Many will point to Barcelona’s own failings as a primary reason for Real Madrid claiming this season’s La Liga title. That, however, would be wholly unjust.
With a game to spare, Los Blancos ended a three-year league drought to secure their 34th top flight crown, one that ends Barça’s recent dominance and also means they leapfrog their rivals in total titles won. In other words, this one will feel especially sweet.
Winning any league title requires a combination of factors, ranging anywhere from determination to luck. In the case of Madrid, they were the whole package this season, with selection of outstanding individual displays going hand-in-hand with a collective team spirit that got them over the line.
Just how did they do it, though? As mentioned, it was an amalgamation of factors that contributed to their success with Zinedine Zidane at the forefront. This is how Real Madrid won their 34th La Liga title.
It’s Real’s cross city rivals who normally fly the flag for defensive solidity, but that has all changed this season with Zinedine Zidane taking a new approach to the role, in comparison to his previous stint in charge and the failed efforts of Santiago Solari and Julen Lopetegui.
Take last season, for example. Madrid shipped in 46 goals en route to a third place finish, ending a whole 19 points adrift of Barça in the final league table. There were clear deficiencies at the back, prompting the Frenchman to bring in Éder Militão and Ferland Mendy for a combined £88m. Militão has been used fleetingly, but Mendy has played 24 times in La Liga.
For all Marcelo’s brilliance in the final third, his defensive qualities have been questioned at times, while Mendy has proven himself to be a far more capable overall defender. In terms of Madrid’s style, it’s been a complete overhaul by Zidane who has silenced the doubters who felt he lacked the tactical nous to mastermind continued success.
The inconsistencies during his previous tenure have been eradicated, with there now being a greater focus on structure and shape. Shifting the side’s attitude from attacking fluidity to being more compact and limiting their opponents’ space in the final third, he’s transformed the balance of the team.
Casemiro and Toni Kroos venture forward only on rare occasions, with Madrid opting to play steadier through the thirds as opposed to lightening quick attacks that stretch opposition defences. This change of tack caused a stir given it’s not the usual approach seen by the Blancos, but Zidane observed the strengths and weaknesses of his side and altered their style accordingly.
Conceding a measly 23 goals so far this season attests to that, with narrow victories favoured over simply outscoring the opponent; they’ve won by a two-goal margin just twice in their previous eight matches.
Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane have been at their usual solid best, while Thibaut Courtois has silenced his critics with 18 clean sheets in the league thus far. It may not have been the prettiest football at times, but it sure was effective.
You’ll struggle to find a more unselfish striker across Europe. Alongside previous teammate Crisitiano Ronaldo, Benzema was always playing second fiddle, tasked with seeking out his forward partner at any available opportunity.
With now Ronaldo gone, the shackles of supplying one man have been lifted, and he’s benefited immensely as a result. He’s since become the focal point of the team, acting almost as the forward pivot who other players can play off.
Simply put, he makes all those around him better. Injuries have starved supporters of the Eden Hazard link-up for large spells of the season, but the signs of a fruitful partnership are beginning to flourish, and the Belgian looks at his best when lined up alongside Benzema.
The Frenchman’s 21 league goals include one of the Goal of the Season contenders, while his eight assists also contain an Assist of the Season contender. Well, not really, as he wins both categories hands down. But also to his credit, in order to be in a position to provide that service he’s needed to stay fit all season, having missed just one match all campaign.
Whether he’s dropped deep to link play up or drifted wide to open space for his teammates, he’s done so with the best interests of the team at heart. This selflessness has been a great model for the younger players in the side to follow, who’ve clearly idolised the 32-year-old and who’ve improved gradually as the season as gone on.
For all the praise Benzema has rightly received for his performances this season, Madrid have been able to ease the burden on his shoulders with goals shared across the team. A remarkable 21 different players have got on the scoresheet over course of the season – a feat never before achieved in La Liga.
On one side it can offer a damning indictment of the strikers at the club – Benzema aside – when no forward has mustered more than three league goals this term, but the shared burden has worked, so who is to complain? With an added emphasis on defensive shape, this has stunted their attacking freedoms, but Zidane urges his players to get in attacking positions wherever possible, no matter what your position may be. The only two players not to score this season have been Militão and winger Brahim Diaz.
It also demonstrates Zidane’s faith in his squad. Rotation has been key this season and he’s entrusted his players to make an impact when called upon, whether he actually sees their futures at the club or not.
There is a clear difference in the team spirit and work ethic this time around, which undoubtedly has been aided by Zidane’s compassionate man-management, one of the most impressive attributes on his managerial CV.
Whatever your take on the Bale situation – be it siding with the Welshman’s antics as a result of the treatment he’s received or feeling his attitude is disrespectful and childish – it’s an off-field distraction that most clubs would rather deal without.
Having began the season in the side, injuries and form saw him feature fleetingly for the remainder of the campaign, while the forward’s clear disinterest on the sidelines and constant trolling could well have provided an unwelcome disturbance.
However, despite not being in Zidane’s plans, whenever a question regarding Bale was brought to light, the Frenchman would deflect and shrug off any notion of dressing room unrest. Having previously made no bones about his lack of faith in the 31-year-old, this season he’s lowered his tone and focused on the matter at hand – winning La Liga.
It’s a similar scenario with Mesut Ozil at Arsenal – minus the golf – but that off-field concern has rumbled on in north London to detrimental affect, unlike it has at Los Blancos.
The two standout names in Madrid’s ranks this season have been Benzema and Ramos – two of the oldest players in the squad – but the core of the side has had an injection of youth that bodes well for the future.
Federico Valverde, Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo and Militão are players who will continue to improve with more game time, and the experience heads they line up alongside offer them the guidance to do so.
Whether it’s Vinicius up top with Benzema, Militão in the heart of defence with Ramos or Valverde lining up in midfield with Kroos, a perfect blend of youth an experience has been obtained throughout the campaign. Even those who didn’t feature this season will add to exciting current crop, with loanees Take Kubo, Sergio Reguilon and Martin Odegaard impressing during their stints away from the capital.
At a time where Barcelona’s dominance appears to be coming to an end, Madrid are well-placed to put their stamp on a division that looks set to be their to lose for years to come.
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