20 Minute Read: Real Madrid, the Individual, and the Strangest Season in Football History

When the dust settles and we look back at Real Madrid’s 2016-17 season, perhaps we will truly appreciate their unique achievement and simultaneously acknowledge the strangeness of it all.

That’s not to say that Madrid weren’t given plaudits- far from it in fact- but they were and still are historically excellent, and unusual, in so many ways that we haven’t really considered the implications of this team.

Real Madrid just went through one of the most unique seasons in the history of football. And their legacy? Unlocking the full potential of the individual in a team sport.

Hoarding Talent Like No Other

One of the keys to understanding this Real Madrid is to understand the evolution of their galactico project. After all, the current side may not even be the most star-studded team in Real Madrid history. In the early 2000s, the first galacticos featured the Brazilian Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, David Beckham, Raul, Roberto Carlos, Steve McManaman and (a young) Iker Casillas. Or, in other words, a selection of the very best players in the world.

To put this in context, Real Madrid boasted 2 of the top 3 finalists for the FIFA World Player of the Year Award in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2006. In 2001, Luis Figo won as Raul finished 3rd. The very next year, neither ended up on the podium as Ronaldo won and Zinedine Zidane finished 3rd. In 2003, they swapped positions. The man who finished in between them? David Beckham. He too was snapped up the following summer. Today, this feat would be incredibly difficult to repeat. (Barcelona did with homegrown talent from 2010-2012. Of course, that team is the benchmark for revolutionary sides).

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The first galacticos.                                                                              From left to right: Beckham, Figo, Ronaldo, Zidane, and Raul.

If we look more closely, however, the current side boasts a similar level of players as the first galacticos, its just that they aren’t exclusively forwards or attacking midfielders. Cristiano Ronaldo is the star forward who was bought for a world record fee, and has already surpassed Zinedine Zidane as the greatest footballer from Europe. Marcelo is essentially a modern day Roberto Carlos. Luka Modric is easily one of the best central midfielders of his generation, and in 2016 ESPN FC ranked him as the best central midfielder in the world. His partner, Toni Kroos, is a World Cup winner and the best passer of the ball since Xavi. Gareth Bale, despite his injury issues, is the greatest Welsh player of all time, was once a record transfer, and at 28 he could still win the Ballon d’Or. Pepe, at the age of 33, was the best player at Euro 2016. And Sergio Ramos is a center back with a rare ability to find the back of the net.

A comparison to Guardiola’s Barcelona, arguably the greatest team in history, is revealing. While the playing styles don’t compare (more on that later), the caliber of player does. In Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid are the only team with a player who has dominated football like Lionel Messi. In Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, Real Madrid are the first team since that Barcelona to have 2 of the 3-5 best midfielders in the world. In Marcelo, they have a dominant full-back like Dani Alves.

Of course, to compare individuals means ignoring context. The Barcelona of 2011 was defined by a great system and unplayable team performances, while the current Real Madrid is rooted in the idea of the individual. Barcelona revolutionized football as we know it. Madrid won’t have that much influence.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that Madrid’s influence won’t affect how the game is played on the pitch, but how activity works off the pitch.

After all, Real Madrid has redefined what it means to fill a team with difference-making individuals.

The Star-Studded Bench

What truly set last season’s Real Madrid apart was the quality available on the bench. Zidane had access to every type of player he would need. Plenty of excessive star talent.

While many great players are on Real Madrid’s bench, James Rodriguez best embodies this aspect of the squad. Undoubtedly the superstar of the World Cup in 2014, James was signed to the tune of 60 million Euros that very summer. His opening season was incredibly promising, as he provided 34 goals + assists. The appointment of Rafa Benitez, coupled with injuries, led to reduced playing time. Then Zidane took over, and James became a fixture. A fixture on the bench. 

What about Isco? The diminutive Spaniard would start at practically any other club in the world. Barcelona desperately need a player of his profile. Manchester City would easily find use for him despite Pep Guardiola’s crowded midfield. He would bring an entirely new dimension to Tottenham’s attack. But at Real Madrid, his position didn’t even exist when the squad was fully fit.

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James Rodriguez: Best player at the 2014 World Cup. He didn’t make the squad for the 2017 Champions League Final.

The center back situation at the club also led to a strange accumulation of talent. Sergio Ramos is an undisputed starter, while Varane and Pepe have fought for a berth alongside him for 5 years. Pepe, at the age of 33, was the best player at Euro 2016. Varane is not as complete a defender, but is easily the fastest elite center back in Europe, and has been for some time. The former is arguably the best pure defender at the club, but the latter could’ve been sold for a record fee for a defender at almost any point in the last 2-3 years. Behind these 2 there’s Nacho, a homegrown player who, last season, started in an El Clasico and a 3-0 victory at the Calderon.

Further behind in the midfield rotation are both Mateo Kovacic and Marco Asensio. Asensio is easily one of the brightest prospects to emerge from Europe in recent years, and looks to be a genuine superstar in the making. The same goes for Mateo Kovacic, who is essentially a ready-made replacement for Luka Modric.

Real Madrid essentially had every type of player that a squad could require, barring maybe a true backup left back and defensive midfielder. Isco is the no. 10 that can dribble and pass. James is the no. 10 who can shoot from distance and take set pieces. Lucas Vazquez is the hard working traditional wide midfielder. Gareth Bale is the modern inverted winger. Morata is a pure goalscorer up front, whereas Benzema is more of a unique facilitating attacker. The list goes on and on.

A squad with this level of talent could have played in almost any way, such was the variety and standard of talent present at Real Madrid.

Then again, this was a strange season. Their playing style added to their strangeness more than anything else.

Style of Play

For all their star power, Madrid seemed to lack a true playing philosophy. Of course, variations in playing style aren’t necessarily a bad thing. But there seemed to be something unusual about this team’s style of play. There was no consistency, no true pattern, no real direction.

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Sergio Ramos’ late goals were wonderful but also strange. Why would a top team need so many late goals to bail them out?

Ronaldo scored a lot, but not as much as previous years, as almost the entire squad chipped in with a decent number of goals and assists. Goals came from anywhere and everywhere. The only thing that really tied everything together was the timing of the goals. Madrid won 5+ games through goals scored in the last 10 minutes of a match, and generally made rare comebacks the norm.

Of course, the lack of style did lead to criticism. Great teams are often marked by their style of play on and/or off the ball. Guardiola’s Barcelona come to mind for their intense press and positional play. Simeone’s Atletico Madrid were incredibly organized off the ball, often trapping opponents in wide areas before attacking with speed. Even Mourinho’s Real Madrid, only 5 years removed from the current side, were renown for their scintillating counterattacks.

This Real Madrid, however, didn’t even have a serious method of regaining the ball. Casemiro would often clean up messes, but even he couldn’t prevent an underrated Sergio Ramos from being seriously overworked. There was no systematic press, no true organization. At the other end it was often the same story. Injuries and rotation meant that there was little cohesion. Marcelo was the heartbeat of the team. It is of no coincidence that the left back was the key absentee when Madrid played out 4 consecutive draws in October.

One particular run in February comes to mind. With a fully fit squad for the first time in months, Madrid played Valencia, Villarreal and Las Palmas in the span of a week. Zidane named his strongest XI for the first 2 games before rotating against Las Palmas. The results, however, were bewildering. In each game Madrid found themselves down 2-0 at some point in the game. Against Valencia they struck back before half time, but couldn’t find the equalizer. Against Villarreal they scored 3 goals in the last half hour to win the game. Against Las Palmas they traded goals and found themselves down 3-1, only for Ronaldo to salvage a point.

It got stranger. The side’s lack of a playing philosophy led to games that often resembled relegation dogfights, like the 2-1 victory over Bilbao, where Madrid’s collection of superstars had to hang on for dear life. That, by the way, was the A team: the de-facto best XI typically reserved for bigger games. The B team experienced fewer issues, was often more cohesive, and even played better than Ronaldo et al. As the season progressed, the majority of Madrid’s big league wins (4 and 5 goal margins) were by the B team, as the A team often found itself scrapping it out against inferior teams.

How could a team devoid of a true style of play be that good? That was the question many posed throughout the fall and winter, as Madrid went 40 games unbeaten. There was a feeling throughout the unbeaten run that the team wasn’t really that good, even though they improved as the season went on. They were far better after their unbeaten run than during it. They often needed Sergio Ramos or a late goal (often synonymous) to bail them out, and ended up winning the most points in the last 10 minutes of games.

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Kroos’ corners were key to Real Madrid’s success.

The criticism, however, began to cease as Madrid’s performances invalidated it. As the season progressed, it became apparent that Madrid did, in fact, have a style of play. Their playing philosophy was nothing fancy. Not positional play, no gegenpressing, and even though they tried it, Madrid was not predicated on the suddenly fashionable 3 at the back. In reality, the Bernabeu bore witness to a playing style based on crossing. Yes, crossing. Madrid scored plenty of goals from corners, deep free-kicks, and crosses from open play. The most star-studded squad in history resorted to hoofing it into the box to score goals. They were particularly good at it, too.

Of course, the nature of the situation would have led to even more criticism, and perhaps  frequent visits from the Bernabeu boo-boys, if it weren’t for a couple reasons:

Firstly, Madrid didn’t merely cross it all the time. They could score in almost any way, and often did so. But crossing was the only common theme. This style took advantage of the skill of Kroos, Carvajal and Marcelo, as well as the athleticism of the front 3, but was far from their only option.

Secondly, the goals- and chances- never stopped coming. Madrid scored in every single game last season. The leaky defense could’ve been their achilles, but ultimately it didn’t matter. They scored 6 goals over 2 legs against Bayern, 3 against Atletico (twice), and 4 against Juventus. This wasn’t simply down to a lucky streak of finishing. Madrid’s chance creation, and expected goals, were off the charts. They absolutely hammered Napoli, for example, as seen in Michael Caley’s xG plot.

This level of dominance extended to almost every game. They even created better chances than Barcelona in the El Clasico, only to be let down by their finishing. The results, coupled with a few brilliant performances, eventually calmed even the fiercest critics. That’s not to say Madrid always played beautiful football,  far from the case in fact, but they did play successful football. But reactions after the first leg victory over Atletico Madrid, such as the one below, were telling.

The Champions League Final, in many ways, was the culmination of 6 months of improving performances. Madrid’s most dominant half was also their last one.

Make no mistake: Madrid’s Champions League victory can be compared to Barcelona’s in 2011. The key difference was that while Barcelona’s victory represented the peak of Pep Guardiola’s positional play, a playing philosophy, Madrid’s victory represented a pinnacle of Florentino Perez’s galacticos, a transfer policy. Madrid’s win highlighted the excellence of a group of superstars, almost all of whom if not the outright best, were amongst the top 2-3 in their positions in the world.

All in all, this wasn’t a case of the players’ talents being maximized by excellent coaching, but minimal coaching empowering an unparalleled collection of players.

The Zidane Effect

Despite all the talent at his disposal, Zinedine Zidane was the only manager in world football who could have managed this team with such success. 2016, his first year in charge, witnessed Real Madrid win more trophies than it lost games. Zidane could do no wrong, and he seemed to possess a golden touch. His true value, however, only became apparent in the final months of last season.

From the very beginning, it was clear that the French coach was a great fit for this group of players. His biggest success was man-management. Zidane convinced James Rodriguez, Alvaro Morata, Isco and Danilo to accept their roles as glorified bench players. The reverse holds true too: the starters had to accept rotation on a rather frequent basis. The result? A rested, motivated squad that would often run over opponents in late game situations.

Madrid’s string of late game winners and equalizers were not mere coincidences. The timing of the goals reflected the fitness levels of the squad as much as their restedness. This was Zidane’s second major success. Hiring fitness coach Antonio Pintus was a fantastic move, even if the players found his training methods to be a little outdated.\

While Zidane’s handling of the players’ fitness and motivation was commendable, the move that was perhaps most symbolic of his success was his handling of Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo’s resting plan has been well documented already, so I won’t go into it here. It’s worth noting, however, that this is an instance where Zidane’s experience as a player tangibly aided his coaching. In his playing days, the Real Madrid man began resting over the course of a league season much like Ronaldo did this past season, reaping the rewards with a nearly perfect World Cup showing in 2006. Of course, Zidane’s status as Europe’s best ever player (before Ronaldo) made him all the more persuasive.

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Ronaldo’s resting plan proved fruitful.

For all of his success, the “Zidane effect” did not lead to a treble. The Copa Del Rey elimination was the only real blemish in Real Madrid’s season, and leads to the natural question: why couldn’t they win it all?

An injury crisis, which witnessed every player who started in the 2016 Champions League Final go down in the following 6 months, left the coaching staff with threadbare playing staff for most of the winter months. This, coupled with the players taking time to adjust to the newfound intensity of training, meant that the squad was only injury free in the spring.

At full strength, however, this team was practically unplayable. They made the rare, coveted event in football, the goal, a common occurrence. Goals arrived too easily for this team. They scored in every single game all season, and with such alarming frequency that their defense, which rarely kept clean sheets, was rendered irrelevant.

Indeed, a side without a serious, defined style of play played more effective attacking football than almost any team in history. Let that sink in.

This is where the implications of this Real Madrid team become apparent. In retaining the Champions League, a team with a deep, star-studded squad and a fantastic man manager did what the great coaches and sides in history failed to do. The players had no restrictive guidelines out on the pitch, and exercised their judgement out on the pitch. They played their own game, even if that game was adaptable and not really defined. The same game that resulted in the most dominant Champions League final performance since 2011. The same game that, discounting the second leg against Atletico, scored 19 goals in 6 games against Napoli, Bayern, Atletico and Juventus. Over 3 goals per game. The latter 3 were considered serious contenders along with Madrid, but simply had no answer defensively.

This Madrid team was dangerously unpredictable. Scouting could only get one so far. Max Allegri would attest to that. The Juventus manager rarely gets big game decisions wrong, and even when he does he is quick to correct them. Still, his Juve had no answers in the final. They were overrun in a way that they hadn’t been overrun for years.

Of course, this discussion leads us to the obvious question: have Real Madrid set a new precedent for the super-clubs? Most big teams select a cutting-edge coach who is the best in the business and empower him with big funds. Manchester United, Manchester City, and Bayern Munich have tried this. In this case, however, Real Madrid (since Mourinho) have themselves guided the purchase of the very best players, and finally selected a manager who would simply manage them.

The benefits of this are clear. Unpredictability is a major one. There are few easily identifiable patterns in this team, nothing that was specifically coached into them. Everything comes from the players, with Modric and Kroos possessing the intelligence to run games without any guidance from the touchline.

Perhaps the ceiling of teams maximizing the talents of elite players is greater than the ceiling of teams enacting the vision of elite coaches. Football really comes down to the players, the coaches can only influence so much, as Pep Guardiola often reiterates.

Perhaps a squad of players so intelligent that they can run games as they see fit, without sophisticated coaching, has a higher ceiling than one that relies on coaching to a greater degree?

If this is the case, how do other clubs replicate it? Can this situation be replicated? And did Real Madrid even mean to build such a team?

Circumstances

How exactly did Madrid manage to accumulate this much talent?

Florentino Perez has always looked to build a starting lineup filled with superstars, so in that sense the starting XI is not merely a product of circumstances. Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema, and Kroos were signed as full-fledged superstars. Ramos, a fixture in the historic Spain teams, blossomed into one (or he would’ve been replaced).

They were more fortunate with Modric and Marcelo. The former was an elite midfielder when they signed him, but his first season ended with him being labelled the worst transfer in Spain. He was never expected to become a generational midfielder. Similarly, Marcelo has grown unprecedentedly. He was a joke during the World Cup in 2014, but has been tremendous since.

Isco and James Rodriguez were also signed with the promise of starting berths. They even started at times under Ancelotti, under whom the starting XI was never short of star power.

Building such a star-studded bench, however, required a strange blend of circumstances.

Under Ancelotti, it became clear that the issue wasn’t the starting XI but both the bench and treatment room. A combination of the club’s controversial doctor Jesus Olmo, makeshift starting XIs that needed James/Isco to be box to box midfielders, and a lack of quality rotation players ensured that the club was plagued with injuries. Injury crises were ever-present. One could argue that injuries cost Madrid the treble in 2014, and Ancelotti’s job in 2015.

Perez and the board’s response was to sign Benitez and depth. The exact influence of Benitez himself in Madrid’s transfer business is hard to ascertain. Casemiro (midfield destroyer) and Lucas Vazquez (energetic wide midfielder) were bought back on the cheap, but could be classified as Benitez players. Kovacic and Danilo seemed like more luxurious purchases and didn’t exactly fit the bill.

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Benitez oversaw Madrid’s acquisition of depth, but quickly fell out with the players.

What happened next is something better explained here. Benitez failed to win over the players, couldn’t start his preferred XI, and was gone after 6 months. In his place came Zinedine Zidane, one of a few men who had the pedigree to select their desired XI with no interference. Zidane found balance by starting Casemiro, automatically relegating Isco and James to the bench. Madrid then went on to win the Champions League.

Isco and James would only have been on the bench briefly, and one would have surely left if it weren’t for a new wrinkle: Madrid’s transfer ban. The club managed to postpone it and sign more depth (Alvaro Morata and Marco Asensio) yet simultaneously keep all their players barring Jese, who was more than surplus at that point. Only a transfer ban would have allowed that to happen.

To summarize it took a nearly unparalleled galactico transfer policy, injuries leading to a spending spree on squad depth, the promotion of a coach who would bench stars for a balanced XI, and an opportune transfer ban which enabled the club to sign even more depth to build this squad. A rare chain of events indeed.

So it took a truly unique set of circumstances for Madrid, who signed incredibly well along the way, to stockpile this much talent.

Repeatable? Once in a while, if your lucky.

Future

After back to back Champions Leagues, the side has retooled, bringing in backups for the only players in the squad without cover in Marcelo and Casemiro. James Rodriguez (60 million Euros + 10 million loan fee) was swapped for young Dani Ceballos (21 million euros), while Danilo (30 million euros) and Alvaro Morata (64 million Euros) were sold, the latter after a 20 goal season as a rotation player. Such prices for bench players are particularly rare, but are testament to the quality of the bench.

Madrid’s transfer activity, which was considered to be unsophisticated and brash as early as 3 years ago, is now the best in the world. Zinedine Zidane has proven to have an eye for talent, as he played a part in the capture of a teenage Raphael Varane, identified the potential in Marco Asensio’s left foot, and even tried signing Kylian Mbappe at the age of 14.

The side is young. Marco Asensio and Jesus Vallejo could very well become the best in the world at their positions. The former is touted to become a Ballon d’Or winner. Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos are promising as well. Raphael Varane and Mateo Kovacic  will likely assume the mantle from Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric respectively. Varane is a particularly interesting case: at the age of 24, he has already played 6 full seasons at the club. He is also the fastest top center back in world football.

The squad is well balanced. Most of the team is young or at the peak of its powers. This is how it breaks down:

3 Veterans (30+)

Ronaldo (32)

Ramos (31)

Modric (31)

10 Players In Their Prime (24-29)

Benzema (29)

Marcelo (29)

Bale (28)

Kroos (27)

Nacho (27)

Vazquez (26)

Isco (25)

Casemiro (25)

Carvajal (25)

Varane (24)

8 Youngsters (23 and below)

Kovacic (23)

Llorente (22)

Asensio (21)

Ceballos (21)

Tejero (21)

Vallejo (20)

Mayoral (20)

Theo (19)

A look at this age breakdown tells us that Madrid simply don’t buy players who are veterans. In fact, they even forego players at the peak of their powers, opting for players in their early 20s. A CIES study confirmed that they sign younger than any team in Europe. Compared to many teams, this age breakdown suggests that this Madrid dynasty may continue for years to come. After all, almost half the squad is under 24. Only a seventh of it is 30 or older.

Conclusion

This was a unique season by all standards. A season in which Madrid went from terrible football to flat out dominance (all unrehearsed), a season in which the B team often outperformed the A team in the league, a season in which Madrid played better after their unbeaten streak rather than during it, and one in which no team could truly keep Madrid out.

The result? A team that retained the Champions League.

The exact legacy of this side is easy to see. Pack a team with star players of immense quality and they will perform. Obviously.

What isn’t as obvious is whether building this type of team is possible, even with smart business. Teams will soon (or already have begun to) examine and copy Madrid’s recruitment. But even then, few teams will be lucky enough to sign Toni Kroos for 20 million Euros, or have Modric develop into a generational midfielder.

The ceiling of this team is also hard to ascertain. Zidane has more tactically flexible players at his disposal than any team in the world. His motivational skills ensured everyone worked to maintain balance defensively, while the attack relied on individuals, which he had so many of, to make a difference.

The result was one of the most unpredictable teams in history. A team that wouldn’t press all season, only to press Atletico Madrid and Juventus into submission when it mattered most. Planning against this team? A coach’s nightmare. No matter the situation, they created chances. Stopping them was – in every sense of the word – impossible.

And it’s those last two lines that are crucial. Above all, Madrid ‘broke’ football because they solved an issue that is at the very heart of the game. An issue that teams throughout history have looked to solve.

Real Madrid made the oh-so-rare goal commonplace. Every. Single. Game.

 

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