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Retaining the league title is easier said than done for Real Madrid

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Real Madrid have a pretty miserable record as champions in the 21st century.

Real Madrid CF v Villarreal CF - La Liga Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

FZSince I tapped out of sport following Real Madrid’s title victory in July, I’ve been on a Netflix binge. Last week, I started scraping the bottom of the barrel and decided to rewatch The Last Dance as I hadn’t seen it since its original run a couple million years ago.

I lack even a casual interest in basketball, however, The Last Dance is a series that I can easily get into and certainly stands up to a second watch. Perhaps given the week that was in it, with LaLiga predictions cropping up, I was quite struck with what an incredible and exhausting feat retaining the world championship was for the Bulls, particularly for Micheal Jordan.

Speaking through his experiences of the last championship of both three peats, Jordan constantly refers to the mental and physical exhaustion he felt throughout those respective seasons. In the last episode, he describes the 1998 championship as his favourite as he was just as dominant as he was during 1991-1992 despite winning five rings, “that’s where the craftmanship comes in”, he says at one point. Craftmanship is interesting word for dominating sport and, from my reading of Jordan’s words, it comes when great individuals are able to separate their mental and physical state from their talent.

Retaining a championship is extremely difficult and yet its vitally important for any team serious about laying down a marker to their opponents and putting themselves amongst the very best. As Phil Jackson said in the documentary, “You’re only a success at the moment you perform a successful act”

Historically speaking, Real Madrid are very good of repeating successful acts. Europe speaks for itself with Los Blancos dominating the European Cup and its successor at different stages across the competition’s history. The Copa del Rey has always been in Madrid’s perphiary and,perhaps surprisingly, LaLiga is much the same story as the Champions League.

Across 89 seasons at the conclusion of the 2019-20 campaign, only a quarter of LaLiga champions retained their title. Of the 23 Spanish champions who retained their crown across LaLiga history, eight of them represented Real Madrid. Amongst those eight occasions, Real Madrid twice managed to hold on to the title for five seasons running, a Spanish record that no one else has even managed to accomplish once.

Its an impressive CV and certainly makes those backing Real to retain the title this season look quite clever. However, when you preface history with recent history, the numbers do an ugly U-turn. From repeating seven times in 59 seasons, Real Madrid have only managed to do so once in the last 30. That, in isolation, isn’t bad, this article has been about how hard keeping hold of championships is after all. Alas, its not Real Madrid are bad at retaining the title thats the problem, its how bad a champion Real Madrid have been in the last 30 years that’s the issue, rarely coming close to a two titles on the bounce.

How Real went from generally winning their league titles in pairs to grovelling to one and then calling it quits for three or four years is complicated and layered. Though numbers have provided some interesting insights up until this point, they aren’t much help here as actually insightful stats such as xG are only publicly available for the last five seasons. Even those numbers aren’t particularly helpful with both Barcelona and Real Madrid generally over-performing their predicted numbers. Both sides have seen a decline in xG recently, however, this is largely for team specific issues rather than any sign of some great fatal flaw.

The closest I came to finding the crux of Real Madrid’s poor record as defending champion was their xGA. The 2019-20 season was the first time since the pre-Pep era that Real Madrid had outperformed Barcelona defensively with Los Blancos generally conceding about 10 or more goals than their Clasico rivals. This in itself shouldn’t be much of a surprise, there is a presumption that Real Madrid have never been good defensively (something not strictly true), however, I never realised just how bad it had gotten.

Where Barcelona’s xGA has only passed the 40 goal mark twice in the last six seasons, Real Madrid’s xGA has only finished under the 40 mark twice in the last six seasons (that includes last season). Averaging out Real’s total xGA since 2014-15, Los Blancos have been expected to concede 43 goals a season. Looking at the league table during the same time period, teams that conceded around 43 goals in a campaign generally finished around the Europa League spots, miles off a title challenge.

As I mentioned before, five seasons can’t explain the last three decades of why Real Madrid have been such bad champions, it also doesn’t explain how Barcelona have managed to win half the league titles up for grabs in those 30 years with just 2012-13 arriving in isolation. Ironically, Barcelona does partly explain why Real Madrid have found consistently winning back-to-back LaLigas so hard since the Quinta’s heyday.

When Johan Cruyff returned to his former club in 1988, they had a grand total of 10 league titles to boast about, a tally more comparable to the haul of Spain’s other five league winners than the 25 their Clasico rivals had managed to get to that point. Following the turn of the decade, the Dutchman was able to win the league four times on the bounce, twice as many title as any team not called Real Madrid had managed to that point and won Barcelona their first European Cup.

He ended up sacked in 1994, however from a Madrid perspective, the damage had already been done by that point. Many challengers had appeared in LaLiga over the decades following Madrid’s acquisitions of Di Stefano, however none boasted the longevity than Cruyff’s Barca and the former Ajax midfielder’s time at the helm paved the way for the team that haunts Real Madrid to this day.


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