If you type the phrase ‘Is Zinedine Zidane’ into the Google search bar, the auto-completes first suggestion is ‘…a good manager?’
Outside of wondering what kind of person asks Google if someone is a good manager or not, a quick search suggests that, at least at the very surface level, he is.
With three consecutive Champions League titles to his name, Zidane has achieved something that no one else in footballing history has. Whatever else he may be, it would seem rash to question Zidane’s ability as a coach.
But four years after making his managerial debut with Real Madrid’s Castilla team, the Frenchman continues to divide opinion.
Does his CV so far recommend him as potentially one of the best up-and-coming talents in the managerial game? Or, as some have put it, was he simply lucky to have been put in charge of one of the most impressive football teams the world has ever seen?
With Zidane stepping down from his role at the end of last season and Julen Lopetegui taking over, you might think that we are in a better place to assess Zidane’s managerial ambition. The question is this: what does Julen Lopetegui’s Real Madrid tell us about Zinedine Zidane?
Real's Slow Start
On the face of it, Lopetegui’s tenure at the Bernabeu seems to have been something of a disappointment so far. 12 games in and Los Blancos have already suffered defeat to Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup, they have lost to CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, and they find themselves seventh in La Liga after nine games.
Of course, there are mitigating factors that need to be accounted for. However bad Lopetegui's Real Madrid seem to be at the moment, we need to remember that a manager shouldn’t be judged too hastily. Take, for example, Pep Guardiola’s first season at Manchester City.
Despite beginning the season brightly, City eventually slumped to a third-place finish, 15 points off the final points total set by Chelsea. The following season, Guardiola’s centurions broke a number of records on their way to 100 points. If the Catalan were judged on his first season, then he might not have been around to carry his team to the title.
If getting a new manager weren’t enough of a seismic shift, Real Madrid have also suffered the loss of their goal-scoring talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Whilst Julen Lopetegui might have hoped that his remaining attackers might have taken up the slack in this absence, it is only really Gareth Bale who has stepped up, increasing his shots per game in La Liga from last season from 3 to 4.1.
Beyond the Welshman, Karim Benzema has failed to impress and Marco Asensio’s inconsistency hasn’t helped either.
On top of this, two of Madrid’s most creatively productive players Marcelo and Isco have spent long periods on the sidelines across the opening games of the season with injuries.
So does this just confirm that Zidane is just the better manager? Not necessarily. Although Real Madrid have certainly been less productive under Lopetegui than they were under Zidane, there have been improvements in other areas.
What The Stats Say
Last season, through the course of the season, Real Madrid created 2.40 expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes. This season, they are down at 1.9 xG per 90 minutes. This indicates that Lopetegui’s Real Madrid are not creating as much of a goal-scoring opportunity during their game than Zidane’s were.
There is a flipside, though. Despite their production with Zidane at the helm, Real Madrid were more likely to give away goals. Whereas last season, Los Blancos conceded 1.19 xG per 90 minutes, this season they are down to 1.03 xG per 90 minutes, suggesting that they are more solid defensively than they were under Zidane.
Equal and opposite problems, then, it might seem, for the two managers.
And yet there is more to it than simply that. As Om Arvind, Managing Editor of the Real Madrid website Managing Madrid, explains it, ‘Lopetegui… is always looking to establish safe possession. Zidane could be more direct at times and against big teams even chose to sit deep and counter-attack… but I don’t think Lopetegui would ever do that. Zidane probably has more tactical flexibility even if his fundamentals aren’t as strong as Lopetegui’s.’
In this sense, then, where Zidane’s Madrid benefitted from a level of flexibility that allowed his team creative freedom, Lopetegui is more concerned to instill his team with the basics that should then allow them the wherewithal to be more creative.
What does Julen Lopetegui’s Real Madrid tell us about Zinedine Zidane?
Not that he is a worse manager than Lopetegui but certainly that he is a different manager to the Spaniard. It remains to be seen, though, whose approach will prove to be the more successful.