When Gareth Bale brought down his left foot to meet Dani Carvajal’s superb pickout, he wasn’t just sending the ball hurtling towards the top corner of Borussia Dortmund’s goal; he was also sending out a message.
The Welshman is not done at Real, far from it. The rise of a certain Isco may have put Bale’s place in the side in danger but his form this season has shown just why manager Zinidine Zidane insists Bale remains in his plans.
Real eventually ran comfortable 3-1 winners in a pulsating match that was almost exhausting to watch; such was the hectic nature of the game.
The thrill-a-minute nature of the match highlighted just why Zidane has been the world’s most successful manager for the past two seasons. Against a Dortmund side known to press high, he went with Cristiano Ronaldo and Bale up front. Behind them floated the excellent Isco, tasked with the responsibility of finding the two in 2v2 situations with Dortmund’s centre-backs.
The change of formation showed just how adaptable Zidane’s Real are but it highlighted an even more dangerous part of their game; the lack of any apparent weakness. Dortmund have the lethal capability of upping the ante and raising the tempo until it reaches fever pitch. Teams like Arsenal and Bayern have tried to counter this by keeping the ball and slowing the game down to saner levels.
Zidane, like Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the Europa League in 2016, instead took on Dortmund at their own game and his players matched Dortmund every step of the way.
It was Zidane’s way of saying to Dortmund manager Peter Bosz, “You think you can stir your players into a passionate frenzy until they win matches based on sheer hunger alone? Hold my beer.”
All four members of Real’s back-four conjured superb defensive recoveries to thwart a free-flowing Dortmund attack that has scored at will this season.
Real’s players are willing to die for their manager. And for good reason.
There is an oft-used adage in team sport that the whole can be larger than the sum of its parts. Many teams have had that intangible x-factor that somehow makes them better than their players are — Sir Alex Ferguson, arguably the greatest manager of all time, was perhaps the finest proponent of this.
But Zidane doesn’t bother with improving the sum of his parts, he just improves his parts. Almost every single player in the Real side has improved under the charismatic Frenchman.
Isco, once fighting with James Rodriguez to be the first choice off the bench, is now one of the best number 10s in the world; if not the best.
Carvajal is the Thomas Muller of defence; making everything seem so ridiculously simple that people often forget how far ahead he is of everyone else in his position.
Toni Kroos and Luka Modric have both added an extra dimension to their game; floating out wide when Ronaldo and Bale cut inside to ensure opposition defences cannot just become narrow to deal with the inverted wingers.
Marcelo is no longer susceptible as a defender but continues to be just as lethal in attack. Cross-field passes with his weaker right foot to switch play is a new party trick he has added to his game.
Rafael Varane is no longer the wunderkind waiting in Pepe and Sergio Ramos’s shadow but a calm centre-back with the strength and pace to handle most one-on-one situations.
Sergio Ramos has improved every aspect of his game — tackling, passing, positioning, you name it.
Casemiro has gone from being the name every Real fan hated to see on the teamsheet to a one-man wrecking ball that can occasionally come up with the odd goal on the big occasion.
Karim Benzema continues to be the foil that allows others in attack to flourish.
Marco Asensio has emerged as a world beater and has a left foot that is the envy of every player in the world this side of Lionel Messi and perhaps Paulo Dybala.
But in Cristiano Ronaldo lies Zidane’s greatest victory. The Portuguese almost has a new lease of life after a frustrating half-year under Rafa Benitez. A happy Ronaldo is a happy Real and Zidane has massaged Ronaldo’s ego without letting it get out of hand. The Portugal skipper knows he is the most important cog in the machine, but he knows damn well he is still a cog in a scheme much larger than himself.
Instead of trying the spectacular long-rangers and flashy dribbles that once saw him play to the gallery, Ronaldo’s game is now built on off-the-ball movement. Zidane’s message to him is clear, “If you make the runs, someone will find you.”
That someone can be Marcelo, Carvajal, Isco, Bale, Benzema, Assensio, Kroos or Modric; too many players in this Real side are capable of conjuring up an extraordinary pass for Ronaldo to ever be short of service. He somehow managed to convince Ronaldo he is more lethal running without the ball than he is with it; the numbers speak for themselves.
Zidane’s final trick is borrowed right from his own playing days; swagger. Real now play with an arrogance that emanates an unerring belief that they are better than the opposition.
The final against Juventus was the perfect example. 1-1 at half-time, Real completely camped Juventus in their own half. By doing so, they played into the Bianconeri’s hands; so adapt at swift counter-attacking footballs. That counter never came. What did come was Real ruthlessly battering the Italians into submission.
This belief means Real never shut up shop. Leading 2-1 against Alaves in La Liga in their last game, Real were almost undone by a counter that saw them leave only two players in their own half in the 93rd minute.
For many this would seem foolhardy but it is borne of Real’s belief that they are just too good to not be in the ascendancy, even if it is the final minute of a game that they are winning.
This often gung-ho approach means the players expect to win. So overwhelming is this mind-set that most opposition teams expect to lose even before they take to the field against this Real machine.
On Tuesday they decided to take on Dortmund at their own game, and they emerged 3-1 victors because of it.
By doing so they sent out a message just as clear as Bale’s arrow into the top corner; Zidane’s Real expect to win and the rest of Europe can do little about it but hope that they themselves trip up somewhere.