Real Madrid have built their reputation on fielding teams filled with “Galacticos.” Throughout soccer history every great player in their prime is linked, and maybe signed, by Real Madrid at some point in their careers. This reputation stems from the reign of Francisco Franco who was an avid Real Madrid fan and poured money into the club so they could field the best players from around the world. Players like Alfredo Di Stefano, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, and now Cristiano Ronaldo have graced the grounds of the Bernabeu and been a part of some of the greatest teams this world has seen. It is no surprise that the strategy of garnering the world’s greatest players can lead to a great team. This is why so many current teams that are rich with oil baron money are willing to spend massive amounts of money to get the best players for their team. It is simple math, great players equal a great team and a great team equals glory. However, at a certain point when does this strategy become too much? When does the desire for the best players obfuscate the more important need for the best team?
There’s a reason young children like shiny new things, because they are eye-catching and foreign to them. The problem with children and shiny new things is that once the child finds a newer shiny object the appeal of the old shiny object loses its luster. In this metaphor Real Madrid is the child and the shiny new objects are the breakout players around the world. Last year the shiny new object was Gareth Bale and this year it is James Rodriquez, the Colombian breakout star of the World Cup. James Rodriguez is undoubtedly a prodigious talent with a very high ceiling. Although he has very few years of top flight European experience, his showcase during the World Cup has proven that he is capable of being a very special player. It is no wonder that teams around the world wanted him. The odd thing is not that Real Madrid admired his talents, but that they were willing to pay a transfer fee upwards of £71m to get a player they do not really need. Real Madrid currently has a wealth of attacking talent to draw from. They don’t need James Rodriguez. By bringing him on, Real Madrid will most likely have to sell Isco and Angel Di Maria to fund the transfer due to Financial Fair Play rules. Angel Di Maria was a key reason why Argentina advanced as far as they did in the World Cup and was the MVP of the Champions League final and Isco is one of the most promising young talents that Real Madrid has on their roster. By getting a young attacking talent in James Rodriguez they are getting rid of one of their best players and a young star with a high ceiling. These losses coupled with the potential loss of the more defensively minded Sami Khedira will more likely weaken Real Madrid rather than strengthen it. It could turn out that Real Madrid was better off refraining from the shiny new object and focusing on strengthening the weaker parts of their squad.
Many teams in the current club soccer environment are following the Real Madrid strategy of buying incredible talents in order to quickly improve their team. This does not only improve their squad but it also improves the team’s marketability as fans love to see their team acquire star-quality players. There is no doubt that the strategy has worked most of the time. Real Madrid owes a lot of their trophies to the “galactico method” as do PSG and Manchester City. Even Barcelona, a team renowned for building through their youth academy, has shown a willingness in recent years to shell out large sums of money for stars such as Neymar and Suarez. However, with Financial Fair Play rules gaining steam it will be hard for teams to fill their entire squad with star players. Once all the money is spent on the star players the paltry sum left over must be used to fill the team with role players and squad players. Therefore, a large chunk of the starting 11 is dominant but there are a few weaknesses on the starting squad which can be exploited and successive injuries on the team would reveal the team’s lack of depth.
This World Cup showed us the future of soccer. The German team that won the final was not built on stars. They had a lot of great players but there was no Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi who had to put the team on their back in order for the team to win. The German national team was strong in every position on the field, well coached, and incredibly deep. Players could be switched in and out without the team missing a beat which was a big reason why the German national team was able to stay so fresh throughout the tournament. Durign the club season depth is very important for top tier teams because there are so many competitions the teams must engage in. If a team can lose their forward to injury or sub their center-back out for rest during a game without losing a big part of their effectiveness then that team will be much more capable of bringing home several trophies during the season. It is depth and squad strength that can help teams with lower budgets overtake the overspending club teams. Last year’s Atletico Madrid team, and Borussia Dortmund’s team from two years ago, are two shining examples of how a well-built team that does not rely on star players can succeed despite their lower budget. Both teams had great players like Mario Gotze, Koke, Robert Lewandowski, and Diego Costa but these players were developed at the club and some were eventually sold for much more than the club originally paid for them. The squads themselves were deep, tactically strong, and well coached. In other words, they were the sum of their parts rather than individual greatness coupled together.
Buying star players is a very attractive strategy. Every fan can agree that they wish they had Lionel Messi, Garthe Bale, Neymar, or Cristiano Ronaldo on their team. However, soccer is a game not heavily reliant on individual greatness. Individual players can carry their teams to greatness like Maradona in the 1986 World Cup but overall, history is built on great teams achieving through the collective use of their talents. Building a team is akin to putting together a puzzle, you need the right players to fit with each other. If a team spends too much on certain pieces there will inevitably be gaps in the finished product. Sometimes those gaps can be glossed over but the gaps will always be there and can always be exploited. The days of buying “galacticos” may never end but the practice of building a deep squad predicated on the sum of its parts could help teams with a lower payroll overtake their filthy rich competitors. If and when this happens teams like Real Madrid may find themselves filled with star players and bereft of trophies.