I’m not sure how we got here, but this is the hard truth: Real Madrid’s season could be over as early as the first week of March. Tomorrow, the 5th of March, in fact.
But before we go on, and given that this is my first column for managing Madrid, let me share some of my background: I was born in Madrid in the seventies, watched my first match at the Santiago Bernabeu in 1981 – Real Madrid vs Ujpest Dosza, with Juanito and Santillana on the line-up --, worshipped Butragueño and his quinta in the late eighties / early nineties, and became a Real Madrid socio in Jan95.
You can imagine that I’ve watched quite a few matches at the Bernabeu and have gone through both great and terrible club spells. However, I can’t recall anything like the six months we’ve lived – survived? – since this season started.
Kyian and I shared some of the reasons behind it in our recent chat at the Retiro Park in Madrid. In order to compete with Barcelona, or rather, with the mindboggling consistency of Leo Messi, Real Madrid needed a supersquad, such as the 2016-17 one. Assembling one of those is hard, and keeping it together is almost impossible: as soon as success arrives, Pat Riley’s Disease of More kicks in, and that is exactly what happened that summer: James and Morata left, and Real Madrid’s bench was never the same.
The club did not invest in having enough depth to compete in all tournaments, nor did they retain or replace Cristiano Ronaldo. The tired legs of some of our best players after the World Cup coupled with the lack of confidence of a handful of dressing room incumbents saw Lopetegui leave, and from then on, the season was on the brink of disaster.
This wasn’t Solari’s squad, and even though the lack of scoring power was evident, the club did not want to spend big in the winter transfer market. So Solari decided to turn Lopetegui’s squad into his own: gave the kids from his former Castilla side the nod, took exception with a couple of respected, but not very disciplined first team members, and adjusted Lopetegui’s 4-3-3 into his own, with more play on the wings, more direct plays and less positional exchanges.
After a rocky start, this seemed to work acceptably for a few weeks, but then the goals dried up. When Benzema, Vazquez and Bale are your offensive references, chances are this may happen. However, the painful realization that the current forwards, be them starters or bench players, won’t be enough only came after 180 minutes of poor finishing against Barcelona. Today, Modric said it best: “Some had to step forward after Ronaldo’s departure and they didn’t”.
And this is why I started this piece by saying that I can’t recall any other season like the one we’re experiencing right now: a club that has never been scared to spend big, even in times when its cantera worked well, has acted as though losing one of the most ruthless scorers in football history was of no importance. And even though as the season evolved the evidence to the contrary mounted, they have not made any moves – none! – in the winter transfer window. The lack of pegada (hitting power) in key matches of the season has left the Bernabeu deflated, as Kiyan aptly described the mood in the stadium on Saturday’s 1-0 defeat. There is no confidence in the team, not even the half-expected reaction based on heart and guts. This Real Madrid can fool you with a spell of 15-20 minutes in which the ball travels fast and precise, like it did two seasons ago, but that’s just a mirage, the effect of still having talented ball holders like Kroos and Modric in the line-up. At times they do fly, but they can’t sting.
For the first time in my life, in a whatsapp group with another 10 socios and season-ticket holders no one thought we could win. We just can’t score when it matters, and that is obviously an issue when you want to win football matches.
Of course, Real Madrid have a significant advantage vs Ajax. 2-1 away from home is quite a result. The visitors will have to take risks, and at least in the first leg their defence looked a lot worse than their offence. But I have to say that losing two consecutive matches against Barcelona, at the Bernabeu and without scoring once has opened a huge hole in the ground. The bets are off. Nothing is off the table.
If that was not reassuring, perhaps the most concerning realization of the two Clasico losses is that Solari’s football book only has one page. His 4-3-3 with open wingers, plenty of direct balls and a decent high press is his only hit: I expected some adjustments for Saturday’s match, but Solari’s approach was identical, and therefore easier to stop for Barcelona, who had made a few tweaks in their approach that effectively improved their ability to contain Vinicius and prevented lost balls in their own half.
The main downside of Solari’s 4-3-3 is the lack of play in between the opposition’s lines. In the current configuration, Benzema is the only player able to get centrebacks off their position while supporting midfield play with a few touches here and there. The ousted Isco and the struggling Kroos are nowhere to be seen, while at times is Casemiro who shows up in those positions, only to misplace his passes.
Like it or not, Solari needs to add something else to the now limited tactical options the team has. In the case of the Ajax match, this addition is even more necessary: a more balanced, possession oriented line-up would help the team to manage the positive result, keeping them busy and probably annulling the likely adjustments they must have prepared for this match.
Am I vouching for Isco to start? I was never one of his biggest supporters, but I do believe that he can add something extra to this side. Apparently, some players were disappointed in Solari on Saturday, as they didn’t expect Bale to start or Isco to join the match with 15 minutes left. But even if this decision infuriates some, I guess it’s time to roll the dice adding someone who can alleviate Benzema’s workload, find Vinicius in space and keep ball possession when required.
Tomorrow I’ll be at the Bernabeu dying to see some of our swagger back. I’ve heard a couple of socios half-expecting an elimination that would make the need to rebuild even more evident than it is right now. To me, even if we make the next round or the semis, too many players in this group need a fresh start, and if Real Madrid wants to compete with Barcelona for the few years they still have of Messi, they need to build a new, more stable project. And that isn’t fixed with a couple of Brazilian youngsters, a reject from ManCity and a coach with a one-page notebook.