For close to a decade now, Real Madrid have been tasked with solving the most difficult problem facing any club in the whole sport: What do we do about Lionel Messi?
For Real, the question has not been one limited to concerns about how to contain the world’s most singularly dominant player. That, after all, has been a conundrum posed to every team in Spain and every other European giant that ventures into the deep stages of the Champions League, where Messi lurks like a video game boss battle: achieving ultimate victory is (usually) impossible without first besting him. For Real, though, the challenge has been more difficult than than that.
As Barcelona’s chief rival for domestic and European glory, and as the biggest and richest and most famous and most decorated club in the world, they’ve not only had to deal with what Messi does to them, but also what Messi does to everyone else, and what that means for Madrid’s own aspirations. How can Real Madrid compete for La Liga titles and Champions League trophies when their most hated foes are armed with a living cheat code, a player who so totally warps the parameters of the game in his favor that, given a large enough sample—say, a 38-game season, or a multi-stage knockout tournament—his dozens of goals and hundreds of dribbles and innumerable defense-cleaving passes consistently deliver titles his way? (There’s a reason why Barcelona have won six of the last eight league titles, sparing one a piece for Madrids Real and Atlético, and that reason is from Argentina.) Even with all the money in the world and with the services of the only other player who even comes close to approximating Messi’s powers, how do you compete with that?
For a long time, Real Madrid didn’t really have an answer. Or, more accurately, they did have an answer, but it wasn’t clear if the answer was a good one. Their solution was to spend, spend, spend, to amass a roster overflowing with great players, the idea being that by maximizing their talent at every other position on the pitch and on the bench, Real could make up for the deficit Messi’s presence inevitably creates.
In many ways, this was a direct return to the club’s Galácticos policy of the early 2000s—especially as it coincided with the return of the president during the Galácticos era, Florentino Pérez, in 2009. And similar to the flaws that doomed the original Galácticos group, the plan wasn’t immediately successful.
Still, Pérez spent huge sums on Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Kaká, James Rodríguez, and more; he brought in some of the best, most established managers int he world with the likes of José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti. And through constant investment, never settling for anything but overwhelming success, and, yes, an unmistakable bit of luck, Pérez has succeeded. Real Madrid are at the top of the game once again.
Real Madrid’s season, in which they are favorites to win both La Liga and the Champions League, is a testament to how outrageously deep their squad is. Yesterday’s semifinal second leg against Atlético Madrid was proof of what that depth can accomplish. Real’s best player on the pitch was Isco, who is a budding star, a regular Spain international, a player so good he’d have a focal role for almost every single team in the world, and yet who nonetheless is only a rotation player for the Blancos. To head into the biggest match of the season missing the services of the great and hugely expensive Bale and to know that they could rely on the player with the 15th-most minutes in that competition to come up with a man-of-the-match performance is simply unreal.
There is no overstating how ridiculous Real’s squad is. Isco, a player who just bossed a Champions League semifinal, doesn’t even start for this team when at full strength! James, another player every single team in the world would love to have, can’t get minutes to save his life! Marco Asensio, arguably the single most exciting young Spanish talent in the world, is one of Madrid’s least-used players! Álvaro Morata, the team’s leader in non-penalty goals in league play, has more goals (15) than starts (13)! Mateo Kovačić is also very good and doesn’t play a whole lot! So is Lucas Vázquez! This is not normal!
Credit for much of the building of this historically amazing roster goes to Pérez, who we’ve previously maligned for his odd transfer and management decisions. (Though let’s not pretend like he actually knew what he was doing. Throwing hundreds of millions of Euros around every summer is bound to work eventually if you stick with it long enough. But still, it did work. So good job.) Lots of it also must go to manager and iconic former Galáctico, Zinedine Zidane. Zidane has committed to using the deep bench available to him by constantly rotating the squad. After 35 matches in La Liga, no Madrid player has more than 26 starts. In contrast, six Barça players break that 26-start threshold, and an entire eight do for Atleti.
Rotation to this extreme is often dangerous, as chopping and changing lineups every week can prevent players from forming the instinctual connections between each other that are so necessary for the unit to function as a single, coherent entity. However, Real’s players—the majority of whom have been at the club for many years now—are so accustomed to playing alongside each of their fellow teammates that they still manage to perform at their best even without the continuity you normally see from good teams. Zidane’s implementation of simple, flexible tactics also helps with this dynamic. On top of that, giving so many different players minutes keeps everyone fresh, involved, happy, and allows the team to challenge in every competition during the long, grueling season.
Real’s unbelievable squad is why they can lose quite possibly their best forward, Gareth Bale, plug Isco in as a replacement, and go on to cruise past Atlético in the Champions League semifinal. It’s also why they can start their A-team in the first leg of the Atlético tie, rotate out nearly every single starter from that match during the league game the following weekend to preserve the A-team’s legs for the second leg, and come away victorious on all fronts. And—by learning from the mistakes they made during the first Galácticos era and this time focusing on nabbing nearly every available young star at a range of different positions, not just on signing fully realized flashy attacking types—it’s how they’ve constructed Europe’s most dominant team with a depth of quality we’ve never seen before. Madrid now head into their third Champions League final in four seasons as favorites to win the first back-to-back European trophies since AC Milan in 1990.
Because of this sustained European success, the league title they’re also on track to hoist, and the blindingly bright future of their squad, it’s hard to argue that Real haven’t finally surpassed Barcelona and their nearly omnipotent star, Messi. It didn’t happen exactly like the club envisioned, and luck certainly played a factor (chiefly because of Barça’s own lax attitude toward doing what Real have done so expertly, i.e. proactively suffusing their squad with ever-younger talent to take over for the aging stars of yore). But that doesn’t and shouldn’t matter to Real Madrid’s players and fans. They had to beat the best player in the world to get there, but Real have returned to the pinnacle. To hear them tell it, that’s exactly where they belong.