Hello, Real Madrid fans. Please pay attention.
The current chaos isn’t Santi Solari’s fault. It’s not Karim Benzema’s fault because he missed an open goal against Real Sociedad, nor Gareth Bale’s for being injured again nor Casemiro’s for his schoolboy penalty after just over a minute against Real Sociedad. In wider terms, Madrid’s latest, apparently successful, attempt to throw away their chance to be significant challengers in La Liga’s title race isn’t even Marcelo’s fault — even despite the missing-in-action Brazilian’s clear, identifiable fingerprints on each of the past three goals Madrid have conceded while dropping four points in the past two games.
The root problem, the fundamental reason the European and world champions now bruise like a peach once the slightest pressure is applied stems from their president, Florentino Perez. His regime, as it has always been, is about boom and bust — not about anything organic, strategic or long term.
The boom, if you are either a Madrid fan or a romantic neutral, has been spectacular of late — enjoyable, too. If you really want, you could opine that Los Blancos had copious good fortune in their three straight Champions League victories, or you can, like me, admire them for having achieved them. Along the way there were moments of beauty, drama, creativity and that core element of no-holds-barred competitiveness just as there were moments of brazen good fortune. But their name is etched not only on the trophy, but in history in a way that every other grand club envies.
Winners always have lady luck whispering in their ear to a greater or lesser extent. Anyone who calls Madrid out for that is missing the point a bit. So let’s not pretend that Real Madrid’s boom times under Perez haven’t been remarkable.
However, Mark Twain missed out on “The pendulum will always swing back against Los Blancos and crack them in the face because they don’t have an adequate football brain” when he caustically commented on the inevitability of death and taxes.
Little more than three years ago, I used this column to write an open letter to Zinedine Zidane warning him that Perez was not long away from seeking an opiate via which to dull the snarling anger of the Madrid masses. My advice to Zidane was to reject the job offer I correctly predicted would come his way, and to take that decision for the greater benefit of the club he’s grown to love.
In December 2015 I argued: “There will come a time when Florentino thinks it expedient to sack [Rafa] Benitez and to promote you. But you need to be aware that he’ll be doing it as a palliative remedy for the fans and media. He’ll do it to put a buffer between him and the rising tide of ‘anti-Florentino’ feeling and without using your coaching skills as the main criterion for promotion. … It’s a seductive proposition, but think of this from your point of view. There’s something fundamentally wrong with how Florentino runs the club.”
The point was good then and just as telling now. Owning exceptional players and putting them in the hands of a phenomenon of a man like Zidane always had the potential of being a magical cocktail. But for those Madrid members, supporters, players, staff or admirers who don’t want the torrid seas of boom and bust, who want a plan, stability, a reliable football philosophy, the short, successful Zidane era was patently only covering the club’s true illnesses with a sticking plaster.
Zidane quit because he saw that if you compared Madrid’s squad to an engine, high performance though it was by design, it was running on empty. No oil, no coolant, no fuel, lacking a good MOT and possibly with someone having slipped some sugar into the fuel tank just to gum up the works. Zidane saw players who were, subconsciously, burned out, who were sated, who were coasting, who needed replacing, he saw strategic weaknesses in the squad building, he disagreed fundamentally with the president’s view of what required fixing in the transfer market.
All of this he saw with X-ray vision. Zidane recognised that the light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t the exit but an oncoming train.
The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, something that anyone close to the Portuguese knew he’d been plotting for some considerable time, wasn’t going to sink the ship on its own. But allied to improper remedial action to address all the other mounting ailments, the outgoing coach knew it could become the straw that had a catastrophically debilitating effect on the camel’s back.
The point is that Perez didn’t, or couldn’t, anticipate or intuit any of that. If any of the Madrid president’s employees performed with such willful lack of awareness they’d be sacked. The point is that he lacks the humility to surround himself with sage advisers, lacks a well-prepared backup plan that could immediately be deployed once Zidane’s harsh words about why he had to leave echoed around the news conference last May.
Over at Atletico Madrid the contracts of Filipe Luis, Juanfran and, most importantly, Diego Godin are running down. It looks odds-on that two of them, perhaps all three, will leave. I wonder whether Perez, secretly, envies the simplicity of Atleti’s situation.
Change in an era in which great men of strong character and fine footballing ability have brought success is hard to manage and, frankly, the Madrid president isn’t well equipped to anticipate it, deal with it or emerge from it with credit.
Atleti losing those three brutally competitive defenders isn’t a problem to take lightly, but it’s time. Each of them is increasingly injury prone. Godin has suffered, frankly, the most error-laden season it’s possible to imagine for a colossus like him. Not only does each of them require a new challenge, each of them has vast tracts of experience, attitude, ability and leadership to offer a new dressing room elsewhere. The Spaniard, the Brazilian and the Uruguayan actively require the spiky challenge of a change of dynamic, change of role, change of pressure — outside their current (ultra successful) comfort zone.
The comparison? Well, those same facts applied to several of Madrid’s players. Instead of focussing on the near-impossible task of liberating Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain after just a year, instead of being fixated with ignoring the old axiom of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and installing Thibaut Courtois (however good he is), Los Blancos needed pruning.
It’s now past time that Marcelo was moved on. It’s a complete anomaly that any leading club can regularly used a left-back, irrespective of his vast attacking ability and undeniable personality, who is a complete defensive liability — over and over and over again.
I believe that Luka Modric, like Zidane, saw what was coming and would have joined Inter last summer had Ronaldo not been first out the door — a door that then slammed shut.
Both Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane urgently needed a centre-half who would threaten them being benched. They needed a boot up the backside, if only to dislodge the laurels upon which both have been resting for parts of this turbulent season.
The fact that Perez didn’t see fit to secure an additional source of goals before selling Ronaldo but then brought back Mariano at the last minute, having allegedly told Lyon’s president that the Dominican wasn’t suitable for Madrid only a few days earlier, helps explain why Los Blancos‘ scoring form has dropped to a low not seen in years.
It’s still my contention that with improved match fitness, the correct XI — Marcos Llorente a central part of things, Isco fit and on form, Marcelo shown he can be dropped and perhaps with Vinicius allowed more game time — this Madrid side can still threaten in La Liga, the Copa del Rey and in Europe.
Solari, recently, has been unfortunate in the way the Christmas break has taken an edge off the team, the way that injuries have piled up and he’s made some elemental mistakes that, frankly, are both understandable and typical in a novice senior coach — which he is.
However, what’s unavoidable is that Madrid’s squad is unbalanced, the squad planning is one dimensional, their philosophy has been exposed, the likelihood that they’re going to appoint their sixth coach in six years by June at the latest is destabilising and all of this is reminiscent of when Perez stepped down from the club in February 2006.
Perhaps it’s time for him to think that way again. His reign has been glorious, the party uproarious, but the hangover is hitting hard and, judging by how things are going, won’t be easy to cure. All good things come to an end.
I think that, between the lines, that was the message Zidane was trying to get through to Perez when, so soon after victory in Kiev, he was too shell-shocked, too disinterested, or unable to hear.