Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti have built a squad of selfless superstars

Luka Modric wanted his favourite seat on the bench. He looked down the row of Real Madrid’s subs and made the “scoot over” gesture with his hand once, then a second time. When that didn’t work, he stood directly over Dani Ceballos and jabbed at his chosen seat with an accusatory finger. You didn’t need to hear a word to recognize a veteran pulling rank.

We could probably forgive Modric a little ego at this point in his career. For a guy who’s won five Champions Leagues and a Ballon d’Or, watching a knockout game against Manchester City from the bench might feel kind of degrading. Having to squabble over his place among the subs is the kind of thing that could send a lesser man bawling to Piers Morgan.

But there was no bitterness in Modric’s exchange with Ceballos, who just laughed at his old team-mate and slid over. Modric patted him on the shoulder and settled in like a grandfather in his rocking chair, grinning with satisfaction that everyone was exactly where they belonged.

This is the miracle of modern Real Madrid: instead of Galacticos, they’ve built a squad of selfless superstars content to function as role players. Even their mock power struggles are a joke among friends. Now the team-first attitude that has made them more tactically flexible than their rivals — and more fun — might be about to send them to yet another Champions League final.

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It’s not just the old guard who have bought into the idea of something bigger than themselves. Eduardo Camavinga, a 21-year-old France international who could dribble into almost any midfield in the world, often comes off the bench or even plays left-back for Real Madrid. “He doesn’t like it,” his manager Carlo Ancelotti shrugged when asked about the full-back shifts, “but we do.”

When Camavinga does start in midfield, that usually means his France partner Aurelien Tchouameni is filling in at centre-back. When Real Madrid lost Eder Militao and David Alaba this season to long-term injuries, it could have torpedoed a squad that had just two senior centre-backs left, but Tchouameni gamely dropped down from the pivot to help out at a position he had never played. In 10 games as a defender, he hasn’t lost once.

Then there’s the Brazilian starlet Rodrygo, who’s been plugging holes at right wing and centre-forward for so long that it felt kind of weird in recent Champions League games to see him line up on his preferred left side — the position he grew up playing until Vinicius Junior displaced him. Like Camavinga and Tchouameni, Rodrygo has been honest that he doesn’t love playing out of position but has been willing to do what the team needs.

“It’s a positive pressure,” he said, “to know that people trust you.”

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Stories like these would be normal for journeymen just trying to hold down a job or prospects hoping for their big break. But these three Madrid players are, in Transfermarkt’s crowdsourced estimation, among the 20 most valuable in the world. Any other club would count itself lucky to build around players like that instead of treating them as backups or utility men.

The difference between Real Madrid and other clubs isn’t just the sheer wealth of talent they’re trying to squeeze onto the pitch, although that’s certainly a factor. More than most top teams, they’ve cultivated a loose tactical system where roles in possession emerge from players’ personalities instead of being assigned to them, more like a broken-in pair of jeans than a uniform. Jude Bellingham calls it letting “the boys play with freedom”.

What that means in practice is that certain key players interpret their positions in a way that works for them while others adjust to make the pieces fit. Toni Kroos, for example, loves to dictate possession by dropping out to the left-back pocket where he can get on the ball and face play. Vinicius Jr usually stays high and wide on the left wing to dribble at defenders, although lately he’s been working on adding more striker runs to his game. Bellingham arrived at Madrid as a central midfielder but his knack for arriving in the box quickly became a defining feature of the team’s style.

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These tendencies reshape the roles around them. Instead of shuttling up and down the sideline, Madrid’s left-back may come inside to occupy the half-space when Kroos and Vinicius Jr are wide. That suits a midfielder like Camavinga more than the conventional full-back Ferland Mendy. When Bellingham makes bombing runs up the middle, it frees up Madrid’s centre-forward to drift into other spaces, so that Rodrygo may start at striker but wind up working underneath Vinicius Jr as a left-sided playmaker, closer to his natural position. Federico Valverde’s tireless work rate on the right side of the midfield diamond often makes him a de facto right-winger when the team lines up without one.

Regardless of their starting position, Madrid’s players wind up doing jobs that are mostly tailored to their talents. Even Tchouameni makes sense at centre-back thanks to his tidy passing and gift for defending space, while Camavinga, a very different style of defensive midfielder, works higher up the pitch where he has more licence to be aggressive on and off the ball. It’s a lot easier to accept life as a role player when you can trust you’ll be given the right role for your game.

Real Madrid have plenty of true role players — less-famous lifers such as Lucas Vazquez and Nacho who can always be counted on to put in a shift — but the levelling effect of the team-first ethos puts them on a similar footing to the stars, cutting down on the petty jealousies and bruised egos that sink so many talented squads. For a club with royalty in their name, Real Madrid come admirably close to a footballing democracy. Liberty is the game plan; the pursuit of happiness is a never-ending trophy chase.

Even Modric, the grand old man, can relax on the bench knowing his number will be called in crunch time. In that quarter-final against Man City, he left his favourite seat just before extra time and put in 41 minutes of unglamorous defensive work to see the game to penalties.

When Modric missed the first kick of the shootout, the mood was still relaxed. Vazquez and Nacho, the consummate role players, converted theirs. Andriy Lunin, who at times this season was the third-string goalkeeper, made a couple of big saves. The winning kick that put them through to the Champions League semi-final didn’t come from a star striker — Madrid don’t have one — but from Antonio Rudiger, a centre-back.

For this Real Madrid, the team is the star.

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