There’s no need – or will, at least on my side – to rehash these numbers any further, but allow me to start with a quick factual reminder to set the tone of this post: since the 2008-09 season, Barcelona have won seven LaLiga titles, while Real Madrid have conquered two and Atletico one. That gap will only increase come May, as Costa, Suárez and Messi combined to hand Barcelona another title on Saturday evening. In the last 11 seasons, the Azulgrana will have cut Real Madrid’s lead in the tournament from 31 vs 18 to 33 vs 26 titles.
This triumphal sequence by Barcelona should have made some people at the Santiago Bernabeu reflect. In order to compete with Leo Messi, the last few seasons have made it clear that you need a miraculously consistent, injury free season – the Atletico one – or such a deep squad that you almost have two starting line-ups to select one from – both Real Madrid titles under Jose Mourinho and Zinedine Zidane, respectively. In fact, the other three seasons in which Real Madrid challenged for the title the squad was perhaps not that deep, but had enough off the bench to keep the internal competition high, while injuries largely respected those teams. I’m talking about the 2009-10 season (Pellegrini), the 2014-2015 one (Ancelotti) and the 2015-2016 one, the first under Zidane, although he took over the team in January and set up the squad that would succeed the following season.
The painful realization is that, in those eleven seasons, Real Madrid have put a decent title challenge in just five of them. Barcelona – and I promise to finish the comparisons here – not only have won seven plus this one, but challenged for another two until the very last match. Only in Pep Guardiola’s final season did they finish far away from the winner.
The point is clear: while the Azulgrana have put together a competitive machine, led by a inimitable player but with a more than decent supporting cast, Real Madrid have failed to find the necessary personnel, on and off the pitch, to nurture that same level of competitiveness.
Yes, I know, there’s the Champions League titles. The club ran into a combination of players that may not work when you have to play 38 matches in a consistent manner, but which raised to the occasion in the famous seven key Champions League matches in four of the last five seasons, and that record, outstanding as it is, has probably numbed the Madridistas’ senses in what regards to the domestic competitions.
In reality, a deep, consistent squad that plays hard every match is the base for both domestic and international titles, while the lack of motivation that we’ve witnessed so often at the Bernabeu in the last two seasons will not lead to success more often than not. It is the club’s responsibility to improve the squad every summer, especially in a very competitive market, but what we’ve seen is exactly the opposite: this year’s squad was so short in offensive options that, for a long stretch of the season, the team depended almost like a junkie on a 18-year-old who did not know the competition or his team mates. Comparing this season’s squad to the one that won the title under Zidane is depressing: not a single position has been strengthened or rejuvenated successfully. The sequence of bets on youngsters haven’t been matched with the required amounts of cash to sign proven talent, and the impact on performance has been brutal.
There’s one more thing, rarely mentioned in relationship with Real Madrid’s club management, that hasn’t worked as it should in the last decade. I am not keen on conspiracies, but it is clear that Barcelona’s suits have done a much better job with LaLiga and the Spanish FA than Real Madrid, and that can be felt in signs that range from match scheduling – very important when the calendar reaches February and one more day of rest is key – to the way their players are treated on the pitch. Again, I’m no conspiranoid, but if a team with Mascherano as centreback and Suárez as centreforward can spend two seasons without a single penalty call against them nor one red card shown, someone has done their institutional job outstandingly well.
Granted, Real Madrid had the doors of the Spanish FA closed since they tried to get rid of Villar and Barcelona broke the deal to support his dismissal to get on Villar’s right side. But if a new President comes along, the last thing you should do is seduce his head coach, the one whose contract had just been extended by the new President until 2020 as the World Cup was about to start.
Zidane’s comeback is a sign on the right direction. He left because he could not stand not having competed in the domestic tournaments during his last season, and he has clear ideas on what to do to recover that level of consistency that his team reached in his first 18 months. If he’s given both the authority and the money, we may be on the right course to recover the winning attitude. However, that takes years to instill in a squad, so he should also be given time to try and err. And even if Zidane manages to get the team going, some work behind the scenes is also mandatory to play at least on an equal refereeing basis against Barcelona.
Well, we should be glad that the reinvention project has started. Long live Zinedine Zidane.