At this stage, one year ago, Real Madrid were in ruins. They had been knocked out of the Copa del Rey before an embarrassing 1-4 defeat at home to Ajax in the 2018-’19 Champions League quarter-finals, which led to their exit before Zinedine Zidane took over in March. A disastrous campaign had put them out of the La Liga title race too, 12 points behind eventual winners Barcelona when Zidane returned.
The Frenchman’s first stint with Madrid was nothing short of a fairytale, winning three back-to-back Champions League titles, a La Liga title, two Uefa Super Cups, two World Club Cups and the Spanish Super Cup.
But when Zidane returned to Real Madrid, just nine months after he had left the club, there were doubts over his chances of achieving success again. He would even have to cope without the club’s most prolific goalscorer and talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo, who left for Juventus in 2018.
For the past two seasons, Madrid had not only missed out on the title but weren’t even close competitors, finishing 17 and 19 points behind Barcelona during the 2017-’18 and 2018-’19 season respectively.
Zidane had cited his love for the club as the reason behind his return but one month later, the former midfielder had made a promise.
“For us next year, the league must be our number one priority,” Zidane had said.
That promise was finally fulfilled on Thursday as Real Madrid bagged their 34th La Liga title after beating Villareal. And by leading the side to a third title in 12 years, Zidane has proved he was the right man for the job.
Proving doubters wrong
There was huge excitement surrounding Zidane’s return but the team continued to struggle for results and the cracks were visible.
This came after the squad was reinforced with Madrid making some big signings in the form of Ferland Mendy, Luka Jovic, Eden Hazard among others in the summer transfer window.
But doubts grew over Zidane after Madrid’s rocky start to the season. His side was outclassed 3-0 by PSG during a Champions League match in September and a month later, suffered their first league defeat against newcomers Mallorca. There was speculation around the Frenchman’s future with Jose Mourinho in talks to replace him.
It looked like Madrid would continue to struggle with Hazard, Mendy, Isco, Luka Modric, among the many players sidelined at the start of the season.
A club’s hero during his time, Zidane knew only one thing would keep his job secure at the Bernabeu – results – and he managed to do so.
An unbeaten run of 15 league games between October and February helped him steady the ship but he had to make some big calls too.
He backed 21-year-old Federico Valverde in the box-to-box role when Modric was injured and continued to prefer the youngster, who offered dynamism and steel in midfield, even when the Croatian returned. Another bold call when he chose Mendy over Marcelo once the former returned back from injury and it paid dividends, with the French full-back’s ability to track back effectively and make an impact at both ends of the pitch.
Valverde and Mendy provided defensive solidity and athleticism to Zidane’s system built on a defense-first approach. Zidane has used different formations this season varying from 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and also 4-5-1, usually preferring five midfielders and has not shied away from making rotations when necessary.
Madrid have been relentless since La Liga’s return in June, despite being two points behind Barcelona. They have won all their 10 games and have never trailed in a match.
Goals coming in from all corners
A total of 21 different goalscorers have been involved this season for Real Madrid. Eder Militao and Brahim Diaz are the only ones who haven’t found the net so far.
While Benzema (21 goals out of a total of 68) has shouldered the responsibility of scoring the bulk of goals, the midfield has stepped up too – scoring as many as 15 goals. Sergio Ramos has chipped in with 10 goals, coming from the penalty spot.
Taking over from Ronaldo as the main penalty taker, the Real Madrid captain has now scored 22 in a row from the spot-kick and is the defender with the most goals in La Liga.
Benzema and Ramos have been the top scorers in La Liga since the restart.
Benzema is enjoying the form of his life, with 21 goals from 37 games. Trailing Lionel Messi by just two goals, he has a chance of beating the Barcelona forward for the Pichichi award.
The French striker was among the goals at the start of the season before losing form. He endured a 613-minute goal-scoring drought across all competitions in the middle of the season which ended following a penalty against Real Betis in March.
But there’s no doubting Benzema’s contribution in Madrid’s title-winning run. Nine out of his 21 strikes have been winning goals and the veteran has also chipped in with eight assists.
In the last decade, Benzema contribution to the team has been overlooked, playing alongside Ronaldo but the 32-year-old has now stepped up. Last season, Benzema registered his second-best goal tally in Madrid colours.
Since Ronaldo departed, the Frenchman has doubled his goal-scoring tally with 42 goals in the last two seasons. In his past two seasons from 2016-’18, he netted only 16 times.
A key success behind Madrid’s run to the title has been their rock-solid defense, anchored by Ramos.
Madrid has only shipped in 23 goals this season, which is not only the best in La Liga but across Europe’s Big Five leagues.
Last season, they conceded a whopping 46 goals under Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari combined before Zidane tightened things up at the back.
Madrid struggled at the start of the 2019-’20 season as well, leaking six goals in their first four games but grew stronger as the season progressed, keeping 10 clean sheets in the next 15.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois too has been in excellent form producing crucial saves when it has mattered.
Since the restart, their backline has continued to remain solid, conceding just five goals from 10 matches.
Getting the job done
One commendable aspect of Zidane has been the ability to get the best out of his squad and continuing to deliver results, despite the obstacles on his path and this must be attributed to his man-management skills.
In his first stint, Zidane brilliantly managed a dressing room of big stars and big egos. He has continued doing the same on his return and used the squad at his disposal with great effect.
He has preferred a pragmatic and defensive system to get results but also successfully managed to get players to buy into his philosophy.
After Gareth Bale’s transfer move to China fell through in the summer, the Welshman played a part for the club for Zidane while Hazard was out.
Zidane also got the best of players such as Thibaut Courtois, Raphael Varane, Casemiro, Modric and Isco who looked a shadow of themselves last season alongside placing his faith in youngsters.
This season, Real Madrid struggled with form and injuries at the start, saw their momentum slip but have rallied back to be crowned La Liga champions again.
For Zidane, this title ranks first among the 11 trophies he has won as manager with Real Madrid.
“This is better than anything,” he said.
“It takes a tremendous effort to win La Liga. After 38 matches, you have more points than anyone else. It’s bloody fantastic.”