Real Madrid were crowned Spanish champions after a 2-1 victory over Villarreal on Thursday evening, claiming the title with a streak of 10 consecutive wins since the action restarted last month.
It was an impressive turnaround for Zinedine Zidane’s team, who finished 19 points behind Barcelona last season with virtually the same team.
And the title triumph represents a new era for Whites, who has become a very different team – for the better – since Zidane’s return for his second term at the Bernabeu last March.
Here’s how they did it.
Zizou leads defensive transformation
Zidane has always been praised for his human management skills, his royal aura allowing him to command respect and instill unity.
In the past, however, it has been regularly suggested that the Frenchman was tactically weak, largely limiting his strategy to sending his best players and trusting them to find their own solutions.
This resulted in an inconsistent team, able to activate the style often enough to win three consecutive crowns in the Champions League, but unable to withstand the rigors match by match of a tough league campaign.
After finishing miles behind Barcelona in the last two title races, Zidane identified his team’s weaknesses and corrected them.
Essentially, Real has become much more compact, leaving less room for opponents to exploit and working together with collective determination to protect their goal. Unlike the rider style of recent years, which has always made them vulnerable, they are now perfectly balanced and very difficult to mark.
As a result, they hold the best defensive record in La Liga, having conceded just 23 goals in 37 league games – almost half the number of goals they had allowed in the previous two seasons (46 last season, 44 in 2017-18).
This was achieved in part thanks to excellent individual performances: Ferland Mendy added greater defensive awareness to the left back; Raphael Varane had the best season of his career; Thibaut Courtois is back to his best goal; Sergio Ramos remains a fiercely competitive leader, and no one protects a back four better than defensive midfielder Casemiro.
Much more important than individual form, however, the collective mentality and tactical discipline instilled by Zidane throughout the team. This title, without a doubt, was built on defensive bases.
The team’s ethos is also reflected in the scorer list, with 21 different players on the scoresheet during the league campaign – something never seen before in La Liga.
Alternate defender Eder Militao and infrequently used winger Brahim Diaz are the only outfielders who haven’t scored.
In a way, this badly reflects the team’s attackers, none of whom have scored more than three league goals, with the exception of Karim Benzema. The second best scorer is Captain Ramos, who has scored six of his 10 penalty goals, followed by midfielders Toni Kroos and Casemiro with four each.
But that doesn’t matter because, in the same way that everyone was responsible for defensive improvement rather than the last four, Zidane encourages each player to place themselves in scoring positions.
It also shows Zidane’s desire to trust its entire team. Every available player – even unwanted Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez – has started at least one game since last month’s reboot, and Zidane’s ability to make every player feel necessary and important (well, almost all players ) remains unmatched.
Benzema, a striker who was not disappointed with the stakes of the score, has always been remarkable for producing 21 goals and 8 assists.
More than these figures, however, Benzema is so valuable for its sleek and selfless bonding game. In addition to leading the line, he regularly falls in midfield or drifts towards the left wing to combine with his teammates, who greatly appreciate his ability to find space and retain possession.
Benzema has undoubtedly benefited from the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, who can now serve as the focal point of the team’s attacking play rather than being primarily supposed to serve the Portuguese star.
He has more than doubled his total goals since Ronaldo joined Juventus, scoring 42 league goals in the past two seasons, up from 16 in the previous two.
Benzema improves his teammates and his growing understanding with Eden Hazard has been particularly pleasant to watch, while the young Brazilian wingers Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo also flourish under his direction.
Above all, he also remained fit enough to play more minutes than any other field player. With Casemiro, he is the only member of the team who has no natural replacement.
A bright future?
Even better for Real Madrid fans, the future is bright.
Although Ramos (34), Modric (34) and Benzema (32) are in the final stages of their careers, most of the team is deep and relatively young and players like Vinicius, Rodrygo, Mendy and Fede Valverde do not should only improve.
The club also has an impressive array of talented young loaners, including creative midfielder Martin Odegaard (Real Sociedad), dazzling winger Take Kubo (Mallorca) and left-back Sergio Reguilon (Seville).
Unloading Bale and James, if someone is ready to meet their salary requirements, would raise the funds to deepen the midfield and recruit a long-term replacement for Benzema, compatriot Kylian Mbappe still being the preferred choice for this role .
The next immediate task of overturning a Champions League deficit against Manchester City could prove to be beyond them, especially with the inspiring captain Ramos suspended, but the progress made by Zidane’s team during this triumphant season suggest that the days of Barcelona’s domination of Spain are over.