After seeing how summarily Barcelona dispensed with Real Madrid, the temptation is to lay the blame at the feet of their first-year manager, Rafa Benítez. That seems to be the way club president Florentino Pérez is leaning. (Benítez has even received the dreaded vote of confidence! The end is nigh!) And while appointing Benítez probably was the wrong move, and the way he approached that game evinced either a concerning lack of conviction or a certain naiveté, making him the latest in a long line of scapegoats would only distract from the real culprit of all of this: the president himself.
Florentino Pérez’s second term as Real Madrid’s president started in the summer of 2009. Since then, he’s spent over half a billion Euros in the latest edition of his quest to assemble a modern incarnation the almighty Blancos of Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskás and Francisco Gento, the unbeatable team of his youth. What he has to show for all that money is one La Liga title, one in the Champions League, two Copa del Reys, and more disfunction and acrimony than silverware.
What must particularly needle him is Barcelona’s dominance during this same span. Since Pérez’s reclaiming of the presidency the summer after Barça’s first treble season, Real’s hated rivals have won the Spanish league four times (and are now strong favorites to make it five), won the Champions League twice, won two Copa del Reys, and in the all important La Liga Clásico clashes, have a record of 8-3-2. With a considerably smaller monetary outlay compared to their fellow Spanish giants, Barcelona have completely dominated Spanish and European soccer.
Every Real Madrid president’s first job is to best Barcelona; after that, the mandate is to become the strongest team in Europe. These two criteria have been one and the same for much of the past decade, and blame for the club’s continued failure to maintain any kind of sustained advantage over Barça falls squarely on Pérez’s shoulders. While not exactly the owner of Real, he’s the closest thing international soccer has to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. He gets final say on which players to bring in and ship out, and on the team’s style of play, as dictated by his choice of managers. So blaming Benítez for Saturday’s outcome when it wasn’t too far afield from what the Merengues have endured in every Clásico in recent years is a mistake.
The fundamental flaw of Pérez’s “plan”—if you can call it that—to Make Madrid Great Again is that he doesn’t know what he wants, or at least is too fickle to commit. At his core, Pérez must be jealous of the reverence with which the rest of the sport held for Barcelona’s Cruyffian, possession-based, attacking positional game. Not only did the president have to watch his beloved club lose to Barça, but he then had to suffer through rhapsody after hymn after ode written in honor of the beautiful way the opponent comprehensively eviscerated his and the rest of the world’s teams.
In response, Pérez has tried to amass a dreadnought of attacking talent of his own, with the mistaken belief that a team with six world-class forwards on the field at the same time would be enough to ensure twice as many wondrous goals as the average team. This is why he keeps breaking the world transfer record on attacking midfielder after forward after winger, and why Benítez is left to deal with a best XI where half the team wants to run in behind the defense, stranding the one- or two-man-midfield in no man’s land:
None of the underlying causes here are new. Pérez’s first hand-picked manager was Manuel Pellegrini back in 2009. The Chilean coach was supposed to usher in a new era of expressive play to rival Barcelona’s. Instead, fed up with the manager’s inability to take the squad of high-paid and thus undroppable attacking players and win something, Pérez gave Pellegrini the boot after a single season.
His next choice to lead the Blancos to glory was José Mourinho. Mourinho was never anybody’s idea of a proactive attacking mastermind, but he was a proven winner. When those teams failed on both results-based and aesthetic grounds after a few years, Pérez turned to Carlo Ancelotti.
The Italian was asked to go out there and outscore everyone, reinforced with a new cadre of superforwards like Gareth Bale and James Rodríguez. And while Ancelotti did manage to bring both trophies and artistic play, his inability to do both at the same time (Real won the Champions League in Ancelotti’s first season by largely continuing Mourinho’s counterattacking strategy, then didn’t win anything while the team adapted to the proactive system he implemented in his second) meant he was made yet another casualty of Pérez’s capriciousness. Succeeding Ancelotti was, you guessed it, another exhibit of wild philosophical shifts with the appointment of Benítez, and here we are again.
When seen through the lens of recent history, it becomes obvious that the manager isn’t the only thing or even the main thing wrong with Madrid. There was absolutely no reason to fire Ancelotti before his philosophy of play had time to take root. He had begun the hard work of crafting a workable system that did actually facilitate the strengths of this attacker-heavy team that looked so fundamentally broken on Saturday. Ancelotti’s drafting of Toni Kroos into a Xabi Alonso-like role—as a playmaker that sits very deep, raking passes near and far with his peerless vision and range—granted Real a base from which they could control possession (a necessity in a side featuring so many attackers). Also, by capitalizing on the German’s intelligence and positioning, Kroos as DM brought a level of defensive balance to their game.
Flanking Kroos with Luka Modrić and either James or Isco a little further up the pitch as fellow central midfielders further cemented Real’s possession stats by always presenting Kroos and the defenders with passing options so the team could keep the ball, and helped the teams transitions by packing the center of the field with three hard-working midfielders adept at both carrying the ball in and scuttling back. It didn’t quite come together as intended last season (though remember, Real were heralded as by far the best team of the 2014 calendar year, such was their dominance by the New Year’s Day), Ancelotti’s vision for the team was exactly what this squad needed if it were to combine into anything other than the kind of suicidally misshapen sieve we saw time and again against Barcelona:
Rather than sticking with Ancelotti’s plan, one that the players desperately wanted to see continue, Pérez fired him. In place of Ancelotti’s project, and because of a number of key injuries early on, Benítez was able to institute his own perfectly reasonable idea for how this particular squad could be shaped into functional and successful whole.
His system was similar in shape to Ancelotti’s 4-3-3, but instead of fitting Kroos back into defensive midfield, he moved the German out of the spot he’d spent the last year learning to play and back into his more natural place further forward. In that third midfield spot, Benítez has preferred playing with Casemiro, a really good, textbook destroyer-type. With him cleaning up on the defensive end, and with the rest of the squad making sure to at least compress the space between their lines, Real had the best defense in Spain.
But with everyone healthy and the prevailing feeling both inside (Pérez and the players alike were reported to have found Benítez’s predilection for defensiveness offputting) and outside the club that Real were playing way too defensively this season, Benítez dropped Casemiro and reinstalled Kroos and Modrić in deeper roles in a 4-2-3-1 that functionally played more like a 4-2-4. Even a player as talented as Kroos can’t just flit effortlessly between vastly different roles in completely different systems. The problems of Saturday were the same problems Ancelotti had to work through in his first few games with these players, and all the work everyone had put into remedying the situation last season was thrown away when Pérez canned Ancelotti and hired Benítez.
Pérez has not set up Real Madrid to succeed. The players are given radically different directions by the club’s revolving door of managers every couple seasons, then criticized when the transitions aren’t seamless. When something doesn’t work out, the president’s go-to move is to blame the coach, sack him, and bring in a completely different one armed with a couple shiny new attacking playthings to paper over the cracks. When that doesn’t work, he’ll cast about for another rotten apple to ceremonially throw out and replace with someone new, always searching for someone to castigate and never looking inwardly.
It’s no coincidence that a club richer than God, that almost every single great player in the world would die to play for, has consistently underachieved over the years. And maybe most damning of all, this weekend’s humiliation can’t even be pinned on Lionel Messi. The most persuasive argument exculpating Pérez and his chosen ones from taking up the mantle of the Real Madrid teams of the 1950s is that this era just so happened to coincide with the greatest player of all time, who just so happened to be partnered with two of the best midfielders of all time, all of whom and a handful of others cost absolutely nothing in transfer fees. You can buy all the Kakás and Alonsos and Mesut Özils you want, but if you don’t have Messi, Iniesta, and Xavi on your team, the thinking goes, you probably won’t win much.
This time, though, Messi wasn’t Real’s tormentor. This time, Barcelona tore through Madrid with Luis Suárez and, more frighteningly, the ridiculously young and preposterously great Neymar—two players attracted to Catalonia because of their commitment to beautiful play and the demonstrated ability to ride that coherent system to the absolute heights of the sport. Unlike Messi and Iniesta, these are two players Real had every opportunity to sign themselves, only to be rejected for someplace better.
For the first time in recent years, Real Madrid faced something approximating what the future, post-Messi Barça might look like, and they still came up short. The argument that this is just some fluke of history no longer holds water. It’s time for the club and its fans to accept that unless the primary force that has overseen this disappointing era is held accountable, Real are destined to continue this cycle for as long as Pérez’s whims are the club’s guiding light.
Photos via Getty