On July 26th 2019, Real Madrid were thrashed 7-3 by Atlético Madrid in New Jersey in pre-season.
On July 16th 2020, almost a full year later and in the penultimate round of the longest LaLiga campaign ever, they were crowned champions with a 2-1 victory over Villarreal at their Valdebebas complex in the Spanish capital. It has been quite the season, one that will never be forgotten, and it has been quite the turnaround for Los Blancos.
Zinedine Zidane has been convinced all along. Even after the pre-season derby disaster, the coach was still brimming with optimism. “We’re going to be motivated and I am convinced that we’re going to have a good season,” he said in his post-match press conference at MetLife Stadium. “Obviously we can’t be happy with this defeat, but I am convinced that I have a team that will compete. We have the necessary motivation and hunger to move forward.”
Few believed Zidane. The idea of Real Madrid winning the league was laughed off as folly. Yet, Real Madrid finished top of the table and even did so with a five-point advantage over second-placed Barcelona. As much as Barça have been in disarray this season, it’s worth noting that Real Madrid’s 87-point haul matches the tally Barcelona achieved last season. No matter which way you look at it, the capital city side have been imposing.
So, how did they do it? How did Real Madrid go from pre-season humiliation to LaLiga glory?
First and foremost, they did it through defence. By conceding just 25 goals over their 38 matches, Los Blancos finished the campaign with the best defensive stats of the whole division and this even saw Thibaut Courtois wrestle the Zamora Award – the prize for the goalkeeper with the best goals conceded numbers of the season – away from Jan Oblak’s grip after four years. For Real Madrid, this is very rare. In the entire 21st century, their goalkeeper has won this prize just once, when a nimble Iker Casillas claimed it in 2007/08.
Courtois himself has won this award before, in 2012/13 and 2013/14 when he was at Atlético Madrid, but his record of 0.59 goals conceded per game in 2019/20 is even better than he managed in either of those campaigns he spent at the Estadio Vicente Calderón – 0.78 in 2012/13 and 0.65 in 2013/14. While the Zamora Award is an objective honour, the Belgian also passes the eye test as the best goalkeeper in Spain this year, making both super saves and simple saves as well as distributing the ball better than ever before with a pass completion percentage of 75.1%.
As good as Courtois has been as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency type of last resort, he hasn’t been called upon too much thanks to his excellent back four. Dani Carvajal, Raphaël Varane and Sergio Ramos are arguably the best in each of their positions in world football, while Real Madrid have also had Marcelo, the former best left-back in the world, and Ferland Mendy, potentially the future best left-back in the world.
The individual talent is there and they also play as a cohesive unit, which makes sense considering Zidane selected a Carvajal-Varane-Ramos-Mendy back four 14 times and a Carvajal-Varane-Ramos-Marcelo back four on 10 occasions. There has been decent consistency even while alternating between the two left-backs.
As well as Ramos, the superhero captain who tucked in his cape just enough that we couldn’t see it, there’s been Casemiro. Often praise of a defence focuses on the defenders, but Real Madrid’s defensive solidity cannot be explained without mention of their sharp-elbowed holding midfielder, who has had one of his very best seasons in white. It was fitting that the opening goal on the night when they sealed the league title was created by the Brazilian, who pinched possession back in the centre and then fed the ball to Luka Modrić for the Croatian to set up Karim Benzema.
Benzema, of course, is another who needs to be carved into the Mount Rushmore of this league title. With Eden Hazard and Mariano almost never fully fit, with Marco Asensio out with an ACL injury for the first 11 months of this long campaign, with Gareth Bale’s mind on the golf course and with Luka Jović misfiring on and off the pitch in his first year in Spain, there was so much responsibility on Benzema’s shoulders – and he wasn’t weighed down by it.
The Frenchman is a No.9 with the soul of a No.10 and was able to score and create all season long. With 21 goals and eight assists, plus 1.7 key passes per 90 minutes, his numbers were good but even they don’t tell the full story. Benzema did so much for his team that doesn’t show up on a stats sheet, while he also appeared at decisive moments. On 10 occasions this season, Benzema scored the opening goal of the game and that is absolutely priceless.
All in all, it was the balance between defence and attack that steered Real Madrid towards this league title and prevented this side from toppling over. Zidane has repeatedly spoken about this in his press conferences, explaining that improving the defence and maintaining the club’s historic threat in attack has been his priority since returning in March of last year. While it’s true that Real Madrid’s tally of 70 goals scored is well below the numbers posted between 2009 and 2017, when they hit over 100 goals every season, the goals conceded numbers are the club’s best ever since LaLiga seasons have had 38 fixtures.
Balance has been achieved and enough goals are still being scored, partly because Real Madrid have so many goalscorers. 21 different players found the back of the net for Real Madrid this LaLiga campaign and this is another key explanation for their success. Only backup centre-back Éder Militão, backup right-back Álvaro Odriozola and backup winger Brahim Díaz failed to score out of all the outfield players within the squad. Even when Benzema got out of the wrong side of the bed and had an off day, somebody else usually stepped up.
It has been an impressive campaign overall from Real Madrid and especially so since the restart, as they chained together 10 consecutive victories before drawing in the final round against Leganés, after they’d already brushed the congratulatory confetti off their shoulders. They’ve been an unstoppable machine since returning from lockdown, full of the energy and hunger that Barcelona seemed to lack. They’ve been worthy champions.