The Madrid derby at the weekend was another tight, claustrophobic affair. Atletico and Real's two previous competitive encounters this season ended scoreless. Only a piece of invention by Vinicius Junior early in the second half—cutting out three opposition players with a deft pass, which sent Ferland Mendy racing clear of Atletico's cover before he crossed for Karim Benzema to score—helped to separate the two sides.
It was another scrappy win by Real Madrid, which keeps them three points clear at the top of the league table in Spain. Only Benzema is carrying his load up front—he has scored 13 goals in their league campaign, one fewer than Lionel Messi this season. The next-highest scorers in the league for coach Zinedine Zidane's side are on three goals, one of them being Sergio Ramos, a central defender.
"I've been going to see Real Madrid play for many years. They have always been more attacking," says Jose Garcia, who has watched Real Madrid games at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium since the 1960s.
"I find Zinedine Zidane is too conservative. It was the same in the match against Atletico, as it has been in other recent matches—starting the match playing with five midfielders. The line-up means that you give a message to the other team—that you're frightened. Now Real Madrid has got a fabulous squad. He should be a bit more aggressive.
"But you cannot blame Zidane because he can always say, 'I won three Champions League titles,' but I feel that if I have to pay a fortune to go from Galicia—where I now live—to see Real Madrid play, I'd like to see another type of football. I'm not a fan who only looks at the scoreboard. I like to enjoy good football."
Real Madrid—who have been missing Eden Hazard, their summer galactico signing, for much of the season through injury—might not be entertaining, but they are finding ways to get the job done. They are on a 21-game unbeaten run that stretches back to October, with only two defeats in all campaigns this season and some silverware already bagged after their Spanish Super Cup win in Saudi Arabia in January.
The 21-year-old box-to-box Uruguayan midfielder Fede Valverde—who was man of the match in the Spanish Super Cup final despite being sent off—has been the revelation of Real Madrid's season, stepping into the gap presented by the club's failure to land Paul Pogba from Manchester United. That Diario AS' match report at the weekend labelled him "the find of the century" goes some way to explaining the impact he has had. He's an identikit Real Madrid player—all-action, full of fight.
"The Bernabeu loves Fede Valverde because of his qualities—he's direct, fast, a competitor," says Manuel Bruna, a journalist with Mundo Deportivo. "He flies around the pitch. He's always looking to arrive into the box.
"The fans at Real Madrid prefer football that's fast, direct, the typical English [counter-attacking] style. If it's beautiful, marvellous, but what they really want is to vibrate. They want action. They want their players to harass their rivals. The Bernabeu doesn't like when the ball is moved slowly around the pitch, going nowhere. They will whistle that. That's why they love Valverde.
"Above all, the thing that interests Real Madrid fans is winning. If the team plays attractive football, all the better, but in the end what obsesses them is winning. This has been the way all of their history. Real Madrid's brand is to fight until the end, to never give up—to fight for every ball until the ref blows the final whistle. This fighting spirit had been lost a little bit over the last couple of years."
That Real Madrid have come from a low base partly explains the patience their fans have this season with the team's results-based performances. They have just endured two ignominious league campaigns, in which they finished 19 and 17 points adrift of title winners, Barcelona, respectively. What stands out this season is their defensive solidity; they have only conceded 13 goals in the league, the lowest tally at this point in the season in their history.
"Zidane realised [when he returned as manager in March 2019] that without Cristiano Ronaldo he had to change things a bit," says Jaime Rodriguez, a journalist with El Mundo. "He no longer has a superstar up front. He had to find other solutions. That's why he wanted to buy Pogba. He couldn't get him, so he 'invented' Valverde—to make the team solid, rock-solid, defensively stronger, powerful in centre field. From there the quality of Benzema, Toni Kroos, Isco could prosper.
"Within the club, they're satisfied with the way the season has gone, given that Zidane was on the verge of being fired in October. The club saw it was going to be a difficult year of transition. Zidane has given a second life to players that were almost dead—players who looked like their race was run, like Kroos and Luka Modric. He's got them in the right frame of mind again.
"He has made Real Madrid very competitive. The question is: Will it be enough to win the big titles, will they be able hang in there with Messi's Barcelona in the league and proceed in the Champions League? They're missing goals to win the Champions League—a top striker to score in the decisive moments of the tournament, but in the league they look good. In the last Clasico of the season—which is in early March—if they get a good result, they should win the title."
Barcelona is always a counterpoint in debates about Real Madrid. It is interesting that Barcelona felt compelled to discard their manager last month—when the club was top of the league table—in part because of concerns the style of football Ernesto Valverde's team was playing wasn't exciting enough and too removed from their possession-based brand of play.
"At Real Madrid, there isn't a strict style of play," says Rodriguez. "It's not as clearly defined as in Barcelona. At Barca, they've arrived at this situation, which is a bit bizarre. Sometimes, they become almost a caricature of themselves.
"To get rid of your trainer when you're leading the league—and are going well in the Champions League, a trainer that has won back-to-back league titles—only because his style of football is not as beautiful as expected, appears a bit frivolous. From the first four games of Quique Setien in charge, we haven't seen a change. We haven't seen a symphony of football. It looks very like what has gone before. Barca is a victim of its own philosophy.
"At Real Madrid, the perspective is more pragmatic, more competitive. They have won titles with Jose Mourinho [and Fabio Capello], who were very defensive. Sure, they have fired trainers before like, for example, Jupp Heynckes [after winning the UEFA Champions League in 1998]—and there have been others—because the football was ugly, but with Zidane, there doesn't exist that concept. The fans are content. If they weren't happy, they would be whistling in the stadium."
After a toxic atmosphere at the club last season—when it was out of all three competitions by early March, including an embarrassing 4-1 defeat to a youthful Ajax team in the Champions League at the Bernabeu—it is interesting to note how quickly the club has moved on from the Cristiano Ronaldo era.
Even though Real Madrid are struggling for goals this season, fans aren't pining for the man who scored 450 in nine seasons in a Real Madrid jersey, and has just scored in nine successive league games for Juventus as they march towards another Serie A title in Italy. It seems they've turned the page.
"Real Madrid fans don't regret he left," says Bruna. "Yes—when things were going badly last season, for example, and again at the start of this season when it was apparent that Real Madrid's team had lost some of its character, people dwelt on the absence of Cristiano and his fighting spirit and the goals he brought to the team. People wondered if he was still here, maybe things would be different.
"But now that the team is winning again, nobody mentions Cristiano Ronaldo. Yes—fans are talking about the trouble Real Madrid is having scoring goals, but nobody is saying, 'Oh, if we had Cristiano, we'd have more goals.' The thing that people miss about him the most is his character—he's a natural-born winner—not his goals."
Real Madrid have a big test on the horizon. Pep Guardiola's Manchester City visit on Feb. 26 for a first-leg UEFA Champions League knockout tie, and a league game against Barca will follow four days later. For now, though, there is a sense of tranquillity, a belief that Zidane will do the business—without a concern for aesthetics.
"This season has surprised everyone because it started very badly—with the 7-3 defeat to Atletico in New Jersey in pre-season—but the team is growing," says Rodriguez. "I see that people at the Bernabeu are content, but also realistic. Their team has a lot of experience.
"They know the importance of having a superstar that scores decisive goals—a Messi, a Cristiano, a Neymar, an Mbappe or a Harry Kane—and they don't have that star now, so the successes have to come by a different route. It could be from defence, midfield. For that reason, people are prudent. For that reason, people thought it would be a disaster of a year, but actually Zidane has re-activated the team.
"There's calm, more than expectation, but knowing Zidane, and knowing the club, I would warn rivals of Real Madrid not to relax or be too confident about themselves. This club has been able to win Champions League titles without Cristiano Ronaldo. In 2000, for example, the club won a Champions League with a team full of 'middle-class' players and with five in defence. I'm sure that Guardiola won't be very calm before City's match against Real Madrid."
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