Saturday, 5 December. Real Madrid are languishing behind the early pace-setters in La Liga, one game away from elimination in the Champions League group stages and Zinedine Zidane is having to bat away talk of resignation.
Saturday, 12 December. Three games. Three wins. Three clean sheets. What were you worried about?
Zidane came through that season-defining week – defeating Europa League winners Sevilla, sweeping aside Borussia Monchengladbach to top their Champions League group and finally ending Atletico Madrid’s 26-game unbeaten run in La Liga on Saturday – by leaning upon his old guard once again.
After a heavily criticised rotation policy, of system and personnel, to begin the season, nine players started all three of Madrid’s crucial matches, with Zidane making just one change between each fixture and sticking to his classic 4-3-3.
Madrid’s gritty league title triumph last term was built upon a largely unchanged core through the spine of the side, with six players who each featured in more than 80% of the available league minutes last term – all six started in their 2-0 derby win.
Zidane’s second La Liga crown as manager also owed a lot to an uncharacteristically resolute defence. Madrid’s parsimonious streak – which had deserted them at the start of the season – returned over this triple header. Los Blancos not only went four and half hours without conceding, but they only allowed Sevilla, Gladbach and Atletico four shots on target combined over these three fixtures.
While there were one or two tweaks in defence and the forward line, Zidane didn’t dare tamper with his midfield three of Casemiro, flanked by Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in this sequence. The trio – who boast an average age north of 31 – have been far from untouchable this term, but looked back to their best in each match.
Though they were perhaps flattered by the ineffective opposition.
As Kroos drops to collect the ball and Modric pushes forward, Casemiro has, at times in the recent past, been forced to cover great swathes of green grass, leaving Madrid desperately vulnerable in transition – perhaps no more prevalent than in defeat to Alaves shortly before this run of wins.
Yet, in a week which could have left Madrid – and Zidane – with a bloody nose, their opponents almost conspired to help Los Blancos. In a literal sense, 40% of Madrid’s goals in this sequence of fixtures were scored by the opposition and the other three were headers after bizarre lapses in marking.
While Sevilla certainly put up the toughest resolve, Gladbach played Wednesday’s European game as though they were lining up again against a peak Madrid roared on by a heaving Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
In reality, the German club were up against a side reliant upon ageing stars, in the midst of indifferent form and playing at an empty training ground. The Foals applied barely any pressure on Madrid’s midfield duo and if you give Kroos and Modric time and space, you get what you deserve. Gladbach’s captain Lars Stindl wasn’t understating his side’s display when he described it as ‘our worst performance of the group stage’.
In the contrasting atmosphere of a derby behind closed doors, Atletico Madrid simply didn’t turn up in the first half, taking almost an hour to attempt their first shot of any kind in the contest. Diego Simeone then made the baffling decision to withdraw arguably Atletico’s most threatening player Joao Felix – much to his disgust – leaving on the sluggish Luis Suarez. By the time Atleti came back into the match they had long been trailing, with Madrid happy to sit back.
Zidane took to profanity to express his satisfaction with his players after the derby, but the legendary Frenchman summed up their strengths with a cleaner and more accurate appraisal earlier in the season: “When they need to turn it on, they turn it on.”
Whether Madrid’s old guard were chiefly responsible for ‘turning it on’, or their opposition allowed them to do so, is up for debate. Yet, Zidane’s unwavering faith in his core of title-winning personnel was emphatically rewarded last week. What the next seven days entails is anyone’s guess.