Zinedine Zidane has Real Madrid's formula working to perfection
In Sunday's away 3-0 win over Deportivo La Coruna, Real Madrid's defensive midfielder Casemiro scored. This type of event stopped being news at some point last season, as the industrious Brazilian progressively has added a remarkable offensive effectiveness to his well-regarded defensive skills.
The most outstanding aspect of Casemiro's goal is that it happened after his team put together a string of 44 consecutive passes. The whole squad participated, moving the ball for almost two full minutes until Marcelo found his fellow countryman at the far post.
"We try to play that way and have the right players to do so," Zinedine Zidane said after the match.
As the French manager uses a lineup with four midfielders more and more frequently, this type of play becomes more frequent, as the style of the side leans toward possession rather than a more direct offense.
This evolution hasn't happened overnight. Even if Zidane favours a certain style of football -- and having been an extraordinary offensive midfielder, it only makes sense that he enjoys seeing his team with the ball -- a squad needs the right personnel to play like this. To get to this point, Real Madrid has accumulated a particular profile of players since Luka Modric joined the side in 2012.
The subsequent additions of Isco (2013), Toni Kroos (2014), plus less obvious but also competent passers, such as the aforementioned Casemiro (recovered from Porto in 2015) and Mateo Kovacic (signed that same year from Inter Milan), have given Zidane the tools to control the match from the ball.
Of course, without the help of a very skilled rest of the team -- other players such as Marcelo, Marco Asensio or Raphael Varane make this approach function even better -- midfield alone would not be able to pull this off. Bringing in and developing talent that can maintain ball possession in every position always has been key for Real Madrid.
We don't need to go back to the Alfredo Di Stefano era -- the one that made the club what it is today -- or to the Quinta del Buitre to find examples of the Bernabau's love affair with classy midfielders. That's what explains the stadium's adulation for Modric ever since he joined the side. Always calm in possession, an excellent passer and, more importantly, always with the right decision in every moment of the match. Every possession has a purpose, aiming to hurt the opposition.
Despite this background, modern football's tendency to idolise the recent and forget the past has led some pundits to insinuate that Real Madrid has copied Barcelona's model, and that president Florentino Perez has signed the players that Barcelona should have signed, as though Kroos and Modric had no business playing at the Bernabeu. Seems like somehow this version of Real Madrid is intruding. Reading some media, it almost feels as though Barcelona invented midfield.
Indeed, the contributions of Johan Cruyff (in a more vertical, offensive version) and Pep Guardiola (valuing possession and spacing over other riskier approaches) have changed football, but the evolution of the game never stops. This Real Madrid still has some bits of Jose Mourinho (the counter) and of Carlo Ancelotti (some offensive moves and the use of the full-backs) but Zidane has added another gear.
This gear uses the squad's resources extensively, something Ancelotti never did, with an optimal physical preparation. But, above it all, its essence is in the midfield.
And that is why the future looks bright. Teams with solid, young midfielders tend to put together great runs of form, such as the one Real Madrid currently is enjoying. The new signings, such as Dani Ceballos or Marcos Llorente, look perfect for the type of game that is being played right now. And Zidane keeps applying his rotation policy: 18 field players already have been featured in four official matches, which shows that there's a bit of time for everybody so that the most important players are fresh for the final push.
Top-level football is extremely competitive, and a couple of changes in a squad, an untimely injury or two, or some incorrect decisions can derail any team. But it's hard to see what Real Madrid as a club and Zidane as a manager are doing wrong at this point, and the results support them in full.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.