A little after 11 on Saturday night, standing by the bench where he began his coaching career against Getafe B, back before the three European Cups and the league title, before he walked out and back in again, winning another title, Zinedine Zidane was asked to name the best thing about his latest derby win over Atlético Madrid.
At one end, two men with a ladder were taking down the net where Dani Carvajal had scored the second not long before – a superb shot thudding in off the post and Jan Oblak – but it wasn’t that. It wasn’t Casemiro’s opener, either. And it wasn’t Thibaut Courtois’s save to secure a clean sheet. Instead, there was a shrug, a smile and then Zidane said: “Everything.”
“These were three very important points, but it is a bit of everything. It was a complete performance, the win and the way we did it: against a team we know is very good that had gone 26 games without losing. And, well, I’m happy.”
He’d only gone and done it again. Atlético were top of the table, “favourites”, Zidane said. Six points ahead of Madrid with a game in hand, they stood before perhaps the best chance to win the league, better even than when they did. This was their strongest, deepest squad and they were dominating games, not just deciding them. They had won seven in a row, not lost a game and hadn’t even trailed, conceding twice in 10 matches. But now Madrid had put as many past them in one night, inflicting a first league defeat since February – when they last faced each other.
But that wasn’t all Zidane had done again. He had survived. To describe the most successful manager the European Cup has had as a survivor is a bit absurd, but it is also true. Another ultimatum overcome, there he was still standing, still smiling. Beaten by Cádiz, Alavés and Valencia, defeated twice by Shakhtar Donetsk, the team that had put five past them and none past anyone else, this might have been the week that ended Real Madrid’s season; instead, it is the week that finally got it started.
In the space of seven days, Madrid faced Sevilla, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Atlético Madrid. By the end of that run they could have been trailing Atlético by 12 points, having played a game more, and been out of the Champions League at the group stage for the first time ever. Do that and Zidane would be out too. But they didn’t do that, at least in part because Zidane would be out. Instead, Madrid won 1-0 at the Sánchez Pizjuán, beat Gladbach to win the group before drawing Atalanta in the last 16, and then defeated Atlético.
Victory for Atlético would have given them a bigger lead over their rivals than any side has overturned to win the title – but the gap now is three points, AS leading on “Madrid climb on board the league”. Marca went for: “Madrid revive the league”. As Zidane said, it wasn’t just that they had won, it was the way they had won, reasserting a superiority so clear you felt they could be champions again after all. “Madrid have turned things round like a sock,” one report said – which doesn’t say much for their hygiene and which somehow you always knew they would.
Thomas Lemar missed an absolute sitter that could have drawn Atlético level, it is true. The two goals Madrid scored were a header from a corner and an own goal, that’s also true. But it’s equally true that when Thibaut Courtois saved from Saúl Ñíguez late on, it was the only stop he made. “They were better than us, more intense,” the Atlético captain Koke said. “In the first half, we weren’t ourselves.”
The cynical might suggest that they were: that on Saturday Atlético’s recent shift in style was abandoned as it was always likely to be, another evolutionary process left incomplete. That when it came to it, Atlético did not believe in their new selves and that Madrid still exercise some strange hold over them.
Diego Simeone has talked about how Luis Suárez has conditioned the way Atletico play, obliging them to get closer to the opposition’s goal: there’s no point playing long to him, releasing him behind the defence. That in turn has favoured João Félix, perhaps the outstanding player this season. On Saturday, though, Suárez had 10 touches before he was withdrawn after 70 minutes, replaced by a defensive midfielder. João Félix had gone 10 minutes earlier, angrily kicking his seat. Atlético’s three-man central defence didn’t work, the wide men – Kieran Trippier and Yannick Carrasco – more full-backs than forwards, unable to escape from deep. And they saw Madrid complete 150 passes more, that new identity undone.
“The manager got it wrong,” Simeone said, something underlined by his decision to shift formation and make three changes at the break, removing both forwards soon after – a decision partly motivated by a desire to limit the damage. “Being leader is about the points you have, but also a state of mind,” wrote Orfeo Suárez in El Mundo. Atlético lacked that, he argued, and he wasn’t alone. “They retreated to their middle ages,” complained AS, “to proto-Cholismo.” In Marca, Roberto Palomar insisted: “It’s the syndrome of the step back again; it’s fine to lose to Madrid, but not to do so like old times.”
Yet it was one game, the formation was familiar – the same as recent, more successful weeks – it would be a leap to suggest they stepped back wilfully and the intention to continue playing out could be seen in how they were caught for Madrid’s first chance and the opening goal. Besides, there was another reason Atlético Madrid were not very good: Real Madrid were.
They were what they were supposed to be. Asked to explain Madrid’s performance, the club’s institutional director, Emilio Butragueño, said: “Well, we have very good players.” Questioned about Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, Zidane replied: “Pffff, well … they’re fucking great. But everyone, eh. Kroos and Modric are exceptional, it’s true. Benzema: what can I say? Lucas Vázquez, our captain [Sergio Ramos], Rafa [Varane], everyone, everyone …”
It was classic Zidane, always about them not him, and there is something in that. At their best, there may still be no midfield trio like Modric, Kroos and Casemiro. Against Atlético, Kroos completed 87 of 90 passes; against Gladbach, Modric rolled back the years and any opponent that was stupid enough to get too near. Karim Benzema was superb again: “Anyone who likes football likes Karim,” Zidane said. And there’s no big game player like Ramos, maybe anywhere: a man with a sense of occasion and a taste for the epic, a feel for the moments that really matter. “When they’re on, they’re on,” Zidane said last week. This week they had to be.
There’s something about immediate targets that drives them and may be just human nature; there are priorities in life, moments when everything else is left behind, the daily grind giving way to something grander or more important, moments when the threat of loss brings a realisation of what you have, a renewed seriousness. Madrid won three consecutive European Cups but Zidane always insisted the league satisfied him more, because he knew how elusive consistency can be. This is the team that embraced the 2019-20 La Liga campaign as a post-pandemic sprint more than a season-long slog and, defeated by sides half their size this season, won in Barcelona and Seville, beat Internazionale twice, and now defeated the team no one else could.
In seven decisive days, Real Madrid stepped back from the precipice, just as somehow, you always knew they would. Not least because they needed to and because Zidane needed them to – much as he had before the clásico and in Istanbul last season. A tightrope walker, as one columnist called him, he had made it to the other side again.
Make no mistake, it wasn’t talk from outside that placed Zidane on the edge; it was talk from the inside. Much is made of his relationship with key dressing-room figures, especially the veterans to whom he turned. It is often a backhanded compliment at best, wilfully overlooking tactical ideas – Modric and Kroos playing wide to overload the wings on Saturday for example – and making it sound simple or dismissing it as insignificant when sometimes it is everything. There was a sense of “don’t touch our Zidane” about Madrid’s reaction, which would make a brilliant Machiavellian plot of leaks from above – a reaction sought and secured. The question they, and others ask, is why aren’t Madrid always like this? “It’s hard to know, but it’s an unusual season,” Carvajal said.
“Everyone’s talking about this,” Casemiro said. “But lots of teams are having ups and downs, that’s normal. It’s the way it is; there are loads of games, no time. It’s not an excuse, but we’re not machines. It’s not just about intensity, it’s about playing well. We have to talk about football too. It’s easy to talk about Toni and Luka; you can see on the pitch they know how to play, and you can see the manager’s hand too.
“It’s not just the players; it’s also the coaching staff, who study things. And it’s not about who comes out of this stronger: Real Madrid come out of it stronger. You can see that we trust the manager, but it’s not just for him: it’s our pride, the badge, the club. You can see that we’re in this together.”