It stands on the edge of becoming almost paradoxical that Zinadine Zidane was able to cement his stature as manager par excellence by making Real Madrid FC this year’s paragon of defense in La Liga when the path he as a football player not too long ago often took to achieve victory is through artful, crafty but nonetheless lethal, tenacious, and relentless scoring.
Call it maturity. Call it pragmatic. Call it changing the way Real Madrid plays. Call it having the wisdom to know when it is best to focus on offense and when to win using defense. Call it coming back with a vengeance after a humiliating 7-3 loss to Atletico Madrid in a preseason friendly. None of these post-season opinions from armchair observers matter to Zidane (who, for all we know, could be exiting Real Madrid for the second time now, and for good, but let’s try to tune out this rumor for now) as long as he is deserving to be called one of the best managers by virtue of the trophies he was able to collect as Real Madrid’s manager, and for as long as Los Blancos gets to be called kings of Spain’s top tier association football again.
Esteemed manager Sir Alex Ferguson has said it—attack wins you games, defense wins you titles. Well, in fairness to Real Madrid (and Cristiano Ronaldo), Los Blancos has won trophies as an aggressive attacking squad. What made this a landmark season for Real Madrid is showing that they can remain victorious even after adopting a different approach to winning games.
I bet it was not easy to transition from being an offense-oriented squad to putting a premium on defense—not to Zidane (who is fifth in the list of top scorers in the history of the French national football team), not to Real Madrid players, and not to the fans who are all used to watching Cristiano Ronaldo’s dazzling display of scoring flair.
Defense, after all, is desire (borrowing from Will Patton’s Remember the Titans character Bill Yoast). Real Madrid clearly wanted it, and the numbers provide proof.
In the past, Real Madrid has been consistent in having high overall goals - 153 (2012-13 season), 160 (2013-14), and 162 (2014-15). When Zidane took over, there is a noticeable decrease in overall goals—173 (2016-17 season), 148 (2017-18), 108 (2018-19), and 98 (2019-2020). I did not include the 2015-16 season because that is when Real Madrid transitioned from Rafael Benitez to Zidane.
It is not easy to shift a team’s character and to start adopting defense as a trademark style of play because it is an overhaul that requires major changes not just in the playbook but in the mindset and attitude of the players as well. There is also the matter of acceptance from fans, but Zidane brings with him not just his decorated past as a player, but tactical acumen that hasn’t rusted and most important of all, gravitas. A manager with less impressive qualities and inferior qualifications would’ve surely folded, considering the egos in the dugout and the expectations in Santiago Bernabéu.
The question now is whether or not this trend continues in the succeeding years with Zidane remaining at the helm. I can understand the logic of investing in defending to win especially after losing Cristiano Ronaldo and having no one par to the Portuguese forward to fill the scoring void left by what many consider as the greatest football player of all time. French striker Karim Benzema appears poised to take over the scoring chores for Real Madrid. While he is no Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema is a very talented athlete, no doubt. It leaves to be seen whether Zidane and Real Madrid continue this path in the coming years, especially since some say winning with defense takes the excitement away from playing football—a sport wherein scoring goals is the one that spurs excitement and generates energy.
Ken Ferris, in his book Manchester United in Europe: Tragedy, History, Destiny, wrote about former Manchester United goalkeeper Alex Stepney’s dislike for playing Italian teams because Italian clubs put emphasis on defense when playing, and they are good at it, too.
“The Italians had become masters of boring the pants off the rest of Europe with their defensive play.”
If defense is desire, how long will the players, the management, and the fans remain desirous?