It's an almost impossible question, let's be honest. On paper, the similarities are as striking as they are impressive and, largely, unrivaled: World Cup winners - both netting the goal (in Zidane's case, the goals) that ended both France and Spain's respective 68 and 80 year longing for the trophy; Champions League winners, eight league titles (and counting) between them, a combined total of ...they are two footballers who have won, and done, it all.
Physically, the pair are world's apart; Iniesta - small and dinky; Zidane - tall and strong. However, something that is perhaps unsurprising, is that both players, with ball at feet, share the identical qualities which enable them to escape opposition, dictate attacking play and create chances; skills which put them a level above every like-minded player who came before them.
Zidane and Iniesta are a mirror image in the way they control the ball, touching it no more than a foot with every venture forward, maintaining close control whilst using themselves to shield the ball from the opposition. That might seem par for the course for any professional footballer, but in reality it is a style of play that requires an inordinant amount of skill. Take Steven Gerrard, for example. A terrific attacking midfielder for more than a decade, but an entirely different player with ball at feet to both 'The Magician' and Zizu. Gerrard beats opposition players by running at them with pace, opting to knock the ball two or three feet in the dribble knowing that in full-flight his speed and shoulder strength will see him past whoever he's up against. Zidane and Iniesta, rather than driving off with the ball before their opponent's came for the tackle, welcome a challenge. Both take the ball to feet and lure the defender/midfielder in, turn them inside out, and leave them with dust in their eyes as their goalkeeper invariably picks the ball out of the net.
In Iniesta's case, he beats the player with skill and close control across both feet, using his low centre of gravity to turn, twist and wriggle away from the defender. Taking on two players, imagine two lurchers running at a hare from each side. As they close in, the hare dinks down between them, crouching close to the grass as he sneaks under their gaping mouths, pushes off with the right leg and speeds off. This scene from Snatch, if I'm honest. That's Iniesta controlling a midfield.
How is that him "controlling a midfield"? Well, simply put, the Barca number eight has left at least one player for dead - he's now got space to run into. If that space is on the left-hand side of the park, where he often operates for Barca, then you're looking at Iniesta having just bypassed the right back/right-midfield/centre-half/both or all three, and is on the edge of the box. He's taken the ball from the midfield to the danger zone and, having created space, with the head-up he'll then look for that patented 'killer ball' for Messi, Pedro, Villa, Sanchez etc.
Zidane was the same type of player but, being more of a physical presence, used his body power explosively to beat players, rather than taking quicker, shorter steps with the ball, the benefits Iniesta makes the most of by having such a low centre of gravity. Before the 2012 Ballon D'Or runner-up, the three time FIFA World Player of the Year and one-time Ballon D'Or winner was the unrivalled master of utilising phenomenal, double-footed close control to invite in and escape the opposition midfield. Where Iniesta would squeeze through, Zidane would muscle through, power through, drill through, yet still skillfully. Zidane, in a team of considerable quality whether as part of France's 1998, 2000 dream squad or the Galacticos at Madrid (Figo, Ronaldo, Hierro, Raul...), would be pressed like no-one else in midfield. Yet, he was still the creative force in the centre of the park for each of these world-beating outfits. Why? Because, like Iniesta, he'd eliminate opposition whilst in possession of the ball. He'd again lure them in, the rival two central midfielder's more often than not, and then bully his way between them and away. Bully not in a dogged way, but bully by having the strength across his six foot plus frame to hold off players while dancing through them with the ball glued to his feet. Where for Iniesta it's then head-up and find the pass, for Zizu it was head-up and go, drive.
Is this style of midfield play (deliberate close control, asking defenders to come and take the ball from you so that you can beat them) the reason that Iniesta and Zidane are on their own plateau (above even the likes of Xavi, Scholes, etc) when it comes to the best attacking midfielders of all time? I'd say so. The football Zizu and Iniesta play carves teams open and creates space and ultimately chances/goals. Xavi and Scholes do this by passing the ball, but - and don't hound me for saying this! - that requires as much movement and awareness from the forward players as it does an outstanding range of passing from the midfielder. Zidane and Iniesta, by themselves, are game-changers. There can be no question of that. Rested a few players and the team's struggling? "Right ZZ/Andres, you're up." Bring 'em on and they'll find that space between the lines, between the midfield and the defence, and they will bring you goals. The pair beat players the same as Messi, Ronaldo, Giggs, Henry, Overmars, do and have. The only difference? These two are midfielders.
So who's better between the two of them? They play the same football, with the single alternating factor between the two being how they beat players, catalysed only by their physical differences. So does that give Zidane the edge? The argument that with a tall frame the Juventus and Madrid icon is having to do more than Iniesta, in that as well as having mastered a spell over the ball that keeps it inches from his feet in the dribble, he also has to battle physically to power through defenders? Does Iniesta's diminutive frame offer him a kind of pinball effect when it comes to bouncing through the opposition, his low sense of gravity keeping him steady as he ghosts past defenders? I would maybe say yes to that. Bring the argument down to one thing then: who would you want in your team?
Well, that too is impossible - what team are we talking about here? Barca? Madrid Galacticos? Spain? France? Both players offer an outball which you can all but guarantee will create space and chances. So what about we say it's any of the four teams listed above, and it's - much like this blog post! - in the 92nd minute, and the team is 1-0 down needing a point. Who would you rather have?
God, this pains me to say it because I love watching Iniesta dazzle week-in-week-out, but I'd maybe just say Zidane.
If Barca's style of play is getting nowhere (v Chelsea, Champions League 2012, v Celtic, Champions League 2013), can Iniesta single-handedly get you that last minute equaliser? He can beat a player, but can he himself breakdown an 11-man wall? I just don't think so. However, imagine Zizu picks up the ball in the opposition half. He could waltz past the midfield, find a ball wide, storm into the box and nod home. He could do that. Could Iniesta? It really does pain me to say it, but no. However, he might just have to - Zidane could already have been sent off....