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A trophyless 2020-2021 season
Ending up trophyless is for Real Madrid and its fans a strange experience. Many of us are likely lingering to varying degrees within the realms of frustration, sorrow and regret. At least we have good company in our commiseration. Hopefully over this Saturday night and Sunday we got some of it out of our systems with the help of friends, spirits, exercise, meditation, smashing furniture or what have you. With the new week, it is the fitting time to look ahead again and to great things we surely are going to see from Real Madrid. We will put that Sevilla match and the VAR handball / penalty call against Eder Militao in the rearview mirror.
First, something to put this season in perspective. The last time this happened was 2014/2015 when Real Madrid had a lineup that was loaded to the brim with world class players in their prime. The team was a monster and yet they came up empty handed. Carlo Ancelotti was fired after the season, although that was reportedly more about a disagreement with the front office over the use of Gareth Bale:
Altruism in a squad is important, because if there’s something that drives me mad, it’s people who are egoistic in a match situation. Those moments when a player really should pass the ball and he doesn’t. I paid for this in my own career. The reason the row with Florentino Perez exploded in Madrid was my substitution of Bale against Valencia. Bale should’ve passed it to Karim Benzema, who would’ve scored in front of an open goal, but instead he took the shot. I hauled Bale off and the chaos erupted. Perhaps excessive altruism is also a limitation in a striker, as he needs a bit of egotism, but not if it’s over the top.
To begin to think about going forward and getting back to winning multiple trophies, it must first be properly understood what the problems are. We can think a bit on the pre-conditions for being better and deeper than the Chelsea team, for instance. That line of discussion can span out broadly if we wish, e.g. to the question of whether La Liga is in a position with its marketing and business models to allow Spanish clubs to compete on an equal playing field with the English clubs. Perhaps Real Madrid’s sustained global power as a club and to La Liga’s new deal with Disney / ESPN can be mentioned on that subject. Or perhaps the only way, as Florentino Perez has pleaded, is to break free of the hegemonic UEFA and the vengeance-thirsty Ceferin.
More concretely to football terms: there seems to be universal agreement among the Madridistas— a large-scale renewal of the squad personnel has got to happen. In fact, this has been talked about by the fans and team alike since 2018. In practice, however, the club retained much of the old guard while gradually integrating such new players as Rodrygo, Vinicius, Valverde, Odriozola and Mendy. It’s not going to fly to see some of the same players giving it a go once again. It damages the momentum of the team to put faith in players who have picked up injury after injury in the twilight of their careers, only to see the same type of injuries happen again to no one’s surprise.
But of course, it makes no sense to talk about which players should be brought in, re-signed or promoted when we have no idea if they will be favored by the manager or fit with the system of play. This is the first domino that has to fall.
The impending manager question
Carlos Carpio at MARCA is of the opinion that Zidane has earned the right to decide his fate at Real Madrid:
Zidane, who has earned the right to decide if he wants to continue, will have to decide if he’s ready to take some painful decisions with his old guard.
There is a foundation in reason for this assertion. Zidane has shown his managerial quality in his career with his trophy cabinet, which is the envy of any rival. His level of football thinking and tactics were abundantly evident in winning three consecutive Clasicos and in defeating Atletico Madrid 2-0 at home this season. The team has been beset by injuries this season, beginning with the prolonged saga of Eden Hazard, who was consistently world class throughout his career but could barely string together several games for Real Madrid without pain. How many teams purchase one of the best players in the world and due to bad injury luck get nothing out of him? And yet, Los Blancos made it to the Champions League semifinal and just missed first place in La Liga by a bad VAR call. Perhaps more than any managerial trait, Zidane has shown a deep patience and trust in players that he knows he can rely on. There is something of rare wisdom here that ought not to be tossed away blithely. His players do fight to the bitter end with him at the helm.
A more pragmatic argument for Zidane involves the nature of Real Madrid: it’s just not in the club’s DNA to give time to experimental managers when the team starts floundering. A few games lost in this ‘White House’ and people come for your head. It is therefore best to have someone that is seasoned at the top level, so that we have a solid idea on how their system will play out. This does not have to be Zinedine Zidane, but we already have a man of the highest level here.
The main question is whether Zidane is the right choice for leading a renewal. This can be broken down into parts. Will Real Madrid under him ever deal with low-blocks well? Does his coaching provide the framework for helping forwards other than Benzema get more often into threatening positions? Will the team feature the more structured, coordinated off-the-ball movements that can be seen in football these days? Will we ever get past the suffering in our attack and chance creation? If Real Madrid makes it to another UCL final, how will they handle a team with as much bench depth and movement as Manchester City? Judging by what Zidane has actually demonstrated in his tenure, he has the requisite knowledge and is capable. He meets the job criteria to solve these challenges. But is the intent, the will and the desire there to do this work? In any case, these are some questions that our club has to confront.
Zidane’s message of gratitude to the fans:
Zidane: "Thank you to our fans because they were with us the whole time. They couldn’t be inside the stadium but they were with us. Everyone can be proud. The players gave their all until the final minute. Winning today wasn’t easy but we did it in the end. I’m very proud." pic.twitter.com/y174DYXHlj— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadriden) May 22, 2021