The 2020-21 La Liga campaign encapsulated perhaps more than any other, even including 2019-20, the mantra of the now departed Zinedine Zidane. The manager’s famous catchphrase of sorts came to symbolize the unending hurdles the team had to contend with this season. The idea of “suffering” coloured the very tone of the domestic race on and off the field. Zidane’s continued reminder that the team has to suffer alludes to the inevitable trials and tribulations a club must go through in the journey to the promise land.
Zidane on TV: “It was important to win today, very important. The players knew we would have to suffer, but they believed until the end and deserved the win. We had to win today, after the problems we have lately, to recover our idea, our football."— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) February 6, 2021
“Suffering” is something that the ultra-successful manager has likely lived many times and experienced in numerous cycles. There are two sides to the art of suffering if you will (both of which were on full display in the 2020-21 La Liga campaign). There is the strenuous labouring work of the day-to-day grind, but there is also the beauty of the spirited fight. A fight that saw the manager and players nearly overcome film worthy obstacles — symbolized by Modric’s defiant winner to seal the comeback against Villarreal on the last matchday.
Injuries and Lack of Depth Undermine Consistency
A major recurring theme throughout the season was the sheer number of injuries Zidane’s men faced. The injury list was lengthy including players such as Ramos, Hazard, Marcelo, Carvajal, Valverde, Rodrygo, Odriozola, Militao, Benzema, Kroos, Mendy, Varane, Vazquez and Modric.
In other words, nearly every key member of the squad was affected at some point of the season. This lack of continuity in the roster in addition to the absence of core players impacted results. The clearest example was the team dropping points in seven matches of 26 when Mendy played compared to six in only 12 (!) when the defender did not participate. The left back was leading the team in terms of overall personal win percentage deep into the season.
A Marca report in February calculated that Real Madrid had lost 823 days (or 146 matches worth of player minutes) to fitness issues — which would have only grown by the end of the season. As of the date of Marca’s report, Real Madrid had over 50% more injuries than Barcelona and Atletico Madrid; and were leading the league in the unflattering statistic. Another measure (if slightly clouded by other noise in the data) of Real Madrid’s struggles maintaining a healthy roster was that 2020-21 represented the lowest number of unique line-ups fielded in the last six years.
Continued Dominance in the Mini-League
One of the bright spots domestically in 2020-21 was the continued dominance against the top four which began in full last season. In six matches against Atletico Madrid (Champions), Barcelona (third) and Sevilla (fourth), Los Blancos were undefeated recording a breathtaking record of four wins (!) and two draws - impressively matching last season’s feat. In those six matches, Real Madrid outscored their opponents 11 goals for to five against. This stretch of superiority at the summit of the table is statistically the best the team has performed in this regard (at least points wise) since 2012-13.
The matches against the top four in 2020-21 featured several exhibitions of Zizou era football. The April clasico boasted counter-attacking excellence powered by Vincius and supported by strong defensive adjustments (i.e. Valverde protective cover against Alba); the same two starred in cameos off the bench to help secure a draw against Atletico away where Casemiro showcased his oft employed attacking positioning; and lastly Kroos’ stabilizing build-up support and Benzema’s game tilting influence helped defeat a Sevilla team in good form in December.
Penalties and Luck
The last element to delve into is the circumstantial factor. Real Madrid’s dry spell from twelve yards certainly led to some raised eyebrows within the Bernabeu walls and across the league. According to transfermarkt stats, the team conceded eight penalties compared to five for Barcelona and four for Atletico Madrid. This was only one of their issues as Los Blancos did not earn as many penalty calls in 2020-21.
Real Madrid’s UCL presser today focused on ref conspiracy theories - just a few days after their 24-game La Liga penalty drought ended. Why did they go so long without a pen? Answers here, with thanks to @dermotmcorrigan @PhilBallTweets & @Zonal_Marking https://t.co/NqSZki0tXL— Ben Lyttleton (@benlyt) April 26, 2021
Compounding their misfortune when it comes to penalties, Ramos and co and only had three penalties called in their favour (the second lowest in the league) compared to eight for Barcelona and seven for Atletico Madrid. While there are valid explanations for the historically low return from the penalty spot, the reality is that it had an undeniable impact on the outcome of the league race.