Ranking Real Madrid's Top 5 Players for January 2016
They entered it in turmoil, started it with upheaval and ended it in a deluge of goals: In typical fashion for this club, January was another headline-grabbing month for Real Madrid.
After the tumultuous final months of 2015, the new year began for Madrid with a 2-2 draw at Valencia that became the final straw for former manager Rafa Benitez. The following day, he was sacked and replaced by Zinedine Zidane, his tenure reduced to a distant memory in the mere four weeks that have followed.
In that time, Zidane's Madrid have handed out three frightening thrashings to Deportivo La Coruna, Sporting Gijon and Espanyol either side of a stalemate with Real Betis—their aggregate scoreline under the Frenchman currently reading 17-2 from four games.
Perhaps more notable than the scorelines, though, has been the change in mood.
Under Zidane, Madrid's players have looked released and energised, their sudden unity striking. As such, nearly everyone has been brilliant—Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Isco, Luka Modric, Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcelo, Toni Kroos and Daniel Carvajal in particular.
Across the following slides, we pick the best five from that bunch for the month of January.
5. Toni Kroos
When Rafa Benitez was sacked in the first week of January, immediately it was concluded that James Rodriguez and Isco had most to gain from the Madrileno's departure. That was probably true, but Toni Kroos wasn't far behind them.
Under Benitez, the German had endured a difficult campaign as he was consistently moved around in Madrid's formation as the former manager sought to craft a midfield with a different dynamic. From anchorman to No. 10, Kroos played every midfield position there was, his game suffering from the lack of clarity.
But now that's all changed.
Now under Zidane, Kroos has been restored to the deep-lying role he played under Carlo Ancelotti, and looks all the better for it.
Against Deportivo La Coruna, Sporting Gijon and Espanyol, his crisp distribution was key to his team's impressive fluency in attack, while his work in shutting down counter-attacks at Real Betis was sound as Madrid keep the hosts trapped in their own half.
For the month, he led Real Madrid in passing accuracy, was only behind Luka Modric in total passes and tallied three assists from his deep role, per WhoScored.com.
In short, Kroos looks like Kroos again.
4. Cristiano Ronaldo
Goals in bunches have been the theme of Cristiano Ronaldo's entire season, and January saw the trend continue.
Though Ronaldo's month was a chequered one with scoreless outings against Valencia, Deportivo La Coruna and Real Betis, when he did score, he scored heavily. Against Sporting Gijon, he grabbed two; against Espanyol, he went one better.
In both of those outings, the Portuguese let fly with sumptuous left-foot finishes, the second of which against Espanyol was absolutely stunning and undoubtedly his finest goal of the season.
Still, though, many are asking for more from Ronaldo, which is understandable. Increasingly, he's playing in short bursts rather than sustained barrages, and his declining impact against fellow heavyweights is becoming unavoidable. Yet it also must be remembered that goals aren't the only indicator of success.
Against Valencia, Ronaldo's sublime no-look pass set up Karim Benzema's opener, while Gareth Bale's second goal against Depor came from the former Manchester United man's work out wide, too.
Five goals and two assists: It's a pretty good return for a months' work. And not only that, there's been evidence of a greater work ethic without the ball as well.
3. Gareth Bale
Oh, the timing.
When Gareth Bale left the field with yet another calf injury against Sporting Gijon in mid-January, he was in the middle of his finest stretch in a Real Madrid shirt. In four-and-a-half games, the Welshman had stormed to nine goals and three assists, and yet it was about more than the numbers.
For much of his Real Madrid career, Bale has often looked like a third wheel alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, but there's been a noticeable internal shift. More assertive, more involved and more demonstrative, the Welshman has looked like a leader and a star.
He knows it now. He can taste it.
In January alone, Bale scored a crucial goal against Valencia (he also played a leading role in Benzema's opener), registered a stunning hat-trick against Deportivo La Coruna and both scored and assisted before going off against Sporting.
Until he departed that afternoon, he'd been Madrid's dominant player for a month. If it wasn't for injury forcing him to miss the final two games of January, he'd top this list.
2. Karim Benzema
The numbers speak for themselves.
In January, Karim Benzema stepped out for Real Madrid five times. On all five occasions, he scored. Twice, he bagged two. If you extend the time frame out a little further, he has 15 goals in his last 10 matches.
Off-field distractions aside, this has been a magnificent season for Benzema. With one league goal every 69.7 minutes according to WhoScored.com, the Frenchman is currently the fastest-scoring player in Europe ahead of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robert Lewandowski, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Gonzalo Higuain, Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
For a long time considered among the best No. 9s in the world, Benzema is making a case that he might be the best. Indeed, his game has never looked more complete than it is now, his goals coming in every fashion, his link-up play exceptional, his presence in the box immense.
In January, Benzema was exceptional under Zidane and impacted every game. And yet there's still one man ahead of him on this list.
1. Luka Modric
Tons of goals? No.
Tons of assists? No.
Running the show? Absolutely.
Since Zinedine Zidane took over from Rafa Benitez in early January, Luka Modric has consistently been Real Madrid's outstanding player. As part of a more settled midfield trio alongside Toni Kroos and Isco, the Croatian has looked rejuvenated as his side's chief playmaker, his smooth orchestration key to Madrid's potency in attack.
Though he wasn't able to completely dictate the clash with Valencia, Modric was a commanding presence in Madrid's four other games in January, his performances against Real Betis and Espanyol standing out in particular. Following the latter, he received a standing ovation from the Bernabeu.