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The false narrative regarding Real Madrid’s lack of identity

Eduardo Alvarez debunks Xavi’s statements today — but beyond that, publishes a much-needed article to dispel some common myths about Real’s style of play.

Real Madrid v Chelsea - UEFA Champions League Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On the 28th of June of 2007, Pedja Mijatovic – at that point Real Madrid’s Sports Director – announced that Fabio Capello would leave his job as first team coach days after the club had just won one of the most memorable Ligas in the history of the tournament. That season, during the Christmas break, Capello had reorganized what was a chaotic team by taking very hard personnel decisions – such as letting Ronaldo Nazário go to AC Milan. Under his leadership the squad managed to stage a completely unexpected comeback, conquering the title in the very last match after a handful of unforgettable wins with surprising stars such as Robinho, Higuaín, Reyes or Diarra.

Mijatovic explained the contract termination with these words: “Capello’s choices were constantly second guessed by fans and media alike. His head was demanded non-stop. […] We don’t believe that Capello is the right person to lead the team in the direction we wish”.

But wait a second: I thought winning was all that mattered for Real Madrid. If Capello had won La Liga, surely that was the direction the club wished to follow, correct?

Well, no.

It is with pain that, in the tactics-first era we live in, I see Real Madrid fans buying into – and often repeating – the impressively well-built Barcelona narrative, which has two edges: first, Barcelona FC has a trademark style which matters even more than winning, because they only win when they follow that style; second, Real Madrid only cares about winning no matter how, and that implies that the Bernabeu faithful don’t really give a damn about how their team plays, as long as they win.

This line of thinking, originally created in Catalonia, has transcended beyond the Spanish borders. It’s time to end this nonsense once and for all.

Let’s go quickly through the Barcelona side of things, although that’s not the focus of this piece. For starters, the much-acclaimed Barcelona DNA is nothing more than a copy of Ajax’s principles, brought over by Johan Cruyff in the early nineties, and then added the extremely important Messi factor. Barcelona FC was founded in 1899, so you can quickly run the math: they’ve been playing like that for 30 years, and in the previous 90 they did so very differently. And this, by the way, does not mean that they didn’t care about playing high-quality football back then. They just hadn’t found their own DNA yet, bizarre as that may sound.

Secondly, I don’t think I’ve seen a player or coach more obsessed with winning at all costs than Johan Cruyff himself. When a result was needed, he would gladly send all that DNA rubbish to the thrash and start five defenders. I’ve seen Pep Guardiola man-marking Emilio Butragueño for 90 minutes at the Bernabeu, when Cruyff knew that his side was not good enough to face Real Madrid head-to-head and he desperately needed a result. Quite often he would also use a center back – Alexanco, for instance – as a center forward in the last twenty minutes of matches when he was trailing, not really caring about positional play or advancing with the infamous third man to get the goal he needed. Again, he was focused on winning, and that meant that he tried to find a way no matter what. Victories first, style second.

In fact, Cruyff only kept his job with Barcelona because he conquered the Copa del Rey in 1990. How did he win that final? With one of the most violent displays of defensive football I can recall – I still can’t believe that Guillermo Amor was not sent off for the sequence of brutal tackles on Rafael Martín Vázquez, back then the best Spanish footballer. Check a couple of them on 12:21 or 52:14 of this video for an illustration.

That Copa del Rey final took place at the end of his second season at the helm of the team, and the club hadn’t yet won any titles under him. President Núñez had made it clear that Cruyff could not go empty-handed for two seasons, despite all that flair and style, so that win saved him from the axe. Johan won that match in a performance very distant from the much-publicized Barcelona DNA, but he did what he needed to do to get the title and I can’t remember any barcelonista complaining because he didn’t play the right way. And, of course, he didn’t lose his job.

After him and Van Gaal, only Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova and now Xavi Hernandez have in fact played in that style which at times feels to too many like the only right way to put the ball on the net. Martino, Luis Enrique, Valverde, Koeman or even Setién did not use much of that DNA. And all this narrative about playing the right way and winning as an ensuing, secondary objective gets really complex to justify when you remember that Ernesto Valverde was fired right after the team had played one the best matches of his tenure, in the loss to Atletico de Madrid in that Spanish Supercup. They could have scored seven but didn’t. The performance didn’t matter, the result did. And now, under Xavi himself, we see Barcelona scoring headers left, right and center, and running counter attacks like crazy. Again, the narrative is great until you need to win actual matches. Then you use whatever fits best your team for that purpose.

But let’s move onto Real Madrid. Capello was not the only Real Madrid coach who lost his job despite having achieved successful results. If you know our history, Radomir Antic was fired when the team was leading La Liga with a three-point cushion. Even more shocking: Antic’s final match was a win over Tenerife! After that victory, Mendoza stated that he had enjoyed Tenerife’s approach a lot more than his own team’s. Can’t recall many coaches fired after winning three points.

Or in comes Vicente del Bosque, who got the pink slip in the summer of 2003 right after conquering La Liga. Florentino wanted a more modern (?) approach to the beautiful game, and once again, results were not enough for him. The President even had to fight a dressing room revolt, as the players sided with the coach – and with Fernando Hierro, who was also made redundant in that “modernization” effort. The title was not enough for Florentino, like winning was not enough for presidents Calderón or Mendoza in similar situations. The way Real Madrid wins matters a lot, to a point that I haven’t seen in any other club, including Barcelona.

Of course, winning is extremely important, as it is for every single club at their respective levels. Of course, we want our team to keep fighting to secure the winning goal until the very end of the last match (“Hasta el final, vamos Real” is one of the most accurate descriptions of our mentality I can think of). But it is complete bullshit to say that we want to win regardless how. The club has fired three coaches who were very successful because they were not playing high-quality, entertaining football, and I don’t think Barcelona or any other team in the world can claim anything like that.

So, when I hear fellow Madridistas discussing our lack of style, surprised at the apparently random sequence of coaches we’ve hired – and we’ve won with –, and even wishing that we had some identity similar to that of Barcelona, I go nuts. Check managingmadrid’s podcast after the first leg of the Chelsea knockout round in London if you’re interested in a rant that summarizes this piece.

What is Real Madrid’s style, then? This is when the most relevant discussion takes place. First, the football-related analysis has nowadays evolved towards an obsessive focus on tactics in such a way that many people automatically assume that style of play = tactics, when to me there’s a lot more to it.

Style includes not only your formation or your approach to keeping or not keeping possession, but also the profile of the players you hire, how they conduct themselves on and off the pitch, the intensity of the team no matter who they play against, the attitude to go for one more goal rather than sitting back when they have the lead, the scoring vs defending mindset… This is a team’s game, and as such there’s almost as much going on in the qualitative / motivational side of things than on the tactical one.

In a club like Real Madrid, you do need a coach who knows how to motivate the players and gets them incensed to win every single match, not a micromanager telling a world star to move two meters up or down his flank. That’s why when we’re evaluating a coach for Real Madrid, I tend to favor ones that let their players enjoy themselves, because we tend to have the best personnel on earth, and they should be able to make their own decisions on the pitch most of the time. Yes, Rafa Benitez was a huge mistake, and of course he wants to win at all costs.

So yes, I want players who die for a victory, but they must play well too. Some current examples: Modric and Kroos are perfect examples of foreign Madridistas who have understood the club like very few local people, and of course, Vinicius’ never-give-up attitude when things aren’t going his way is 100% madridista too.

Conversely, whiners are not welcome, leave that to Barcelona. We don’t moan about the length of the grass, the rain, the tactics of the other team or whatever excuses they’re using nowadays. Jose Mourinho lost me when he complained about Sporting de Gijon playing a weakened side vs Barcelona and their best line-up against us. Jose, it was freaking Sporting de Gijon. You are Real Madrid’s coach, man up. You shouldn’t even mention things like that. Win the effing match, you’re embarrassing me.

And what does “play well” mean for us? Well, it means whatever the Bernabeu likes, and that is in fact much more specific than you may think. The Madridista style is something passed on from parents and grandparents to their offspring while watching football at the Bernabeu, and, at its heart, comes from having watched Alfredo Di Stefano play.

First, you must be on the pitch to win the match, and that implies having the ball most of the time and trying to score as often as possible. I know that sounds vague, but it eliminates quite a few tactical approaches, player profiles and, of course, coaches. One of the most embarrassing performances I can remember recently wasn’t the 4-0 at home to Barcelona this season, because that happened as a result of our tactical mess. You could see they went out to win the match but played like crap. I was a lot more pissed off with the way we played in Paris. I can’t understand approaching a match like that, be it against the worst or the best team in the world. We didn’t even try to score.

Again, the fact that we want our team to be a protagonist and win every match already takes a few coaching options off the table. For instance, we don’t deal well with traditional Italian coaches, that’s why I was relieved that Allegri rejected our offer last summer, even if that meant that we got Everton’s manager instead. Our two experiences with Capello were excellent in terms of titles (two Ligas in two seasons), but very frustrating in terms of the football we played despite the talent he had at his disposal. Ancelotti is a very rare bird in terms of Italian coaches, allowing players to enjoy themselves on the pitch, although at times he has some relapses like that match in Paris.

Then, what about a possession-intensive approach? Kiyan often quotes Jorge Valdano in this respect. The Argentinean has said a few times that Real Madrid fans have no patience for a highly elaborated brand of football: “They want the shortest way to score”, which is probably true.

For instance, we have the luck of enjoying one of the best midfield trios in history – Casemiro, Kroos, Modric – but the profile of the three, talented as they are, is not one of pass exchangers. They always move the ball with intent to score, trying to generate advantages for the forwards and keeping them happy with plenty of touches.

Now that the Barcelona narrative inundates every media piece, let’s use their own players to illustrate this point: prime Cesc would have fit at the Bernabeu a lot easier than prime Xavi or prime Iniesta, the latter duo being true legends of the game on their own right.

Real Madrid’s style is, or at least must be, vertical, unspeculative, fast. The Bernabeu adores a team who plays first touch, and that is something that even the most conservative coaches learn quickly and adapt to when they coach Real Madrid. Our first goal vs Chelsea last Wednesday was an excellent example. Fast passing, move from one side to the other, advantage, cross, goal. We’ve seen that in the 50’s with Di Stefano & co, in the 60’s with the Ye-yes, in the 70’s with the German imports, in the 80s with La Quinta, in the 90s with Valdano, Heynckes and Hiddink, in the 00s with Del Bosque and Pellegrini (yes, I wrote that), and in the last decade plus with Ancelotti and Zidane. We don’t want any tactics-intense, possession-above-all-things, plenty-of-backward-passing nonsense. The Bernabeu demands action.

Back to Di Stefano: we don’t respect extremely talented players who don’t try, and we despise more limited players even if they try really hard. We are, in fact, looking for another Alfredo in every player we watch, applying that mold to every soul who dares to wear the white jersey, that’s why we are demanding, dismissive and hard to impress.

And what about tactical formations? Well, as long as the team plays in the above-mentioned fashion, it’s a secondary topic, and I know this must sound like blasphemy in the tactics-first football of this era. That said, I can’t imagine us playing with five at the back – I remember Arsenio Iglesias’ tenure with physical pain –, but I do remember Del Bosque using that a few times and it did work fine. Again, ball movement and scoring intent supersede any tactical notes and positional theories.

If all of this seems counterintuitive after all the narrative we hear in the media, who in their majority have bought into the “win no matter how” stuff, just visit the Bernabeu for a couple of matches. If you’re lucky, you will enjoy solid performances in which the team will play well and the fans will cheer. But even if everything goes according to plan, I guarantee you that whoever misplaces a pass, slows the team down or does not participate as much as expected will feel that infamous Bernabeu rumor, if not some boos. Stopping a fast transition is considered a crime, passes towards our own goal must be absolutely justified and the ball must run quickly towards the target, even if we’re already leading. If that’s not a style, I don’t know how to describe one.

And, of course, the Bernabeu is famous for the boos. It’s our tool to show disapproval of the performances, that is why coaches and players quickly learn to play to our wishes. The boos always happen when the team plays poorly, regardless of the result. Again, I’ve seen dozens of successful matches after which the team left the pitch among a huge rain of jeers and even almohadillas. We boo players who are not performing, or with a dissolute life outside of the pitch, or who have lacked the respect we believe the club deserves (see BALE, Gareth). But it is also a way of defining and maintaining a style. The fans tell you very emphatically what they think about you when you’re not showing up, one of the most powerful style-preserving tools I’ve ever seen.

Yes, the 60k socios of a club followed worldwide determine how the team plays more than the coach, the players or the president. And they know very well what they enjoy and what they don’t.

Every club fan wants to win every match. Not all fans demand their teams to do so in a fast, intense manner for 90 minutes. That is our style.

So there. I’ll be more than happy to discuss this in the comments’ section or in a future podcast, but please don’t get me started again. If you root for this club, remember: we want to win and we want to do it in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, scoring galore if possible. Winning does not make us forget if we’ve played badly.

And folks, that does seem to be the case in other clubs who live stating the exact opposite.

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