Mark Godfrey

18 for 18, part 11: Real Madrid struggle for new identity post Ronaldo and Zidane

Mark Godfrey
18 for 18, part 11: Real Madrid struggle for new identity post Ronaldo and Zidane

After a string of poor results for Real Madrid, RYAN PLANT looks at how the European Champions have looked lost since the departures of coach Zinedine Zidane and goalscoring machine Cristiano Ronaldo. Part 11 of our 18 for 18 series.

12 June, 2018: two days before the start of the World Cup in Russia, Real Madrid announced that Spain’s manager, Julen Lopetegui, was to take over as head coach from Zinedine Zidane. The club’s initial statement, that had the cocksure approach of president Florentino Perez behind it, promised he would stay true to his job with his home nation but sign a three-year contract after the tournament came to a close. Of course, Lopetegui was dismissed almost instantly by the Spanish Football Federation because of the agreement after two years in charge.

The 51-year-old had only recently extended his contract, but, after approaches for Mauricio Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte all proved fruitless, he decided to move back to Real – where his playing career began – after the club paid an insubstantial £1.75million compensation fee.

30 years ago, he was a youth team goalkeeper for Los Blancos and made one senior appearance before returning in 2008 – after 317 league appearances, including five for Barcelona – as the coach of Real Madrid Castilla; he also worked for the club as a scout.

Taking over from Zidane was never going to be easy. The Frenchman won three UEFA Champions Leagues in a row, a La Liga title in 2017, the Supercopa de Espana and the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup twice each after taking over from Rafa Benitez, who lasted only seven months at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

Lopetegui’s job was made no easier by the surprise sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus. Many doubt that he would have taken the job knowing that the Portuguese was made available for transfer by Perez, after the five-time Ballon d’Or winner had decided that he was feeling underappreciated by the powers that be at the club.

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Indeed, he did not last long at the helm before being sacked: 138 days, to be precise. In 14 games in all competitions in charge, his side won only six times, losing as many, and went eight hours without scoring before Marcelo’s strike against Levante – 12 minutes short of the club’s all-time record. A narrow 2-1 win against Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League was the only win in his last seven matches, before a 5-1 humiliation against Barcelona at the Camp Nou was the final straw; he was sacked on the following Monday evening. He left Real in ninth, and had been dismissed from Spanish football’s two biggest jobs within four months.

Brazilian midfielder Casemiro, the bedrock of all things good about Zidane’s Real, described the performance against Barcelona – who were without Lionel Messi – as a “disaster” and as an “image of our season”. Where did it go wrong? Was Lopetegui destined to fail after Ronaldo departed for Turin, or did his sale and the bewilderment of world football mask his failings?

WIthin a minute of his competitive bow as manager, Diego Costa put city-rivals Atletico Madrid in front in the Super Cup final in Tallinn, Estonia. Karim Benzema equalised, before Sergio Ramos converted a penalty to make it 2-1 on the hour, but Costa’s late equaliser and Saul and Koke’s extra-time strikes condemned Real to their first defeat of the Lopetegui era.

Not to worry: it hurt, but a defeat to Diego Simeone’s Atletico in a European final is nothing to be ashamed of, not least because Real had narrowly come out in top against their city neighbours in the 2014 and 2016 Champions League finals. What Lopetegui needed, though, was backing in the transfer market, as title rivals Barcelona and Atletico, as well as the giants of the Premier League, made big-money moves.

Despite the silverware won by the club during his time in the Spanish capital, Keylor Navas was often singled out as a weak link. The Costa Rican has put in a series of fine displays for Los Blancos, notably against Atletico in April 2017, but made one too many mistakes in Perez’s eyes, which saw him chase Kepa Arrizabalaga and Alisson Becker before landing Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois – as well as Ukrainian youngster Andriy Lunin from Zorya Lugansk. The Belgian was not the club’s most expensive signing of the summer transfer window, though: 18-year-old Vinicius Junior completed his long-awaited move from Flamengo of Brazil.

In Perez’s first term at Real, he created his famous Galacticos side, featuring Zidane, Luis Figo, David Beckham, Brazilian Ronaldo, Michael Owen and others. In 2009, he signed Ronaldo, Benzema and Kaka, amongst an array of eye-watering deals, and many thought he would do the same again even before Ronaldo departed for Turin to end Barcelona’s recent dominance of La Liga.

Neymar appears to grow increasingly tired of Paris Saint-Germain, and there was talk of a move to hijack Kylian Mbappe’s permanent move alongside the Brazilian after he had only spent the 2017-18 season on loan at the Parc des Princes from AS Monaco as the club’s Qatari owners looked to avoid Financial Fair Play sanctions. There were also suggestions of moves for Harry Kane, Mauro Icardi and Iago Aspas to replace Ronaldo’s goalscoring abilities, but, with the transfer deadline fast approaching, Perez re-signed Mariano Diaz from Olympique Lyonnais after he had left in 2017.

Perez’s theory was that the attacking line boasted enough firepower to make up for the deficit left by Ronaldo. At first he was proven right: Gareth Bale has always been touted as the player to replace the Portuguese as the club’s – and potentially La Liga’s – main man since his arrival in 2013. Marco Asensio, a gracious forward that arrived on the scene with a thunderbolt against Sevilla in the 2016 Super Cup final, has been lauded as a future Ballon d’Or winner, and even dyed the tips of his hair blonde as if to imitate Ronaldo, but has struggled after making the transition from a superstar in waiting to a player with responsibilities on his shoulders. Isco, another playmaker that has now reached the point of his career at which he must begin to reach the levels of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric consistently, has flattered to deceive so far.

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Life under Lopetegui in La Liga began perfectly: wins against Getafe, Girona and Leganes, in which Benzema scored four and Bale three, showed that there was – perhaps – a method to Perez’s madness.

However, it began to unravel against Athletic Club at San Mames. Lopetegui opted for a midfield three of Dani Ceballos, Kroos and the increasingly-fatigued Modric, leaving out Casemiro. After Iker Muniain had put the hosts ahead on the half hour, he was introduced at half-time for Ceballos and Isco scored a headed – and undeserved – equaliser; Lopetegui should have learned his lesson.

The last manager to use Bale as the main forward in the squad was Benitez, and he also showed a distrust in Casemiro in favour of using three attacking playmakers across the midfield. In his ill-fated tenure, an Andres Iniesta-inspired Barcelona won 4-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu and all-but confirmed his sacking, before Zidane came in. That day, he opted for a midfield three of Kroos, Modric and James Rodriguez; Casemiro is an absolute necessity in Real’s traditional 4-3-3 system and is the foundation for all of the attacking potency ahead of him, which Lopetegui would have done well to remember.

The Brazilian was installed back in the side for Lopetegui’s sixth league game in charge, but was powerless to stop Sevilla put three past Courtois in the first half through Andre Silva and Wissam Ben Yedder – a draw to Atletico and defeats to Alaves, Levante and Barcelona, in the aforementioned 5-1 thrashing at the Camp Nou, followed. In that run, Bale and Benzema went from the peak of their powers to their worst form in the white of Real to date.

It is too simplistic to claim that the absence of Ronaldo was the reason for the poor form leading to Lopetegui’s dismissal – but he would almost certainly entertain that view, whilst starring at the top of Serie A with Juventus. His bad run at the beginning of last season is regularly forgotten: he took until a 3-2 win against soon-to-be-relegated Malaga on 25 November of last year to score his second league goal of the campaign, but had scored 10 at the same pont the previous year. Zidane still managed to keep his side in third place, in touching distance of Barcelona, before Ronaldo turned his dip around.

If Zidane coped with an out-of-sorts with Ronaldo, then Lopetegui could have coped without him, too. Still, his legacy at Real is clear: he is the club’s all-time top goalscorer with 451, and many consider him to be the greatest footballer of all time. Does that make him a heralded figure in Madrid in the same way as, say, Ferenc Puskas? Messi is widely lauded as Barcelona’s greatest player not only because of his unquestionable success, but because his career has – uncoincidentally – coincided with the club’s best period of success; Ronaldo cannot claim such a feat.

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For example, Francisco Gento played for Real for 18 years from 1953, won six European Cups and 12 La Liga titles before coming back to the club after his retirement to manage Castilla. Puskas, alongside the Spaniard and Alfredo di Stefano, was one of the original Galacticos and won a trio of European titles after arriving from Honved of Hungary, in a period in which Real asserted their dominance on world football by winning the first five European Cups. Santiago Bernabeu was the club’s president during this period – the stadium being in his name is a measure of the impact of this period in Los Blancos’ history. At the other end of the scale, for all of Ronaldo’s goalscoring brilliance, he only won two La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues; Real’s success with him in the team has been limited, particularly domestically, with Messi’s Barcelona seemingly always in front.

Raul played over double the amount of games at Real as the Portuguese whilst winning three Champions Leagues of his own and Iker Casillas was a European champion in 2000 and 2002, before waiting 12 years to taste success again; he was the only player to stay in the first team under the 12 managers in that time. All three left the club in acrimonious circumstances, following arguments with the club’s hierarchy, but Raul and Casillas, you would imagine, are likely to return to the club one day in one role or another – is Ronaldo? It is doubtful.

One former player that has returned is Santiago Solari, who was chosen to replace Lopetegui as manager after his sacking. He is a Champions League winner who played alongside Casillas and, after also playing for Inter Milan amongst other clubs, returned as a coach of the youth teams. Most recently, in 2017 he was appointed as manager of Castilla, but managed only two mediocre finishes in the Segunda Division B before earning his promotion.

One thing on Real and Solari’s side is time. Sure, Navas, captain Ramos and Modric are all the wrong side of 30, but you would be hard pressed to find anybody that would argue that Barcelona’s squad is better than Real’s. Youngsters Jesus Vallejo, Alvaro Odriozola, Sergio Reguilon, Vinicius and Ceballos – who scored a stunning long-distance strike away to Celta Vigo in November – are experienced beyond their years and should form the backbone of the Real side for years to come.

Nevertheless, Solari got off to the best start for a Real Madrid manager since 1929 with four wins in four and a goal difference of 13 relying on the old guard, justifying Perez’s choice to make him Lopetegui’s permanent replacement. Given that before Solari, one-time interim managers Jose Villalonga, Miguel Munoz and Zidane won seven of Real’s 13 European crowns between them, Real’s choice of manager should be juxtapositional to the clout of player they preside over. In other words, there should be Galacticos on the pitch, but a level-headed, undramatic appointment above them. As a short-term fix, and despite the shock 3-0 defeat to Eibar, he could be the right manager to get Real at least close to Barcelona whilst challenging for an unprecedented hat-trick of Champions League titles, but only an array of silverware will, you would think, be enough to stop Perez headhunting for a new manager elsewhere. Whoever is in charge ahead of the 2019-20 campaign, expect to see a Galacticos edition of Supermarket Sweep at the Santiago Bernabeu next summer.

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