The Zizou effect
At the start of this year, morale levels among the Real Madrid faithful were by no means high. Eliminated from the Spanish Copa del Rey for fielding an ineligible player and sitting third at La Liga's halfway point, even reaching the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League did not prove much consolation. The fans were not enjoying what they saw out on the field, nor were they convinced by what they perceived to be the dressing-room atmosphere.
Come May, however, and their team had not only carried the Liga title fight to eventual winners FC Barcelona until the very last matchday, but also battled through to the final of the Champions League, where they will face city rivals Atletico Madrid this Saturday, May 28th. What is more, the same Madridista supporters so disillusioned with club and players back in January are now fully in sync with the men in white. So what has changed?
Just one man: Zinedine Zidane. And while followers of upcoming opponents Atleti now extol 'Cholismo' with almost religious fervour, thanks to the period of sustained success ushered in by coach Diego El Cholo Simeone, Los Merengues are hailing 'el efecto Zizou' for turning their campaign around.
The legendary ex-France maestro stepped in for Rafa Benitez on 4 January and, without making sweeping changes, has had a huge impact. "Training with him is a fantastic experience," said Cristiano Ronaldo, speaking to FIFA.com during those early weeks of Zidane's reign. "He's an excellent professional, he works really well. He used to be a player and he really gets us. He understands where we're coming from."
That synergy with the players has been key to reviving a positive vibe in the Madrid dressing room, with Zizou's quiet but charismatic approach winning over a squad whose connection with his predecessor had broken down. In tactical terms too he simplified matters, instead putting his faith in his players' professionalism and letting their talent flow. His charges soon felt better understood, more involved and their hunger and ambition returned.
"He's done a fabulous job," said Simeone. "He's made the best possible start at the club and he's brought in a more concrete style, which makes the most of the speed of their three forwards . He's given Real Madrid a greater sense of calm. In terms of the job he's done, getting to the Champions League final was a very significant step.”
Not that el efecto Zizou worked miracles immediately. Over the course of his first month in charge, the gap to league leaders Barça would grow to 12 points and doubts surrounding the team's play – particularly away from home – still remained. But Zidane weathered the worst of the storm, made the Bernabeu a veritable fortress, and guided Madrid to calmer waters.
One of our own “He knows what it's like to play under pressure, at this club and international level, and he knows the players well," Marcelo told us. "He's not a big talker, but he knows what he needs to say. And you don't doubt what he says because he's been and done it all."
Indeed, though his coaching experience is sparse, only being able to call on one season as assistant coach to Carlo Ancelotti in 2013/14 and another at the helm of Madrid's B side Castilla in Spain's third tier, Zidane compliments that with the intelligence gleaned over a playing career spanning two decades.
“He was one of those players who I modelled myself on as a child," Luka Modric told FIFA.com, underlining how Zizou's iconic status strengthens his authority in a star-laden dressing room. "He was one of the best players of his generation. Now, any advice he gives me on the training pitch is to be treasured, and helps me to improve."
While for Modric it is a case of idol turned coach, for Sergio Ramos it is a former team-mate who is now in charge. "We can always find time to share the odd story from when we were team-mates, but he's the boss now. Our main focus is how to make sure we carry out his ideas on the pitch," said the Madrid captain, scorer of that vital late leveller against Atletico in the 2014 Champions League final, which paved the way for Madrid's tenth triumph in the competition.
And what are the ideas to which Ramos refers? "I've always liked attacking football," said Zidane himself, speaking to us last year. "Trying to maintain a defensive balance too of course, but I always want the focus to be on enjoying the game. Above all else, football should be something fun for those who play it and those who are watching. I didn't take up coaching to bore people: I want my teams to play well. That consists of playing at speed, getting into the opposition half as quickly as possible.”
That is how Madrid look set to tackle their final, and biggest, test of this season. Having already banked high enough marks with his players and the fans to comfortably pass, Zidane is determined to end the season with top honours.
“What I want most is for him to enjoy his future in coaching as much as he did as a player," said Ronaldo, and Champions League glory on Saturday in Milan would be a dream start. Scorer of the winner in Madrid's ninth European Cup win, assistant coach for the tenth... could Zidane the head coach be about to guide Los Blancos to No11?