Zinedine Zidane’s Manchester United: A Tactical Review


Zinedine Zidane has been heavily linked with a summer move to Manchester United to replace caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and bring back glory to the historic club. 

It comes as no surprise that his name has been mentioned so frequently in connection with the club – few managers have been as successful in such a short period of time. During his time at Real Madrid, the Frenchman averaged a trophy every 97 days. The most significant of these were his three consecutive Champions League victories. An absurdly difficult feat made even more impressive considering he won them in his first three years of top tier management. These accolades don’t even include his achievements as a player. A player who won the World Cup, the European Championship, the Champions League, and, in 1998, the Ballon d’Or.  

Sacchi and Ancelotti

Sacchi and Ancelotti

Zidane hails from the Arrigo Sacchi tree of management. Sacchi’s Milan team of the early 90’s revolutionized Italian football, winning multiple titles and accolades along the way. Milan played attacking, control based football that was rooted in a 4-4-2 system - often morphing into variations on the 4-5-1 and the 4-3-3. His style of play was adapted by his most prominent disciple, Carlo Ancelotti, who played for Sacchi before going on to manage such teams as Juventus, Milan, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, and, of course, Real Madrid. While Ancelotti managed Real Madrid, Zidane served as his assistant manager - learning how to manage a world renowned club both on and off the pitch.

Style of Play 

Taking after Sacchi and Ancelotti, Zidane’s teams aim to control the possession and impose their will. Whether this means pressing or countering, they remain able to base their formation on their own proactive actions as opposed to reacting to what the other set of jerseys decides to do with the ball.  

His control based play mirrors the effect Zidane would have in the Manchester United dressing room. With his resume both on and off the pitch, Zidane would be immediately respected by all of the players. He showed his ability to command his players without revolt at Real Madrid. In Spain, he had, Ramos, Marcelo, Isco, Kroos, Bale and Ronaldo to look after. At Manchester United, the egos of Martial, Fellaini, Shaw, Lukaku, and Pogba would be checked by the presence of Zinedine Zidane. His nationality and reputation would ensure that the players who grew up dreaming of having half his capability on the field will heed his advice. 




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The dominant formation used by Zidane during his time in Madrid, the 4-3-3 allows his team to control possession through the midfield while continuing to dominate the wings. The midfield triangle with two creative midfielders and one defensive midfielder (Casemiro – who pressed progressively further up the pitch under Zidane) allowed Madrid to set the pace of the match. The full backs, Carvajal and Marcelo, frequently pushed further forward in the 4-3-3. This created a sort of 2-3-2-3 that allowed Carvajal and Marcelo to deliver crosses and passes into the box to the front trio of Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo. Such a clinical strike force assisted by the skillful full backs was lethal in La Liga and helped the team brush aside lower opponents in the earlier rounds of European competition.

Set in this formation, Zidane’s teams resemble the resurgent trend of “total football.” His team dominates possession, plays a higher line of defense, and requires skill and technicality from every position in order to contribute to the maximum end product.

United would require increased production from Luke Shaw and the full emergence of Diogo Dalot in order to execute the difficult job of Zidane’s fullbacks at Madrid. At Manchester United, however, a front three of Rashford, Martial, and Lukaku/Lingaard could finally produce the mouth-watering results that United fans have been eager to see for the past 18 months. 


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Whereas the 4-3-3 was Zidane’s neutral gear for his Madrid squad, the 4-5-1 was his answer to quick, high pressing teams that he faced in the later stages of the Champions League. This formation saw Ronaldo move to the striker position with Asensio and Vasquez being brought into the team on the wing. The midfield trio were required to push further up the field to support Ronaldo – a tactic that worked successfully to break the lines of high pressing teams before sending the ball out to the wingers who would drop into central positions alongside Ronaldo. 

United could certainly recreate this 4-5-1, however, the tactic would only serve them in specific occasions against the top 6 of the premier league and champions league sides (which means they will have to wait a while to use this formation). 

4-4-2 (Diamond)

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Zidane experimented with the 4-4-2 as his own counter to the ever present 4-4-2 of other teams tha his Madrid side faced with increased regularity in his last two seasons as their manager. The diamond midfield that included Isco as an attacking midfielder required the Spanish international to press higher and break the opposition’s press. By finding space between the lines, Isco frequently served to connect the base of Madrid’s midfield with the two strikers, Ronaldo and Benzema. The strikers frequently played off of one another with Ronaldo dropping deeper to pick up the ball and work his magic. 

United would need to bolster their midfield with another creative option to pull off the critical diamond. Pogba would thrive in such a position, however, this would require a backup to fill the role of adequately connecting the defense to the midfield. A player such as Wilfried Ndidi could fill this gap and provide the service needed to get the creative players the ball. 

Players to bring in

Mathijs De Ligt

Yes, Manchester United should join the hunt for the Mathijs De Ligt sweepstakes. The teenager is tearing it up at Ajax and was recently awarded the World Golden Boy award. His victory marked the first time that a defender has ever won the award. His tackling is sublime, he is quick off of the ball, and he has the necessary ability to place his passes and keep a cool head under pressure. There is no secret that Manchester United have problems in defense and signing De Ligt would be one hell of a way to solve those issues.

The difficulty, however, in signing the player comes with the fact that he has been linked with a move to almost every top club in Europe. Manchester City, Juventus, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich have all been linked with the Dutch youngster. If Man Utd were unable to secure his services - the best alternative would be Kalidou Koulibaly. Ed Woodward has stated his interest in the player in recent weeks and the Napoli center back has all of the tools to become a dominant premier league defender.

Frenkie De Jong

Another Ajax starlet, Frenkie De Jong would be a more than adequate addition to United’s midfield. The player is a modern sweeper who likes to make quick passes between the lines to link the forwards with the defense. Defensively, he is also very capable, making him a nuisance for opposing teams. Signing a player of De Jong’s mold would be beneficial to the other players in United’s midfield, specifically Paul Pogba.

De Jong’s ability to drop back and spread the ball across the field would allow Pogba to push forward and be as creative as he wants to be. In a sense, De Jong would be doing the part of Pogba’s job that Mourinho demanded of him. Linking the Ajax midfielder with the French World Cup winner would create a lovely midfield pair that would be complemented nicely by some clinical forwards to receive their service.

Paulo Dybala

Signing a dominant, quick, young winger for the right hand side who can also play centrally would solve a lot of United’s woes. For one, they would no longer have to rely on Lukaku whose form has dipped significantly from last season. Dybala has experience in the center forward role, dropping deep to receive the ball and play in the on-rushing wingers. Imagine his build up play with Rashford and Martial beside him. Also, if Zidane did choose to stick with Lukaku, Dybala would be a clinical option on the flank whose creativity would be a brilliant edition to United’s often stale attack.

The Argentinian’s signature would cost a fortune, however he has been frequently linked with a move away from Turin. So, do not be surprised to see United’s name linked with a move for Paulo Dybala.

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Thank you for reading this latest Tactical Review. Feel free to comment on the article or respond to me @thespecial1pod on twitter.