The superstars of football management have a clearly defined style of play which makes their sides easily identifiable. Jurgen Klopp’s high-octane 4-3-3, Pep Guardiola’s mesmerising 4-1-4-1 (or is that a 2-3-2-3?) and Diego Simeone’s ultra-defensive 4-4-2 are examples of this, with the way the teams play almost an extension of the manager’s character.
What then, is Zinedine Zidane’s philosophy? As a player he did incredible things on a football pitch, so good to watch that they made an entire movie on him, following his every move in a match during which he was sent off. He was one of those troubled geniuses – brilliant but flawed, which made him all the more special.
As a manager he has won every trophy possible while in charge of Real Madrid, coaching one of the all-time great teams to three consecutive Champions League wins… but there still isn’t a consensus that he’s particularly amazing. What more can he even do?
Zidane’s tactical flexibility could be the reason he isn’t considered among the very best managers in the world despite his medal collection suggesting evidence to the contrary. His Real Madrid sides have counter-attacked in a 4-3-3, dominated possession in a 4-1-4-1, done a bit of both in a 3-5-2, played a 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1, and that’s all just this season. Zidane selects his team depending on the opposition and the players available, guiding a group of serial winners to repeated success.
His style of management is similar to his former manager at Juventus and Real, Carlo Ancelotti, whom he assisted at Real after retiring from playing. Ancelotti, another hugely successful coach without a clearly defined football philosophy, described Zidane as changing the way he thought about football.
“Zidane is the first player who gave me the possibility to change the system and play in a different way,” said Ancelotti.
“So when I had Zidane, in the first year at Juventus, I played with a system of 3-4-1-2, having [Alessandro] Del Piero and [Filippo] Inzaghi up front and Zidane a little bit behind.
“The second year, I played with a back four but keeping two strikers in front and one No. 10 like Zidane.
“Zidane changed my idea about football, I was so focused before Juventus on 4-4-2 and after with Zidane, I changed, I wanted to put him in the best position for him to let him be more comfortable on the pitch.
The Tuchel v Zidane battle
Thomas Tuchel is an example of a manager with clearly defined principles of play but he changes his formation often, using every imaginable combination during various stages of his career.
His Chelsea team keep the ball, press high, and show intensity and energy – just like all his former teams – but he has settled on a 3-4-3 system due to its suitability to the players available. Chelsea’s squad still feels a little bit Antonio Conte and a little bit Maurizio Sarri, and Tuchel appears to have bridged the gap between them.
His preparations for Tuesday’s match will be confused by trying to second-guess what Zidane’s tactical setup will be. Real’s midfield trio of Toni Kroos, Casemiro, and Luka Modric are available which would suggest a 4-3-3 is Zidane’s most likely lineup, giving Real a three v two advantage in midfield, an even more difficult proposition for Chelsea considering how good that combination of players is.
Zidane has adapted to a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 against teams who play a three-man defensive system, as he did in the round of 16 win over Atalanta — another high pressing, high energy side — and may do the same as he adjusts to a tricky opponent.
The match could be a fascinating tactical battle and one which results in both teams cancelling each other out for large parts of the game, with a mistake or a moment of magic from a Real superstar needed to open the scoring. The sort of mistake or magic that Zidane was once capable of producing in his playing days.
How Chelsea can beat Real
Wear them down
Chelsea have only conceded two goals from open play (three in total) in the Champions League this season while Real Madrid have let in eight (11 total), with Zidane’s side failing to score in three of their past four matches in all competitions. Chelsea are much stronger defensively and less susceptible to the counter-attack than Liverpool, for example, and the mistakes and poor defending that allowed a 3-1 home leg win over Klopp’s team aren’t likely to be repeated.
Tuchel’s high-possession, low-risk style of play should allow his players to control the game and, if they avoid making mistakes, wear down Real until chances appear.