It is pretty much a standard question every year – ‘Who will win La Liga?’. But this season, the question could be more interesting than it was in the last few years. Even though Real Madrid are second in the league currently, there is no point in counting them out already.
The Los Blancos were at the top as recently as this past weekend. The loss to Mallorca was disappointing but Barcelona are only one point above them and Atletico Madrid have already drawn four games – a disappointing figure for a side that intends to challenge for the title.
Still, Real have had close games themselves. The draws against Real Valladolid and Villarreal could have seen them lose. They nearly slipped up against Levante and despite being 3-0 up at the end of the first-half, they conceded twice in the second-half. Against Sevilla, it was a big Karim Benzema goal that helped them get all three points.
Barcelona haven’t been perfect either. Ernesto Valverde is slowly getting to know the right positions of players like Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong but it’s actually Lionel Messi’s return to full fitness that has played a major role in helping them get back on track over the past three or four games.
As for Real, there still seems to be uncertainty about things. Isco started centrally in the game against Mallorca, while James Rodriguez played on the right of a 4-4-2 shape. Needless to say, that helped no one.
During Zinedine Zidane’s first spell, Real did play a variety of formations. They could afford to do that because of the versatility of their players. Benzema’s movement helped Cristiano Ronaldo and Isco to thrive. The midfield worked in excellent cohesion, helping the defense get a reduced burden on their shoulders.
In this side, there is not as much certainty as they aren’t exactly a settled unit. But change of formations isn’t exactly a problem for Zidane but the way his players have performed very much is.
Eden Hazard has struggled with fitness and consistency, scoring just once in all competitions. The injuries had increased in the first few weeks of the season. As many as six players were missing till September, that included Hazard, Rodriguez, Rodrigo and Isco. If not for the injuries, they could still have been at the top of the league. If not that, at least the players would have looked more settled.
Casemiro and Benzema though, have been immense. The Frenchman has scored six times – tied in second of the goalscoring charts with Gerard Moreno and just behind Loren Moron with seven. The Brazilian, on the other hand, has won the second-highest number of tackles per game this season (via Whoscored). He has also recorded the highest number of interceptions per game in the league too.
Gareth Bale has played six times and he has shown that, when fit, he can still win games for any top European club. He has scored twice, assisting twice too. For a club that was close to letting him – as Zidane confirmed himself just a couple of months back – this is a huge positive.
But the game against their Madrid rivals said a lot. There seemed to be limited cohesion. They registered only three shots on target and Benzema, Bale and Hazard gave the ball away seven times in total (via Whoscored). Atletico sat deeper, as usual, and Real failed to break them down.
This situation is slightly different for Zidane when compared to how it was when his first spell took off. The team back then was an established one. It had a host of stars who just had to be given the right system to play and win games. Their personalities had to be managed – something Zidane did perfectly.
This season presents a new challenge. He has to fashion a rebuild. Florentino Perez handed him the tools this past summer to create a team that could either win titles this season or in the next few seasons. The likes of Eder, Luka Jovic and Ferland Mendy are younger players – a sign of how the club is building for the future.
While analysing the La Liga season, ESPN expert Steve Nicol said:
“I can’t see how Kroos, Modric and Casemiro can’t produce at their best this year. They’ve strengthened at the back as well- Mendy and Militao. They are way better than what they were last year. But I don’t think they’re favorites ahead of Barcelona.”
Indeed, this side looks like a work in progress. As Nicol said, they are a better squad than last season. But they aren’t a better team than last season. Becoming a better team takes a while. Players bed into the shapes and systems and the newer signings learn about their positions in the team. This process takes a while.
For a club that is undergoing a generational change, it certainly will take some months more. But next season, they will give a better shot at the title than this season.