Is it possible that Zinedine Zidane's rejuvinated Real Madrid team could win the treble this season?
EDIT: No. No, it’s not.
In the club’s 118 year history, Real Madrid have won everything except for a treble. 13 European Cup/Champions League titles, 33 La Liga wins and they’ve been crowned Copa Del Rey champions on 19 occasions, among other less prestigious titles. But they’ve never managed to win the aforementioned three in the same season.
When Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid blew the world away in the 2016/17 season, they won the club’s first league and European double since the famous Alfredo Di Stefano/Farenc Puskas squad achieved the feat way, way back in 1958. In the 2016/17 season, it was a slip up against Celta Vigo, where a team that was deserving of all its praise had its only major hiccup throughout a gruellingly long European season that followed a successful Champions League campaign from the season before. The triumph of the previous season prompted them to take on the additional burdens of the Club World Cup (for example), which was also certainly a contributing factor for the loss against Celta in January 2017, less than a month after the win over Kashima Antlers.
It’s still a point of pride for Barcelona fans, who don’t match Madrid’s tallies for the Champions League or La Liga (for now), that they are the only Spanish club to have won a treble. Not only that, but they are the only club to boast two trebles – with the 2008/09 and 2014/15 squads undoubtedly considered among the greatest teams to ever play. Madrid’s Champions League Treble team, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, that won 4 Champions Leagues in five seasons and three in a row, will also be in with a shout as one of the finest teams of all time. But they still don’t have their treble… As a fan of the club, it’s something that hurts.
The current squad, however, offers something that other remarkable Real Madrid sides didn’t. A team built on the backbone of a steadfast defence. Other teams throughout the club’s history have had great defences, but none were built from the skeleton of a rock-solid defence by the same coach, the defences didn’t really need to work too hard because the fluidity in midfield and attack kept the opposition at bay. The age old saying that “the best form of defence is attack” has always been part of the Real Madrid philosophy that forces coaches at the club to play “champagne football”. The art of attacking football is fundamental to Real Madrid’s identity and their squads throughout the years have achieved this to incredibly devastating effect. Think of Cristiano Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Raul, Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Luka Modric, Emilio Butrugueno, Hugo Sanchez, Alfredo Di Stefano and Farenc Puskas – the star players that come to mind whenever you or any other generation of football fans think about Real Madrid – they’re all attacking midfielders and forwards.
Now think about Fabio Capello… poor Fabio. I have very fond memories of the 2006/07 season when Madrid won the league title on the final day thanks to a last-minute winner from the late Jose Antonio Reyes. Capello was dismissed in the summer. And it was an ugly deja vu for the Italian tactician, who also won the league in his other solitary season in the Santiago Bernabeau dugout, in the 1996/97 season. Why? His teams played defensive football. Think of the unceremonious way that Jose Mourinho left the club in 2013, having ended a torturous long trophy drought for the club that was competing with Pep Guardiola’s extraordinary team. Mourinho won the league in 2012 and Copa in 2011, and he took the team that couldn’t make it past the Round of 16 for years to three consecutive Champions League semi-finals. Yet, he played with defensive, counterattacking tactics. He was, of course, a contrarian, alienated figure by the end of his reign, as Mourinho loves to be, but he had become unpopular for his defensive setup.
And guess what? After Capello left in 1997, Madrid won their first European trophy in over 30 years in 1998 under Jupp Heynckes. When he left in 2007, Madrid won La Liga by a record points margin under Bernd Schuster. Then, when Mourinho left in 2013, Carlo Ancelotti delivered La Decima in 2014, Madrid’s first European title since 2002.
The failures of those teams were in stability and once coaches switched and those defensively solid teams started hitting the right notes in attack, they were remarkable. However, can you picture what it would have been like if a single coach could orchestrate the effort to build a team from the back and add the attacking catalyst afterwards, rather than the interference of a new appointment and competing philosophies, ideas and training regimes?
So what’s the trend? Madrid teams need to be built from the back. Mourinho managed to get the best out of Pepe, most prominently and oversaw the transformation of Sergio Ramos from a right-back to a center-back, whilst also helping Marcelo mature into a world-class left-back. Capello built his teams around the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Manolo Sanchis, Mohamadou Diarra and other defensive pillars. Both also took strict, disciplinary approaches – we see Zidane doing the same (although not publicly) with Gareth Bale and other less plugged-in players like James Rodriguez.
Now, Zinedine Zidane has something of an immunity – because he’s Zinedine Zidane. Arguably the most iconic figure of the 21st century for the club, he can get away with playing defensively. Not only that, but, truth be told, nobody quite knows exactly what Zizou’s style/philosophy is. It’s unclear and he plays his cards very close to his chest. He’s unpredictable, but there’s also method to his madness. And it’s not that Zidane doesn’t have any ideas to make the front line click. Not at all. It’s that the attack that he built in his first stint is a shadow of its former self without the phenomenon that is Cristiano Ronaldo. Gareth Bale is almost refusing to take up Ronaldo’s role and would prefer to be a professional golfer. Karim Benzema (who’s actually taken on the goal scoring burden rather well) has spent his entire Real Madrid career up until Ronaldo’s departure as a false nine that provided the spaces and passes for the Portuguese superstar to score with such frequency. And the likes of Vinicius and Rodrygo are just too young and inexperienced to be the talisman for the club right now. Eden Hazard struggled to find form at the start of the season and picked up an injury just as he started to find it.
Rather, Zidane seems to have opted to polish his defence after his attack and midfield of the 2016/17 season failed so miserably in the 2018/19 season. He’s built on the defensive setup that he inherited from Santiago Solari a year ago and he’s put a particularly extraordinary effort into working on the spaces between defence and midfield. Fede Valverde has been a revelation alongside Casemiro, who is arguably the best player in his position in Europe right now, and nobody is even thinking about Paul Pogba. Marcelo is no longer a starter at the club, due to Ferland Mendy’s emergence as a defensively solid left-back that packs a very good cross. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane have yet to lose a game when playing alongside one another this season and Dani Carvajal is as solid, threatening and consistent as he has always been. Madrid have conceded the least goals (13) out of any league leader in Europe this season – two less than Jurgen Klopp’s widely celebrated defence led by the mountainous Virgil van Dijk. Thibaut Courtois is in the form of his life and has kept 11 clean sheets in 19 league appearances this season, making him a contender for Jan Oblak’s long-held Zamora title. This Real Madrid team may still be missing Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals, but they certainly are keeping it tight at the back. Their 1-0 victories are raking up Ws on an impressive form table has led them to this point, where they are on top of La Liga, in the Quarter-Finals of the Copa Del Rey, won the Spanish Super Cup and are due to take on a struggling Manchester City in the Round of 16 in the Champions League. There’s still a lot of season left, but this is almost as promising as a season gets by the beginning of February.
The attack itself is also starting to show signs of improvement, with the Vinicius-Mendy-Benzema link-up to provide the goal that won the Madrid Derby the kind of winner that gives them the look of an attack in perfect sync. The beauty is that, right now, with a team that rarely concedes goals, it just takes that one moment of magic to win a game. But there haven’t been many offensive masterclasses this season and Real Madrid fans crave those 5-0 thrashings. Besides, if you’re coming up against Robert Lewandowski, Mohamed Salah or the likes in the latter stages of the Champions League, it’s almost inevitable that you will concede. So the attack simply cannot be short on ideas.
Yet Toni Kroos has turned into a goal contributing machine this season with a combined 11 goals and assists this season so far, while we’re starting to see the best of an ageing Luka Modric start to come out at the business end of the season. This is largely due to the extra freedom they are given by a sound defence, especially when Fede Valverde plays alongside them, freeing up extra space further forward, where they truly thrive. Then consider that Eden Hazard is targeting a return to action for the Champions League tie with Manchester City. Vinicius is slowly starting to find his feet and the forgotten man, Marco Asensio, will also soon be making a return from his long-term injury lay-off. Zidane has shown great patience with his front line this season and hasn’t seemed to be bothered by the lack of goals. He knows that he’s got plenty of talent that can do extraordinary things in his squad. Once they’re all fit, combining and competing with one another, this attack possesses the potential to dazzle any defence in Europe and bring fans to their feet on a weekly basis.
This is a team built on the foundation of a solid defence that gives it a platform to retain the confidence of the fans by winning games, while the forwards search for the formula that will bring back the golden touch of the Ronaldo days. Once that happens, I’d like to see any team deal with the top-to-bottom explosion that could, once again, prove that Zidane really, really knows what he’s doing.