The Devil Wears Zizou: How Manchester United And Zidane Could Work

This image is a derivative of z5 zidane by Patrick Gaudin (CC BY 2.0)

It was one of sport’s most engrossing telenovelas and the gripping saga of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United culminated last weekend with a 1-4 capitulation against Watford. 

In the aftermath of yet another gruesome defeat the Norwegian was relieved of his duties and now one of the most famous clubs on earth is on the hunt for a new boss. 

While the first choice might well have been Antonio Conte the ship has certainly sailed on that front with the brilliant Italian now leading Tottenham while a raft of managers have also found suitable jobs during Ole’s failed reign. 

The infamous Glazer family is now left with few options to pick from, though one of them just happens to be one of the greatest footballing figures of all time in Zinedine Zidane. 

While there have been rumours that the legendary Frenchman is less than enthused about the prospect of moving to England, the notion of him teaming up with the Red Devils is well worth exploring.  

What could we expect from “Zizou” at Old Trafford and could he be the man to finally mend this broken club?

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Who is Zinedine Zidane, the manager?

We all know who “Zizou” was as a player. The masterful midfielder led France to two World Cups finals, scoring a brace in the 1998 decider and playing a pivotal role in Les Blues winning their first ever Jules Rimet trophy along with a European crown two years later.

While there’s no doubt he was one of the best players to ever grace the pitch, how can we assess his management acumen? 

After years of learning the trade around the Real Madrid headquarters, Zidane was appointed assistant to Carlo Ancelotti in 2013. After being the Italian’s right hand man for a couple of seasons he took his first full-time management role coaching Real Madrid’s reserves team in June, 2014. 18 months later he was promoted to the first-team coach after Rafa Benitez was sacked.

In his first six months as manager Zidane ended Barcelona’s 39 game unbeaten streak in the El Classico and went on to finish second, just a point adrift of cross-town rivals Atletico Madrid. He’d however get revenge weeks later by helping Los Blancos claim the Champions League final and getting their hands on their long sort-after 'La Undécima’.

In Zidane’s first full season he won Real Madrid the league for the first time in six seasons before going back-to-back in the Champions League, demolishing Juventus 4-1 in the 2017 final in Cardiff. The following season he led Real Madrid to yet another Champions League final, becoming the first coach to ever won a hat-trick of UCL titles. 

After departing the club following the 2018 Champions League final he returned months later to lead them to yet another domestic crown though once again left the Spanish capital a second time a season later. 

In short time Zidane built upon a decorated managerial resume the likes of which would take even the most successful of managers a lifetime to achieve. Despite claims he doesn’t have a nuanced tactical brain there’s no question he has an aura about him that makes players both idolise him and work their backsides off for him.

With that said, Real Madrid has been the only club he's managed, and even then, it was a club dripping with generational talent such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos and Tony Kroos to name just a few. 

At this point it’s a complete unknown whether his managerial style will translate to a different squad let alone a different league. 

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What Can He Offer To Manchester United?

Looking at it tactically, Zidane has played a 4-3-3 for most of his career. However, this can alter into a 4-1-2-1-2 or even a 4-4-2. He always has key principles in his squad. One of these is the single-pivot defensive midfielder. This was Casemiro at Real Madrid, and his role was to screen the backline and play as the team’s anchor-man, disrupting play before feeding the ball to more creative and attacking players. This is arguably the most important position in a Zidane side, so it will be interesting who could fill the role should he get the gig. 

He loves attacking full backs. At Real, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal were integral to the way his side attacked. In Zidane’s first full season, Marcelo and Carvajal registered a combined total of 16 goal contributions throughout the season, in a time before wingbacks were a ‘thing’ at high-level football. 

Madrid played controlled, methodical football which was based on a simple system with a simple solution. Zidane’s system is not complicated, and he suits the system to the players that he has available. Modric and Kroos in midfield were his two drivers from attack, dictating play and controlling the tempo of the match. This was helped by how good that partnership was, pitting two of the world’s most gifted and intelligent players together and who were able to see two steps ahead of the opposition before making their next move.

He manages his squad on a macro level, achieving a whole squad objective through the system that he implements. This also shows how good of a man-manager he is. He was able to convince a dressing room full of ego’s to play a certain way and without catering to any one person’s needs. 

Defensively, Zidane likes his side to press high and aggressively. He has shown that he can get a side to press despite the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, so why can’t he do it again? Otherwise, his 4-3-3 variations drop back into a 4-5-1 out of possessions. Whereas his 4-4-2 maintains its shape but drops into a lower block.

He would be familiar with the likes of Ronaldo and Raphael Varane, as well as finally being united with Paul Pogba, which was a move that seemed destined to happen. Zidane would be requesting plenty of funds to overhaul the squad, as the lack of a quality defensive midfielder and the lack of attacking depth at right-back will be the number one priority for the Frenchman should he take over the squad.

This is potentially how Manchester United could line up under Zidane. 

His preference for linking inside forwards who cut inside as opposed to wide strikers could see Mason Greenwood getting a significant amount of game-time. At this point the key weaknesses are Scott McTominay and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Neither would suit his desired role for that position. With the recent form that Harry Maguire is exhibiting, his place might also be in jeopardy too.  

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Is he the right choice?

Well, beggars can’t be choosers. Untied are enduring one of their lowest ebbs in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era and would take anyone with a bit of pedigree at this stage. 

In Zidane, there's a potentially available candidate who's demonstrated an ability to win trophies and who can galvanise a locker room. Perhaps the bigger question is whether the Glazer's could entice him to Manchester? 

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Ari Stamatakos

Ari Stamatakos is a high school student and aspiring writer who's passionate about the sports he loves. An Avid Carlton, Melbourne Victory and Chelsea Fan, he currently writes for Carlton fan page can check him out on twitter @Ari_Y_Stama

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