Real Madrid’s revolution was supposed to be built around their attack but resilience has been the base for the recovery ahead of their Champions League group game at home to Club Brugge on Tuesday.
At the end of last season, as Zinedine Zidane’s dreary run-in came to a close and paved the way for what many expected to be a spectacular summer, polls were published by Madrid’s newspapers asking fans which of the world’s deadliest strikers they hoped would arrive at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah, Sergio Aguero, Mauro Icardi and Robert Lewandowski were some of the names offered up and, in the end, Luka Jovic arrived, the Serbian who has struggled for starts so far and is yet to score a goal.
Eden Hazard is tasked too with helping fill the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo, even if the Belgian’s own opening in Madrid has also been underwhelming, stalled by injury and now seemingly a period of adjustment.
“We would like him to score because it will release him,” said Zidane on Saturday. “But there is no problem with him.”
Yet the stalemate against Atletico Madrid, in which neither side ever looked likely to find a winner, was a a stark indication of how Real Madrid have relied on their defence to ease the pressure on their coach.
“We have been compact and again we have not conceded,” said Zidane after the derby draw. “We have missed a little offensively but we are in it and we can improve.”
This is the first time Madrid have kept three consecutive clean sheets in the league under Zidane and in the games against Sevilla, Osasuna and Atletico, they have had to cope with just a single shot on target.
“Defending is very important, it is the fundamentals,” Zidane said.
The turnaround has been remarkable from Paris Saint-Germain, whose 3-0 win in the Champions League 10 days ago was Zidane’s worst ever defeat as coach, as well as Levante and Villarreal, who had just scored twice against Madrid in the league.
When they were floundering last season, the focus was on their lack of goals but Madrid’s defending was arguably just as problematic, with Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane and Marcelo all woefully out of sorts.
After missing the loss to PSG, Ramos’ return has coincided with the trio of clean sheets and his performances have been tighter too, more disciplined and less prone to extravagance.
Bale ‘doing very well’
But perhaps the biggest gains have been made ahead of him, in central midfield where Zidane’s options are light but boosted by two excellent displays from Fede Valverde, who was given a chance in the rotated line-up against Osasuna and impressed enough in defensive midfield to keep his place.
“I want to highlight Valverde as well,” Zidane said after Osasuna. “He played a brutal match.”
Ahead of Valverde, there has been more diligence from the front three, with Zidane singling out Gareth Bale for praise a handful of times since his move away failed to materialise in the summer transfer window.
Zidane’s scepticism around Bale in the past has centred on a belief the Welshman cannot be trusted to defend but against Sevilla it was Bale who was at his own back post in injury tme, hacking a cross clear from danger.
“Gareth is doing very well,” Zidane said. “Above all he is also helping a lot in the defensive areas and it shows. The team is more comfortable when we all defend.”
Perhaps as well, there is a sense of a team finding its reality after a fantasy summer, a coming to terms with the need to build this new era not on glamour signings but going back to basics.
They restart this week in the Champions League too, where PSG’s victory makes the French side favourites to go through top of Group A but a win over Brugge would at least get Madrid on the board.
The rematch at home to PSG comes in November and before then, the season’s first Clasico against Barcelona arrives at the end of the month. Zidane will hope his defence can hold firm.