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What is a football identity and how can Real Madrid get one?

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Real Madrid v Ajax - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg
Triumph of Philosophy?
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Real Madrid lacks a footballing philosophy, Barcelona is losing their identity, Ajax have Cruyff’s DNA, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is bringing back the Manchester United Way.

Real Madrid fans and football fans in general have heard a lot about identity this season and yet, we have learned hardly anything explicit about what exactly a footballing identity is or how to get one. The triumph of philosophy-driven clubs like Barcelona and Ajax, as well newcomers to the identity table such as Tottenham and Liverpool, have left some Madrid fans wondering what Real Madrid’s identity is and how the club goes about getting one.

Does it involve Real making a deal with the devil and jumping upon the Johan Cruyff bandwagon, or is there a comprise that allows Los Blancos to, in the eyes of their rivals anyways, continue as the godless heathens we have all come to know and love?

Before discussing Real Madrid’s lack of footballing identity, we need to address the elephant in the room — that being that Real Madrid actually do have an identity. What Madridistas actually have is a defined on-field approach, which, for most clubs, differs greatly to a football identity. Playing styles are in constant flux. 1960s Real Madrid were playing to the old Spanish ideals of La Furia which encouraged players to be physical, aggressive, and direct. The Quinta del Buitre were the polar opposite, preferring grace and beating their opponent on a technical level rather than a physical one. Lacking a defined playing style isn't unique among historically successful clubs — Manchester United have been suffering an identity crisis since Alex Ferguson left while one would be foolish to say that Liverpool always played the rock-and-roll, gegenpressing football they currently play under Jurgen Klopp.

Although it doesn't define the club’s on-field approach like Barcelona and Ajax’s does, Real Madrid do have a football identity. In fact, part of the reason the club has struggled with a defined playing style is because of that identity. Real Madrid defines itself by its successful eras, and hence, much of what happened before the 1950s has little bearing on what Real Madrid is today. Indeed, the Real Madrid that Santiago Bernabeu took over as president of after the Spanish Civil War, and the one that won the Spanish Cup against Valencia just before it, were two very different teams. Some of the defining elements of Real Madrid’s identity have remained throughout its post Civil War history, the club have always attempted to attract the biggest stars in world football and only didn’t when external factors prevented them from doing so. Real also have a long history of promoting from within and sometimes these players have gone on to define an era at the club over the purchased players (the Ye-Ye and the Quinta del Buitre for example). That promotion from within also goes for managers — with former Real Madrid players dominating the list of the club’s most successful coaches.

However, the most definitive and problematic element of Real Madrid’s identity is that it has never been a club that’s patient with their managers. Since Bernabeu became president in 1943, Real Madrid have had 48 managers. 12 of them managed the club for a full year and only nine managed the club for more than two. Zidane is the 11th coach to manage the club more than once, and one coach, Luis Molowny, managed the club four times. Perez is often the president blamed for having an itchy trigger finger, but firing coaches is a favoured pastime of all Real Madrid presidents. Bernabeu went through five different coaches across seven seasons between 1953 and 1960. Madrid sacked three different coaches between 1985 and 1990 despite winning the league every season. Between 1998 and 2002, when Real Madrid ended their long wait for a Champions League and won the competition a further two times in the next four years, they had five different coaches.

Miguel Muñoz is an outlier in all this and even then, his survival at Real Madrid isn’t as clear cut as it seems (a talking point which is an article in itself). Aside from him, Real Madrid sacked coaches religiously and trusted the bounty of talent in their possession, not to mention the mismanagement of their traditional title rivals, to see them over the line. Football has changed since those days. LaLiga is a much stronger league and managers are much more dominant personalities than they were in the 20th century. The modern game demands football clubs to trust managers if they wish to be consistently successful.

However, doing so goes against a lot of what Real Madrid defines itself by. Florentino Perez was quoted in 2013 saying that Real Madrid has always been a “presidential club”. As the Spaniard has learned, such old fashion ideals won’t help his team in the long run and he has adapted his original approach greatly since saying that.

What remains Real Madrid’s biggest obstacle in instilling a playing style is trusting a manager in the long term, especially after a trophy-less season. This could prove difficult for the institute because its not just the president’s decision to sack a manager. Across Madrid’s history, failure has always been greeted by a pressure from both socios and the fans for managerial change. Remaining resolute behind Zidane, despite of that pressure, could prove vital to the successes of both the Frenchman and the coaches that will take his place on the Bernabeu hotseat.