How Zinedine Zidane has transformed Real Madrid in just six months
If you're trying to make sense of Zinedine Zidane's catalytic effect on Real Madrid since taking over, it's useful to bring Sir Alex Ferguson's most famous utterance about Marcello Lippi into play.
In the late 1990s, United were on a roll, English football had bent its knee more or less but Europe was thornier than a bunch of thistles down your underpants. Juventus, in particular. Prior to United winning the Treble in 1999, they'd lost three out of four contests with Lippi's Italian champions.
Then the Leonine one left, for Inter, and Carlo Ancelotti took over. In the 1999 semifinal, Juve came to Old Trafford and ran the game but a late equaliser from Ryan Giggs kept Fergie's team in it. Yet in Turin, United were sucker-punched twice, in the blink of an eye, by Pippo Inzaghi and trailed 3-1 against a Euro Rolls Royce side... with the away goal against them, too.
Months later, when he released his autobiography, Fergie admitted that on this torrid night in Turin, he looked toward the Juventus bench and was happy to find "only" Ancelotti there, and not "that handsome bastard," Lippi. The Scot added: "It was a godsend Lippi wasn't in the Juve dugout."
United fought back and won that incredible tie. (It's nothing but coincidence that in this anecdote, Zizou was playing for La Vecchia Signora that night.) The trouble is that Fergie's perception, while powerful to him at the time, seems like nonsense now. Lippi may be taller than wee Ancelotti, imperious, physically intimidating and stone-faced. I can also testify that close up, he possess a special "aura."
Those things are true and not insignificant, but Ancelotti's club management record is significantly superior: league titles in different European countries, world titles and three Champions Leagues, two more than Lippi and one more than Ferguson. The more dangerous opponent.
It's an anecdote to underline the massive power of perception and image, intangible matters that can misguide the mind.
There are people in football, just like in the broader sporting world and our own daily lives, whose presence, bearing, looks, image and aura can combine to make them seem chosen. Invincible. More than the rest of us.
Zinedine Yazid Zidane is one of them.
Until you're near him, I think it's easy to miss what an imposing physical specimen he is. Tall and broad-shouldered, but without a pick of fat on him: that's a powerful image to project. His gaze is not quite predatory, but it's not far off. If you get caught in the beam of his headlights, there's a relentless steeliness driving those green eyes and a self-contained possession that can unnerve or inspire.
Because he's maintained the body mass index of a javelin, his face is chiseled and, no, I'm not using this as a dating column. If you saw that face, those features staring back at you on Mount Rushmore they wouldn't look out of place. Truthfully, though, when he's cynical or amused or plain old happy, there's a mischief and a twinkle in his countenance, a trait he shares with Andres Iniesta. Both of them seem to have some internal private joke going on a lot of the time, distance enough to ward off the insanity of the modern football.
Some guys can handle a shaved head and look as if it's a choice and not an imposition: the Real Madrid manager is one. The point is clear, I hope, that it'd be simple to believe that what's happened at Real Madrid is a cocktail effect of his epic success and the fact that Zizou is built for Hollywood or the cat walk.
A club legend takes over and, hey presto, the players are standing on the dressing room benches and shouting "Captain, my Captain." He's a world champion. He won La Novena for Madrid at Hampden. There was a time when he was the Odin of World Football and to boot, he's a powerful, tall, wealthy, talented, handsome, lean man. But let me tell you that if that is what you think has happened at Madrid, then you're wrong.
Those factors do play a part; football can be in thrall to image, self-possession, physical attractiveness, previous achievements and celebrity. But these traits influence how a rival, not a boss, is viewed. Rivals you see irregularly. They rest on your consciousness if they tend to beat you, and the last thing the human mind actually wants to do is to look inwardly and blame itself. Instead of questioning, "What did I do wrong?" there's an irresistible temptation to say, "If that guy keeps beating me, he must be superhuman."
The relationship between a coach and his players is entirely different. If a new manager comes in, having been a legendary player, that status will buy him not a season or a few months ... probably not even a couple of weeks. In the best case his status might buy several days of grace and favour. A mini honeymoon. Normally it'll be two or three training sessions and the first-team selection.
What Zidane has achieved, nearly six months since taking over, states that whether he's a tactical maestro or not, he's coached and man-managed in a manner that has convinced almost every single one of his senior squad. That's a massive achievement. From day one until now, there's been a happier, more intense, harder working, more committed and more unified atmosphere at Los Blancos' Valdebebas training ground.
The fact that Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema have queued up to testify how wonderful it is to have him managing them is less relevant than the testimony of your own eyes. Judge the truth of their statements by looking at the increased work rate, confidence and "bounce-back-ability" Madrid have shown since he took over. I'd argue that in the normal starting XI, there has been a sliding scale of improvement for every player, with the possible exception of Keylor Navas who was already Madrid's best performer.
Among the back-up players, the effect is more startling. Energy, commitment, ambition, determination and readiness all ooze from the bench men, with the possible exception (so far!) of James Rodriguez.
The next phase of our assessment will be whether he's a canny reader of opponents and games, both in the build-up to matches and, more importantly, during them. But he seems to believe that his ability to handle the leadership of a group of footballers began long ago. Whatever he's achieved thus far, catalysing lesser talents and inspiring leadership isn't his most testing feat.
"I was always the leader of the game," he has pointed out since taking over at the Bernabeu. "It was something I loved, organising everything, influencing the game. Off the pitch I'm naturally reserved and in certain situations I can be pretty quiet.
"When I considered coaching, I was really looking forward to starting from zero. I knew that being a good player wouldn't necessarily mean I'd be a good coach. Obviously it should help a bit, but it's important to approach the whole thing with a bit of humility and just get on with it.
"You can't be a player's buddy all the time. If you want him to give you a hundred percent, you need to challenge him a bit, even manipulate him. It's all about knowing when to use the carrot and the stick, when to reward and when to threaten.
"I don't particularly like the word 'manipulate' but a coach has to get the best out of his players. At the end of the day chumminess doesn't work. You can't be your players' buddy: you need to be prepared to give them a fright from time to time."
If you startle them all the way to the Champions final, you must be one scary dude.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.