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How Real Madrid won a Champions League Three-peat

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In a week of European anniversaries, it seemed fitting to look back at Real Madrid’s greatest modern achievement in a new light

Juventus v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

The end of May and beginning of June will mark a week that this generation of Madridistas will treasure from now until their deaths. Thanks to the UEFA scheduling gods, the Champions League final falls around this time every year and, being the most successful club in the competition, it gives Madrid fans a chance to reflect on any one of the seven Champions League victories this club has recorded since the competition was rebranded in the early 1990s.

Though it robs the nostalgia off none the preceding finals, one particular set of anniversaries is and will likely remain the subject of discussion and debates among Madridistas, not to mention the envy of their rivals, for the rest of time. I am referring, of course, to Real Madrid’s back to back to back Champions League victories.

Although the achievement is still fresh in all our minds, this era of dominance has already seen so much discussion, and a surprising amount of criticism. With the week that we’re in, and the chance that the core may not be around at the club for much longer, it seemed fitting to take a look at some of the tangible reasons as to how Real Madrid won the Champions League three times in a row, and perhaps try and set the record straight amongst it critics once and for all.

Lady luck

Before actually discussing the reasons why Real Madrid won the three-peat, it’s worth discussing the most popular narrative surrounding Madrid’s achievement: luck. Personally, It’s hard to read any tweet or article that suggests Real Madrid were simply lucky to win their three-peat without reading it in a bitter tone. Anyone who brings luck into the equation regarding Real Madrid’s dynasty is someone who clearly doesn’t want to give Los Blancos the credit they’re due. Luck is a firm element of the game. Ajax were lucky that Vinicius Junior, among Madrid’s most potent forward’s this season, went off injured early in the return leg. They were lucky that Raphael Varane’s header hit the woodwork instead of the back of the net early on in the same game. Tottenham were lucky that Manchester City’s 90th minute goal in the quarter final this season was millimetres offside.

Luck plays a part in every team’s success and failures every season. Those that begrudge a team for their luck are generally ones that would prefer not to give credit to the “lucky” side, or are idealistic enough to believe that every piece of silverware their team has won was won completely without luck. One might argue that Real Madrid’s luck was disproportionate in comparison to other winners, but the rebuttal to that is that Madrid’s achievement is also disproportionate. Only three teams (Juventus and AC Milan being the other two) have reached three Champions League finals in a row, and only four defending champions have reached the final the following season. Only Real Madrid have been able to defend the crown.

The Zidane factor

Having removed luck from the equation, one can pick a part the clogs of Real Madrid’s three-peat a little easier. The under-appreciated clog in this machine is Zinedine Zidane.

Largely as a result of his pragmatic style and the fact most fans have chalked his achievements up to luck, Zidane hasn’t really gotten the credit he deserves as a manager. His adaptability and tactical changes at key points during the big games came up clutch on several occasions for Madrid. Such examples include the final against Juventus in 2017 and the first leg of the round-of-16 against PSG in 2018.

By far the biggest change Zidane made was the hiring of fitness coac, Antonio Pintus from Lyon. The Italian athlete was Zidane’s fitness coach at Juventus, when the Old Lady reached three consecutive Champions League finals of their own between 1995 and 1998. He subscribes to a fitness philosophy of “the team that can run the fastest for the longest will win”, and that philosophy was vindicated during Madrid’s three peat. Leading the fitness regime and playing a role in rotations, Pintus’s approach saw Zidane use just 14 players in nearly 60% of the 20,000 minutes that Real Madrid played between 2015 and 2018. Six of the 14 players have played over half the minutes available to them in that same period, despite a several international tournaments taking place the summers following each of Madrid’s Champions League victories.

Beating demons of the past

Zidane’s man management skills are often used as a weapon by his detractors. However, the belief and morale the Frenchman built in the locker room allowed Madrid to overcome some massive hurdles that had prevented them from lifting old Big Ears in the past.

For example, Zidane’s first Champions League victory (2–0 away to Roma in 2016) was the club’s first win on Italian soil in eight seasons. In knocking Roma out, Madrid had beaten Italian opponents in the Champions League knockouts for the first time since 1988. Their comeback against Wolfsburg in the following round was their first comeback since 2002. After winning the Cup on Italian soil, Real Madrid continued to bury old ghosts of the past. Before La Decima, Real Madrid had two wins in 26 meetings against German sides (Bayer Leverkusen in the final in 2002, and 2–0 against Dortmund in 2013). During their three-peat, Madrid won six and lost just one of their 10 games against German sides including six wins in a row over Bayern.

When Madrid defeated Juventus in Turin on course to their 13th European title, it was their first win in Juve’s backyard since the 1960s.

Winning Away

It’s not just beating old foes that have given Real Madrid the upper hand in Europe. However, their away record in general has given them a massive advantage. Winning away from home in the Champions League is hard, especially against the big sides. When Ronaldo’s brace downed Bayern in the 2017 quarter final, it ended the Bavarian’s 16-game win streak at home. Real’s romping win away to Juve also broke several records including the home side’s 27-match unbeaten streak.

These records demonstrate not only what impressive results they were for Real in isolation, but also how difficult it is to win away from home. Furthering that point, studies show that stronger teams (in terms of depth, financial power and coefficient ranking) who play their second leg at home generally progress in the Champions League knock-out ties. When Ajax knocked out Real Madrid this season, it was just the second time in the club’s history that they had been knocked out after winning the away leg. Spurs were only the second team in Champions League history to lose the first leg of the semi-final at home and progress to the final anyway.

Where am I going with all this? To demonstrate Real’s impressive away record, I took the 36 games of their three-peat and compared it to the last 36 games of some of Europe’s premier sides. In 18 Champions League away games, Real Madrid have recorded 11 victories and just three losses (a win percentage of 53%). Of those 11 wins, six of them came in the knock-out rounds. It’s a record that outshines that of their colleagues, and it’s undeniable that being a giant like Madrid where playing the home leg last gives you an advantage, that also being ruthless in the away leg makes you near unstoppable.

Note: When trying to make up the numbers, the previous season (i.e 14–15) was used. 18–19 was used only as a last resort

Victory in Kiev: A win to sum up the three-peat

The final Champions League crown in Real Madrid’s three-peat was by far the most dramatic and the least impressive. Although Madrid’s victory in 2016 wasn't impressive in terms of opponents, they had demonstrated good form in Europe (having won all but two of their games preceding the final) and had shown plenty of promise towards the end of season to suggest they were capable of more — ending Barcelona’s record unbeaten run and pushing the Catalans to the very last day in the title race thanks to a 12-game winning streak.

The following season, Real Madrid were by far the best team in the world. They went a record 49 games unbeaten and scored in 73 consecutive games including every game they played during the 2016–17 season. Unlike in 2015–16, Real Madrid overcame Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and an inform Juventus side before securing their European double.

If Cardiff was the peak, then the following season represented the start of a slippery slope that Los Blancos plummeted into this season. Much of the depth that defined 16–17 Madrid left without being replaced and, from what we can muster from Zidane’s comments later that season, his approach didn't prove as effective. The Frenchman had lost seven games in charge of Madrid when Los Blancos lifted the Spanish Supercup in August 2018, they would lose nine games during the 17–18 season alone.

Clearly suffering from the early signs of burnout, Madrid did what every great winning dynasty does, they fell back on the main principles that won them their previous titles and made a run for one last championship. Those principles, as this article has already outlined, were the ability to outmatch their opponents physically over 90 minutes and over the course of a European season, a terrifying ruthlessness away from home and a mental edge over any side in the big game.

Trusting in these principles, not to mention the team’s historic individual quality, Real Madrid ground out an unimpressive capstone to their dynasty in undeniably their hardest run to the final out of all three victories — overseeing Dortmund, Tottenham, PSG, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Liverpool in the final.

This dynasty is still too fresh in the minds of football fans for us to speculate their legacy on the sport as a whole. What is for sure, is that this Real Madrid team will be remembered for their terrifying ability to win even with their backs against the wall and for some of the great goals scored in the big games across its three-year-rule. We might never see this kind of thing happen again, and simply for that, this side will forever occupy a unique spot in European football history.