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Analysing Miguel Muñoz: The Di Stefano era.

First of two articles looking at Real Madrid most iconic manager.

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One part of Real Madrid’s history that has always puzzled me is Miguel Muñoz. The former player arrived as first team manager with little experience and a host of sacked managers proceeding him, despite the club’s success. Instead of becoming the latest victim of this machine, the former midfielder managed to stay in the job for a breathtaking 16 years. It’s a period where Madrid win their fifth European Cup, get knocked out of the competition for the first time ever, boot Alfredo Di Stefano from the club, rebuild and win their sixth European Cup as well an untold amount of domestic success. That Muñoz, despite so many reasons to suggest he wouldn’t, managed to stay in the job through all this baffles me.

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Blessed with time from the lockdown, I’ve tried to take a definite look at his time at Real Madrid in the hopes of figuring out how he defied the odds.

Miguel Muñoz’s time with Real Madrid goes back to his childhood. He supported the club growing up and started his playing career at Real’s academy. Forced to reach the first team the long way round, Muñoz eventually returned to his hometown team in 1948 from Celta Vigo. He spent the remaining 10 years of his player career at Real, playing 278 games, many of them as captain.

He won four league titles and three European Cups, scoring Madrid’s first European goal as well. After a bit part role during his last season, the midfielder retired in 1958 to, in his own words, “avoid making a fool of himself”.

In February 1959, he made his first venture taking charge of Real after Luis Carniglia took time off due to illness. Five wins in seven games was enough to impress Bernabeú who encouraged Muñoz to continue coaching, giving him the reserve team job. He spent a year coaching Plus Ultra before being recalled to the senior team hotseat, taking the reins from the latest victim of Bernabeú managerial trigger finger.

At that time, Real Madrid found themselves mostly out of the league title race for the second successive season and heading into the European semi-finals as underdogs against Spanish champions elect Barcelona. No prizes for those that guessed what happened next.

It’s difficult to say much of Muñoz’s beginnings at the club because it wasn’t his team for much of the period, it was Bernabeú. Nonetheless, upon taking the job Muñoz felt Real needed a change of formation and approach, something his predecessor Flietas Solich had also noted. The Paraguayan introduced a 4-2-4 with Brazilian Didí in midfield to try and ease the demand on Di Stefano. The Argentine disagreed with this move, feeling his dropping into midfield was crucial for Madrid’s success. He also didn’t like Didí and complained about his workrate until Solich scrapped the formation.

Muñoz brought the 4-2-4 back with Luis Del Sol in the place of Didí at 8. Del Sol was a crucial introduction to the 1959-60 side. Bought from Real Betis that summer, his work-rate and quality kept Real Madrid’s offence ticking. He blended much better with Di Stefano demonstrated by the fact that the duo exchanged more passes between each other during the 1960 final than any other partnership on the pitch.

In this move, Del Sol is the man who beats the player and starts running, it encapsulates his role quite nicely. The Spanish midfielder didn’t score (obviously) but he had a direct hand in Madrid’s third and fifth goals as Los Blancos took the European Cup out of Frankfurt’s grasp.

The trophy and the manner in which Madrid won it ensured Muñoz kept his job and though the club would have to wait another six years for European glory again, domestic success kept fans busy in the short term. Between 1961 and 1965, Muñoz’s team won five league titles in a row, beating the previous record of two back-to-back titles. The team peaked in 1962, by which stage Muñoz had introduced the likes of Iganacio Zoco, Amanico Amaro and Felix “Felo” Ruiz into the team, relegating former starters to the bench. The team were super slick and a real joy to watch.

A league title came with ease as Los Blancos finished 12 points clear of their nearest rival. They then wrapped up a first ever domestic double in the Copa final against Sevilla. Only Benfica denied Madrid a treble, retaining the European Cup in one of the most entertaining European finals I have ever watched.

Eusebio celebrating European victory over Real Madrid in Amsterdam.

The 1961/62 season would be the high water mark for Muñoz first phase as manager. After failing to capture a sixth European title in Amsterdam, fans and pundits began to get frustrated as Madrid continued to flounder in Europe.

There are many reasons as to why Real Madrid’s fortunes changed so suddenly following their close treble miss. The club was forced to sell Luis Del Sol to Juventus to cover club debts and much of the quality depth Madrid possessed moved elsewhere. However, defeat in the 1964 European Cup final put Madrid’s legendary attack firmly in the crosshairs.

Madrid faced Helanio Herrera’s Inter Milan in that final and were completely outmanoeuvred. After scoring freely in the previous rounds, Los Blancos were greeted with a brick wall in Vienna. Unlike in Amsterdam where Madrid’s stars had good matches despite the defeat, all three were near non-existent in this match. Di Stefano did not have a meaningful shot at goal until half way into the second half while Puskas and Gento didn’t fare much better.

In a modern sense, Helanio Herrera’s catenaccio system seems quite simplistic but it was ruthlessly efficient against Di Stefano and co.

Outside of long shots like this, Madrid had their chances limited to set pieces and one shot from Gento that hit the post at the start of the second half. Inter, having opened the scoring from a brilliant long range effort, could enjoy space on the counter and hounding increasingly isolated defenders for possession.

Muñoz also made some tactical mistakes, setting his team up to counter Inter’s left back, Giacinto Facchetti, who’d scored double figures the previous season. Facchetti ended up having a minimal role in Inter’s attack and played no part in the three goals they scored. Meanwhile, Luis Suarez, Sandro Mazzola and Aurelio Milani had plenty of space to run the show.

Having entered the stadium claiming old soldiers never die, Santiago Bernabeu left Vienna saying “If you want to act like a star you have to know how to be a star. It’s not enough to say “I’m so-and-so, the best in this position” Yeah, and?”

A rebuild was clearly on the cards, however the task was easier said than done.

(All match footage via the OGs at Footballia)

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