Where were you when so-and-so scored ‘that’ goal? Remember Lionel Messi scoring 73 in one season? Who can forget Robert Lewandowski’s five goals in nine minutes?
Football’s infatuation with goals is completely understandable. After all in its essence, the purpose of the game is to put the ball in the back of the net. It is the most exhilarating aspect of the sport and is what draws spectators in.
Yet, the foundation of a successful team has always been built at the other end of the pitch. As the old adage goes, defences win league titles and Real Madrid, rather uncharacteristically, adhered to that mantra on their way to a 34th Spanish league title.
The La Liga giants are perhaps the most glamourous club in world football and have a reputation of blowing away oppositions with the sheer quality of their expensively assembled sides.
The Galacticos era in the early noughties fully embraced that aspect of the club’s identity and as a central figure within that side, Zinedine Zidane is no stranger to the concept.
As a player, the elegant Frenchman was one of the most exciting to watch. He slalomed up the pitch with speed and grace while his vision and technical abilities were unparalleled. It’s no surprise that his attacking nature transitioned into his managerial style.
When he first took charge of Madrid in January 2016, Zidane engineered a system within which the team’s illustrious attacking talents could flourish. They went on to sweep those before them and conquer Europe. During his first spell, Madrid scored a whopping 393 goals in just 149 games, averaging 2.63 goals per game.
Despite securing the double in his first season, for which he only took over midway through the campaign, Los Blancos struggled to replicate their European dominance in La Liga.
The won the title by the skin of their teeth and with a defensive record that was only the fourth-best in the division. Indeed, his first spell at the Bernabeu saw Madrid concede at a rate of 1.07 goals a game, meaning they usually had to score at least twice to win a match.
Zidane’s second coming however has been very different and the 48-year-old deserves plaudits for how he adapted to the new circumstances he was presented with. He has so far averaged only 1.85 goals scored and 0.9 conceded per game.
He inherited a team that was a shadow of the one he lifted three Champions League trophies with. Cristiano Ronaldo had departed and other talents like Isco, Marco Asensio, Marcelo and Gareth Bale had regressed.
The team struggled to score goals and conceded them far too easily. Zidane realised that he couldn’t bullishly set up his side to simply out-score the opposition. Instead, he made them more functional in attack by using the intelligence and creativity of Karim Benzema as the central figure.
Defensively, he gave a condemned Thibaut Courtois confidence by installing him as his undisputed number one while an aging Marcelo saw his role in the squad diminish with the arrival of a more positionally disciplined Ferland Mendy.
But it’s in midfield where Zidane made the most telling alterations. Going against his natural instincts to pack the middle of the park with creativity, he began to refrain from playing both Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in the same XI.
Instead, Fede Valverde became a regular option not just in Casemiro’s absence but often alongside the Brazilian to forge a formidable midfield partnership that protected the back four and even aided the attack with turnovers creating opportunities in the transition.
As a result, Madrid became a far more compact and functional unit which is in stark contrast to their rivals Barcelona who have continued to rely on Messi to do too much on his own.
Despite scoring 13 goals fewer than the dysfunctional Blaugrana side with one game left in the campaign, a defence that allowed only 23 goals – the best record in Europe’s top five leagues – gave Los Merengues the edge to be champions.
In fact, they’ve conceded half the goals they did last season (46) and are the best defence the club has produced in 35 years. Meanwhile, Courtois has kept 19 clean sheets, the most in Europe.
This triumph speaks volumes of just how effective a sturdy defence can be, especially without a free-flowing attack.
Zidane will no doubt be plotting ways to enhance Madrid’s potency in front of goal next season but if he is secure a third La Liga crown as manager, maintaining his team’s fine record at the back must remain the priority.
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