Old truism states that the sign of a good side is winning matches without playing well. On that basis, winning the European Cup — repeatedly — without playing well must be the sign of a truly great side.
And that is how the modern Real Madrid must be considered, if not in terms of style then certainly in terms of European success. Karim Benzema, Dani Carvajal, Luka Modric and yes, Gareth Bale can now boast five European Cup wins, as many as Alfredo Di Stefano and Jose Maria Zarraga from the legendary Real side of the late 1950s (although Paco Gento was still around to claim a sixth, in 1966) plus the likes of Paolo Maldini and Cristiano Ronaldo, who won four of his five with Real.
It seemed doubtful any side would dominate the modern-day European Cup to the extent a player could reach those numbers with one club, not least because winning the competition multiple times these days is harder than in previous generations.
From the formation of the European Cup in 1955 until 1980, 11 clubs won the trophy. Seven of those managed to retain it at least once, which was famously beyond any great side — Ajax, Juventus, Manchester United, Barcelona — in the Champions League era until Real won three in a row between 2016 and 2018 under Zinedine Zidane. He was the apprentice and then predecessor of Carlo Ancelotti, responsible for the European Cup wins in 2014 and now 2022. In many ways, there is a familiarity between the five wins.
The victories haven’t always been convincing. They required extra time to defeat La Liga winners Atletico Madrid in 2014, and triumphed largely because — in the days before an extra substitute was allowed in extra time — they realised Atleti right-back Juanfran was barely moving and piled down that flank. They needed penalties to defeat Atletico again in 2016, counted on a crazily deflected Casemiro strike to hand them a crucial goal against Juventus in 2017, and a couple of freak goals were crucial against Liverpool in 2018. They have, granted, often played well for spells in these matches, particularly against Juventus, and scored some excellent goals, particularly Bale’s bicycle kick against Liverpool.
Saturday night was something a little more extreme, and completely different from previous performances this season. Yes, they hadn’t looked convincing in the previous knockout games; but the story was that they staged miraculous comebacks to win ties 3-2, 5-4 and then 6-5. Suddenly, they transformed from “we’re gonna score one more than you” to Greece 2004.
Real went ahead with their first attempt of the final (excluding Benzema’s disallowed first-half goal, of course) and then didn’t manage another until Eduardo Camavinga’s wayward long-range effort in stoppage time. Thibaut Courtois was unquestionably the game’s star player, making a couple of outstanding saves in what must be considered, given the stage and the extent to which his side was dominated, one of football’s all-time great individual performances.
But beyond the xG analysis, the remarkable thing about Real’s performance was that they didn’t seem to care about the concepts modern football is based around. Coaches have become particularly obsessed with two major concepts in recent years, essentially the reverse of one another. The first is playing out from the back. The second is pressing high up the pitch.
Real were often completely unable to play forward effectively from goal kicks, not necessarily conceding possession to Liverpool, but often knocking the ball out of play and reverting to defending deep again. They also had absolutely no obvious plan to press Liverpool, and not even in the sense that they deliberately stood off and sat in a compact block. Benzema was bypassed easily and Liverpool’s midfielders had oceans of space to thread the ball into the forwards.
But maybe there’s something in this, especially in finals. The focus on playing out from the back means defenders are judged on their ball-playing ability more than their defensive skill. The focus on pressing high means forwards are judged on their capacity to win back possession rather than their goalscoring ability. Ancelotti has players who, put simply, do their traditional tasks consistently well.
Courtois isn’t particularly good on the ball but is an outstanding shot-stopper. The likes of Casemiro and Carvajal absolutely relished the opportunity to do the dirty work and preserve the clean sheet. Ferland Mendy was rarely beaten by Mohamed Salah in one-against-one duels.
When Real work the ball into midfield, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric can pass excellently. Federico Valverde was tasked with simply getting up and down the pitch, and did it well, including for the winner. Benzema has produced some astonishing finishes in this Champions League run, while Vinicius was in the right place at the right time to provide the winner on Saturday night.
That just leaves the centre-backs, and while it would be harsh to consider them throwbacks — David Alaba, after all, is a converted full-back or midfielder — they also defend the box very well. Eder Militao denied Sadio Mane a clean shot in the first half, and then celebrated it like the old-school Italian centre-backs Ancelotti had during his time with Parma, Juventus and Milan — Fabio Cannavaro, Ciro Ferrara, Maldini.
And the reality is that finals aren’t usually great exhibitions of football. The number of truly outstanding team performances in Champions League finals can be counted on the fingers of one hand. We’re talking Milan in 1994, Barcelona in 2011… and that’s about it.
Champions League finals are bitty, and scrappy, and decided by moments in the penalty boxes rather than on flow. And this Real Madrid side, in comparison to other European giants in recent years, simply have defensive players who can defend well, and attacking players who can attack well.
This Real aren’t a particularly effective league side — three La Liga titles in the last decade — but in finals, when you need the basics done well, they routinely have what it takes.