It’s mid-October, and in the ninth match of the 2019-20 La Liga season, Real Madrid suffer a 1-0 defeat at lowly Mallorca, who start the day in the relegation zone.
Los Blancos are second in the league standings after the game, but the mood is not positive among the Madridistas. Star summer signing Eden Hazard is not performing well, established stars like Luka Modric appear past their prime, and the absence of a superstar like Cristiano Ronaldo is palpable.
Real Madrid have finished 17 and 19 points behind league winners Barcelona in the previous two campaigns, respectively, and after that Mallorca defeat, another season of domestic obscurity looked inevitable. A few weeks prior, Real Madrid had also suffered a humiliating 3-0 loss to Paris Saint-Germain, suggesting Zinedine Zidane’s decision to return to the Bernabeu as manager was a mistake.
What a difference a few months can make.
Since that night in Mallorca, Zidane’s side have gone on a 21-game unbeaten streak. To quote BeIN Sports commentator Ray Hudson during the most recent match broadcast, “Real Madrid haven't lost since Noah was finishing his ark.”
They now sit atop La Liga by three points, with a Copa del Rey quarterfinal and a Champions League round of 16 tie on the horizon.
Players who previously seemed like spent forces have been rejuvenated, while some of the less eminent names on the team sheet have been shining brighter than the Galacticos who wore their numbers in years past.
And Zidane has proven that he deserves way more credit as a tactician than he typically gets.
This progress from underachievers to world-beaters was made abundantly clear in Saturday’s victory over city rivals Atletico Madrid, which marked Los Blancos’ eighth consecutive win and third consecutive clean sheet.
Against a team notoriously difficult to break down, Real looked well-drilled and disciplined. More importantly, they looked hungry. They fought for every ball, and their work rate was impressive. The fact that stalwart center back Sergio Ramos was able to find his way into shooting positions on several occasions encapsulated the intangible sense that they wanted it more.
The star player on the field was the man who is vindicating the decision not to bring Paul Pogba to the Bernabeu with every passing minute: Fede Valverde.
The Uruguayan — who has already earned favor among fans for the tactical foul that led to victory in the Super Cup a few weeks ago — covered an extraordinary amount of ground and appeared to gain possession of every 50/50 loose ball. At 21 years old, the academy product already plays like a Bernabeu veteran.
Meanwhile, Ferland Mendy, signed from Lyon for $53 million in the summer, is proving that he is definitely the best French left back with his surname in world soccer (sorry, Benjamin). The 24-year-old’s predilection to bomb forward suggests that the blow of Marcelo’s eventual exit will be softer than anticipated.
Not only does Zidane deserve credit for bringing the best out of these players, but it’s high time we praised him for his tactical nous. It’s often assumed the Frenchman inspired his team to three Champions League titles sheerly through the aura of his greatness, but his ability to make bold changes mid-game was evident against Atleti.
When it became apparent that his 4-2-3-1 wasn’t working, Zidane started the second half with a 4-3-3, having replaced Isco and Toni Kroos with Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius Jr. On paper, that sounds like an underwhelming exchange of talent, but the decision to bring on two wingers completely changed the game and its outcome.
A mentality of adaptability served Zidane well during his playing days, when he needed to adjust his position and defensive culpability per the scoreline. On Saturday, the contrast between him and Diego Simeone was stark: One manager is getting the very best out of his resources, while the other appears to be sharply fading in his ability to motivate his side.
The notoriously fickle Real Madrid fan base isn’t easy to please, and it must be noted that there remains some disquiet in the stands. Many believe that his approach has become too conservative, that overloading his side with midfielders belies the aggressive style that Madridistas demand.
In the same way that Manchester United’s mantra of “Attack! Attack! Attack!” is no longer being followed, some feel Zidane’s defensive approach is sacrificing expected levels of entertainment.
But this stance ignores the importance of defense. Real have only scored 40 goals (12 less than Barcelona and 20 less than Liverpool this term), but they have conceded a paltry 13 goals in league play. No other team in Europe’s top five leagues has conceded so few, and it’s the fewest goals conceded by any Real Madrid team at this stage of the competition.
Liverpool fans will confirm that the key difference between this season’s outrageously successful team and the early Klopp sides (and even the Brendan Rodgers side that nearly won the title in 2013-14) is a solid defense. Winning matches by smaller margins may not be typical of Real, but it will take them a long way on the road to success.
And that point leads us to the Champions League. Currently, Real Madrid are the seventh most likely team to win the competition, with surprisingly long odds of +1100 at BetMGM. Their forthcoming round of 16 matchup is against tournament favorites Manchester City, who are priced at a much shorter +450 with BetMGM.
Based on recent form, and pedigree in the competition, these odds seem to be the wrong way around.
Pep Guardiola’s side, who have all but ceded their Premier League title challenge, were a shadow of their former selves in their 2-0 loss at Tottenham on Sunday. They look disjointed in all areas of the field, while star players like Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne looked far from their best.
Real Madrid fans who have watched recent City outings will surely feel confident about their own progression in Europe. A midfield of Kroos, Valverde, Modric and Casemiro would clearly brush aside City at this point. Pep’s hunt for Messi-free Champions League success will continue, it seems.
It stands to reason that Zidane’s side can best the favorites, and it’s also difficult to see any other team in the field who are likely to comprehensively beat them in their current form. Los Blancos have the best-performing defense in Europe, they have copious midfield options, they are incredibly well organized and their recent record in the Champions League is second-to-none.
Frankly, it’s time to back those +1100 odds for Champions League glory, before they start to shorten dramatically.
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