WTF, Real Madrid?

The three-time defending European champs are in fifth place in Spain. But is that really anything new?

You don’t win the Ballon d’Or and the Golden Ball — which, when translated into the same language, have the same name, but are not, I promise, the same award — without an innate, perhaps elemental, understanding of the core precepts of soccer. After this past weekend’s 2-0 loss at home to Real Sociedad, the 13th-place team in Spain’s La Liga, Luka Modric proved it to be true.

“Almost every game, the other team scores and we don’t score many,” said the Croatia and Real Madrid midfielder. “That’s our problem, but not our only one. It’s repeated almost every game.”

In times of inexplicable hardship, we all turn into John Madden, reaching for complex explanations for our problems but instead landing on the perceived profundity of proclaiming the most obvious thing imaginable. Luka’s line deserves the inspirational-quote treatment:

I won’t write the rest of this newsletter — “newsletter” still doesn’t sound right, imo — in Modric-ese. Though you should know I did consider it: While Madrid are currently not scoring many while their opponents score almost every game, they’ve spent the majority of the past five years scoring many and watching their opponents not score as many. This season, however, they are without Cristiano Ronaldo, who possessed the most valuable skill of consistently diverting the ball with any part of his body other than his hands beyond the opponent’s goalkeeper, who is encouraged to uses his hands, which are protected by large foam mitts, and over the section of white paint demarcated by a pair of eight-foot high metal posts , which are connected, at their respective apexes, by a third, horizontal, 24-foot-long metal post, all of which were forged, I can only assume, in the heat of a local blacksmith’s modest shed.

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself, and I kind of went off the rails there. (Please direct your complaints to either my manager or to my direct editor: both of which are me, sucka.) But the reason I’m considering getting Modric’s words knitted onto an entire collection of throw pillows is because the mid-to-late aughts Madrid teams have welcomed cliche at every turn. In fact, they’ve often defied any description that was not cliche.

Real Madrid are either the richest team in the world, or the second richest-team in the world. (Them and Manchester United jockey for position at the top of the chart every year, with the difference often made up by whoever got the richer better bullet-proof-windshield sponsorship.) Madrid’s team-building model isn’t the San Antonio Spurs or the Boston Red Sox; it’s Warner Brothers. The club’s managing director, Jose Angel Sanchez, has literally said, “We’re content providers, like a film studio.” And under current (and former) president Florentino Perez, they’ve cycled through various iterations of teams built around the most marketable players they could sign. Given all the money the club makes, the WB-ization has been a wild success.

But what about, you know, soccer? Here’s a cliche: On the field, Real Madrid have straddled the line between success and failure. They always win, and they almost always lose.

Right behind Real Madrid on the rich list sits their eternal rival, Barcelona. And given equal performance from both sides, you might expect them both to win roughly the same amount of Spanish titles over, say, a 10-year span, or maybe even something like 60-40 in favor of Madrid. Well, over the past 10 years, Barcelona have won La Liga seven times, and Madrid have won only two. (I maintain that Atletico Madrid’s 2013-14 title was an absolute miracle and should be a daily topic of discussion at places of worship across the globe.) But domestic titles are a slow-burn. Turn up the heat a tiny bit every once in a while, and you’ll boil a frog. Play 38 games over a 10-month span, and you’ll hand Barcelona another trophy.

However, in the Champions League, the water isn’t just boiling from the moment it hits the pot. No, it’s like the Cuyahoga River: The water itself is on fire. No one remembers when Barcelona won any of their La Liga titles; there’s no decisive game, and they get the trophy as soon as they hit the magic-number distance between first- and second-place. But since there’s a title match, everyone (who watches soccer, so presumably “you” or at least one day “you”) remembers when Real Madrid won last year’s Champions League, and the year before that, and the year before that, and two years before that.

That’s right: Real Madrid have struggled to become the best team in their own country, but they’ve made light work of becoming the best team on the continent. And what to make of that? The big sample of of a domestic season gives a better sense of how good a team actually is, but to my eyes, so much of the Champions League each year comes down to randomness. Madrid’s manager for the past three European titles, Zinedine Zidane, has even said that it’s harder to win La Liga than the Champions League.

If you make it all the way to the European final, you only play seven knockout-stage games, and well, even if Real Madrid were the most dominant club team the world has ever seen — creating exponentially better chances than their opponents every game — you’d expect them to get picked off off at least once over the past three years, whether by a missed penalty, a bad call from a ref, or a hot finishing night from one of the other superstars you inevitably play in a competition comprised of the best club teams in the world. Instead, Real Madrid won Champions League after Champions League while rarely ever dominating any of their matches from the quarterfinals and beyond. Their run last year beggared belief: In the Round of 16 against PSG, Brazilian superstar Neymar got injured and only played in the first of two games. In the quarterfinals against Juventus, Madrid blew a 3-1 lead at home but squeaked through after Juventus’s legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was red-carded in injury time and Cristiano Ronaldo, who was credibly accused of rape last year and is currently being investigated by the Las Vegas Police Department, converted the ensuing penalty. In the semifinals against Bayern Munich, Madrid’s opponents had way more shots (39 to 16) and shots and target (15 to 7), but Madrid won by a goal, thanks, in part, to a brainfart from Bayern keeper Sven Ulreich. And then in the final, Liverpool’s best player, Mohamed Salah, *takes a deep breath* was suplexed by Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos and had to be substituted in the 30th minute with a severe shoulder injury. Then, Liverpool keeper Loris Karius made two barely-believable brainfarts of his own and Madrid won, 3-1. That game freakin’ sucked, you guys.

And when all that happens to mark a third Champions league title in a row, what can you even say? Real Madrid won because they were Real Madrid. They stepped up when it mattered most. They knew what it took to win. They had the championship mentality. And on and on and on.

Is this year any different? Well, Zidane, who won three CLs in three tries, left last summer, and so did Ronaldo. And with the two of them last season, Madrid finished 17 points back of Barcelona. “There was a reason Zinedine Zidane left,” wrote The Guardian’s Sid Lowe over the weekend. “Lots of them, in fact. And Cristiano Ronaldo departed soon after.” Zidane was re-placed by Julen Lopetegui, who quit the Spanish national team on the eve of the World Cup to take the Madrid job and then only lasted 187 days in the Madrid job. Lopetegui was replaced with interim manager and former Madrid player Santiago Solari, who took over with the team in fourth and seven points back of first. He was then promptly given the job on a permanent basis after a couple of positive results. However, Solari hasn’t played a team that’s above 11th-place since taking over, and after this past weekend’s loss, Madrid now sit all the way down in fifth, 10 points back of first-place Barcelona. Through 18 games, their goal-differential is just plus-3, and Lionel Messi has contributed to as many goals (26 — 16 scored, 10 assisted) as the entire Madrid team has scored as a whole.

Before the season, I, uh, spoke to a bunch of people who thought Madrid might be better without Ronaldo, even though the club didn’t attempt to replace him with anyone. Fewer total shots, but more and better shots for his teammates, the thinking went. Not quite! The defense is giving up slightly higher-quality shots than they were last year, and the attack has been an extinction-level crater without him.

Madrid only have three of the top 50 goal-scorers in La Liga. Ronaldo, meanwhile, has the most expected goals (17.15) in Europe’s top five leagues, and he’s second in actual goals (14) to Messi. On top of that, Madrid don’t even have anyone in the top 30 of La Liga’s assist list. They’re not taking shots and they’re not creating them.

Over the past five years, Real Madrid have been one of the best teams in Europe, and then they caught Champions League lightning in a bottle, not once, twice, or thrice, but four times in a five years. Right now, though, they look like an, I don’t know, slightly above-average collection of players who once were superstars? Of course, we still can’t say for certain that anything has changed. We won’t know that until they get knocked out of the Champions League or win their fourth trophy in a row. That’s all that matters, and it’s not like anything else ever has.

As I said last time, and now say every time: If you enjoyed this, please subscribe! And please pass on the word to anyone you know who might be interested. Call your boyfriend. Tell your girlfriend. Inform your mortal enemy. Everyone is welcome … unless you’re a fascist — in which case, get the hell outta here! Thanks, as always, to all you non-fascists for reading along.