teams must be set up. During his playing career at Real Madrid in the Galacticos era,  Zidane had always maintained that it was because of Claude Makelele that he and the others were able to flourish up front. He was even vocal when Makelele was sold to Chelsea and said “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” This must give us a fair idea of how he thought about the importance of a destroyer, especially in a team like Real, filled with superstars.

Three career defining games

Despite his relatively short span as a manager Zidane has nailed down some crucial wins.

Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid: On the back of a 4-0 reverse earlier in the season at the Bernabeu, the onus was on Real to win in order to even remotely stay in the title hunt. Barcelona were in ominous form going 39 games unbeaten before the match and racing to the top well clear of their challengers. Real won the match courtesy of goals from Benzema and Ronaldo. This win would also make sure that the title race went down to the wire as Real had a late surge of consecutive victories. This win also made Zidane the first manager since Bernd Schuster to win his first Clasico game in charge.

Real Madrid 1-1 Atletico Madrid, Champions League Final: It had to be written in the stars. 14 years after winning the Champions League with Real as a player and scoring that goal, Zidane won the trophy again, as manager and joined an elite list of people to have won the European Cup/ Champions League as both player and manager. Despite not being at their best, Real managed to hold out for a draw and win the Champions League courtesy of a penalty shootout.

Atletico Madrid 0-3 Real Madrid: When he faced Atletico last season, Real suffered a 1-0 defeat with Atletico dominating proceedings. This season though, Zidane produced a tactical masterclass, with the players available, to win by three goals, with Cristiano Ronaldo bagging a hat trick.

Three Key Players Developed

Marco Asensio: Marco Asensio has started to feature in the first team despite being only 20-years-old. The youngster had played for Mallorca and Espanyol on loan the previous two seasons. The potential was never in doubt, but it is naturally difficult to play a youngster in a team filled with superstars in his position. After featuring predominantly in the pre season this year, Asensio has made a huge impression this year, playing 9 games so far at the time of writing. His goal against Sevilla in the UEFA Super Cup helped Real to a 3-2 win.

Casemiro: Casemiro had played well for Porto the previous season where he was on loan from Madrid, but couldn’t nail down a place in the starting 11 at Madrid. The appointment of Zinedine Zidane as manager proved to be the catalyst to his rise in prominence as he has been a vital cog in Zizou’s team. It might not be exaggerated when one says he is as important to this Madrid side as much as the superstar signings around him.

Mariano: Under Zinedine Zidane Mariano was promoted to the Castilla side from the C team and made ten appearances with six off the bench and scored five times in the 2014-15 season. The following season he was in fine form scoring consistently. This season, he was promoted to the senior team after Benzema suffered a back injury and made his debut appearance against Celta Vigo coming on as a substitute for Morata. In the Copa del Rey he scored a hat trick against Cultural y Deportiva Leonesa. Mariano can hope for more first team minutes under Zidane as fixtures begin to pile up and secure a place in the line up, even though a tough task.


While it has hardly been a year since Zidane took over, it is still a bit early to judge how good a manager he can be. Real have edged a few narrow games by the virtue of late goals and have not been brilliant in all of them. Though this might be a bit early to judge him, the results are on his side. He has been magnificent in handling the egos in the Madrid team. He already has a Champions League title, along with a UEFA Super Cup. The tactical tweaks he has made as a manager also have boded well for his team. He has the highest points taken after 33 games in charge ahead of the likes of Guardiola, Pellegrini and Mourinho with 83 points taken in La Liga. Real Madrid is an institution where things can change quickly, sometimes too quickly for one’s good. Only time will tell how Zidane will fare as a manager. But one thing is for sure. The early signs look promising for the French legend.




Raghunandhanan Narasimhan
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