To win a league like that, you have to be special. If you do it in that way, maybe even something more — but we’ll see that in Cardiff. What we already know after ten frantic months of La Liga is that Zinédine Zidane’s Real Madrid have already joined that football élite including teams who made history.
Everything started on 4 January 2016, when a president on the brink of the abyss decided to face the supporters’ discontent with a theatrical move, in an attempt to draw public attention away from his mistakes, like firing Champions League winner Carlo Ancelotti. Zinédine Zidane, a former Santiago Bernabéu football legend, was thought to be the perfect smokescreen, as he was appointed as new manager. Or something similar, at least, given that his only coaching experiences were a post as Ancelotti’s assistant coach and a mediocre two-season spell at the helm of Real Madrid Castilla, whose destiny is not of great concern to president Florentino Pérez.
Back then, amidst the skepticism and astonishment of the press, a grin appeared on Zidane’s face as he said:
I think everything will be ok”.
Seventeen months on, his team are gearing up to travel to Cardiff after having won a Champions League, a European Supercup, a FIFA Club World Cup and, last but not least, a La Liga title. But, assuming the first three triumphs came as a result of either a kind of autopilot, an agreement between players, fate, or any other reason to deny the manager’s credits, this is not possible for the latter. La Liga is the domestic tournament with the highest level in the world, which requires consistency, long-term planning, and immediate choices which inevitably have an influence on the future.
This is why only an excellent coach could win this championship.
Since Zidane took over, Real Madrid have amassed seven points more than Barcelona – only considering La Liga matches – and 21 more than Atlético Madrid. In 86 games across all competitions, the Spanish giants won the 74,4% of their matches, with an average of 2,4 points per game, scoring 241 goals and failing to find the net only on 3 occasions, the last of which dates back to 64 matches ago — a record in the history of the main European championships.
These figures alone would be more than enough to amaze. In addition to it, there’s the pitch, where all of it took place.
Zidane laid the foundations of his team on day one, starting from the training ground. In fact, one of his most important insights was to bring in one of the best fitness coaches he had ever worked with — Antonio Pintus, who Zidane met at Juventus and was able, in just five weeks, to set up a new preparation which gave a weary team the necessary boost in their way to Milan’s Champions League final. In his second year, when Pintus could plan the whole physical work from the summer, he even made a kind of miracle: do you often see a football team running more and faster in May than in the previous months? I don’t, but this Real Madrid do it.
Cristiano Ronaldo is a shiny example that shows how extraordinary Pintus’ athletic preparation and Zidane’s psychological work have been. In last February, the Portuguese turned 32 — he was in the midst of the least prolific season of his career, with the growing awareness that the clock was ticking for him too. More and more people started to associate the adjective “old” with the Ballon d’Or winner. But Zidane managed to persuade him that, even at this age, a player can improve and become stronger, provided that he learns how to handle his energy.
He convinced Ronaldo to do what he had never done before — to stop, and take a breath.
With a view to it, the striker was ruled out of five of the last seven La Liga away matches played by Real Madrid so that he could rest and train. And now, he’s heading to Cardiff having scored 14 goals in his last 9 appearances, playing as a central forward. Because truth is Ronaldo is no longer the superhuman being we used to know, the most complete and devastating athlete that football has ever seen, as he lost some of his typical physical brilliance. But he didn’t lose, and probably will never do, his hunger and fury which, alongside his finishing skills, made him the best scorer in the history of the five major European leagues, having netted 370 goals in his La Liga and Premier League spells all together. That’s why putting him in the best position looked like the best possible thing to do. Said and done.
Then, there are some other tactical and strategic matters which should be considered as masterpieces too. Convincing the Madrid environment, including president Florentino Pérez, that the likes of Keylor Navas and Casemiro are essential to build a winning team in today’s football is an impressive achievement. But the main aspect he deserves credits for was to turn Real Madrid into a team who can adapt to different formations (they’ve already played with 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-1-2, 3-4-3 and 5-3-2), changing shape during a game thanks to their versatile players — Modrić acting as a full-back and Marcelo playing as a “wide playmaker” are a perfect symbol of it. Furthermore, this style of play brought as many as 21 different players to scoring.
Many said that Zidane was more a supervisor than a manager. If that were true, it would be difficult to explain how full-backs Carvajal and Marcelo could deliver more than 10 assists each (that’s why 40 Real Madrid goals came from a header), or how Sergio Ramos could dismantle almost every defence in set pieces, which highlighted the team’s ability to exploit strategic plays. Above all, the coach is to praise for how he managed one of the most “Zidane-esque” players of the club, Isco. He was a real keystone of the blancos in the later stage of the season, the magic of the team — yet, he was only the 13th most fielded player.
Isco is clearly a different player.
Considering his technical skills and his vision of play, he would perfectly fit the category of the classic trequartista. But, at a closer look, he’s definitely more than that thanks to his ability to interpret the game. He thinks in a different way, something he had already proved during his early days at Valencia, when coach Unai Emery didn’t think he was ready to be a regular first team starter. Back then, Isco decided to shut the door and move back to Malaga, where he wrote some of the most glorious pages in the club’s history.
A similar thought, the one of leaving the club to be a real star elsewhere, might have crossed his mind in the last winter. Actually, he had already taken a decision. But Zidane persuaded him as well. He made him understand that if you’re a 24-year Real Madrid player having a hand in the team’s goals every 91 minutes, you should be patient. As a result of that, Isco became the real technical leader of the team and earned a rich contract renewal until 2022.
Luka Modrić also deserves a mention — a player that, at the end of his first Spanish season, was voted in a Marca poll as the worst La Liga signing of the year and that, five years later, has turned into a midfielder who looks able to be everywhere at once.
Then there’s Marco Asensio, the present and future of Real Madrid, a 20-year-old player combining technique and pace in an unique way, with a mentality which could make him one of the main stars of the club.
Zidane built a team made of protagonists rather than backups — the prove is that Lucas Vázquez is the only player to have reached 50 appearances in the season, while Mateo Kovacić could find his appropriate position, shining as a central defensive midfielder. Furthermore, a player like Nacho Fernández, who looked on the verge of leaving last summer, took part in 39 matches and scored beautiful and vital goals.
But there are two players who were certainly expecting something more from this season but, however, gave their crucial contribution before probably moving away in the upcoming summer — Álvaro Morata, who has an average of a goal every 98,5 minutes but couldn’t leapfrog an impressive Karim Benzema in the team’s hierarchy, and James Rodriguez, who is likely to join Manchester United but, despite his fiery temper and inconsistency, scored 11 goals and assisted as many.
These are the pieces composing the puzzle created by Zinédine Zidane, the real craftsman of a magnificent piece of art, no matter what will happen in the Champions League final. Should they win, then they would further raise their level, becoming something that no one else has ever been in modern football.
Cover photo ©LaPresse
Other photos ©LaPresse