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Managing Madrid ‘What If’ Roundtable

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What if Ramos didn’t score the Decima header? What if Carlo wasn’t fired? What if Makelele wasn’t sold? What if De la Red didn’t have to retire early?

Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final - UEFA Photo by Matthew Lewis - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

It’s ‘what if’ week at SB Nation. The crew looks back on what could’ve been different in Real Madrid’s histoyr.

What if Sergio Ramos didn’t score that Decima header?

Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Euan McTear: The world would be completely different. Real Madrid’s Décima mental block may have grown to dangerous levels. Carlo Ancelotti may have been fired right then and there. The BBC project may have been pooh-poohed. Casillas’ legacy may have been further hurt for his weird goalkeeping on the Godín ‘winner’. Atlético may have been able to prevent their 2014 exodus of stars. And 92:48 wouldn’t mean anything and wouldn’t have have ever become a tattoo idea.

Matt Wiltse: It would have been one of the darkest days in Real Madrid history. That defeat would have been so hard to swallow, most of all because of how talented the team was and some of the football that was played that season. The 4-0 victory over Bayern Munich at the Allianz was euphoric; it felt like Real Madrid were destined to win the Champions League. In what would have been an awful decision, Ancelotti likely would have been fired had we lost the final given he blew the league title right at the end of the season and pressure was already mounting. Though, with that core of the team and the players that were entering their peak (plus the sheer will and determination of a guy like Cristiano Ronaldo) Madrid would have won a Champions League within the next couple of years. With the amount of consecutive semi-final appearances the club made from 2011-2018, the odds of winning the tournament were too high.

Kiyan Sobhani: I, along with many other Madridistas, would’ve had the most heart-breaking night of their fandom. I was shattered after the penalty shootout loss to Bayern Munich in 2012. But losing to Atlético in a final, after 12 years of waiting, would’ve dwarfed the feeling in 2012. Décima would’ve felt so much further away than initially anticipated had Ramos not scored that. Of course, throughout sports history, broken teams often bounce back quicker than we initially anticipate — just when we think they’re broken. But I’m thankful we don’t have to live in an alternate reality where Atletico win that final. I had one of the greatest nights of my life celebrating at Cibeles at 5am, as the team finally made it back from Lisbon.

Lucas Navarrete: Real Madrid lose that Final and we’re potentially looking into the club searching for a new coach and maybe even a rebuild of the squad, given the way the team lost La Liga. Considering that the final was against Atlético, the club would’ve probably imploded and the press would’ve have gone after Real day after day. It would’ve been a huge disappointment to lose the final against the city neighbors and rivals. Ramos’s header was a huge goal that quite probably saved Real Madrid’s project.

Om Arvind: Nothing has ever elicited as visceral and joyous a reaction from me as 92:48 did. I screamed myself hoarse in one shot and woke up my fuming father at 2 a.m. Now, imagine the inverse of that outburst in response to the hypothetical of Ramos missing that header — I think I’d still be recovering to this very day.

On a less personal note, the butterfly effect would’ve changed the course of recent Champions League history — I don’t think it’s possible to get over those mental scars (as evident in Diego Someone’s Atlético Madrid). Ancelotti would’ve also been sacked, putting us into a round of upheaval and uncertainty a year following Mourinho’s departure, which probably wouldn’t have been good for the team’s chances at success. Now that I’m thinking about it, 92:48 was, in all likelihood, the most pivotal moment in Real Madrid’s 21st century Champions League history.

Rob Husby: If Ramos hadn’t scored the late header that tied the 2014 Champions League Final, it’s entirely reasonable to say that Real Madrid do not win La Decima. Real of course were trailing 1-0 going into the 93rd minute of stoppage time before Ramos scored the goal that sent the match to extra time. There was little time between that moment and the final blow of the referee’s whistle, so there wasn’t much of another scoring chance had Ramos’ header missed/been saved. With no tying goal, Real don’t get the opportunity to score three more goals in extra time that saw them win the match 4-1. They wouldn’t have beaten their city rivals Atlético in the biggest match of the season. And of course, likely wouldn’t have won La Decima, at least not in 2014. This win also put Real on the path to win more Champions League titles in future seasons. And Ramos’ goal has defined one of the most important moments of the last decade for the club.

What if Carlo Ancelotti didn’t get fired?

Real Madrid Training and Press Conference Photo by Evrim Aydin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Euan McTear: Well, it would have prevented the Rafa Benítez fiasco and Real Madrid would have started the 2015/16 season much better, but it could have stood in the way of the arrival of Zinedine Zidane. An Ancelotti-led Real Madrid in 2015/16 would surely have been competitive enough throughout for the Italian to make it to the end of the season. So, we’d never have experienced the Zidane magic of the spring of 2016. Even if Ancelotti left in the summer of 2016, you wonder how comfortable Zidane would have been in taking his former mentor’s job. He obviously had no qualms about replacing Benítez, but he may not have wanted to be the immediate replacement for the man who taught him so much.

Matt Wiltse: I would like to think that Carlo would have purchased the re-reinforcements he truly needed to better implement rotations throughout the season rather than have Kroos and co play 4,000+ minutes. Maybe another league title would have sprinkled in within 2015-2016, but I don’t believe that the team would have won the four Champions League titles in five years. That is not a knock on Carlo, but rather a testament to Zidane and his influence from 2016-2019. One of the key’s to Zidane’s success was his adaptability. He trusted nearly all members of the squad and was happy to shift formations or change key personnel for a given match. Carlo is more stubborn and sticks closer to a philosophy or system which serves you well over the course of a league season, but can see you become “found-out” in a two legged Champions League knock out round.

Kiyan Sobhani: You don’t get Rafa Benitez, and you don’t get Zinedine Zidane. Think about it: Carlo was too good to be sacked mid-way through the season. He wouldn’t have caused a divide in the locker room the way Rafa did, and he would’ve had the team playing more exciting football. Now, eventually, dominoes may lead you to Zidane anyway, given he’s next in line at Castilla if anything goes haywire.

Do you get the three-peat still? It’s easy to say no. The butterfly effect feels strong with this one, and three consecutive titles is nearly impossible to replicate if you just simply swap managers. It was good enough to win titles under Carlo, though, and if not a three-peat, then likely a combination of league titles and one or two European titles.

Lucas Navarrete: I truly believe that Real had the squad to win the 11th Champions League title even without Zidane and the 14/15 team was truly inspiring to watch. Maybe Ancelotti wouldn’t have kept Casemiro in the squad and Madrid maybe lose a player of his caliber because of it. But overall, I think the 14/15 team was very exciting to watch and only Modric’s injury and the team’s lack of depth cost the team some trophies. If Ancelotti stays, maybe Zidane never coaches Real Madrid though!

Om Arvind: This question presumes that there is more leeway in deciding whether a manager gets to keep their job or not as opposed to their fate being decided solely on whether they won a significant title. Under those circumstances, I could see Ancelotti being the Real Madrid manager to this very day, as I believe that we would’ve always played quality, competitive football under my Dad. Nevertheless, due to the aforementioned butterfly effect, I find it hard to believe we would’ve gone on to win three straight Champions League titles with him, but I can definitely imagine us winning the trophy at least one more time up until this period. At the very least, the first half of the 15/16 season wouldn’t have been such a disaster. Unfortunately, the legend of Zidane the manager would not exist in the present moment, as a result.

Rob Husby: I don’t know how much would be different had Carlo Ancelotti not been sacked in favor of Rafa Benitez in 2015. Ancelotti accomplished quite a bit with Real, of course his biggest achievement being La Decima. Players like Bale and James, who Ancelotti brought in, played some of their best football under him. He also brought in Navas and Kroos, two more players who have contributed to the modern success of this club. Ancelotti was also the manager who really instituted the 4-3-3 formation that developed the dynamic BBC combo on attack. This would be the formation the club would use for many seasons and allowed Ronaldo to become an even better goalscorer, where he scored 61 goals in the 2014-15 season.

He was a great and highly successful coach and it would have been interested to see what else he would’ve/could’ve accomplished at Real Madrid. Benitez only lasted a season as manager after Ancelotti was sacked. But, with keeping Carlo, they may not have promoted Zidane to managerial status eventually. We know how successful he has been as manager, winning the league in 2016-17 and winning three consecutive European cups. It’s hard to imagine that keeping Carlo would’ve seen more trophy wins than the club has currently had they kept him around for a few more seasons. Zidane is arguably the best modern coach the club have had and his success so far would’ve been hard to top, even as great of a coach as Ancelotti was.

What if Ruben de la Red didn’t have to retire? What would he become?

Real Madrid Training Camp day 8 Photo by David R. Anchuelo/Real Madrid via Getty Images

Euan McTear: Rubén de la Red had the potential to become a homegrown fixture in the Real Madrid squad, much like Lucas Vázquez or Nacho today. His versatility would have made him a useful player for any coach to have as an option. His continuation at Real Madrid wouldn’t have been for certain, though. At the time when his medical issues arose, he was already fighting for his place at the club and Florentino Pérez’s return meant a new set of galácticos were about to land at the Bernabéu. It would have been tough even if he had stayed healthy.

Matt Wiltse: I wrote a long piece about Ruben de la Red here for anyone that needs a refresher. Below is an excerpt from that piece:

“In another world, De la Red would continue to move up the ladder. He likely would have been the locked in partner to Xabi Alonso after the Basque’s arrival from Liverpool in 2009. In another world, he was there with Iker and Ramos lifting the World Cup in 2010 and then the European Championships again in 2012. Today, at the age of 35, De la Red very well could have been reminiscing on a decade of success with Real Madrid and Spain. But, life threw a curve ball. His emotional farewell press conference in 2010 was from a man who understood life’s cruelty but refused to let it disparage him. “

I truly believe that Ruben de la Red would have been the perfect partner to Xabi Alonso. He had a bit more creativity, vision, and better technique than Sami Khedira. If the German was still brought in, those two would have battled it out for the starting position and likely would have been another headache like that of Marcelo or Coentrao, Benzema or Higuain dilemmas.Long-term, I think De la Red’s fit into multiple different positions and systems and would have ousted Khedira especially once Mourinho left.

Kiyan Sobhani: He would’ve been a key cog in the team for years to come. The team desperately needed some talent and brains in midfield alongside Xabi in order to compete with a ridiculous Barcelona team. The alternative deep central midfielders were: Lassana Diarra, Fernando Gago, and Esteban Granero. De la Red would’ve been a huge asset.

Lucas Navarrete: I think he would’ve been a very good role player for Real Madrid but not a regular starter for many years. De la Red was a very intriguing player and it’s hard to rate his potential just because he suffered that heart condition when he was hitting his best form that season. I’m not ready to consider him a star or a key starter for Madrid, though. A quality contributor for many years? I’m more comfortable with that. We’re probably looking into Madrid not signing Granero if De la Red stays healthy. And think about it, if he actually reached his best case scenario, perhaps Madrid never sign Modric!

Om Arvind: I think he would’ve become an excellent midfielder for Real Madrid while getting a shot at becoming world class. At a minimum, I could see him having been a key part of Mourinho’s titles runs, which would forever cement his legacy at Real Madrid even if he never got to win the Champions League.

What if Makelele didn’t get sold and Del Bosque didn’t get fired?

Fussball: Champions League 02/03 Real Madrid - Manchester United Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images

Euan McTear: It would surely have helped the galácticos project to have been more successful. In that summer of 2003, David Beckham arrived to join Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo. Real Madrid had the top stars and were ready to go. Yet they won just one trophy over the course of the two seasons (2003/04 and 2004/05) when those four superstars were together, which was the 2003 Spanish Supercup. Surely Del Bosque would have helped get the most out of them and surely Makélélé would have been tactically important as the counter-balance to the attacking qualities of these stars. Members of that squad have even admitted as much.

Matt Wiltse: I think the Galactico era would be remembered as a roaring success because there likely would have been more league titles and potentially another Champions League title. We can extrapolate this further and say - what if Figo was then sold when Beckham arrived? The Galactico policy only failed because it lacked proper balance. A football mind was needed to balance out Florentino’s drive for the best attacking players. Had a guy like Nesta been purchased (rather then relying on Pavon and Mejia), Makelele retained, and Del Bosque’s stability at the helm — the policy could have been laden with trophies.

Kiyan Sobhani: Makelele staying would’ve only been one fix. He left at a time where Real Madrid needed someone to shake them out of their transfer strategy which ignored the sporting aspect required to sustain a great balanced team. Makelele was the main pillar of a crumbling house. If you keep him, the house stays in tact for a couple years but crumbles anyway. Selling Makelele only demolished the galactico project faster. I don’t want to dig too deep into all the mistakes (outside of Makelele being sold) that the club made during that era, because I’ve been vocal on them in past articles and podcast. Makelele is one of the best defensive midfielders of all time. Putting him in a team surrounded by two attacking full-backs and two old center backs was like dropping someone in a gruesome scene from Saw and asking them to survive as long as possible. And Makelele survived more than anyone else possibly could if you airdropped them into that situation. He was incredible. Had he stayed, he probably would superglued that crumbling house for a little while longer, but that’s about it.

Reminder: The best version of the galacticos (2002 - 2003), fell in the semi-final second leg against Juventus when Makelele wasn’t able to play. It’s hard to overstate how important he was.

As for Del Bosque, virtually every player talked about how much they missed him after he was sacked. The team flipped through five coaches in three seasons and won nothing. Had he stayed, the team would’ve been better off by default.

Lucas Navarrete: I don’t think the final outcome of the Galactico era would’ve changed much had Del Bosque stayed. The key factor for me here is Makelele and I truly believe that Madrid could’ve had more success in La Liga with him protecting the attacking-minded galacticos. My main issue with that whole era is not the lack of success overall because a single Champions League title justifies the investment. However, Barcelona were not a very strong team back then and Madrid should’ve dominated La Liga throughout those years. With Makelele in the squad, that becomes a much easier task because of his consistency.

Om Arvind: I think Makélélé staying would’ve added a couple more years of life to that Galácticos side, but Makélélé leaving wasn’t the only issue (though it was the biggest one). Many of the key players, such as Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo, and Raúl, were entering the heart of their declines and, as high a floor as Claude provided, he couldn’t have made up for the weaknesses in other areas. If Real Madrid recruited intelligently following the season he actually left, Makélélé’s qualities likely would’ve been more focused on contributing to title challenges rather than keeping his side afloat.

Assuming recruitment stays as is — other than retaining Makélélé — I see Del Bosque giving those teams better shots at titles through 05/06 but, possibly, struggling to accomplish what Capello managed in 06/07 and 07/08, due to the Italian’s successes revolving around a more robust defensive identity. Thus, Del Bosque’s reign probably would’ve ended there, but, if he managed to replicate Capello’s feats, he most certainly would’ve seen his last season as coach of the All Whites in 08/09, when Barcelona swept all before them.

That, perhaps, would’ve been the ideal time for him to have left, anyway, for as much as I respect Del Bosque, his tactics would not hold up well in the current era.