Real Madrid: what happens when you run a club like a fantasy team

After Real Madrid’s surprise Champions League exit against a game Juventus, Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti probably figured his countrymen had hammered down the final nail in the coffin of his coaching tenure with the Spanish giants. Add to that the fact that he is suspended for the last two games of the La Liga season, and Ancelotti has likely coached his last game for Real Madrid. It is a common theme at the world’s most famous and profitable club: when the team falls short of its own expectations, the reflex is to fire the coach and add another superstar or two.

In all likelihood, it’s about to happen again. As The Guardian‘s Sid Lowe noted, not since 1983 has a coach remained at Madrid after a trophyless season, and that manager was club legend Alfredo Di Stefano, whose unrivaled place in club lore most likely explains this exceptional clemency. Therefore, Ancelotti is unlikely to get the same treatment, although many people in and around the club are validly arguing that he should.

It starts at the top

Despite Emilio Butragueno’s cringe-inducing claim that Real Madrid President Florentino Perez is a “superior being” (un ser superior), Perez resigned from the post in 2006 after having presided over the club’s longest trophyless run in 50 years, amid wide-ranging criticism coming from virtually everywhere. It’s a testimony to both Madridistas’ short memory and to the ineptitude of Ramon Calderon, Perez’s successor, that the latter’s return to the Madrid presidency in 2009 was not only unopposed, but celebrated. Perez also generated tremendous buzz that summer by signing Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo over a span of four days, a spectacular reminder to Madridistas that, as long as Perez was President, they would at least have the benefit of never losing an offseason.

However, his new reign began in exactly the same way his initial one ended: with failure. Despite posting the highest point total of the team’s history, Madrid’s 2009 team finished behind an even more impressive Barcelona in the league, but that alone was justifiable. What was not, however, was Madrid’s improbable Round-of-16 Champions’ League exit against Lyon, and manager Manuel Pellegrini was predictably fired at the end of the season. Then, in a move that made sense on paper but had those who follow Madrid refusing to believe it until they saw it, Perez hired José Mourinho. The Special One had just won the Champions’ League with Inter Milan and beaten Barcelona along the way.

Mourinho is the antithesis of a Perez coach: brash, abrasive and unafraid to criticize (publicly or privately) the establishment of his club. After Mourinho predictably and quasi-instantly ruffled feathers among the Madrid administration, Perez made a decision that showed the full measure of his desperation to beat Pep Guardiola’s apparently unplayable Barcelona: he backed Mourinho, giving him full control over personnel. Mourinho had what one might describe as mixed results at the helm of Madrid, winning La Liga (which Madrid hadn’t done since 2007) in 2011, but ultimately falling short of winning the Champions’ League, and sparking highly-publicized spats with his own players, most notably Sergio Ramos.

In retrospect, Mourinho’s tendency for both condescension and inflammatory comments was guaranteed to cause many blowups with Madrid’s heavily political press (namely sport publications Marca and AS), unconditional Perez backers since his return to the presidency. His approach was also doomed when it came to his players. One could tell the Portuguese wanted his team to actually hate Barcelona, but it’s much harder to get a player to hate a club-football opponent he’s won a Euro tournament and a World Cup with. When Mourinho and Madrid ultimately agreed to part ways amid heavy speculation that the Portuguese manager would return to Chelsea, Perez insisted that Mourinho wasn’t a failure. However, his subsequent decision to hire Ancelotti was a sign that the President was not too keen on having another Mourinho-like personality at the helm of his club.

The perfect man for Perez

It is simultaneously a slur and a compliment to call Ancelotti the greatest yes-man in all of football. While he is certainly a coach of considerable tactical acumen, his personality trait most responsible for landing him coaching opportunities at many of world’s biggest clubs – most recently AC Milan, Chelsea, Paris St-Germain and Real Madrid – is the fact that he takes whatever roster is given to him, does his best to maximize its potential, and never complains. It has been a precious ability, because few high-level managers can claim to have had their chances to win more often short-circuited by imbecilic and short-sighted personnel decisions.

Therefore, Ancelotti was ready-made to run a Madrid team, a club where, as Lowe so eloquently puts it, perhaps the most important skill for a coach is his ability to fall on his sword. In his first season in charge, Ancelotti pulled off an extraordinary achievement, as he captured Madrid’s elusive tenth Champions’ League crown. It’s an even greater feat than it appears.

See, Madrid management admits that, under Perez, it builds the football team like a Hollywood blockbuster. Basically, let’s pile up as many stars as we can, and let the coach figure out how to line them up. It’s why Perez has historically gone for players with star power: either Ballon d’Or winners or World Cup stars or both. His Madrid teams have boasted six different Ballon d’Or winners, but before Cristiano Ronaldo won the award in 2013, none of them had captured it as a Real Madrid player.

Perez believes that stars pay for themselves, a belief about which it he’s been fortunate to be right, given the transfer fees he has paid for them. Of the five most expensive players ever, four were bought by Madrid, all of them by Perez. What perhaps constitutes the greatest critique of his model was made when Figo, Perez’s very first Galactico, said that “it all went wrong when marketing took precedence over football.” Figo’s words were no exaggeration. While no one would dare insinuate that results don’t matter at Real Madrid, it is interesting to see just how often the club uses the offseason to put disappointing seasons in the rearview mirror.

So Carlo Ancelotti arrives and wins the Champions League for Madrid on his first try. It is worth wondering whether he realized at that point how thankless his job had just become. There are several places where winning the Champions’ League, possibly the hardest trophy to capture in all of professional sport, would grant a coach an additional honeymoon period, but not in Madrid. The Champions’ League is Real Madrid’s holy grail. As an institution, they are absolutely obsessed by it. So even though he won it last year, Ancelotti likely arrived this season well aware that unless he won the league by 20 points, he would lose his job lest he win the Champions’ League again. Now that he has failed this objective, he is likely on his way out, a probability compounded by the fact that public perception will have it that, by losing, Madrid have basically handed the Champions’ League to arch-rivals Barcelona, in the same week that their draw against Valencia virtually assured the Catalans of the La Liga title.

Be that as it may, Florentino Perez and his advisers had better be careful what they wish for, because they just might get it. Could Perez be tempted to go with a stronger personality, i.e. something closer to Mourinho? Perhaps, but the candidates don’t abound, and the President’s track record suggests this is unlikely. Failing that, however, the alternative is what Gab Marcotti affectionately called a “diva whisperer.” In other words, a coach whose personality is just strong enough to prevent the team’s big egos from causing the squad to implode from within. And if that is the type of coach Perez is seeking, he’s about to fire the best one he could possibly find.

An incapacity for introspection

In addition to Ancelotti combining the yes-man persona with uncommon coaching abilities like nobody else, what he has achieved with Madrid is quietly spectacular. Of course, it’s what is expected of a coach as well-paid as Ancelotti, but this is no reason to minimize the significance of winning that Champions’ League title in 2014, and coming so close in 2015.

Real Madrid’s front office is apparently loaded with people who either don’t understand how team dynamics work, or who fool themselves into thinking a chemistry or balance problem can be solved by throwing one more potential 20-goal scorer on the squad. Any coach worth his salt will tell you it doesn’t work that way.

All those fancy signings look great on paper, but I’ve been watching sports for too damn long. A team cannot have multiple alpha dogs, that is to say a player around whom the team’s offence is built. It didn’t take a tarot card reader to figure out that, given his skill level and his personality, Cristiano Ronaldo would assume that role on arrival. But while he has given Madrid tremendous productivity, the fact that he has assumed the most significant portion of Real’s scoring has meant that several other stars brought in by the club have had to play the Robin to Ronaldo’s Batman. Before the injury bug hit Kaka, it was happening to him. Striker Karim Benzema, another player who would have had legitimate alpha dog aspirations, has had to turn himself into an assist provider for Ronaldo. And James Rodriguez, a classic no.10 signed after his spectacular display at the World Cup for Columbia, has struggled to find a role in Madrid’s 4-3-3.

Which is what made the 2013 signing of Gareth Bale signing so interesting. The Welch talisman is neither a global superstar nor a big-time performer in international tournaments. He’s just a really talented, speedy, and powerful footballer. Depending on the numbers you trust, Bale’s transfer to Real Madrid made him either the most, or second-most, expensive player in history. His price tag, given the things he can do, was ludicrous, and he now finds himself paying for it as he has endured a bad run of form in the 2015 half of this season. Rumours of Bale’s departure are fascinatingly fed by both the English media, hopeful to see Bale return to a Premier League they believe he never should have left, and the Madridista press, presumably anxious to see the Welchman make way for the next superstar with a stratospheric price tag.

At Tottenham, Bale was clearly the team’s alpha dog and its best player, but that didn’t guarantee he wouldn’t fit in with Madrid. In fact, there is still an argument to be made that he does fit in. At first, the idea of Bale joining Madrid seemed ludicrous: a player whose style, all based on speed and power, is so obviously informed by, and suited to, the English game would likely be seen as crude in Spain, a country where short passing rules and counter-attacking is not so much a strategy as it is a curse word. But on second thought, the combination of Ronaldo and Bale could work, because their skill sets complement one another. While Ronaldo is a dribbler who requires much of the ball and takes loads of shots, Bale is a player who frequently disappears, only to reappear just long enough to strike. He doesn’t need to touch the ball all that much to make an impact. It remains possible that he might be the perfect Robin to Ronaldo’s Batman, if he can just regain his form. It would be a shame to see Madrid give up on him so quickly, especially since he had a very good first season in Spain, but there are several English teams who would welcome him back if Madrid did choose to cut their losses.

While Marca called Los Blancos’ exit against Juventus the “fiasco of the century,” they ought to be saying that of the way this Real Madrid team was built. The importance of balance on a team is an element Perez has consistently overlooked, and the most recent example of this was the decision to let go of Xabi Alonso. In and of itself, the decision is defensible given Alonso’s age. The questionable move, however, was to replace Alonso with Toni Kroos. The German is doubtlessly an excellent player, but he cannot fill Alonso’s recover-and-launch role, and this is an attribute of which the Madrid roster now finds itself devoid. Kroos, who is much better as a creator than as a holding midfielder, has to play a defensive role he is ill-suited for because, well, someone has to do it. The same goes for the instinctive Luka Modric. What point is there to having these artistic passers on the team if their talents are going to be wasted? And who’s going to give all those scorers the ball if nobody on the pitch can consistently take it away from the other team?

It’s not just the midfielders, either. Scorers need enablers, and if the enablers are played out of position, everybody loses out in the end. In abstract terms, James Rodriguez just might be a better player than Angel Di Maria, but he’s not if you’re looking for a 4-3-3 winger who widens the play and creates space for Ronaldo and whoever is playing striker. Central midfielders played on the wing tend to take the ball back inside where they are more comfortable, and Rodriguez is no exception. By the time even Ancelotti found James’ situation untenable and ruled that he’s not a winger, we all remembered that the reason why Madrid put him there in the first place is because… there was nowhere else to put him. If you really have the temerity to put a no.10 behind the striker in a 4-3-3, those two remaining central midfielders better a) be defensive monsters, which can be said of neither Modric nor Kroos and b) have two sets of lungs, because they will have to cover an outrageous amount of ground when the opponent counter-attacks.

Perez’s declaration when he sold Claude Makelele (“We won’t miss Makelele much. All his passing either went sideways or backwards.”) and essentially replaced him with David Beckham betrays the fact that he refuses to acknowledge the existence of a fundamental part of football: taking the ball away from the other team. Zinedine Zidane, outraged by the move, lashed out with this question: “What is the point of giving the Bentley another coat of gold if you’re taking away the entire engine?”

Is there no one at Real Madrid, Zidane or someone else, who would dare raise this point with Perez? And even if there were, would Perez listen?

At a crossroads

Simply put, in trying to stockpile superstars, Perez has destroyed whatever balance Real Madrid previously had, which already wasn’t much. He now finds himself at the proverbial crossroads. He could decide to trust someone who tells him that adding a defensive midfielder wouldn’t hurt the team’s offensive productivity, but enhance it. If he does, Madrid would instantly benefit from the move and look less unbalanced than they were this year. Or he can decide that the Hollywood dimension of Real Madrid football is what’s most important and keep running the club like an online fantasy team. If he chooses the latter, the problems will remain; Madrid will keep underperforming, and to find the cause of this, Perez will need to look not in the dugout or on the pitch, but in the mirror.

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