For the second time in three years two teams from Madrid will contest the final of Europe’s most important club football competition. Despite this, the way the two teams reached the Champions League final, which takes place this evening (28 May), couldn’t be more different. Where Real Madrid made it through attacking football and big money signings, Atletico Madrid succeeded through ultra-defensive displays and a squad assembled with a relatively small net spend.
Real’s attacking displays are underlined by their goal tally. Los Blancos averaged nearly one goal per game more than Atletico in their path towards the final. Where Real scored 27 goals in all their games leading to the final, averaging some 2.3 per game, their cross-town rivals netted just 16, an average of 1.3 for each match. Real achieved this with some extremely attack-minded performances, scoring more than three goals in four of their 12 previous games, including an 8-0 thrashing of Malmo and a 4-0 win over a Shakhtar team that was to go on to reach the semi-final of the Europa league. The heralded Madrid club only lost one of those previous 12 encounters in a 2-0 anomaly of a performance against Wolfsburg away from home in the first game of the quarterfinal. The following week they went on to dispatch the team from Germany 3-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu, sealing their place in the semifinal.
Atletico, on the other hand, scored three goals or more in a game just once, in a 4-0 win at home against Kazakhstani opposition Astana. Los Colchoneros lost three of their previous 12 champions league games, including games in the semifinals and quarterfinals. It has to be said that two of these came against extremely testing opposition – Barcelona and Bayern Munich, respectively. It was in these encounters, particularly the two games against Barca, that Atletico earned their reputation for extremely effective defensive football. Against the Catalan club, they managed to resist pressure from perhaps the most talented forward line ever assembled in world football, the Messi-Suarez-Neymar ‘MSN’ trident, and score just enough goals, from a paucity of opportunities, to assure their route through to the next round.
That Los Rojiblancos have been able to reach the Champions League final twice in three years is all the more remarkable considering the state of their finances compared to the illustrious teams they have seen off in the process. According to the latest edition of the Deloitte Football Money League, Atletico’s revenues of €187.1m (£142.1m) stand at about a third of those of Real Madrid at €577.0m (£438.4m) and Barcelona at €560.8 (£426.1m) (however, while Real and Barca are the world’s two richest clubs according to those figures, Atletico are nonetheless the 15th richest in the world). This has meant that Los Rojiblancos have had to be shrewd in the transfer market. According to Transfermarkt, Atletico’s net spend in football transfers over the past two seasons was £12.5m. This season, their revenues from transfers exceeded their expenditures by some £8.8m. At the start of the season, Jackson Martinez was their most expensive signing, arriving from Porto for some £27.8m. However, they managed to make a profit on that figure only a few months later in the January transfer window, receiving £31.5m for the rights to the Colombian’s services from Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande. That made Stefan Savic, a £18.8m arrival from Fiorentina, their most expensive signing of the season.
It is equally remarkable that the club has managed to challenge for Europe’s elite competition considering the high turnover of players. This is a team that has seen Sergio Aguero, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa, Arda Turan, Mario Mandzukic, Toby Alderweireld, Joao Miranda and David Villa depart in recent years. The club also lost the left-back Felipe Luis, one of the club’s top performers this season, to Chelsea in 2014, only for him to return last summer. However, with each departure other players have stepped in to make up for the shortfall. Antoine Griezmann, a £22.5m signing from Real Sociedad in 2014, has become one of the most effective strikers in European football over the last two seasons, despite having played much of his early career at the Basque team on the wing. The Frenchman has scored 22 goals in the league in each of the last two seasons, and this year he has 32 goals in all competitions (so far), seven better than last year. The emergence of players such as Koke and Saul Niguez, whose magnificent solo goal helped the team overcome Bayern in the semifinal, and the (re-)emergence of Fernando Torres, has also contributed much to the club’s fortunes.
Arguably the retention of a few core players, in addition to their talismanic manager, has contributed even more to the club’s fortunes in domestic and international competitions. Diego Godin, Gabi and Juanfran are perhaps as central to Atletico’s identity as their manager, Diego Simeone, epitomising the club’s disciplined approach to the game, martialling the defence and midfield with understated yet tactically astute performances.
Real’s is a somewhat different story. The aristocrats of European football have undergone frequent managerial changes over the past few years, with four different incumbents since 2010, their most recent being their former player and talisman Zinedine Zidane (Simeone, however, has been at Atletico since 2011). Real Madrid are the big spenders in world football, their signing of Gareth Bale for an estimated £86m in 2013 the fifth time in a row that they had broken the world transfer record. An often unconsidered fact is that Real tend to make a large amount of money from transfers, with players such as Mesut Ozil (£34.5m) and Angel Di Maria (£56.3m) commanding large sums in recent years. Still, their net spend over the last two years has been sizeable, at some £61.4m. This season they spent £51.5m net, with their expenditures over the previous year largely offset by the Di Maria transfer.
Madrid’s expenditure on players, particularly large sums on single transfers, is a continuation of the Galaticos policy introduced during Florentino Perez’s presidency. Under this transfer policy, Los Blancos have sought to recruit at least one superstar every year, a feat they have been able to achieve due to the considerable pull the club continues to exert on the minds of football’s elite players. This has allowed Real to target the most exciting attacking players, with Bale, Cristiano Rolando, Karim Benzema and Luca Modric to name just a few, allowing them the luxury of all-out attacking football. (An irony of Real’s transfer policy is that, compared to their approach to managers, the team selection has been remarkably consistent: Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo and Luka Modric have all remained first team regulars for a number of years).
Then there is also James Rodriguez, star of the 2014 World Cup and perhaps their most recent true Galatico signing. The situation of James is perhaps indicative of the financial gulf between the two teams. The £56.3m arrival in 2014 from AS Monaco has spent much of this season on the bench. This is an inefficiency Simeone’s team could scarcely afford. Underperforming players, such as Jackson Martinez, are quickly offloaded to make way for new arrivals, often signed at a fraction of the cost.
It is certain that a team from Madrid will win the Champions League this evening but the methods by which the two contenders arrived at that possibility are markedly different. Where Real prizes free-flowing attacking football and marquee signings, their neighbours have used graft, defensive solidity and shrewd investments in the transfer market to achieve their aims. It will be intriguing to see which wins out and earns the right to bring the trophy to the Spanish capital.