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The Aftermath Of Real Madrid’s Champions League Exit, And What’s Next For Zidane’s Quest For More Trophies

The way Real Madrid lost to Manchester City was disappointing, but there is plenty to build on, and Zidane has multiple crossroads coming. Kiyan Sobhani’s column.

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

On July 10th, UEFA drew their Champions League bracket, etching the possibility that in the quarter-finals, Real Madrid could be reunited with its greatest player ever, Cristiano Ronaldo. After the first leg of the round-of-16 games were played, that possibility lessened. Was it naive to look ahead that far? Both Juventus and Real Madrid trailed on aggregate heading into their respective second legs, but football has given us enough unpredictable storylines that it made you think — why not? Juventus have Ronaldo and were going back to Turin. Real Madrid have Champions League DNA, and were in good form. But woe to both, it wasn’t meant to be, and in some weird twisted way, the two entities bounced out of the tournament at the exact same time, some 980 miles apart.

Now comes the aftermath: A reflection on the season. What did the team do well, and where did they come short? Were expectations beyond what we saw? How much does this weird, wonky year on earth, infused with a global pandemic, dent our expectations? Winning is hard to begin with. Winning year after year is harder. The appetite of your core players becomes suppressed. The hungry ones — talented bench enthusiasts, seeking green pastures with an abundance of playing time — leave, leaving with them squad turnover. That makes winning year-after-year even harder.

Now the team has won a league title two years after Ronaldo left. That’s two years after the team won five major trophies in four years. They lost in the Champions League against a team so good, they may as well have lost a final. Do we loosen the leash? Should we be happy? Should we be lenient and grateful of all the victories over the past few years, or instead, be upset and impatient at the way the season ended?

There is a virtue that Zinedine Zidane has that we can all instill, and that is his glass-half-full approach to everything.

¨We must be calm, heads up,” Zidane said after Real Madrid’s loss to Manchester City on Friday. As 95% of all the players have done, all season, have been spectacular. And I will stick to that.”

I said this on the post-game podcast: If there was ever a time to feel upset after a game, it would’ve been after the debacle at the Etihad. The team was so disappointing on every level. Mistakes (self-explanatatory), tactical disasters, a lack of response, a mental collapse, and a lack of adjustment from Zidane. (There is a lot more to it than that, which we discussed on the pod.) The team looked as apathetic to the result that day, as it did in 2009 at Anfield, where Liverpool humiliated Real Madrid so badly, that the Whites just laid down and took it. It was like watching 11 players playing football against 11 humans laying in the fetal position. Apathy from the team breeds anger into the fans.

But now we await the response, from everyone. We await the response of Raphael Varane (the physical response, not the verbal one), the same way we awaited Sergio Ramos’s response after missing a penalty in 2012 against Bayern Munich. We await Zidane’s response, the same way we awaited Jose Mourinho’s response after losing 5 - 0 in the Camp Nou in 2010. We await the response of Eden Hazard, the same way we awaited Thibaut Courtois’s response after his first season with the club.

Maybe Real Madrid’s standards are higher. Maybe they not only should’ve won the three-peat, but they should’ve beaten Manchester City too. Those expectations are baked into a club the size of Real. Maybe fans are justified in their impatience. Maybe the team has too much talent to fail the way it did against City.

I would counter. Real Madrid has won the Champions League 13 times — the most of anyone, by far, in football history. They have still failed to win it 52 times. In a lot of those years, they didn’t even come close. If Real Madrid can’t resonate with imperfection, then no one can.

There is a middle ground here. It’s possible to be both grateful and ecstatic for the three-peat, but also disappointed in the team’s performance against Manchester City, in a very winnable game.

This season lied somewhere in the middle too. After what effectively was the end of an era when Ronaldo and Zidane both left in the same summer, the team rebounded really well in the league this season in what was a decent turnaround. Starting with their first game back from quarantine against Eibar, they played without mercy, and hit a historical level of greatness with their defense. Zidane barely could rely on two key offensive cogs in Hazard and Asensio. His management of the team this season was impressive.

But the team did not approach the Manchester City game with the same level of urgency. We can come up with a sound, dumbed-down conclusion from that second leg: Manchester City wanted it more. Real Madrid went on a ‘seven-day rest period’ after the game against Leganes. You can choose to not look into that. Had Real Madrid won, that mini-vacation would’ve been seen as a genius decision. But you can also compare the team’s mental focus in preparation for Eibar to the team’s preparation for the City game, and every quote from Guardiola’s camp Friday night was about running more, wanting it more, watching film, and pressing like maniacs. Real Madrid were caught off guard from a physical standpoint as much as they were mentally.

What comes next is interesting. This is, for reasons discussed to death, a huge upcoming season. It is the build-up to the summer of 2021 sweepstakes which may involve Kylian Mbappe, and other stars. In the interim, Real Madrid are going to go into next season with virtually the same squad, and if anything, with less familiar faces as they look to offload names that are not in Zidane’s plans. This could be a tighter but more exciting rotation, where minutes get transferred to Asensio, Odegaard, and Rodrygo. We also get to witness Kubo’s development at Villarreal while we watch the current crop grow together. Next summer also likely marks the exits of two legends: Marcelo and Luka Modric.

I wouldn’t be so down on the club not making any (major) signings this summer. Sometimes continuity wins, and I’m not sure how much you can upgrade the squad the way Zidane has it currently structured. The team has three ‘glaring’ holes: a back-up right back, back-up defensive midfielder, and a cold-blooded goalscorer to supplement Benzema. The right-back slot will be filled by Alvaro Odriozola. The defensive midfielder slot does not have a physical back-up, but a schematic shuffle in the form of a double pivot which likely involves Fede Valverde. (That slot is hard to fill, because Zidane doesn’t bench Casemiro. Another manager may see it differently, but that’s a different theoretical reality.)

A transcendent goalscorer that solves so many problems, like Mbappe, isn’t available. You can get someone beneath that level, but you already have Asensio and Jovic for that.

It will be interesting to see if Zidane can maintain the defensive efficiency he has so admirably established. Real Madrid is historically not a good defensive team. Signing world class defenders — Walter Samuel, Fabio Cannavaro — often wasn’t enough. The schematic design of the team was one that invited self-carving. After we saw Cannavaro — a Balon D’or winner and one of the best central defenders of all time — look like he was drowning at Real, we started to theorize: Even a CB-duo of Franco Baresi and Franz Beckenbauer together would fail here. Of course, the team, historically, has not been designed for defenders to thrive. It is designed for heroic last-second challenges and goalkeeping miracles. Only brief spurts since the turn of the century, under Mourinho, Capello, and to a fleeting extent, Ancelotti, was the team able to mask certain defensive holes.

Zidane has changed the defensive culture. He has started to rely less on heroics and more on a system. He has used his pawns to defend in the right places. It has made everyone’s job easier. “Whenever we speak about the defense, we talk about the goalkeeper, the back four and the backline,” Zidane said after Real Madrid won their league title. “And that’s not how it works, because in football everyone needs to defend and that applies in attack too,”

Maybe that’s a testament to Zidane’s evolution — a testament to continuity and patience. Zidane’s placement of Casemiro, his use of Modric as a superhuman saviour in every aspect of the field, the way he submitted to the defensive black hole (in other words, the half-space) between Ramos and Marcelo were all huge criticisms of his defensive scheme. Rightfully so. Defensive positioning was like lava.

Everything changed. The team’s improved positioning was supplemented with reinforcements in the shape of Ferland Mendy and Fede Valverde — as well as an improved Thibaut Courtois. (The nitty gritty analysis of the improved defense has already been discussed. Valverde was not a new signing, but he might as well have been the way Zidane brought the best out of him.)

And that’s what people underrate about continuity. With each season, young players get better, morphing into new signings for their team. Managers, just like players, rise and decline. Has Zidane reached his peak yet? Can he improve on this season’s mistakes the way he improved the team’s defense? If so, is he, in a philosophical way, a new managerial signing?

He still has plenty to answer. This team does not magically outstrip their issues next season. Fixing the offense is one item on the agenda. There is another glaring one: For two consecutive seasons, the team has been scorched by a relentless pressing team. Ajax and Manchester City both annihilated Casemiro in the round-of-16. Not many teams have dared to press Real Madrid’s defensive midfielder for 180 minutes straight — it requires a certain kind of elite-level cohesion to win the ball back without risking your defensive transition breaking down. Zidane needs an answer to those teams in season-defining moments.

That will be tough to do as his cherished-core ages. Sergio Ramos was not present in either of Real Madrid’s two second-leg defeats against Ajax and City respectively. It was jarring how badly the team missed him. Marcelo was not around last Friday. If you take both of those two technically brilliant footballers out of the lineup, your press-resistancy gets zapped. But those two players won’t be relied on long-term. Zidane will have to find a schematic solution. Modric and Kroos were not used at the Etihad adequately enough to alleviate the team’s suffering. No dots were connected from defense to attack.

Zidane will need to find a new backbone, and new solutions. It may take time. Real Madrid will still feel the effects of Ronaldo’s departure, possibly for years. It may be the same with Ramos, Marcelo, and Modric. (It’s not all doom and gloom! Odegaard, Mendy, and possibly Mbappe should make the transition more bearable than it would be for other clubs. Real Madrid have put themselves in a good position, and are far from any kind of disaster that would make a typical club fold into irrelevancy for a cycle or three.)

But some of the uncertainties surrounding these questions (and we’re yet to even dive into the team’s offensives issues) are exciting too. To some, the ending in Manchester was just a mere chapter we flip through — far from the end of any story. Spin it in a right way, and it’s the birth of an exciting incoming era, one that has as many young talented stars as it does fading, ageing veterans. Ask AC Milan fans how they planned for the post Rui Costa, Shevchenko, Nesta, Maldini, Seedorf, and Kaka era. You will begin to appreciate the club’s roster construction on the other side of a dynasty. (Again, plenty of caveats, and you still have to keep the right talents that you groom, which I’ve written about here. You also have to learn from these Champions League exits and tactical shortcomings.)

From an overarching, zoomed-out view, I am ok with the path that Real Madrid have taken since 2015. Yes, mistakes were made. But the mistakes have not thrown the grand plan out of the window. The trajectory remains positive. They capitalized on the Ronaldo window they had. They realized they couldn’t replace Ronaldo after he left, and decided the alternate route would be to stockpile every young star possible, in order to groom the next superstar. When opportunities arise, they’ll still sign the the transcendent alien.

They’ve also been patient with Zidane. It is tempting to laugh at that statement, because it’s easy to be patient with a manager who has won so much. But the board has backed Zidane the entire way, and have allowed him to build the roster the way his mind envisions it. They have let go of talented academy players, and abided by his vetoing of players like Kepa Arrizabalaga. The ones he wanted to shed from the roster — James, Bale — were hard to move. The board have bit their hand when reaching for their wallet at times due to Zidane’s wishes. Zidane is effectively the team’s manager and sporting director. He is both. He is the team’s answer to balancing long and short-term wishes. Transitory managers will not necessarily think the way he does.

With Zidane requesting Odegaard’s return, another question looms: What are the other dominoes that fall? Something has to budge. If James or Bale (or both) leave, what has changed? Who is taking on their respective contracts? Collectively, they soaked up just 1511 minutes this season. If you shed both, is that still enough playing time to go around? If Odegaard plays on the right wing, where does that leave Asensio, who barely had any minutes this season? Rodrygo? Vazquez? Shift deeper, and Valverde is there. Is Modric departing sooner than anticipated? Isco?

Will Odegaard himself take a backseat? Zidane seldom asks for players he doesn’t use, but he has in the past — banking on their squad depth insurance while assuring them of future roles.

The Manchester City debacle felt like such a colossal failure, not due to the aggregate score, but the unexpected lack of parity between the two sides, along with the disappointing hangover from an otherwise excellent league campaign.

But that game also seems like a distant memory now, and could serve as a rather normal blip in the club’s quest for more success. Football moves fast. Real Madrid are keeping pace with it.

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