At the climax of the hypnotic film made about Zinedine Zidane in 2005, which followed him, and him alone, through the course of a Real Madrid league match at the Bernabeu stadium, a quotation appears on the bottom of the screen. It comes from Zidane and it says: "Magic is sometimes close to nothing at all."
The film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, charts the great Zizou’s languid movements over 90 minutes against Villarreal, until his red card in the final seconds. At that moment Raul, his captain, points to Zidane and urges the crowd to respond with what Zidane has called earlier: “The sound of noise.” We have moved from football to art-house. Sometimes you can get lost in this.
But then you think about nothing and magic and in football there is something to it. How many times have we said that so-and-so produced something out of nothing? Zidane himself did it so many times with those vite feet.
In management, however, it is different. There ‘nothing’ or ‘nothingness’ tends to mean absence or loss. It is not about a lack of action, more often a lack of personnel. How a coach reacts to what isn’t there or what is missing can demonstrate or stretch the limits of their abilities.
At Anfield on Wednesday there was a focus, understandably, on the absence of a crowd and its proven effectiveness in shaping the outcome of matches in Liverpool's favour. But as he wrote down his starting XI, Zidane will have felt more the absence of his two first-choice centre halves, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane. How Madrid would cope again with such loss would help shape how we perceive Zidane.
Real coped well. They were under pressure, of course. But Zidane pulled together a defence and a formation composed of deep white lines that got by, and it revealed what Liverpool had failed to do without their first-choice centre halves the previous week in Madrid.
Then Virgil van Dijk’s absence remained an ongoing presence; now Ramos and Varane were covered by Eder Militao and Nacho. Both stand-ins were stress-tested but they came through. With Casemiro formidable in front and Luka Modric always there with his release valve, allied to some hasty Liverpool finishing, Real made the last four. Chelsea next.
Opinion flowed. It was said immediately that Liverpool had lost this quarter-final, rather than Real Madrid had won it. Zidane may have scratched his head. He has not suffered from an absence of credit in his life – having 17 cameras track your every move in a run-of-the-mill La Liga game is an example of adoration – but when it comes to his coaching, and he has been managing at Real Madrid for five years over two spells, with two years with the reserves before that, this interpretation of Wednesday was typical of a respect deficit.
If the film was the portrait of an artist, in 2021 we have a portrait of a busker. It cannot be correct.
Yet plenty feel unsure who to credit at Real. The boardroom? The dressingroom? The training ground? As recently as Monday, Sid Lowe wrote in The Guardian of Zidane: “There’s something magic about him, something difficult to explain – although saying that risks doing him a disservice, too often handing results to divine intervention and not his.”
Had Diego Simeone or Jose Mourinho, for example, organised Real's hold-out, there would have no difficulty with explanation. We would have rushed to salute tactical nous. A chunk of it would have been grudging but it would have been there. It might have been mentioned Eden Hazard was also absent or that Gareth Bale was watching on TV (unless at the range), never mind that the whole club is operating in a post-Ronaldo time.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals – and there were 451 of them in 438 appearances – meant Real were losing a genuine historic phenomenon when he left almost three years ago for Juventus. Ronaldo was more than another player in another team.
The hope/plan of Madrid president Florentino Perez was that Bale would act as replacement both on and off the pitch. After all, and against Liverpool in particular, Bale had previous when it came to magic from nothing at all.
But Bale, detached, disappointed and departed – in that order – and Zidane was the one who had to deal with it. It was and is a political and human situation as well as sporting. Nor did it entail a minor squad player; here was a major dressingroom figure on a multi-million contract with commercial obligations and repercussions.
There are many luxuries available at Real Madrid but one of them is not for the coach to concentrate exclusively on the team's formation. At the Bernabeu you manage upwards, downwards, sideways and probably in other directions we don't know about. Zidane is front-of-house in a way coaches are not expected to be at other clubs, some of them in the Champions League.
“My job was to keep people calm,” he said of his first spell in charge, which underestimates the task at a hyper club and the qualities required to execute it successfully. You can imagine he was pretty calm, too, when Real’s bus window was smashed in on the way to Anfield. Calm, but also cross. Did they think this was Accrington Stanley turning up? It was Real Madrid. Managed by Zinedine Zidane.
Real endured, yet his managerial reputation remains uncertain. It’s not nothing at all, but it’s definitely not magic either. It is only three months since Real lost at home to Levante to sit seven points behind Atletico in La Liga having played two games more. Then it seemed Zidane’s time at the club might peter out, which borders on incredible given what he meant as a player and the trophies won as manager.
Now the gap in La Liga is down to one point, Atletico’s games in hand have vanished and there’s a chance he might win a fourth Champions League as manager.
A fourth Champions League: surely that would convince doubters that Zidane has some idea about what his team produces. For that to happen, though, his team must overcome first Thomas Tuchel’s at Chelsea, then either Pep Guardiola’s at Manchester City or Mauricio Pochettino’s at PSG. Coaching comparisons loom.
There has been a stirring of personal recognition for Zidane since the first leg against Liverpool, then victory over Barcelona last Saturday. Still, there is doubt if he will see out his contract to 2022. It is startling that it can be so fragile. But it is. Like magic, or nothing at all.