Real Madrid have come full circle over the past year in a way that can only happen in Spanish soccer. Rafa Benitez replaced Carlo Ancelotti last summer, signaling a new direction from the Italian manager’s counterattacking style that won the club their tenth Champions League in 2014. Benitez lasted until January, unable to juggle the club’s midfield attackers into a cohesive unit. New manager Zinedine Zidane refocused Madrid’s attack around their counterattacking strengths over the second half of the season, culminating into a win over Atletico Madrid in the Champions League final (while almost providing the knockout blow to Diego Simeone’s time at Atleti). Zidane finished the season winning 22 out of 28 matches he managed.
Zidane’s adjustments as manager followed a familiar curve for a self-admitted aesthete: there was an initial vision to play an expansive style, yet pragmatism in the form of midfield reinforcements and counter attacking became the foundation. Zidane substituted Casemiro into the midfield at the expense of James Rodriguez (a move that Benitez may not have been able to make considering his lack of stature with the club), enabling Luka Modric and Toni Kroos to dictate tempo. The midfield three allowed Real Madrid to return to their counterattacking identity that served Ancelotti during his time.
That premise, and a stable starting 11, gave the side flexibility and success against a variety of opposition styles. In the Champions League final, Casemiro, Kroos and Modric played in front of Atleti’s midfield, responsible for simultaneously building play and stopping counter attacks. Two months prior, Real Madrid beat Barcelona 2-1 with Casemiro as anchor (this result in contrast to Benitez, who started Kroos, Modric and James in midfield, and got overran 4-0). Of course, Zidane had the advantage of experimenting with formations in relative peace with the league out of range at the time.
Real Madrid reinforced their attack this summer with the addition of Marco Asensio and Alvaro Morata. Morata’s pace and directness were on display against Bayern, and one can imagine that run with Bale, Ronaldo, or Benzema finishing. Bale flourished with the responsibility of positional freedom, and Ronaldo continues his development as a penalty box player. Behind them, Navas, Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Carvajal, Kroos, Modric and Casemiro are set in stone.
With only the annual rumors swirling James’ future, there’s a calmness surrounding the club’s personality. It is said that a team takes on the personality of its manager, and Zidane’s introverted nature is an easy explanation. But take the example of Isco, who would be the star of most any midfield across Europe. Along with his skill, his value is in his professionalism, in moving back and forth from the lineup to the bench without any friction. Real Madrid will always be a club of stars and big personalities, but stability in personality and in lineup will drive their season forward.
A year ago, Barcelona looked unstoppable. Their treble winning season consisted of domestic and European titles. Luis Suarez, Neymar, and Messi combined for 122 goals.
We’ve been trained to anticipate Barcelona staying one step ahead of the curve both in style and in tactics. The upcoming season is Luis Enrique’s third in charge of Barcelona - which is, according to many, the last season a manager has the ear of his team before ideas begin to stale. Enrique’s biggest achievement thus far was building a direct attacking side based around the movement of Neymar, Messi and Suarez. But having been picked apart by Atleti in the Champions League last season, Enrique’s challenge will be integrating the youth and energy of his summer signings into the Messi framework.
The core of past seasons - the front three including Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano - return a year older, for better or worse. The summer signings of 22 year olds Denis Suarez and Samuel Umtiti, and 23 year olds Lucas Digne and Andres Gomes point to building the next cycle of the club. The surprise signing of Gomes in particular highlights the importance of Enrique’s directness in midfield.
The move for Gomes also symbolized the existential tension of Barcelona developing players versus signing them. For all the tributes paid towards La Masia, the academy hasn’t developed a first team starter outside of Sergi Roberto in eight seasons. Munir is the latest example of this conflict - develop him as a fourth striker, or sign reinforcements at that position? Munir doesn’t possess the counter attacking ability of the starting three (then again, who does?), but his power in the air gives Barcelona a unique dimension. Beyond that, the academy only producing Roberto at midfield, and no first team defenders, is worrying.
Luis Enrique stated that this current team is the best he’s had in his three years. It has considerable midfield playmaking depth, with Suarez, Gomes, and Arda Turan (who we’ll consider “like a new signing” after a full season of matches) able to create match winning moments off the bench. And that’s not to mention Lucas Digne’s impressive performances at left back and Umtiti’s breakthrough at the European Champions. With the seven year tradeoff between Dani Alves and his 26-year-old replacement Aleix Vidal at right back, this is the youngest and most athletic defense Barcelona have had in some time. With their front three healthy, the formation will be a 4-3-3 as usual. But Turan, Gomes, Denis Suarez and Munir give Enrique positional flexibility. In winning the Spanish Super Cup against Sevilla this week, the manager rested Neymar, Suarez and Iniesta, and went to a 4-4-2 with Munir and Messi in attack.
Messi’s summer was a story all its own. Tasked again with winning Argentina’s first senior title in 23 years, he missed a penalty in the finals against Chile, retired from international soccer after the match, unretired, then dyed his hair blonde. Messi’s retirement and an injured Ronaldo willing his team from the sideline of the European Championship finals brought both players’ athletic mortalities for the fore. It was a reminder that there will one day be a La Liga season played without Messi or Ronaldo. And while that idea is difficult to imagine in a time where both athletes’ careers coincided with the exponential effect of social media debates and highlights, Real Madrid and Barcelona have quietly already found their replacements.