Just over a month ago, Real Madrid, the richest club in the world, appointed a novice manager, taking up his first ever first-team job.
His name, as you may have heard, is Zinedine Zidane, and this Wednesday his new team faces AS Roma in the Champions League’s Round of 16, offering us all the first strong indication of what his appointment means for him and los blancos.
At the forefront of what we’ll find out is if Zidane is going to be too lightweight to manage at a really heavyweight club.
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Is the popular attacking approach he’s shown in his first month or so a substantial, Carlo-Ancelotti-esque, Champions League winning type of thing? Or is it more like what the similarly inexperienced Roberto Di Matteo once tried at Chelsea, whereby after being appointed manager we watched on as the first sturdy European fixture he encountered (against Atletico Madrid) saw his attacking ambitions exposed as mere naivety, and his team destroyed 4-1 in the European Super Cup?
The difference between the two interpretations of the one attack-based theme is nous, and this is essentially the trait that Zidane will demonstrate he has or does not have against Roma on Wednesday.
Attacking managers who have nous know when their teams should be restrained and when they should take risks, whereas attacking managers who don’t have nous don’t grasp those two things so well. If you’re the current Real Madrid manager, then the place we really get to investigate the absence or presence of nous is in the Champions League knockout fixtures—this is the arena where attacking talent alone will not usually cut it, which can’t always be said for regularly mismatched Spanish La Liga games, the likes of which Zidane has faced exclusively so far.
It should be intriguing to watch. And what’s more it should be intriguing to watch in a way that is quite new, and quite specific to ultra-modern football.
You see, in the old days—like the mid-2000s—we wouldn’t be waiting around to find out if a new Real Madrid manager had something as important as nous or not; we’d simply know it already, because whomever it was had obviously got a decent enough track record to have risen to the role of Real Madrid manager. But circumstances are all of a sudden different and in this sense Zidane’s appointment actually reflects slightly perverse, ultra-modern footballing times.
Zidane-like unknown quantities have started to appear in big jobs because, collectively, European super clubs have become a little weird in their decision-making. They’ve become so utterly risk-averse that they have, conversely, started taking ultra-risky, risk-averse decisions. And now I’ll explain what that bizarre sentence means.
Super clubs such as Real have become risk-averse to an extent that they now look to employ from an increasingly small pool of elite, usually European Cup winning managers. We all know this. It’s all well and good. But when they run out of those managers (usually because they’ve sacked them all already) where do they look next? The answer is that they have begun to look to the opposite kind of known quantity, in the form of former club playing legends such as Zidane.
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Starting with the glorious success of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, these legendary ex-player managers have very little experience of top level management—often they will only have been an assistant or B-team coach, occasionally they will have managed a smaller club with only reasonable results. And yet they’re hired because these super clubs are seemingly too cautious to hire outside of their own ranks, if they can’t get their hands on an unattached European Cup winner. They only trust their people.
For details, see, Zidane, Di Matteo at Chelsea, Luis Enrique at Barcelona, Ryan Giggs linked with the Manchester United job, and even Steve Bould mentioned as a possible future Arsenal manager. There are obviously equivalent examples available from the past, but the trend is surely stronger now than ever before and that makes for a very odd scenario—one that’s both utterly logical and utterly counter-intuitive at the same time.
Fear of risk has turned into a tendency to hire novices more regularly than ever before, and we’ve ended up with Zidane going into his first European game as a manager and us all unaware if he has any nous or not.
Perhaps all that’s certain at Real Madrid right now is that the fans are happier to have the known unknown that is Zidane than they ever were to have the known known that was Rafa Benitez and his complete absence of anything but nous; his weekly sermons in how to create utterly tedious football. However twisted the logic behind it, surely it’s better to be left wondering what will happen next than to know for sure you won’t like it, right?
Enter Roma. Enter Zidane’s Real Madrid.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter