It all changed after Son Moix.
Real Madrid started the season in erratic form, still stinging from the 7-3 pre-season thrashing by Atletico Madrid, and hurt further by needless draws with Real Valladolid and Villarreal.
Then, in their first real test, Paris Saint-Germain thrashed Zinedine Zidane’s side 3-0 and it could have been worse, with Madrid’s defence dismantled by the French club’s second-string strike force. Neymar was suspended, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani were injured, but PSG laid siege to Thibaut Courtois’s goal. The Belgian’s last clean sheet was back in February and he looked barely half the goalkeeper who made his name across town at Atletico and at Chelsea.
After Club Brugge shredded the defence again at the Santiago Bernabeu in a 2-2 draw, Real Mallorca beat Zidane’s side 1-0 at Son Moix and the crisis talk that had been softly bubbling below, reared its head. There were serious doubts about Zidane’s future. Even Jose Mourinho was mentioned as a replacement. That’s how bad it got.
"The game in Mallorca was a turning point," said Lucas Vazquez on Wednesday night after Madrid thrashed Real Zaragoza 4-0 in the Copa del Rey. "It has brought good performances and good results."
The winger wasn’t lying. Real face derby rivals Atletico on Saturday at the Bernabeu sitting top of La Liga. After Mallorca’s victory at Son Moix, Madrid have gone 20 matches unbeaten. In that time they have conceded just nine goals, scoring 45, winning the Spanish Super Cup along the way.
Zidane’s team have become ‘serio’ - serious, sober. They aren’t messing around any more, tightening up remarkably, and unpredictably. For the first time since Zidane won the double in 2016-17, Madrid are a force.
To win three consecutive Champions League titles was a remarkable achievement, but it was obtained without convincing for large swathes of time. League performance is a better barometer of a team's real level. Zidane knows it, having expressed his frustrations at their impotent domestic display upon leaving the club in May 2018, despite European success.
This surge in form has come from the defence doing its job. For far too long Madrid have held onto elite status while operating with a porous backline. Last season they were sixth in the division for fewest goals conceded, behind 13th-place Leganes. The year before they were fifth - conceding 44, double Atletico’s tally of 22. For every one goal Diego Simeone’s side let in, Madrid shipped two.
But now Madrid have the division's best defence, with 13 conceded in 21 games. They have equalled their best record after 21 games, only managing to defend this well in the 1964-65 and 1987-88 seasons. Madrid recognised it on their own website, noting they were ahead of any other side in Europe’s top five leagues, with Atletico, PSG, and Stade Reims letting in 14 and European champions Liverpool 15. With Cristiano Ronaldo long gone, Madrid finally realised they cannot rely on outscoring opponents in goal-rush games any longer.
Ferland Mendy being included over Marcelo is a statement of intent from Zidane - the defence’s primary function is now to defend. Brazilian left-back Marcelo is a brilliant attacking weapon but is frequently guilty of neglecting his defensive responsibilities. Mendy gets forward like a truck when it suits him but he knows his main job. All the players do. Now without Ronaldo, there’s not a single spot in the XI with complete liberty. They all have tasks and the team is operating as a cohesive unit.
Perhaps that’s in part due to Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard’s injury problems - when the Belgian is back it will be interesting to see if Zidane burdens him with tracking back or not. And if not, will Madrid’s rock-solid foundation start to crack?
Madrid have had a far greater midfield presence this season, with Toni Kroos far improved on his abject displays in the previous campaign, while Casemiro has gone from strength to strength and Fede Valverde has been a brilliant addition after Zidane brought him into the fold. Along with Luka Modric’s recent return to form and recently - out of necessity - Zidane’s formation with five midfielders, Madrid’s midfield has had more of the ball and is better equipped to choke opposition attacks.
That results in fewer efforts at Courtois’s goal. On three occasions this season, Madrid haven’t faced a shot on target. The latter of those came in the 1-0 win at Real Valladolid last weekend, a match which proved Madrid’s defensive ability and showed they still have some way to go in attack, something to work on in the second half of the season to become a truly excellent side.
When teams do break in, they come face to face with a renewed Courtois, someone who once again looks unbeatable, with his confidence restored. Back to his best, there is a real chance that Courtois could become the first Real Madrid goalkeeper to earn the Zamora trophy, for the lowest goals conceded per game, since Iker Casillas in 2008. Whistled at the start of the season and even dropped for Alphonse Areola at one stage, Courtois has come out of his shell and could win the prize he twice lifted at Atletico, in 2013 and 2014.
Sergio Ramos is less gung-ho than in the past, with only five yellow cards to his name this season across all competitions - Barcelona’s Gerard Pique has 13. He is having to make fewer rash tackles playing alongside Mendy. World Cup winner Raphael Varane has continued with his typically quiet, consistent quality and Dani Carvajal has been similarly impressive on the right side. Between them, they have transformed unrecognisably over the past few months.
The next test of fire comes against Manchester City in the Champions League last 16. If Madrid stop Europe’s best attack their progression from careless to cast-iron will be complete.