Zinedine Zidane Tactical Analysis

Zinedine Zidane with the Champions League trophy (Photo by Franck Fife/AFP)

Without a doubt, Zinedine Zidane is one of the greatest footballers the game has ever seen. His touch, dribbling, skill, creativity, balance, vision and elite technical ability are revered most particularly in his home country of France.

But, who would’ve thought he would become one of the most successful managers in the last 10 years with Real Madrid?

Incredibly, over his two stints at Real Madrid, he amassed 11 trophies, including two La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues.

He built Madrid during his first stint into a side that no one would want to face, particularly in Europe. Los Blancos weren’t just a threat because of how good Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale functioned as a front three. They were complete and balanced, from the defence to the attack.

Keylor Navas was a handy and mostly reliable goalkeeper who had incredible defenders in front of him for protection.

Raphaël Varane, the French international, would often utilise his speed, imposing figure and physicality to ward off potential attacks.

The captain, Sergio Ramos, was a brutal force at the back, as he’d professionally lead the team, with his winning mentality setting him apart from many top defenders in Europe.

The two fullbacks, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal had the athleticism and physical capacity to make lung-bursting runs up and down the wide areas, often delivering pinpoint crosses to the forwards.

The iconic midfield trio of Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modrić would dictate the flow of the game, with Casemiro being the destroyer at the base of the midfield three, allowing Kroos and Modrić to play in advanced areas creating the play.

Karim Benzema was a solid lieutenant for Zidane’s side, as he would often act as a false 9 but when it came to being present in the box, he was always there, contributing with many goals. Gareth Bale had his problems with injuries, however, when he was on the pitch, more often than not, he was explosive and powerful, scoring and assisting frequently.

As for Cristiano Ronaldo, well, I don’t think anyone was surprised in the end how consistent he was, especially in the Champions League. He played an integral role in Zidane’s success and stepped up in very important moments.

Real Madrid squad poses for a photo (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Brief Overview

When it comes to understanding how Zidane’s sides would function, the first thing to note is that he would look to play the players in their preferred positions as frequently as possible. A rather obvious point, however, this was such an effective move in getting the best out of players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos.

But often, there’d be occasions where he wouldn’t have certain personnel available, most notably Gareth Bale. Zidane could’ve persisted with his standard 4–3–3 system and fitted another player in, but over his first tenure, he was smart.

He knew that he had Isco available and deploying him as a number 10 behind Ronaldo and Benzema would provide multiple benefits.

Ronaldo as a lone 9 wasn’t the most sought after option due to him becoming isolated or drifting to wide areas. But having Karim Benzema next to him, allowed Ronaldo to drift into areas on the left side of the pitch, where he was most comfortable.

Also, when it came to the defensive phase, Ronaldo being left in a higher position wouldn’t sacrifice any balance of the team, as Benzema could partake in a more aggressive pressing role.

So as I mentioned previously, Zidane would more or less set up his sides in a 4–3–3 as this allowed Real Madrid to control possession, stretch the width of the pitch and play damaging balls into the box for the forwards to profit on.

Now, Zidane didn’t exactly have a clear stylistic philosophy that someone like Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp would have. However, he did have very strong ideas about how he wanted his teams to play and this was seen consistently throughout his tenure as Real Madrid’s manager.

“I want my team to play, spread the ball about whenever they have it, play it forward from the back and make the best possible decision before they even receive it.

When they don’t have the ball, I want them to track back, keep it tight in defense, pressure the opposition high up the pitch and never let them get in behind. I want them to try and win back the ball as high up the pitch as possible because that will see them avoid having to run an extra 80 meters.

All of that gives the team balance. Some people will see things differently, but it’s as simple as that to me.”

Zinedine Zidane looks on (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)

Offensive Style

When analysing how Real Madrid would attack, the principles of play were simple but highly effective.

Firstly, Zidane wanted his side to dominate possession. This was seen mostly through his second and third seasons during his first tenure as manager, as there was a clear progression, with Real Madrid averaging 56.1% possession in the 2016/17 season in La Liga and then 60.5% in the following season.

Los Blancos would look to build play from the back and this was made rather easy for them due to both Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane being very comfortable on the ball. It would be their job to circulate the ball until a passing lane opened up to one of the central midfielders in either Toni Kroos or Luka Modrić.

Fig. 1. Nacho finding Modrić
Fig. 2. Varane finding Kroos

Toni Kroos is fundamental to how Real Madrid play.

Before I analyse why he’s so important, allow one of his midfield partners in Casemiro to explain why he’s so important for the team.

“He’s one of the most important players in the team because he sets the rhythm the team plays at in the way he manages the ball.

“If Toni wants the team to slow things down, the team will go a little slower — or if he wants to up the pace, the team will play a little faster. So basically, the way we play is determined by Toni Kroos”.

The German international was essentially Madrid’s conductor, due to his passing range.

Over the 2016/17 La Liga season, Toni Kroos registered 12 assists.

Now that stat in principle is quite impressive, but there’s more to Kroos than just his assists. During that season, he had a 92% passing accuracy. Now Kroos wasn’t the kind of player who would be safe and conservative with his passing.

Often, we would see him trying to progress the ball to the advantage of either a forward or an advancing fullback. Kroos in that same season averaged 2.8 key passes per game, where he also had an 83% passing accuracy in the opposition’s half as well as an 85% long ball accuracy.

In possession, Kroos would primarily operate as a DLP (Deep Lying Playmaker) due to his vision and passing ability. It wouldn’t be an uncommon phase of play to see the German receiving the ball and looking to either switch the play or play a clever pass in behind.

This was mostly due to Kroos’ positioning in the half-spaces, more or less on the left. This way, he could see inside the pitch and look to create from more damaging positions.

Fig. 3. Kroos switching the ball
Fig. 4. Kroos playing a long diagonal over the top to Dani Carvajal

His vision on the ball made him a nightmare for the opposition to deal with.

Now with Zidane’s side during his first tenure, it wasn’t just about one player, just like I was highlighting Kroos. It was always about the team.

Luka Modrić, Kroos’ partner in crime, was just as crucial for Real Madrid.

Modrić offered a different avenue when it came to progressing the ball for Zidane’s side. While it could be argued that both Kroos and Modrić are ‘elite’ on the ball, it could be said that the Croatian international was more effective when progressively carrying the ball.

Luka Modrić is one of the best in the world when it comes to driving with the ball and progressively carrying the ball, right now he’s in the top 9% of players in Europe’s top five leagues.

Fig. 5. Modrić driving with the ball past defenders

Ahead of the midfielders would be the prolific ‘BBC’ trio in Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Those three whenever they played together presented many challenges for opposing teams. When we analyse how Ronaldo would play in Zidane’s side, there were a few key areas where he thrived.

One was his ability to recognise space.

He had the acceleration, but more importantly the intelligence to recognise patterns of play before they would occur. Often he’d be able to exploit the space, one because he had that 1 or 2 second advantage, but two, he’s Ronaldo.

He’s the GOAT.

Fig. 6. Ronaldo identifying Morata’s flick and exploiting the space

Another area was his ability to firstly position himself in between defenders and make runs into those areas. This gave the would-be passer a clear lane to pass him the ball and the following result would more or less be a goal.

Fig. 7. Ronaldo receiving the ball in a dangerous area and then scoring

I won’t go into too much more detail about how great Cristiano Ronaldo is, but his movement inside the box and end product under Zidane made him a key target when crossing into the box.

Primarily, Zidane’s side during his first tenure would look to create chances by crossing the ball into the box due to the aerial presence of the three forwards. Ronaldo was the best headerer of the ball, as he could create the space, and attack the ball with such power and ferocity that the defenders wouldn’t have a chance.

Fig. 8. Ronaldo’s header against Atletico Madrid in the 2016/17 Champions League Semi-Final

Karim Benzema was a frustrating player at times under Zidane, as he was criticised at times due to the chances he would miss. However, Benzema was perhaps underrated due to how effective he was in the build up play.

Zizou would more or less deploy Benzema as a ‘False 9’, he’s free to drop wherever and assist with progressing the ball forward.

Due to the freedom Zidane would allow his players, Benzema could receive anywhere and was mostly a threat in between the lines, where his movement alone would cause disorganisation in the opposition’s defence, but also space for his teammates to exploit.

Fig. 9. Benzema dropping deep to receive, creates space for a forward to exploit in behind

Benzema was also very proficient when it came to his hold up play. Often, Madrid could go long with full confidence knowing he could hold the ball up and bring others into play.

Fig. 10. Benzema holding the ball up

I’ve deliberately left the fullbacks last, as they were arguably the most important aspect of how Zidane’s sides would function going forward.

The in-possession structure seen under the Frenchman was mostly a 2–3–5, with the CBs occupying positions near the halfway line, the midfield three operating in front of them, while the fullbacks would provide the width, allowing the forwards to tuck inside.

Marcelo was crucial for Zidane, as his technique, vision but more importantly the positions he would occupy were so beneficial for the team.

Due to the Brazillian providing the width, often he would be isolated and if the ball was to make its way to him, the forwards would have the full confidence knowing that he would deliver a super ball either along the ground or in the air.

Fig. 11. Marcelo assisting Casemiro’s goal
Fig. 12. Marcelo finding Ronaldo with a superb cross

It’s rare to see a fullback in the modern game be that complete, but it’s also rare to find another fullback who was as gifted as Marcelo was under Zidane.

Defensive Style

As Zidane stated in how he would like his sides to play, it’s his preference for his teams to press high in order to win the ball back as quickly as possible.

It didn’t really matter who Madrid were going up against, as they had full confidence they could beat any opposition.

Fig. 13. Real Madrid’s high press against FC Barcelona

The structure was mostly man-oriented, as displayed above, and this was with the objective of forcing a long ball where players like Sergio Ramos or Raphaël Varane could win the aerial duel and bring the ball down.

Those two were very good in that area, with Ramos in the 2017/18 season winning on average 63% of his aerial duels and Varane in the 2016/17 season winning 74% of his aerial duels.

If the opposition was able to bypass the press, Madrid would transition into a compact 4–4–2 block. This was done for a few reasons.

One was to allow Ronaldo limited defensive responsibilities. Similar to how Luis Enrique would utilise players like Lionel Messi or Neymar when at Barcelona, a player like Cristiano Ronaldo is better utilised when going forward.

So Zidane would more or less instruct Karim Benzema to be the more aggressive presser. Benzema had to be focussed and alert, in order to cover for Ronaldo and sometimes, this would result in goalscoring opportunities.

Fig. 14. Benzema cutting out Karius’ throw and scoring

Another reason for the 4–4–2 was to not sacrifice balance, which again was another principle Zizou would look to implement within his teams.

Pushing Cristiano Ronaldo up with Benzema would leave a lopsided structure, so the solution was moving Luka Modrić to the left wing. His tenacity and work rate allowed him to do the dogged work in those areas to quite a high standard.

Fig. 15. Real Madrid’s 4–4–2 structure

Zidane’s Second La Liga Triumph

Zidane with the La Liga trophy in the 2019/20 season (Photo by Ricardo Nogueira/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

While I have for the majority of this analysis focussed on Zinedine Zidane’s first stint as manager of Real Madrid, his second season was perhaps his most underrated and really emphasised his potential of being an elite coach.

To put things in perspective, when the Frenchman returned to the Santiago Bernabéu in March 2019, Los Blancos had just been knocked out of the Champions League Last 16 by Ajax, knocked out of the Copa Del Rey semi-finals by FC Barcelona and were 3rd, 12 points off the Catelonians at the top.

For the rest of that season, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for Zidane, as his record for the final 11 games of the season was pretty poor, winning 5, drawing twice, and losing 4.

Defensively, there were alarm bells. In that period they conceded 14 goals, which brings about an average of 1.27 goals conceded per game. For a side that had the ambitions to dominate Europe, that statistic was a harsh reminder of how far the mighty had fallen.

Now, the challenge to rebuild Real Madrid wasn’t easy, as the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo in a blockbuster move to Juventus saw the Spanish giants lose some much needed firepower, so Zidane had to utilise different tactical systems and structures in order to get results.

In the 2019/20 season, Zidane used a variety of systems, often with small variations that would pay huge dividends.

One player who had a crucial role during that season was Casemiro, who only missed 3 of the 38 La Liga matches.

Rotation was more or less seen ahead of them, and if it was the Frenchman’s intention to dominate possession then he would utilise his trusted playmakers in Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić.

When the ball was situated in deeper areas, those two would often drop back to assist Casemiro and the CBs in build up.

Fig. 16. Kroos and Modrić occupying deeper positions

In more advanced areas, the two had more specified roles.

Toni Kroos would mostly occupy deeper positions, with the objective to control the tempo of the game by switching the play or recycling possession. The deeper positioning was also for rest-defence reasons, as he would assist Casemiro with protection against counter attacks.

Fig. 17. Kroos switching the ball from a deep position

With Luka Modrić, he would mostly look to occupy more advanced positions. This was done for two reasons.

One was to press higher, as Modrić was more mobile and aggressive than Kroos.

Fig. 18. Modrić pressing high

The other was to allow him to make late advancing runs, targeting the right half-space into the box.

Fig. 19. Modrić making the late run into the right half-space

Despite the two midfielders ageing (with Modrić being 34 at the time and Kroos 30), they had to increase their output in order to play those specific roles.

Both did so, with Modrić registering 13 G/A in all competitions that season and Kroos registered 15 G/A in all competitions.

However, due to the obvious in their age, Zinedine Zidane knew that he couldn’t play them as frequently as he would’ve wanted to.

So in this season, he placed a fair amount of responsibility on young Uruguayan midfielder, Federico Valverde.

This could be seen by the amount of appearances he made in La Liga during that season, with 33 in total, the 6th most that season.

Zidane would mostly utilise Valverde if he felt that the opposition’s midfield was creatively strong with two examples being FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.

Valverde was utilised due to his intensity, as he was highly efficient when it came to closing down the opposition’s playmakers and allowing them barely any time on the ball.

Fig. 20. Valverde applying pressure

Athletically, he was a workhorse and was a fundamental piece when it came to Real Madrid dealing with defensive transitions.

Fig. 21. Valverde tracking back and winning the ball back

The 4–4–2 diamond that was used frequently under the Frenchman during his first stint was also seen at times during his second.

It was used once during the 2019/20 season however, it was done to a great effect against Barcelona away from home.

Zidane identified that the team Barcelona set out with wasn’t filled with much speed or energy, which was why it made sense for him to overload and congest the midfield. This made creating chances for players like Lionel Messi borderline impossible.

Fig. 22. Real Madrid’s diamond midfield preventing clear passing lanes centrally for Messi

The system were Madrid were more offensively oriented was a variation of the 4–3–3, in the 4–2–3–1 and this was seen three times in La Liga, all of those games resulting in wins:

  • Real Madrid 3–2 Levante
  • Sevilla 0–1 Real Madrid
  • Real Madrid 2–0 RCD Mallorca

This was mostly due to the fact that Madrid could commit many numbers forward, and provide many opportunities for a player like Luka Modrić or Toni Kroos to play an attacker in.

For instance, take Vinicius Jr’s goal against Mallorca. Luka Modrić had four options he could play the ball in behind to. Fortunately, he made the right pass and a goal was the outcome.

Fig. 23. Modrić in possession with four players making runs in behind

This system also allowed Karim Benzema to flourish due to his intelligent link up play. He could drop deep, turn and have full confidence knowing there would be runners ahead of him.

Fig. 24. Benzema creating a chance for Vinicius Jr

Final Thoughts

Zinedine Zidane looks on (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

It really is disrespectful to even present the notion that Zidane had no tactical nous and was just there to put his arm around the superstars.

Zizou implemented the right structures at the right situations in order to benefit his players. Just compare his two stints.

His first one, which I analysed in great detail, was geared towards maximising the offensive output of players like Cristiano Ronaldo.

In his second stint, it was focussed on creating a solid defensive structure and they had the best defence in Europe in their 2019/20 La Liga winning season, conceding only 25 goals.

Zinedine Zidane was invincible as a player and elite as a manager.

He deserves respect.

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