David Preece is a writer, footballer and coach for Lincoln City F.C.
True genius cannot be taught. It’s woven into the fabric of those beings blessed with it from birth, and by pairing it with a dedication bordering on obsession, greatness is created. This is how Zinedine Zidane, the footballer, became “Zizou”, the best player of his generation.
Now, with the ZZ emblazoned on his chest, as if it were preordained by God’s own marketing team, Zidane has the chance to succeed where so many of his ilk have failed, taking the messianic talents he possessed on the pitch and breathing it into a squad of players in awe of his achievements. When he stands in the dressing room for the first time since his appointment, he will stand there as more than just the new head coach; he stands there as the head coach with the figure of Zidane the legend looming large behind him as back-up.
What Zidane will find however, is that this aura will soon fade away and they will see him as they would any other manager. Those players will begin asking questions of him, rather than accepting his word as gospel. Selfishly they will be asking “Can he make me a better player?”, “Will he help me succeed?” and ultimately, once the dust has settled, they’ll be asking the same question as everyone else: “Is he as good a manager as he was a player?”.
If he is to succeed - and for his own sanity - he has to separate his own relationship with himself as a player. Not doing so will only lead to feelings of personal disappointment, as much as he would feel in any player under him who doesn’t meet his own standards.
Zidane’s feet can no longer do the talking for him and his personality away from the pitch could be his biggest hurdle in succeeding in the dugout.
Glenn Hoddle is held as the example of how cultured creative players struggle as managers because they can’t come to terms with the inability of those under their guidance to deliver the standards they set themselves - or that is how it’s perceived by the players playing under them. Michael Laudrup and Ruud Gullit have both also been said to suffer from the same frustration of their players inability to replicate exactly what is asked of them, leading to a resentment on both sides and cracks permeating player and manager relationships.
Whereas during his playing career Zizou was able to pull teams through with his own physical ability, the world of coaching and management requires something more than instinctive flashes of brilliance. That one-touch control and Cruyff turn from Barthez’s throw-out was the culmination of years of perfect practice, the precise development of muscle memory and instinct. Here, he stands, less than three years into a coaching career, at the helm of arguably the greatest club in the history European football and rather than doing, he’s saying.
It’s telling that Zidane didn’t initially see himself as a coach, rather it was a desire born out of an absence of football in his life, a void that needed filling. This is where the worry creeps in and doubts could easily begin to form in the minds of the fans. As a player he could rely on his own talents, his own intuition inside of the pitch. Looking on from the sidelines, there is time to think but this where some struggle. As players, their home is in the eye of the hurricane, choices are limited and even for the likes of Zidane with his apparent ability to slow down time, they rely on these thoughts and actions to come naturally.
Zidane’s feet can no longer do the talking for him and his personality away from the pitch could yet be his biggest hurdle to overcome in succeeding in the dugout. He has been in control of what he allows the public and the media to see of him but now he will have to lay himself bare to everyone. To the players, to the press, to his bosses. The flaw in his genius has shown itself in sporadic moments when his mask of ice cool composure has slipped: lest we forget his infamous head-butt?
The difference between Guardiola and Zidane is clear though; Pep was a student of the game, a deeper lying player, whose future as a coach was never in doubt
With Zidane’s appointment as the coach of Madrid’s second team Castilla, the wheels had already been set in motion for him to one day become their head coach, and Rafa Benitez’s appointment was meant to give a steadying influence over the club whilst their own Guardiola was allowed to blossom until he was ready. The difference between Guardiola and Zidane is clear though; Pep was a student of the game, a deeper lying player, whose future as a coach was never in doubt, and drawing similarities in them both being fast-tracked would be to overlook the head start Guardiola gave himself throughout his playing career.
Perhaps it’s his role as a number 10 that leads those doubting him. We tend to think that it’s those who have had to work at their games, who have had to look for improvement in themselves and the game as a whole who will be the ones who move more naturally into management. It’s the same logic detractors could use to convince themselves that Gary Neville would make a fantastic coach and Zidane would be a failure but the evidence, especially in our own game, shows this to be true.
Of the twenty current managers in the Premier League, only Stoke City’s Mark Hughes and Swansea’s caretaker boss, Alan Curtis, were attacking players before embarking on their coaching careers. If there is a truism in football it’s more likely that a defender can attack but forwards can’t defend. You’ll always get exceptions but in the main it seems defenders and midfielders have a monopoly on management.
Neville may have had his own doubters in Valencia, but in his home country there was nothing but sage nods of agreement as if success was a given. Compare that reaction to the contrasting thoughts of the many immediately dismissing one of the greatest players ever to have grace a football pitch, despite his vast knowledge and understanding of the Spanish game, without the risk of a cultural seizure or the need for 6am lessons in Spanish.
Crucially though, the club that Zidane will now herald is Real Madrid. And that’s definitely in his favour. This isn’t Spurs, Swansea or Newcastle United. The players at his disposal are Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema. Players who are capable of producing similar feats to his own and if they need someone to understand them and bring the best out of them, perhaps they need someone like Zinedine Zidane.
David Preece is a writer, footballer and coach for Lincoln City F.C, follow him on Twitter: @DavidPreece