Madridistas, after Thursday’s 3-1 win at Girona in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals second leg, the following milestone occurred: Santiago Solari’s command of our first team hit 90 days!
As many in the working world know, companies typically have a 90-day probationary period for a new employee to see whether or not they will remain. Even though Solari signed a three-year deal two weeks after taking over the reigns from Julen Lopetegui on October 30th, these are my grades for his performance as our new manager during this so-called “probationary period”. Here we go:
LA LIGA GRADE: B-
The team jumped six spots from ninth to third by winning eight of the last 11 games and scoring 1.67 goals to every goal conceded. Solari used 20 different starters, with Ramos, Modric, Benzema, and Courtois as the main pillars. Despite this improvement, the losses against mediocre Eibar and Real Sociedad, along with a tie at relegation-zone Villarreal, have prevented the team from catapulting to second place. With 17 games left and Sevilla and Alavés chasing close behind, a spot in next season’s Champions League is not guaranteed as it was in previous years.
UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE GRADE: B-
Solari was immediately faced with having to prepare for two straight road games: One at the Czech League champions Viktoria Plzen, and one against last season’s semifinalist Roma. With senior forwards Benzema and Bale leading the way in goals and assists, the team came up with back-to-back clean sheet victories and secured first-place in the group.
However, the last group home loss against CSKA was a major disappointment in terms of image. This showed a lack of concentration by Solari and poor execution by the players in allowing the largest European defeat in home field history. A Round of 16 matchup with four-time tournament winner and resurgent Ajax will be the biggest test yet as the team is seeking a record fourth straight Final.
CLUB WORLD CUP GRADE: A
Six weeks into his tenure, Solari and the team traveled 3,500 miles to Abu Dhabi right before the Christmas break to defend the FIFA Club World Cup. This short knockout tournament among confederation winners is very tricky as lower-ranked teams begin their participation before the European and South American champions. For instance, embattled Copa Libertadores champions River Plate claimed their spot a week earlier in a controversial Final against eternal rivals Boca Juniors in Madrid. They were upset in the Semifinal by the overlooked home team Al-Ain who started the competition six days prior.
Using the same starting 11 in both the Semifinal game against the Asian Champions League winners Kashima Antlers and Final against the hungry home team Al-Ain, Solari pushed the right buttons. Bale, who saves his best performances for the biggest stages, netted a hat trick and the team finished with seven goals in two games. It was the first time in tournament history a team lifted the trophy three straight times.
COPA DEL REY GRADE: A
Solari has done a masterful job so far by rotating 22 different starters between the Copa and Liga with the right blend of youth and experience, especially with the flashy 18-year-old Vinicius Jr on offense and three-time Champions League winning goalkeeper Navas to anchor the defense.
With key starters returning to top form and rotations keeping all players fresh, the team is back in the semifinals for the first time since 2014, which coincidentally was the last year Real Madrid lifted the trophy. Their next opponent is none other than the four-straight defending champion and eternal rival Barcelona. This will also be another major test as bragging rights and a spot in the May 25 Final at Benito Villamarín are at stake.
Solari receives an above average grade for his supervision of the past 22 games across all competitions. Even though there have been critical errors at certain points, especially in Liga games where vital points were dropped, he has gained the trust of a locker room filled with championship experience and youthful energy.
Let us not forget the laundry list of items he has also had to negotiate: player absences due to injuries (Bale seven games, Mariano 16 games, Asensio nine games, Kroos seven games, Carvajal eight games, Marcelo seven games, Varane four games), a hostile press with nonstop hypercritical coverage, and a demanding Membership of 90,000+ inside Chamartín.
Now that we have gone over the first 90 days of Solari’s term, the next chapter has just become even more difficult with the following schedule: three Clásicos, a Derbi road game, two Champions League Round-of-16 games against Ajax, and three Liga games in between. As my good friend Kartik Jhingan from Peña Madridista Delhi (India) wrote to me yesterday, “The next 35 days will make or break our season.” You may be right brother. Hopefully the team’s form and confidence continue to rise into the second half of the season. Let’s go Real!
- Christian Paredes (@xian_d_paredes) is a Founding Member and former Chairman (2012-2016) of La Peña Madridista Sur de California (@RmSurCalifornia)