How to Fix Real Madrid

Hint: buy. Another hint: young. And one more: players.

How do you rebuild a super-team? You use up that precious resource that makes you “super” in the first place: money. On Saturday, someone selling Girl Scout cookies told me, “Cash is king”. She should run Real Madrid.

There’s some evidence that being “super” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Last week at Statsbomb, Tim Keech looked into the effect that changing teams has on a player’s production across various measurable qualities. The main takeaway:

Players moving to play alongside worse teammates will see a decrease in their output measured on a radar. Players moving to play alongside better teammates will see an increase in their output measured on a radar. This can be very large if moving up several levels. Players transferring between clubs at a similar level will usually maintain their output.

There’s also a paper from 2013 that describes a similar, if obvious-seeming, phenomenon. Mainly, that great players make other great players better and so those players are worth more when they’re surrounded by players of equal quality. I.e., rich teams are not only able to spend more on players, but they experience greater returns on those investments. Even in team-building, wealth begets wealth. Here’s how the author puts it:

The underlying assumption is that players benefit from better teammates. Moreover, a player benefits the more from better teammates the better he is himself. That implies that the best midfielder is most efficiently allocated when combined with the best striker. Consequently, a better team can pay higher wages for good players than those teams with a lower quality.

His calls this “The Zidane Clustering Theorem”, and it’s based of the initial Galacticos era at Real Madrid, when the club bought Zidane Luis Figo, the Brazilian Ronaldo, David Beckham, and Michael Owen over a five-year stretch starting in 2000. And it might as well refer to the current era of Real Madrid, as the club just fired its second manager this season and rehired Zidane after he stepped down from the job less than 200 days ago. The last time they hired him midseason to wrangle their superstars ... he immediately went on to win the Champions League that year, and then next, and the next, before leaving the job last summer. So, step one: hire Zidane. Step two: profit?

(A quick aside that is potentially more important than anything you will read outside the confines of these parentheses: What the hell is going on here?

Listen, Zinedine Zidane is one of the most handsome men on the planet; he could roll around town in a completely full dumpster with only his head sticking out, and that would still be true. But can we at least get the guy a tailor who’s willing to alter pant length?)

OK. Anyway! Last time Zidane took over at Madrid, he had a core of stars right before or right in their primes: Raphael Varane (23 years old), Toni Kroos (26), Marcelo (28), Karim Benzema (28), Dani Carvajal (24), Casemiro (24), Mateo Kovacic (22), Isco (24), Gareth Bale (27), Alvaro Morata (22), and James Rodriguez (25). On top of that, the handful of players that had aged beyond their peak years (roughly defined as 24 to 28) were all arguably the best players of their respective generations at their respective positions: Cristiano Ronaldo (31), Sergio Ramos (30), and Luka Modric (30). If we accept the ZCT -- and we shall -- the younger guys performing at their peaks made the aging vets better; but even the aging versions of those vets were still just about as good as anyone else in the world, and so they made the younger guys better, too.

To keep the multiplicative process in motion year after year, though, a couple world-class contributors needed to be brought in, while a handful of youngsters needed to develop into similar status. Well, neither of those things happened. For all the trophies he brought in, Zidane didn’t oversee any real improvement among the team’s young players, per 21st Club’s analysis. Meanwhile, the club’s most-expensive signing since 2016 was Vinicius Junior, a Brazilian teenager who still had braces when Madrid decided to acquire him. Any other new arrivals ended up just being tweaks on the margins.

And so, Zidane returns to a roster of players that’s pretty much the same as the one he first inherited -- just older and significantly worse. Ronaldo, who’s currently being investigated after being credibly accused of sexual assault, is gone, and the trendlines are pretty clear:

Madrid are in third place in La Liga, 12 points back of first and carrying a better chance of missing out on the Champions League next season than clawing back the deficit at the top of the table. They’ve been dumped out of their domestic cup already. (Weird thing: Madrid have won the European Cup four times since 2014; they haven’t won the Spanish Cup since 2011. I have personally won the Tour de France five times but can’t beat my 10-year-old cousin in a lap around the block.) And their three-year reign atop the continent was brought to an end by Dusan Tadic brief transformation into ... Zinedine Zidane.

The way forward for Real Madrid is the same it’s always been: buy better players.

It’s difficult -- if not impossible -- to describe Zinedine Zidane’s managerial style because he’s only managed one team, and really, one set of players. But the defining characteristic of his time at Madrid, to me, was that he put his superstars in position to decide games by themselves. It rarely felt like his Madrid teams ever truly controlled a game in the way most other top teams do -- with systematic possession, searching out high-quality chances, and aggressive, space-squeezing defense. Zidane’s teams, in way, conquered a couple of the game’s great inefficiencies: They crossed the ball a ton and blasted lots of low-percentage long-range shots. But maybe bunting or running on first down actually works when all of your players are better than everyone else’s? After all, the Golden State Warriors did find a way to revive the midrange jumper.

Over the past three years, Madrid had some of the best fullbacks in the world, some of the best aerial finishers, and some of the best from-distance threats. Plus, they had the best midfielders, who could quickly find those fullbacks in space or those forwards 25 yard from goal. And in case that wasn’t enough, they had two of the best center backs out there and an elite goalkeeper to clean up the mess. Despite not playing what you might call a “fully optimized style”, Madrid were second in Europe’s top four leagues in expected goals per game (2.06) and tenth in xG against (0.96) in Zidane’s two full seasons at the club, per Football Whispers data.

It seems absurd to say it, and it might be: Could another manager have done even better than Zidane’s three Champions Leagues and one La Liga in three season, though? A recent study in The Economist claimed that Madrid’s La Liga point total under Zidane was slightly below what you’d expect under an average manager. But I’m not sure Madrid will ever lend itself to the kind of ceiling-raising institutional philosophical system imposed by the likes of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City or Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. That’s because Madrid’s philosophy is essentially “We’re richer than you and we always win the Champions League.” Last year, they made more money than any soccer club has ever made, and for most of this century, the business model in the Spanish capital has been to buy the next, most marketable star they could find, often regardless of fit. There’s constant dressing-room discord -- most recently: Gareth Bale watches too much golf and doesn’t stay out late enough with his teammates -- and the president, Florentino Perez, comments on and meddles in just about everything that happens with the team. Managing Madrid might be the most literal job in Europe; it’s lot of employee management (both top-down and bottom-up), and just a little bit of tactics.

So, after navigating that minefield as adeptly as anyone ever has and then getting out of dodge before everything exploded, Zidane gave into the club’s continued pleas for him to return. One of the main stories that came out of Zidane’s first stint with the club was that the players actually listened to him because of who he was -- a club-legend, one of the greatest players ever, and frankly someone who could probably still contribute some effective minutes off the bench if he really wanted to. (Seriously, take a minute and watch him ruin a generation of America’s youth.) According to various reports, there’s still plenty of drama for him to mediate, but who knows who will even still be around come next season.

Here’s the talent decline, in a single sentence: There’s not a single Real Madrid player in Transfermarkt’s list of the top 20 most valuable players in the world. Barcelona and Manchester City have three, while PSG, Liverpool, Tottenham, Juventus, Chelsea, and Atletico Madrid all have two. That won’t last for long, though, according to a report from The Independent:

The club want to again bring in a “galactico” this summer for the first time since 2014, and maybe even three such stars.

Neymar has been a long-term target but so are Tottenham Hotspur’s Christian Eriksen, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Neymar’s Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Kylian Mbappe.

There are plans to spend over £300 million this summer, while bringing in money from significant sales, with Gareth Bale and Luka Modric among those expected to leave.

It is understood the issue of overhauling the squad was key in discussions between Perez and Zidane, with the president realising the need to make serious “concessions” in order to bring his star manager back.

So much transfer-rumor leakage is nothing more than posturing, but there’s something slightly concerning that about that list of names: Most of them are ... not young! Hazard’s 28, while Neymar and Eriksen are both 27. Of the top 10 Madrid minutes-getters in La Liga this season, just five of them will be in that 24-to-28 prime-age sweet spot. Hazard, Neymar, and Erikesen would already be scraping the edge of their peaks once they arrived in Spain

It gets lost in all the money they spend, but so much of Madrid’s recent success was built on them making sure they got the best years out of whoever they brought in. Take the team that started the last game Zidane coached, the 2018 Champions League final. Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, and Raphael Varane -- three-fourths of the defense -- all joined as teenagers, while the right back, Dani Carvajal, came over at 21. Up top, Ronaldo joined at 24 and Benzema at 21. In the midfield, Casemiro arrived at 20, Isco at 21, and Kroos at 24. Luka Modric is the one exception; he was 26. Even the subs fit the same mold: Bale joined at 24, Asensio at 20, and Nacho hasn’t played a professional minute for any other club. You can’t replicate that in a single summer, but you can start to try—or you can go another way. However, a big reason that first era of Galacticos only won a couple trophies is that the combined age of those five players on arrival was closer to 27 than 26. They’d paid more for past production than future results.

There’s almost no doubt that Madrid will be much better next season; they have too much money for that not to be true. There’s still plenty of talent in the team; he’s only 18, but Vinicius, especially, looked awesome in his handful of starts since the turn of the New Year. Plus, there’s lots of tactical and lineup-selection slack that Zidane can start to tighten up right away. But how much better will they be and for how long will it last? That depends on where all the money goes.

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