With European football being put on pause due to the global pandemic that is Covid-19, it’s meant that many people have found themselves getting sucked into watching previous eras of football that are available online. One of the end results has been that it’s sparked debate within circles of football twitter on whether certain players were better or worse than what their reputation suggests. Numerous names popped up during these discussions, but the one that caught my eye in particular was Zinedine Zidane.
I found Zidane to be a very interesting player to look back at given that my only experiences watching him are from the 2006 World Cup (my memories of that tournament are frankly quite fuzzy) and the random YouTube/Twitter compilations that pop up about him. Of course, it’s hard to be a football fan and not have heard the reputation surrounding Zidane, that he was an all-time great who could control tempo with the best of them while also blending in elite creativity. I wanted to see how much of Zidane’s reputation was actually legitimate, so I watched 30 domestic & international matches from the 1996–97 to the 1999-2000 season, courtesy of the awesome resource known as Footballia. That period of time chosen seems to coincide with what is generally believed to be the best stretch of his career, which makes sense given it’s covering his mid-late twenties.
What this post won’t be is an argument over the greatness of Zinedine Zidane’s career, and the total value he brought to the table. As fun as that would be, it would’ve involved watching considerably more film than even the 30 matches that were watched for this, and possessing event level data to further quantify his impact. Instead, one can think of this as more of a film study to understand his skillset and tendencies during his time with Juventus. That being said, there will be some discussion later on regarding the portability of Zidane’s skills onto other clubs during his era.
One of the things I was worried about with Zidane before watching him with the minimal knowledge I had beforehand, was that all the flicks and stepovers that we’ve seen in compilations over the years masked the fact that he was more on the conservative end as a passer, that he had such a high time of possession as the central hub that it led to him taking less chances than he should’ve. I was pleasantly surprised to find that wasn’t really the case with Zidane as a passer from the film that was watched. To be sure, he did have his moments of ball dominance eliminating potential passing options elsewhere, but I didn’t find it to be anything close to what I initially feared.
Arguably, his best passing came during instances of semi-transition in the middle third where he could progress play with short and incisive passes. Because of how comfortable he was using the outside of his foot as a passer, it opened up possibilities that wouldn’t be afforded to others on-ball. He also had very good touch on lead passes when teammates were making runs into open space.
I found the final third passing to be more of a mixed bag. Some of it was out of Zidane’s control and more a byproduct of the era he played in, as spacing around the box was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is currently. Also a problem, and perhaps the biggest one, was that he was tasked with so much of the creation duties that it became more of a volume over efficiency situation. It was almost as if even a Hollywood type of pass into the box was the best hope for the team to create offense (which I’m not sure was actually the case given the presence of Edgar Davids).
One thing that has held up well with the passage of time is Zidane’s overall touch and coordination on-ball, especially on the first couple of touches. He was able to control a variety of passes with often immaculate touch which helped him set up his next action. Whether he had multiple opponents draped all over him or found himself with some breathing space, This is probably the part of his game that is closest to his reputation
As a ball carrier, Zidane could combine different parts of his game quite well to individually get the ball up field. If possible, he would maneuver himself into open space without any immediate pressure on the first touch and carry the ball (also helping in these instances is that he would be in an open stance before receiving the pass). Zidane was quite resourceful during the initial couple of seconds upon receiving the ball to try and gain an edge, whether it be his own tricks or simply making a quick 1–2 combination with a nearby teammate. At its best, it was almost impossible to corral him short of committing fouls and there was indeed a certain amount of elegance when watching him at full flight.
However his ball carrying wasn’t flawless, despite it overall producing positive results, as there were moments where he would develop tunnel vision. This would lead to instances where he’d get himself into congested areas and turn the ball over in the opposition final third. There would also be times where he’d get into the final third and launch a shot when there were other options available. On that part, it’s fair to cut a considerable amount of slack from the standpoint that it wasn’t really until the 2010s that shot discipline became a thing that clubs prioritized.
Another strength to Zidane’s game was his recognition off-ball during different game situations. In deeper areas, he could get on the blindside of opponents and jog into open space to receive the ball and continue the transition. Further up the pitch, he had enough awareness during moments to drag his marker away from a particular area to open up a potential attacking move. As well, he had good instincts of timing late runs into the box for scoring chances. Because of a lack of top end speed, the one type of off-ball movement that was hard for him to execute was runs in behind the opposition defense. Defenders were able to get to passes aimed at him near the penalty box before he was able to receive and shoot.
In general, trying to figure out how much value attacking players bring defensively is not simple (one comparison that could be used would be the difficulties of analyzing point guard defense in the NBA), and Zidane is an example of that given the limited defensive role he had along with the offensive load he often had to carry. That said, there were some bright spots. He showed some awareness for blocking off passing lanes into the midfield and using angled pressing runs to force the opposition to go long with their passes. Every so often, he’d even put immediate back pressure on the ball carrier following a turnover. However, it’s still hard to argue against the idea that Zidane was a net negative on defense given he was effectively being carried on that end of the pitch with how Juventus & France were often structured, and his low motor made him a liability when defending deeper.
Zidane was an interesting case because there were some aspects to his game that one could argue would fit rather seamlessly in other environments during that era. His ability to create space for others and overall off-ball movement across the different zones of the pitch would’ve worked well around other high end talent. While this doesn’t bring the same immediate value as on-ball creation, it has a similar level of portability as you increase the surrounding talent. On a club with better attacking talent, Zidane’s off-ball work makes it a bit easier to slide him into a secondary role and still provide value. I do think that his ball carrying was inelastic, that it would be able to work at a similar efficiency either with him as the main guy or as a complimentary player at lower usage. As well, his passing in the middle third is the kind of connective tissue that helps teams go up another level.
However it’s fair to point out that because of Zidane’s limited defensive work, it would almost box you into having to construct a domestic side in a similar way to the setup Juventus had involving defensive minded midfielders in Didier Deschamps and Antonio Conte, along with a Swiss army knife CM like Davids. As the centerpiece, you don’t get nearly as much of those secondary benefits and is instead replaced with having a high usage as a creator. While making Zidane the focal point did allow him to float across the field in search of space to attack (particularly on the left side), tasking one player with having to be the creative engine isn’t the most efficient way to sustain a high level of play in the league and puts a ceiling on your offense unless the №10 is just miles ahead of everyone else talent wise, which I don’t think was the case here.
Perhaps having a 4–2–3–1 could’ve sufficed and that would’ve still provided enough defensive solidarity to get by, as was the case with France in Euro 2000. But the two behind Zidane would’ve had to have an incredible work rate to make that function, and midfielders of that caliber don’t exactly grow on trees when trying to build a high end club side. Another setup that involved three central midfielders which may have been plausible was the Christmas tree/diamond formation that AC Milan used to great success in the mid 2000’s, but one issue is that the setup worked in large part because of having a dynamic athletic attacker behind the striker like Ricardo Kaka. For all the good things that could be said about Zidane’s talents, he was nowhere near the same level of athlete as Kaka was during his peak.
In some ways, Zinedine Zidane’s legend and overall standing does hold up well under further inspection. His touch on the ball was sublime and when he was on his game, it was almost as if everything slowed down for him as he strolled through the middle of the park and dissected opponents. His defensive shortcomings combined with some skepticism of how he’d perform as a secondary playmaker does mean that he’s more likely to operate as a floor raiser who can ensure a solid but unspectacular baseline, rather than the kind of player that can take you from very good -> great during a league campaign as an additive talent. That might explain why it was easier for him to ramp up his play during international tournaments and have that translate well on a team level. I wouldn’t say that it would be impossible to build a quality domestic side while also getting the best out of Zidane, as Juventus were pretty close to solving that puzzle, but it was definitely not the easiest task to accomplish despite how captivating a talent he was.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mentioned Clarence Seedorf as an attacker behind the striker, which wasn’t his natural position.