“Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles” – We cannot overemphasize the quote by Sir Alex Ferguson when it comes to Real Madrid’s title-winning season. With injuries to the likes of Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio, a lack of experience in Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo, and an uncertain place for Luka Jovic in Zidane’s starting XI, it was Madrid’s defence that came to the rescue in their bid to win their 34th league title.
The club had an abysmal 2018/2019 season which saw them change their managers thrice. The absence of Cristiano Ronaldo was as clear as day as Gareth Bale was expected to step up and deliver, but he failed to do so. After being the undisputed kings of the Champions League for three years in a row, Madrid were knocked out by a ruthless Ajax side at the Bernabéu. They ended their domestic campaign with a third-place finish, 19 points behind champions Barcelona. With 46 goals in their “goals against” column, they had the worst defence in the top 5 teams of the Spanish top flight. A desperate change in system was called for by the Bernabéu faithful.
After a nightmarish start to his debut season for Los Blancos, Thibaut Courtois’ resurrection came in clutch. The Belgian shot-stopper has been stupendous between the sticks this season. From being substituted against Club Brugge to keeping 18 clean sheets in La Liga, he has been indispensable to the team. His journey back to the top was not a smooth ride. His substandard form at the beginning of the season was only exacerbated when he was subjected to jeers by his own fans at the stadium. However, his confidence began to return after a clean sheet against his former club Atlético. A key point in his rise was when he almost scored against Valencia at the Mestalla. His header from a corner was turned in by Karim Benzema which helped Madrid to clinch a late 1-1 draw. Ever since, he fought with tenacity, and his confidence only rose as he kept clean sheets against Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and Getafe. The reticent goalkeeper, often known for not shouting at his defenders, conceded only 20 goals in the 34 games he played this season. This earned him his third Zamora Trophy, having won it on two previous occasions with local rivals Atlético Madrid.
In a transfer window that saw the arrival of Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic and Rodrygo, it was Ferland Mendy who was arguably the best signing this season. The Frenchman, still relatively obscure to the footballing world, has proved to be decisive defensively by filling in the vast void that left the team vulnerable to counter attacks every-time Marcelo charged forward on his attacking runs. When he is in an attacking position himself, he is always aware of his defensive duties. Mendy has also proved to be a better 1v1 defender statistically in terms of ball recoveries, blocks and tackles won per 90 minutes. His goal against Granada was the icing on the cake for his perfect debut season in the famous White shirt. On the other flank, Carvajal has been solid in equal measure.
While he might not have been as fierce offensively, with only a goal and six assists to his name, his defensive attributes have overshadowed that statistic with his phenomenal passing skills and an exemplary ability to hold onto the ball. The connection he shares with Luka Modrić has been crucial in breaking down an opponent’s midfield.
Madrid’s very own “El Capitán”, Sergio Ramos, has been the heart and soul of the back four for a long time. From goals to goal-line clearances, he has been contributing on both ends of the pitch this season. Ever since the restart, it has been a rare day when Ramos isn’t on the scoresheet. He reached his 100th career goal at club level with a goal against Leganés at Butarque. His goal scoring stats only prove how lethal and important he is to the team. At the age of 34, he still remains to be a nightmare to every striker across the globe. His strength, aggression and athleticism would make one doubt if he’s a day above 30. Sergio’s comic-book quality of heroism and charisma makes him the perfect leader for this Madrid side. He exudes madridismo and has a special place in the hearts of all Madridistas.
“The title is a reward for work, consistency and balance. What we have done has great value, despite what they may say. Work, when you do it right, is rewarded. There is a lot of merit in winning these ten games in a row. It was an atypical season, we had to win everything, we did not depend on ourselves at the start. The margin of error did not exist in our heads, and we have shown it.” – Sergio Ramos after Madrid won La Liga by beating Villareal 2-1 with a match to spare.
2018 World Cup winner Raphaël Varane, Ramos’ partner at centre-back, had an excellent season as well. He looked far from his best during the 2018/19 season and was lambasted by critics after a 5-1 horror show at the Camp Nou. However, he picked himself back up and has shown his critics why he is often labelled as one of the best defenders of this generation at such a young age. His speed and composure on the ball have been vital this season.
Éder Militão, on the other hand, was Zinedine Zidane’s first signing since his return back to the club. The 22-year-old Brazilian is known to be versatile. He used to play as a centre back in Sao Paulo and was used at right-back/right wing-back at Porto. He had a rough start to his career at Madrid as doubts had crept in over his performances. When asked about Militão at a press conference, Zidane said – “I see a good future for him. It’s true that he hasn’t played much, but he is our third central defender, and I’m counting on him”. Once La Liga resumed play after the lockdown in June, Militão put in his best performance in a Madrid jersey in a 1-0 win against Athletic Bilbao. He complemented Ramos well in the centre of defence and ensured that Zidane didn’t miss Varane. With Militão in such form, Madrid can count on him in the return leg against Manchester City.
Real Madrid, usually known for their predilection to attacking and scoring goals, approached a system that was contradictory to their ethos and modus operandi. Lacking a traditional goal scorer, Zidane’s tactics demanded more defensive solidarity. Instead of the usual high press, Zidane focused more on the efficiency of the press in a manner which involved the players getting into more defensive positions rather than pressing high. To top it all off, Sergio Ramos managed to not get a red card this season in La Liga. If you cannot believe it, don’t worry. You are not alone!
Written by Rohan Ajit | Feature Image by Angel Martinez/Getty Images
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