In 1990, Real Madrid sealed their 25th league title in style, four games to spare and a 107 goals scored. Heading into the new decade, Madridistas of the time undoubtedly had their eyes set on Europe with domestic success a near given the team’s then recent history. In the previous three decades, Los Blancos had won 60% of the LaLiga titles available to them, averaging about three every five years.
Fast forward to the present day and the times they are a-changin on all fronts. While adding seven European titles, Real are well behind where they might have expected to be at home. Based on the aforementioned historical averages, Real Madrid are 16 years late to their 34th league title and should have wrapped up their 40th championship seven years ago. There has been a power shift in Spain and that fact never felt so obvious than last season.
17 points off the champions doesn’t happen at Real Madrid. Such a margin twice in a row is practically unprecedented. Historically, Real Madrid always respond, there are examples of this littered across Spanish football history. That the club had failed to in such emphatic fashion, dropping their season in a week with a symbolic defeat to Barcelona ending their title challenge speaks plenty for where the club was at a few short months ago.
Though it would be nice to say that Zidane’s return to Real Madrid in March was the beginning of a phoenix rising from the ashes, it would be a blatant lie. In reality, things might have gotten a little worse before they got better.
This fact dawned on me during the second half of the title-winning Villarreal game when I realized Zidane managed 11 games in similar isolation to the COVID League last season. I remembered the defeats to Rayo Vallecano and Real Betis in particular where we looked pathetic beyond words and questions had already started rolling about Zidane’s second coming before his reign had even started.
“Mentally, it has been complicated,” he told reporters after the 2-0 defeat to Betis, going on to explain Madrid’s miserable end to the campaign even though the performance looked so depressingly in tune with the rest of the season that he needn’t of bothered.
I’m summoning these ugly memories back because I think it puts Real Madrid’s 34th league title in perspective better than anything else could. Revived doesn’t seem a strong enough term for what Zidane has done, but for want of a better of word he’s done just that. It was no easy task, the 1-4 battering at the hands of Ajax saw Luka Modric nutmegged by Frenkie De Jong (a passing of the midfield torch for some), Toni “diesel tractor” Kroos dispossessed for one of the visitor’s goals and Casemiro glided past for the other. In the stands, captain Sergio Ramos watched on from the stands until full time when he came down to the dressing room and had it out with Florentino Perez in front of the rest of the team, the sky was falling.
Now all four have returned as key cogs in some form or another, Toni Kroos has been the beating heart of a revolution in midfield where each starter has posted some of their best offensive numbers in a Real Madrid shirt. The German himself has enjoyed his best scoring campaign since leaving Bayer Leverkusen while a better managed Luka Modric has recorded seven league assists for the first time in his career. Sergio Ramos, meanwhile, has once again led from the front and the back with the bitter words of March now long forgotten in the public swooning he has received from the sitting president.
All these turnarounds pale in comparison to the biggest “how” of Real Madrid’s 34th league title. We’ve long referred to this defensive setup as among the best Real Madrid have produced. Following the Leganes draw, it is now, officially, the best in a 38-game season, surpassing the previous goals against record of 26. In terms of all time (regardless of games played) 2019/20 matches up nicely.
Of all the positives that Zinedine Zidane will take from this season, his defence should be the biggest. Instilling a defensively solid system at a team is an excellent foundation to build off, demonstrated by Barcelona and Atletico Madrid all enjoying golden eras off a base of concrete backlines (Victor Valdes won four Zamoras at Barcelona, Atletico need no explanation). Even Real Madrid historically have had a solid backline when they’ve dominated LaLiga.
The age profile of the backline is also encouraging. Raphael Varane just turned 27 while Ferland Mendy and Dani Carvajal are 25 and 28 respectively. The biggest concern is arguably the most important, Sergio Ramos, however given his supreme physique, a carefully managed diet of minutes could greatly prolong Ramos’s career as Eder Militao settles in.
Grappling with the positives of what he has will be key for Zidane in the coming years. While laying down superlatives about the club’s latest championship, Perez also added that the club would make no “big signings” this summer, “the situation is very bad. It’s very tough to ask our players to take a salary cut and then sign big players, they can all wait. Real Madrid will sign big players again when the situation improves,” he told media following the Villarreal win.
The presence of big suggests that it won’t be an idle summer from Real Madrid, nonetheless, alot of the targets Real missed last summer are likely going to stay put for the foreseeable future as Los Blancos recover from a massive hit financially. Based on last season’s numbers, Real Madrid’s matchday revenue accounted for about a fifth of the club’s operating revenue, they are expected to lose a quarter of their expected matchday revenue for this season having played some of the season behind closed doors.
There isn’t a return for fans to stadiums in the short term so this sort of financial damage is ongoing and even a vaccine doesn’t promise full recovery of matchday revenues after the virus. Infact, some sources believe that should future health restrictions prevail longer-term matchday revenues could be hit even harder.
It’s a bleak picture for a club that certainly need investment in areas, however, Real’s recent trust in youth does give them a head start in the post pandemic market.
Here is where the conversation gets interesting. The sale of Achraf Hakimi and many of his predecessors perfectly demonstrates what a great source of revenue young talents can be while the presence of so many cantera in the Spanish top flight and the Real Madrid first team demonstrate what a high quality product the club produces. Real don’t have to take a definitive stance, however heading into a post-COVID transfer market, which approach they lean to will be quite revealing of what the long term plan for youth development at the club is.
There is nothing wrong whichever way Real go, however, given my that my colours are already firmly nailed to the mass, I’m going to join the “keep and play” side of this debate. The cantera won’t be able to provide everything Madrid need to survive a rough summer. La Fabrica’s strikers, for instance, are still a few years away from being legitimate options for the first team. However, in defence, midfield and even out wide - should Zidane decide to strengthen there despite present depth- there are plenty of promising options available. These options range from players that might make effective subs to a potential Reguilion/Valverde breakout star. I have been vocal on Castilla Corner about Marvin Park and Alvaro Fidalgo having enough talent to contribute at senior level, joining the likes of Javi Hernandez, Miguel Guiterrez and Reinier Jesus whom have already caught Zidane’s eye.
As much as Zidane has put the talents of Gutierrez and Hernandez on the map during this lockdown period, as he has done with several other Castilla graduates, he is also one of the obstacles standing in their way. Zidane’s player preference is really weird and hard to pin down. The only consistency in his starting elevens is the Once de Gala, a fact reflected when you look at the minutes share for all competitions in the three full season he has completed at Real Madrid.
Not only can you see the trust Zidane has for that core, but also the jump any upcoming player is facing getting into this linuep. This season was the first time in 12 years that a Castilla graduate didn’t make a debut in the first team, something that could have been avoided had Zidane given Javi Hernandez or Miguel Gutierrez their debuts in that dead-rubber game against Leganes.
The French manager isn’t against change, but he is quite slow to trust the new and, as partly demonstrated by the class of 2016/17, he doesn’t need much of a sample size to decide he doesn’t like a player and move them on. Going forward, where beggars can’t be choosers, Zizou will have to become a little more embracing of the raw talents at Real Madrid or face being caught out when his favoured staff retires and his successor still hasn’t fully settled in at the team because he spent the last three season playing pauper minutes.
That, or he could just sell everyone and take us in completely different and new direction, it is Zidane after all, no one is quite sure what’s going on inside that wonderful bald head of his. I wouldn’t be surprised if he came out tomorrow and announced he was becoming a tennis player.
The 34th league title, given how it was won, was always going to be historically significant. However, for those that have lived this campaign and what undoubtedly lies ahead, it could be all that more important.