Last season, as Real Madrid went on their bloodless procession to both La Liga and Champions League title, those of us who aren’t decked out in white could console ourselves in the fact that sometimes, there are things you just can’t help. Their league triumph was due to the fact that Barcelona had become the biggest basketcase in the soccer world, and there are no other contenders in Spain. Their march to yet another Champions League trophy was due to the dark arts and spells only they can cast, because they are Real Madrid.
Madrid exist to win. While Barcelona in the past or Man City now run over anything with an identifiable style, changing how the game is played the world over and how we view it, Madrid are the Lannisters. They show you how the world as it really is. None of the style or character or tenets really matter if you still win in the end. None of Madrid’s Champions League triumphs in the past decade or La Liga titles can be attached to a particular ethos or method. They win because they’re Madrid, and because they’re Madrid they win. It’s not much more complicated than that. You can have your statements on the sport or your game-altering tactics or your name that echoes in history, they’ll just take the trophies, thanks. They have great players who are buoyed to perform in the biggest moments basically because they put on that jersey. Detailed tactics, nuanced instructions? Fuck that, they’ll just score more goals or give up less or whatever means yet another win. Ends, not means.
Except this time around, Madrid are pretty exciting and dynamic, instead of just the monolith that keeps moving forward due to its own momentum. Which sucks.
Madrid hosted Barcelona yesterday, and though the stats and analytics will tell you that Barca actually had the better of this one, with the better chances, more shots, and far more of the ball (2.16-1.14 in xG to Barca), it never actually felt like Barcelona would win or even come close to doing so. It’s very Madrid to say the other team can rack up the figment numbers, and they’ll just take the only one that matters.
Madrid’s opening goal was pretty much the story of their two seasons, even though Barca remains only three points behind Madrid after yesterday’s loss. Whenever Barca come up against a quality team, their defense can be completely firebombed. And there are few if any teams more electrifying teams in space than Madrid. In the 12th minute, the Barca midfield was too far upfield, the defensive line was about as organized as kindergarten recess, which left Toni Kroos all the time in the world to send Vinicius Jr. through. And once Vinicius Jr. is through on goal, no one’s catching him.
Vinicius surprisingly missed this chance, but in Barca’s scramble to recover, it left Karim Benzema - who is mere minutes away from winning the Ballon D’or at the time of writing - a neighborhood of space to slot home the rebound.
23 minutes later, here’s Barca getting passed into oblivion before Fede Valverde had a farm of territory to launch a groin-grabbingly thunderous shot into the corner.
From there, Barca would huff and puff, but it always felt like Madrid had them at arm’s length, and were basically playing with their food. Barcelona pulled one back late in the game, which meant as soon as Madrid tried again they earned a penalty to ice it.
This is Madrid now. Instead of old heads doing it from memory like last year, when Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos and Casemiro and Benzema went full reunion tour, this is now Vincius Jr.’s, Valverde’s, and Auréllien Tchouaméni’s team. It’s Rodrygo’s team. It’d Éder Militão’s team. All under 25, all looking to make the next generation of Madrid arrive today.
Vinicius Junior we’ve known about for a while now, an absolute terror on the left side of their attack who is playing like he might keep the Ballon D’or in Madrid next year. Which makes Kylian Mbappé’s reported desire to flee to Madrid all the more hilarious, because it’s very debatable whether Madrid would be better off slotting him ahead of Vinicius Jr.
This year’s revelation, though it started last season, is the Uruguayan Valverde on the right side. He has four goals and an assist in just seven starts so far this season in the league, and though he nominally starts on the right side of the front three, his actual position most times feels like it’s “everywhere.” He pops up all over the field, and yesterday frequently was an additional right back to keep Ousmane Dembele quiet. Benzema has missed a chunk of this season through injury, which didn’t matter much as Rodrygo poured in four goals in five starts in his absence and formed an amoeba-on-speed front line with Valverde and Vinicius that took any form at high speed.
Tchouaméni was so good so quickly at the base of midfield that Madrid felt comfortable punting Casemiro to Manchester, even though he’d been the linchpin for five Champions League-winning teams. When Kroos or Modrić need a rest, Eduardo Camavinga is around. Militão has become the pivot point for the defense for both Madrid and Brazil.
And the old heads are still around when needed. This is the rare case of a club being able to pair one iteration of a great team to the next with a seamless transition, every position being handed off when the time is right while conserving the declining tanks of the older players.
Madrid clearly will take more than small pleasure in capping off a horrific week for Barcelona, which basically crashed out of the Champions League, the money from which it desperately needed to justify its scoop-and-toss financial plan from this summer. There is probably a really good team within the Barcelona squad, but it was asking the world for neophyte manager Xavi to be able to unearth it in mere weeks with so much on the line. After he’d already kind of done so at the end of last season with a whole different group of players. Without the cash from the knockout rounds of the Champions League coming, Barca could really be anything come March or April.
No matter what Barca does, no matter what anyone else does, there will be Madrid. Because they’re Madrid. Whether they’re just there or are galvanizing as they are now, they’re there. It’s their thing.