Are Real Madrid going to grind their way to another La Liga title? At the moment you wouldn’t bet against it.
They are operating at the football equivalent of rope-a-dope most weeks. Nearly every team has a chance against them, and feels very much in the game, only for the knockout blow to be landed in some shape or form. It's not a particularly pretty way to win football matches, but boy, have Madrid mastered it.
This was never more obvious than last season, when no other team in Spain made more tackles and interceptions combined than Los Blancos. They attempted 5,000 less passes than their rivals and had a 3% less pass completion. They hit double the number of crosses that Barcelona did and created double the number of chances from set pieces (63 versus 39).
In the run-in when the matches returned post-covid break, Real Madrid won 10 of 11 matches and the only draw was after the title was decided. They hunted down a weak Barcelona ruthlessly, winning six of those matches by a single goal. This Real Madrid team is not a sight to behold from an aesthetic perspective, but they are the purest form of match-winners around in European football at the moment.
And it’s the old-fashioned spine of the team that is continuing to lead them. Sergio Ramos was second-highest scorer in 2019/20 and he is in the form of his life, a leader, a defender, playmaker and goal contributor all rolled into one. Karim Benzema plays every week not only because he has to but because Zinedine Zidane wouldn’t trust anyone else.
And then there is Thibaut Courtois. Is it bizarre now to look back just a year when his No. 1 jersey was being questioned after one or two awkward moments. Now, in terms of ability to earn points with his shot-stopping, there’s arguably no better goalkeeper in Europe.
The Belgians’ 0.59 goals conceded P90 last season was the best in the league, as was his save % of 0.79. He had the most clean sheets (18) and he outperformed his post-shot Expected Goals by +2.6 - the fourth best in the league. He had a stellar year.
And some of those stats seem on the verge of precarious. Madrid were awarded, and scored, 11 penalties last season and their non-penalty xG is just 55.3 - not particularly high at all. Their excellent defence and Benzema alone looked to be a difficult formula to repeat.
And yet, it’s happening. In 2020/21 Madrid have 10 points from a possible 12 and have, probably, performed well for about 90 of those 360 minutes. Their 0-0 draw with Real Sociedad was immensely hard work, as was the 1-0 home win over Valladolid. They needed a late, controversial penalty to defeat Real Betis, while Levante tested Courtois more than once and the xG in Madrid’s favour didn’t truly reflect the momentum of the match, with Benzema's breakaway goal in injury time sealing the win.
But they are winning. They are getting it done, in difficult places. All of the concerns about Zidane’s squad remain; no direct replacement for Benzema, lack of balance in midfield, neither Isco or Martin Odegaard appearing to be the answer at No. 10, leading to a reversion to 4-3-3; Vinicius coming good now, but not there yet, Rodrygo quite far off it and Eden Hazard miles away. And now both right-backs are injured and Nacho will have to play there for a month at least.
And Zidane and his team are just riding the waves, utilising their vast experience - particularly with Luka Modric deputising for the injured Toni Kroos - to game manage their way to victory. In Ramos they have the king of doing so and his influence over the team seems to grow with each passing season.
It’s difficult to stop a team that can be hit with multiple adversities and yet continue to steamroller onwards. It’s far from a Madrid vintage - but their incessant desire to win has to be admired. Who would bet against them doing it again?