During Real Madrid‘s remarkable 3-1 win over Manchester City last week, which punched their ticket to the Champions League final, there appeared to be a “changing-of-the-guard” moment. Los Blancos started the semifinal second leg with seven players in their XI who were 29 years old or over (ranging up to Luka Modric at 36) and the average age of manager Carlo Ancelotti’s starting lineup was also 29.
By the time City were on their knees after two last-minute goals from Rodrygo levelled the tie on aggregate, and before Karim Benzema‘s penalty in extra time finished things, the Madrid players left on the pitch had an average age of 26, three years younger than at kickoff, and included seven who were 26 or younger.
The Madrid stars with the most minutes in the Champions League this season have an average age of 30: Thibaut Courtois (30), Vinicius Junior (21), Benzema (34), Modric (36). But, of those, only goalkeeper Courtois finished the 120 minute semifinal against City — on the pitch were players such as Eduardo Camavinga (19), Rodrygo (21), Dani Ceballos (25), Jesus Vallejo (25) and Federico Valverde (23). (The average age of these five: 22½ years old.
With Madrid looking to sign 23-year-old striker Kylian Mbappe from PSG on a free transfer this summer, as well as Monaco’s 22-year-old midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni for around €60 million, the victory over City might not only have marked the start of a new era emerging at the Bernabeu, but also that the youngsters are beginning to take leadership roles. It was intriguing, and it was overdue.
The previous three champions of Spain’s LaLiga have been, in order, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, but until this season, each has struggled to keep pace with the changing vibe of European football. In 2019-20, Madrid were knocked out by Manchester City in the round of 16, 4-2 on aggregate, beaten home and away; in the shortened one-leg quarterfinals due to the COVID pandemic, Atleti fell 2-1 against Champions League novices RB Leipzig and Barcelona were handed an 8-2 hammering by Bayern Munich.
The following season, in the round of 16, Barca were humbled 4-1 at home by PSG to lose 5-2 overall; Atleti were completely uncompetitive in an aggregate 3-0 defeat against Chelsea. And by the time Thomas Tuchel’s soon-to-be European champions had finished with Madrid at Stamford Bridge, in the semifinal second leg, Los Blancos were chasing shadows and lucky to only lose the tie 3-1.
Although there isn’t a team in Europe’s elite leagues not feeling the weight of too many games and too little recuperation time, as well as too much mental and physical pressure, the fact remains that the trend in the Champions League is that the fittest, fastest, most remorseless and intense club will win over the more experienced, technically exquisite but slower, older side.
There are many reasons to explain Madrid’s excellent title win in Spain this season — most of them relate to their superb attitude, relentless ability to stand up in big moments and the fact that several of their players are having “best ever” performances. But one reason is the fact that LaLiga is more deliberate, more technical, less oriented towards brutally fast counter-attacking or nonstop asphyxiating pressing.
In other words it’s still a league where the fact that a player, or group of players, might be in their mid-30s isn’t a detriment. This is a title race where the tortoise can beat the hare — quality, intelligence and experience can not only cope with youth, vigour and athleticism, but they can dominate.
Let’s add Villarreal to this equation. For anyone with a scintilla of romanticism in their hearts, the Yellow Submarine’s progress to within 45 minutes of reaching the final in Paris — as they levelled a 2-0 deficit by half-time of the second leg before falling 5-2 on aggregate — should be a joyful memory.
There are many things to say about the club, its squad and the way Unai Emery’s touchstone footballers knocked out Juventus and Bayern before pushing Liverpool hard. But one key thing is that, like Madrid and Barca’s old guard, Villarreal have guys who prefer to make the ball do the running rather than putting in sprint after intense sprint. Raul Albiol is 36, Vicente Iborra is 34, Etienne Capoue and Dani Parejo are 33.
It was partly because of fitness and injury problems, but also strongly because of the age of the first XI — where there’s also a smattering of players such as Manu Trigueros, Gerard Moreno and Francis Coquelin at or around 30 — that Villarreal simply could not cope with Liverpool’s burst of intensity and high-press football in the second half. What’s more, having had coffee with a handful of Liverpool’s technical staff prematch, I know that they knew, analytically, that this was going to be the case. They were counting on Villarreal’s storm lasting half the game, at best.
An ageing Spanish team that doesn’t have to live with intensity and huge demands on its athleticism or physical stamina every week is at a disadvantage if it is required to produce a massive, draining 45-minute blitz in order to overturn a deficit against an elite team in Europe. To complement its technical excellence, superior coaching and vast reserves of intelligence, character and experience, to compete more comprehensively in Europe once again, LaLiga needs its teams to be a little younger, a little faster and a little more intense.
Anyway, following that first hint of change at Madrid (and, remember, it’s only a first hint — Benzema, Modric, Kroos and Courtois will still be some of the club’s dominant forces next season) LaLiga’s “golden oldies” struck back in style.
If you take the Saturday games as an example, LaLiga won’t be getting young and trendy any time soon, as the “Gala of Grandads” still appears to be running things. The numbers Friday and Saturday were remarkable.
It began with Levante beating Real Sociedad on Friday. Jorge Miramon, who turns 33 in a month’s time, scored for the home team, but La Real‘s headed equaliser came from 36-year-old David Silva, who has just renewed his contract for another year.
Then Mallorca losing 6-2 at home to Granada really sent the Grandad Gala into orbit. The 38-year-old Salva Sevilla scored a sublime 25-metre goal to put the Islanders back in the match — struck with as much accuracy and venom as any youngster could have managed. Maxime Gonalons, 32, was among the assists for Granada, but that was dwarfed by the performance of 40-year-old Jorge Molina. He made one goal and scored two more, the second of which, Granada’s sixth, was a brilliant penalty box strike with a turn and finish that any player would have been proud of.
Iago Aspas, 34, and Thiago Galhardo, 31, were among the goal scorers for Celta in their 4-0 win over Alaves, and Aspas is a recurring feature in the argument that age seems to be a state of mind in Spain. He’s a shoo-in to win the Zarra award for the Spanish player who scores most in LaLiga. Celta’s talisman has won the trophy three times already, aged 29-31 between 2016-2019, but the two awards before his hat trick of triumphs went to Athletic Club‘s Aritz Aduriz, who was 34 and 35 at the time.
The cherry on top of the cake came in the thriller in Sevilla when Barca sealed their Champions League qualification with a 2-1 win at Real Betis. The 39-year-old Dani Alves, who won the ball back more often than anyone else on the pitch across the 90 minutes, dinked a lovely right-to-left ball for Jordi Alba (32) to storm into the penalty area and lash home a left-footed volley for a 95th-minute winner.
So, for the moment, all hail the “golden oldies.” This weekend was hugely fun to watch, but for LaLiga clubs to win regular European trophies again it’s long overdue that young, vigorous, athletic and technically gifted players start carrying more weight and responsibility in Spain’s leading teams.