When the Chicago Cubs won the World Series last month, they undid one of the core truths of baseball history: The Cubs can’t win the World Series. But strip the folklore away and you’re left with this: When one of the richest teams hires the smartest front office, and the smartest front office brings in the best manager to organize an unmatched collection of talent, that team will beat everyone else.
What the current era of Real Madrid presupposes is: What if we were richer than everybody else — and forgot about the rest? Would we still beat everyone else?
Over the last three years, more often than not the answer has been “yes.” They’ve won two of the past three Champions League titles. Their primary competition have fallen off this year. Neither Bayern Munich nor Paris Saint-Germain are the best team in their domestic league, a Paul Pogba–less Juventus has fallen back toward the Serie A pack, and the top two teams in England aren’t even in the Europa League. With the first El Clásico of the season this weekend, Real are six points clear of second-place Barcelona. Los Blancos are the best team in the world — in spite of themselves.
At the turn of the century, with the club carrying a historic amount of debt, centrist politician Florentino Pérez ousted Madrid’s incumbent president, Lorenzo Sanz, by running on a “reduce the debt and sign Luís Figo from Barcelona” platform. Madrid is owned by its members, who elect the president. Pérez is a despot, but he’s still subject to results.
His first term in charge of the club ended in 2006, but he was reelected three years later. The Pérez eras haven’t necessarily been defined by unmatched success on the field — since his first election, the club has won three Champions League titles and five La Liga trophies, compared with Barcelona’s respective four and eight — but that wasn’t his main goal, anyway. Since taking over, he’s turned Real Madrid into soccer’s best business.
After a stint as chief of Sega’s operations in southern Europe, José Ángel Sánchez joined the club in 2000 to become head of marketing. “Pérez instructed him to develop the club like a Hollywood studio,” Dermot Corrigan wrote in Howler magazine, “adding show-business sparkle to his boss’s financial muscle … .”
That’s not just a convenient metaphor, either. Sánchez said it himself: “We’re content providers, like a film studio — and having a team with [Zinedine] Zidane in it is like having a movie with Tom Cruise.”
With Pérez and Sánchez in charge, the club entered the galácticos era: buy the most marketable players, sell jerseys … and figure the rest out later. First came the audacious move for the Barcelona legend Figo, which in 2000 inspired the pig-head toss heard ’round the world. Then came Zidane in 2001, followed by the Brazilian Ronaldo in 2002, David Beckham in 2003, Michael Owen in 2004, and Robinho in 2005. It worked … sort of. The club won the 2002 Champions League, but come 2006, despite a bloated roster of big names, Madrid hadn’t won a trophy in three years — except they had become the richest club in the world. Pérez had achieved what he wanted, but the team’s performances didn’t match the money being spent or being made, so he resigned, saying, “This afternoon I have presented my resignation to the members of the board because I am convinced that it could be the wake-up call the club needs.”
Ten years later and with Pérez in charge again, Madrid is still the richest club in the world. Only now they’re winning, too.
While it seems like all of the top European clubs today have very specific on-field identities formed by idealistic, detail-obsessed managers and specific player recruitment processes, the best team in the world does not. Some clubs press, some clubs commit to youth, others defend. Real sign the biggest names in the world. That’s their market inefficiency.
For all the time spent discussing shadowing, juego de posición, and the merits of a three-man backline, Madrid have an attacking three that cost more than €230 million in transfer fees, and they play the same style as a mediocre Premier League team from 2001. Crossing has essentially become soccer’s midrange jumper — a once-widespread, but completely inefficient offensive strategy — but Madrid cross the ball more than any team in Spain other than Real Sociedad. On top of that, they rack up Kobe-in-game-1,346 levels of bad shots, leading La Liga in shots taken from outside the box. If there’s one unifying characteristic about their buildup play, it’s that Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, and their nine digits apiece almost never pass the ball to each other:
Take their first goal from last weekend’s 2–1 win over Sporting Gijón. Lucas Vásquez got on the ball in midfield, and rather than turn and play down the center and toward the goal with Ronaldo and Benzema, he shifted the ball out to the fullback Danilo, who was isolated, 1 vs. 2. Rather than cycling the ball back around in search of a better opportunity, he then played in a halfhearted cross, but Gijón couldn’t fully clear. Vazquez pounced on the scraps and drew a penalty, which Ronaldo converted. That’s 1–0 — not because of some intricate play, but because Madrid are bigger and faster than their opponents.
Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that the team’s current manager is Zidane, one of Pérez’s first galácticos. With Pérez in charge, 11 different men have managed the club, and eight of them didn’t even last a full season. In early January, Zidane, who had never managed a top-flight professional team, replaced his antimatter in Rafa Benítez, an extra-scrupulous, experienced veteran manager with no playing experience. After Zidane took over, Madrid won the Champions League and have lost only one game in La Liga. When asked about his tactical preferences in September, Zidane said, “For me the system is not so important. It is more important that the player is happy where he is playing.”
It’s working. Madrid are averaging more shots per game than any team in Europe’s top five leagues, they’re leading in shots on target per game, and only Monaco has scored more goals. In his continued assault on our assumption of “aging” as a linear process, the 31-year-old Ronaldo is averaging over a goal per 90 minutes and leading Europe in shots per 90, while among players with at least 10 appearances, Bale, Álvaro Morata, and Benzema are all in the top 30 of shots per 90. Meanwhile, the defense has conceded 11 goals in 13 games (one more than Villarreal) and allows just a fraction more shots per 90 than league-leading Barcelona.
There’s no real hidden magic or nuance here: Madrid have an expensive collection of both physically and technically gifted players, and they overwhelm the opponent’s box with shots and crosses until Ronaldo leaps and heads one in at the back post or until Bale launches a medicine ball past the keeper from 25 yards out. In the center of the park, Toni Kroos might be the best possession-passing midfielder in the world and Luka Modric moves the ball vertically better than anyone at his position. Kroos keeps it, and Modric gets it up to the guys who can score. Someone shoots or someone crosses; lather, rinse, and repeat with the most expensive shampoo you can find.
Would Madrid benefit from an approach that consistently finds better shots and encourages more interplay from their titanic attackers? Almost definitely — but as we’ve seen since Zidane took over and replaced Benítez’s conservative structure with his “roll the ball out there” freedom, it might not even matter. Some of Madrid’s numbers this season are likely inflated by an easy-ish schedule — they still haven’t played second-place Barca or third-place Sevilla — but two weeks ago, for the first time since 2013, they took a road game against Atlético Madrid, winning 3–0 and creating better chances against an elite defense.
The injured Bale, Morata, and Kroos won’t play this weekend, but with a win over Barcelona on Saturday, Madrid would be nine points clear of their biggest rivals. There’ll be 24 games left and plenty of room for weirdness, but barring a sudden drop-off in performance from Real and a near-perfect finish from Barca, a three-win cushion would likely be enough to get Madrid to their first La Liga title in half a decade. With Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo, Kroos, Modric, and Morata all signed through at least 2020 and a transfer ban in place until 2018, the team isn’t likely to look any different next season. The consistency might be an accident, but we already knew that.