A traditional and unfashionable defence-first style has reaped rewards for the La Liga champions going into their belated Champions League reunion with Manchester City

 A long, long time ago Manchester City beat Real Madrid 2-1 in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie. It was a strange game, in that while it was widely regarded as having been a tactical triumph for Pep Guardiola, evidence he could temper his philosophy, there was also a lingering sense that Madrid were there for the taking and that City playing their usual game might have had the tie won there and then.

Still, there seemed little doubt City would advance. But then Covid-19 intervened and on Friday, 163 days later, City find themselves facing a very different Madrid, albeit one without the suspended Sergio Ramos. It would be a glum irony if Guardiola, having finally tweaked his approach, ends up being eliminated in part as a result of a rare but apparently successful dabble with pragmatism.

Just as with Guardiola it’s always in one way or another about philosophy, so with Zinedine Zidane, it’s always about its absence. The tendency, perhaps, is to underestimate Zidane as a coach, despite his three Champions Leagues and two La Liga titles.

Over the past decade or so we have become used to coaches as proponents of an ideology. There’s Pep, with his juego de posición, all angles and sanctimony. There’s Jürgen with his gegenpressing, his booming laugh and terrifying energy. Here comes José, the prince of darkness, glowering and snarling and trying to remember how to disguise his malevolence with charm. There, in the black, Diego “Cholo” Simeone, practising the ancient arts of anti-fútbol as taught to him as a child on a dusty field in La Plata by the old man for whom they invented the term. And look, over in the corner of the Costa, there’s the most implausibly charismatic man ever to have worn a baggy tracksuit, Marcelo Bielsa, with his numbers and diagrams and frequently self-defeating idealism.

Zidane apparently has no defined philosophy. He has left no mark on the tactical evolution of the game. He is flexible – and wins

Zidane is none of those things. He apparently has no defined philosophy. He is flexible – and he wins. There is no sense he is pushing against the limits of football’s possibilities. He has left no mark on the tactical evolution of the game. He was dismissed at first in Spain as a clappy-hand manager, somebody who kept the dressing room happy and occasionally gave some mild encouragement from the bench. Yet, for all it has felt that he has occasionally been fortunate, that his timing has been propitious, that he has been working with the most expensively assembled squads in the history of the game, it is an inadequate way of explaining his success. Continue reading

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