Real Madrid La Liga Frontrunners
Raphael Varane (L) and the Real Madrid defense have been the true key to the team's success. Juanjo Martin/EPA.

In the space of around 15 second-half minutes against Valencia last week, everything came together for Real Madrid. Until then, Zinedine Zidane’s side had lacked an identity, at least in an attacking sense, but with Marco Asensio, Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard on the pitch together for the first time, there was a clarity.

What looked like another slog to three points became the sort of performance Real Madrid have spent the majority of the season looking for. Zidane wants dynamism from his side, and with Asensio, Benzema and Hazard all running at pace with the ball, there was plenty of that. Luka Modric and Ernesto Valverde’s energy from midfield added to the sense of Real Madrid finally being unleashed.

But while Los Blancos may have finally found an attacking personality, it’s their defensive profile that has kept them in the Spanish title race this long. That has given the likes of Asensio, Benzema and Hazard the chance to make the difference in a title race they have only just entered as a trio.

No team has conceded fewer goals in La Liga this season than Real Madrid. In fact, the 21 goals conceded by Los Blancos is the lowest they have conceded at this stage of the season (after 30 games) for 32 years. Zidane has built a near impenetrable defensive unit and that, more than anything else, has pushed Real Madrid to the front of the the Spanish title race.

Sergio Ramos remains something of a wildcard, foraging forward with the ball at his feet or to get on the end of a cross in the opposition penalty area at least once a match. It’s a natural urge that Zidane doesn’t even try to quell. Ramos has been this way his entire career. He’s hardly going to change at 34.

In a way, Ramos does himself a disservice with his bursts of eccentricity. It can be easy to overlook just how good a defender he is, as well as the strength of the understanding he has forged with Raphael Varane. Real Madrid, and Zidane in particular during his first spell as manager, placed a lot of stock in Varane over the early part of his career from which they are now drawing dividends.

Varane is still only 27, but boasts a maturity far beyond his years having been a first team figure at the Santiago Bernabeu for the last nine years. There are few, if any, centre backs in Europe right now faster than the Frenchman, making him almost impossible to dribble around. Coupled with his reading of the game, it’s these qualities that make Varane the perfect foil for Ramos. He can do the work of two centre backs when his partner goes seeking glory further up the pitch.

Dani Carvajal remains one of the game’s best right backs, possessing a natural tenacity that is an asset both going forward and defending. Then there’s Ferland Mendy, the French international signed from Lyon last summer to be the long term successor to Marcelo. It’s a billing he has so far lived up to, giving Real Madrid another dimension down the left side. Marcelo has even picked up his standard, as if prompted by the fresh competition for his place.

Thibaut Courtois also finally looks like the Galactico goalkeeper Real Madrid wanted for years. The Belgian initially struggled at the Santiago Bernabeu, with many questioning if Los Blancos had sold the wrong keeper by sending Keylor Navas to Paris Saint-Germain last summer.  For much of this season, Courtois has finally justified the faith placed in him by becoming a much more assured presence between the posts.

Real Madrid’s defensive improvement can be found in midfield and even on the wings too. Zidane has instilled a work ethic in his players that wasn’t there when he returned to the Santiago Bernabeu midway through last season. Vinicius, for instance, is now just as likely to track back to his own byline to help out his full back as make an incisive run to the opposition byline to get a cross in.

The emergence of Ernesto Valverde this season has allowed Zidane to ease the burden on Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, with the two veterans rotated in and out of the side over the course of the campaign. Valverde, in many ways, embodies the team Zidane has built, combining both defensive and attacking qualities with an irrepressible energy and ground coverage.

It might well be the case that the goals and creative edge provided by Asensio, Benzema, Hazard et al. fire Real Madrid to only their second Spanish title in eight years. Their faces might be the ones on the front pages of Spain’s sports dailies over the next few weeks. But the true secret to Real Madrid’s success can be found at the other end of the pitch.