Back in year 2001, Real Madrid president famously promised to sign the pre-eminent Portuguese winger, Luis Figo, right under the noses of their eternal rivals Barcelona. Few saw the transfer move happening, but Perez did manage to stage a transfer coup by making an offer Barcelona couldn’t refuse – an equivalent of thumbing his nose at his team’s bitter rivals. Real Madrid’s fanbase were enamoured with the vision of the world’s best footballers playing for their team – like in the glory days of the Alfredo di Stefano decade – and voted for him in spite of the incumbent Lorenzo Sanz winning the UEFA Champions League twice during his tenure.
Señor Perez was just getting started with his Galacticos project – in the later years, he signed attacking superstars such as Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo (the Brazilian) and David Beckham. Perez harboured a dream of irresistible local talent rubbing shoulders with the world’s best. Back then, with Iker Casillas and Raul in the team and Guti and Javier Portillo waiting in the wings, Real Madrid’s future seemed bright. What could go wrong with his plan of combining “Zidanes and Pavones”? As history turned out, there was plenty.
Even though the popular perception is that his project was a failure, Florentino Perez’s team was one of the world’s best in the initial years of the Galacticos. They won the UEFA Champions League for the third time in five years in 2002, and the Spanish La Liga in 2003. Though plenty of explanations have been given for the failure of the project, two reasons that haven’t been discussed as often are the factors of age and squad rotation.
Second Perez era finally brings balance to squad
The bulk of the Galactico signings were made on attacking footballers who were close to their physical peak. Luis Figo was over 27 when he signed on the dotted line; Zidane was 29; the Brazilian Ronaldo was signed at 26, on the back of a stellar 2002 World Cup campaign, after he had lost three seasons to various injuries; David Beckham was 28 when he posed with the famous white shirt in front of the cameras; Walter Samuel was 26 when he was bought from Roma.
All this led to buying players who were at their physical peak – and the only way from there was down. Fans may have baulked at the eye-popping figure of 105 million Euros that Manchester United spent on Paul Pogba in the previous summer, but he was a 23 year old with the best part of his career ahead of him. In the worst case scenario, Manchester United could recoup a good part of his transfer fee through a subsequent sale as the resale value would still be significant. Contrast this with the 29 year old Zidane, who was bought for 75 million Euros 16 years ago, and had a rapidly diminishing transfer value due to his age.
Real Madrid have largely taken care of this aberration in the second iteration of the Galacticos. Barring Alonso, Kaka and Modric, Real Madrid’s outfield signings have largely been on the right side of 25 – Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema, James, Isco, Ozil, di Maria, Varane and other players from earlier eras such as Ramos, Pepe, Higuain and Marcelo. Real’s homegrown contingent is quite young as well. That most of these players are still featuring in the squad and being very competitive in multiple competitions is a testament to buying players at the right time.
The second factor which led to Real Madrid’s downfall was squad depth and rotation. During the Galacticos era, the squad was quite thin in terms of quality. The demands of frenetic, modern day football are such that squad depth has to be judiciously used to compete in multiple cup and league competitions. Simply put, the replacements for these superstars were not quite at the same level and team performance suffered as a result.
Galacticos on the bench come good
Both these concerns have been taken care of to a large extent with this squad of Real Madrid. When Real Madrid’s “second” squad swept aside Deportivo 6-2 in an impressive performance, the Deportivo manager Pepe Mel reckoned that they were better than the superstar first team. The “reserve” squad boasts of talents such as Morata, Isco, James, Asensio, Nacho, Vasquez, Pepe – all of whom have done well when called upon. It is to Zidane’s credit that he has been able to throw a bone to most of the team and keep them motivated all through the campaign. Three of the club’s top scorers in the league are Morata, James and Isco – who weren’t necessarily starters at the start of the season.
A total of twenty players have clocked more than 1000 minutes in the Liga this season (with one more at 990). Two seasons ago, under the stewardship of Carlo Ancelotti, it was 15. This season, no player racked up 2600 minutes on the pitch in the Liga; two seasons ago, when Real Madrid had recorded a stunning winning streak in autumn, 4 players had amassed heavy wear and tear. It was no wonder that Real Madrid came unstuck at the end of the 2014-15 campaign, losing steam against Juventus in the UEFA Champions League semifinal. This year, in stark contrast, Real Madrid made light work of its rivals in April and May with the competitive advantage accrued over the many months of the 2016-17 season.
With a chance to make amends against a well-oiled Juventus on Saturday in a fascinating matchup with delicious subplots, Real Madrid stand on the cusp of something truly historic: a Champions league and Liga double that has been waiting to happen for several decades; and trying to be the first club to win the European club title in two successive years of the Champions league era when Milan, Ajax, Juventus, Valencia, Manchester United and Bayern Munich failed at the final hurdle at least once. But Real Madrid this season have been a team unlike any other in Europe – young, motivated, flexible and teeming with world class talents on the pitch and the bench.