Halftime Sports

The Future of Real

April 9, 2019

Real Madrid is arguably the greatest club in soccer history, and it has dominated European soccer the last five years, winning four out the last five UCL tournaments including the last three. Nobody has been able to eclipse them in Europe. However, in the Spanish league they have struggled to find such dominance, and FC Barcelona has been the team to beat. Real were only able to win the 2017-18 La Liga, being defeated in all the Copa del Rey’s since 2014. Although these defeats were significant, the Champions League glory has always been able to cover them up.

At the end of last season, after winning his third consecutive European title, Zinedine Zidane left the team, arguing that he felt tired and that he could not think of any way to improve. This loss was followed by Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer request, which resulted in his sale to Juventus during the summer. Los Blancos had just lost its two biggest figureheads of the past three years and the end of an era seemed to be approaching. At that time Real had signed former Spanish national team coach Julen Lopetegui, but not without controversy. Lopetegui announced his signing to the club two days before the World Cup started where he was managing the Spanish national team. This provoked a series of events that ended with his dismissal as Spain’s coach one day before the tournament, causing many to blame him for Spain’s disappointing performance.  During the summer, Real brought in Thibaut Courtois, the man recently named best goalkeeper in the world; Vinicius Junior, a promising 18 year old from Brazil; and Mariano Díaz, a striker that converted 21 goals the previous season for Olympique Lyon.

As a fan of Real, I envisioned a prolific season ahead since Lopetegui really connected with key players like Asensio and Isco, and his style of play fit Real Madrid’s roster like a glove. However, a quick turn of events, including a 5-1 away loss to Barcelona, terminated Lopetegui’s journey at Real Madrid. Santiago Solari, Real Madrid’s B team coach, was named interim coach until it was decided that he would stay for the rest of the season. However, Solari was never a permanent solution and did not really connect with the players, having disputes with team captains Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema.

Solari had a decent start with the team, racking up 22 wins in 32 games as manager, even beating Atletico de Madrid away and tying Barcelona in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals. However, after a fatal week in March where Real Madrid lost to Barcelona 3-0 and 1-0 respectively, and to Ajax 4-1, they were eliminated or virtually out of all three competitions in dispute. This led to the board’s decision to terminate Solari’s contract and look for a new coach with ten games left to play in La Liga.

At this point, the season was over. Fans did not know what to expect and most of them were confused about why the team did not let Solari stay until the end of the season, instead of going through the hassle of reconstructing the team under a new manager. However, what nobody expected was what ended up happening: Zidane’s return. The prodigal son had returned to his home, saying in his introductory press conference that he did it out of love for the president and for the club. This lifted the fans’ spirit and created a better atmosphere in which everybody was looking forward to the next season.

However, Zidane left for a reason. He had seen the start of the decline and decided to end his career as Real Madrid’s coach on a high, following three Champions League victories, one La Liga, one Supercopa de España, two European Super Cups, and two FIFA World Cups in only two and a half seasons as head coach. I understand why he chose to leave on a high note, but, as a fan I believe that if he loved the team so much, why did he leave when he knew things were going to get bad? He decided to not face the lows that always come after a high and left us. And suddenly, when nothing could be worse, he comes back as a perceived savior. Personally, I see this as a cowardly act, thinking only of his own reputation, and coming back now to see if he can reconstruct the team and obtain all the credit without losing anything since Real Madrid can’t really get worse. This is a hot take because people believe he really is a hero for coming back and trying to save Real Madrid from the ashes, but I think that even if Zidane really loves the club and the president, a part of his decision was based on his personal reputation.

Additionally, Zidane’s arrival at Real Madrid is going to change multiple things that had been a given during this season, giving more importance to players who have been at the club longer and really changing individual players’ situations.

Starting with the goalkeepers, Thibaut Courtois, the brand-new summer signing, is going to face some setbacks since Zidane has always shown his support for Keylor Navas, who had great seasons at Real Madrid but was never a stable choice in goal. This could be seen in the first game after Zidane’s return, where Navas started what was only his fourth game of the La Liga season. Lopetegui and Solari both maintained their confidence on Courtois, although he did have some questionable performances, but as soon as Zidane was back, Keylor was starting.

Defensively,  there are several players who will be helped by Zidane’s return. First and foremost, there is Marcelo, who had a horrendous year never being in shape and making mistakes that have cost the team multiple goals conceded. Sergio Reguilón, a young left-back out of Real Madrid’s academy, stepped up and took over Marcelo’s starting position for the last month, doing a solid job in every game, showing pride and personality in his play, and gaining Solari’s confidence. However, yet again, as soon as Zidane came back, Marcelo was back as the starting left-back, showing how Zidane is choosing the locker room leaders instead of the better performing players.

Another player that has been struggling this year is Raphael Varane, who signed with Real Madrid in 2011 after Zidane’s recommendation to the club. Varane has been a key part of Real Madrid’s central defense the past couple of years, building with Sergio Ramos one of the top center-back combinations in the world. This year, nevertheless, he has been off. His defensive stops, impressive coverages, and pinpoint long passes haven’t been there and everybody has noticed. He hasn’t been replaced in the starting eleven because nobody has stepped up, but we all know his performance has been below expectations and there have even been transfer rumours surrounding him. Hopefully with his mentor and biggest supporter’s return, he can once again dominate.

Continuing with the defense, a player that has personally disappointed me has been Nacho. Nacho has been a defensive all-rounder for the past years, performing in every position he has played in. This year, on the other hand, he has not been the same. He has made unusual mistakes that have been extremely costly. If he would have played as well as past seasons, he would probably be starting over Varane. I really hope Zidane can get him to shine like he did before, bringing back his consistency and regularity.

To finish up, the rest of the players have had a standard season. Ramos is the defense’s most valuable player and one of the only team members who has performed close to his expected level. Dani Carvajal has been solid on the right back position, fighting through a couple of injuries that have slowed him down during the season. As a backup, Álvaro Odriozola has been good, being one of the best players on the team when he plays, but making some defensive mistakes that don’t let him take over Carvajal’s starting spot. Finally, Vallejo, a young center back with a bright future ahead of him, has barely seen playing time due to his injuries, but maybe we will get to see some more of him during these last ten games.

The midfield has been a great disappointment. Real Madrid has world class players in this position, including the last Ballon D’Or Luka Modric and World Cup winner Toni Kroos. Luka Modric accused the physical exhaustion of his summer with the Croatian national team to not playing at the level he should. However, he has been the player that has shown the most will to turn things around, displaying passion and heart on the field. Under Zidane, he will be a key player that is expected to take a step forward to bring Real back to life. Toni Kroos has been, from my perspective, the most disappointing player for the team this year. His individual performances have been atrocious, making unusual mistakes and penalizing the team with his presence. However, he is still one of the best central midfielders in the world and his quality cannot be doubted, so I believe he still has a bright future in Madrid and Zidane will help him find the motivation he desperately needs.

The last piece of the starting midfield is Casemiro, who has been a key player for the past couple of years, helping the team defensively in covering the space left by the full backs. However, this year his passing and defense have been off and Marcos Llorente, an academy player that is enjoying his first year in the first team, took over his starting spot with Solari until he was injured. For me, Marcos should be starting when he comes back because he has been doing a fantastic job using his great physicality and field vision to help out the team. Nevertheless, Casemiro has always been a key player for Zidane and his starting spot is nearly secured. I am looking forward to seeing how this battle will unveil.

Another player whose situation is going to change completely is Isco. Solari had condemned him to the bench and never really gave him the opportunity to prove himself. On the other hand, Isco never really did his part, being physically unfit for most of the season and not standing out while he played. There have also been rumours that Isco missed a team meeting and disobeyed the coach’s instructions, receiving a penalty from the club. Hopefully Zidane will be able to turn the situation around and get Isco to be an important player again like he was at the end of last season.

Finally we have Dani Ceballos, a young creative attacking midfielder that I really like, although he still has to develop to reach the level of Kroos or Modric. Last season, after Zidane’s departure, he gave an interview in which he said he was really looking forward to Lopetegui’s arrival because he felt like he did not have enough opportunities to showcase his talent with Zidane in charge. This might play a role in the number of minutes he plays from now on, but I personally do not see Zidane as a resentful person. Ceballos definitely has the potential to become a great player, even a Ballon D’Or candidate in my opinion, but his relationship with Zidane may take a toll on his development. Fede Valverde is also a player to look out for. He is a physical and all-rounded midfielder that has enjoyed quite a lot of playing time under Solari, coming in as a sub nearly every game. Zidane’s opinion on him is unknown but he is a player to keep in mind.

Regarding the forwards, there has been a lot of controversy around who was supposed to be the team’s star player this year, which ended up being Gareth Bale. Bale has not been contributing much to the team, being left on the bench in the most important games by both Lopetegui and Solari, showing how his attitude off the field is not good either. With Zidane’s return, Bale’s future looks even worse since he was relegated to the bench at the end of last season and the relationship between them was never great. He will probably be transferred this summer after never utilizing the various opportunities the club gave him to prove his worth. I believe this is the board’s next move since they are tired of waiting for the Welshman, and hopefully the club can get some money out of him.

The only player that has stepped forward has been Karim Benzema, who has scored 22 goals this year in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo. He has been the star of this team, and with the return of his fellow countryman Zidane, he will only get better. Another player who has positively surprised everyone is Vinicius Junior. The 18 year-old from Brazil was not expected to start this season for Real Madrid, giving him the year to acclimatize to European soccer and to the greatness of Real Madrid. However, when he came in as a sub he stunned everybody with his energy and skills, securing him a starting spot after a couple of games. Solari had always been his main sponsor, and Vinicius’ greatest moments came under his management. He fell injured in the last game against Barcelona, so we will see how Zidane treats him when he comes back to the squad.

Marco Asensio is another player that has disappointed this year. After shining as a bench player last year thanks to his speed, shot and overall quality, he was supposed to be one of the stars of the team, taking over Ronaldo’s spot. He started the season off well, enjoying his playing time under Lopetegui and performing well overall. However, when an injury left him out for a couple of weeks and with Solari’s appointment as manager, he really took a step backwards, never really reclaiming a starting spot again and being consigned to the bench. Solari preferred Lucas Vázquez to play in the right wing, giving him the nod over Asensio. Vázquez never really performed well on offense but his defensive efforts, helping out Carvajal and the midfield, secured him the starting spot for Solari. I expect Asensio to get his starting spot back under Zidane since he is a more creative player that fits his style better.

Finally, Mariano never really got the opportunity to prove himself because of a lack of playing time. Solari left him out of the squad often and, even when Real Madrid was in need of goalscorers, Mariano never made the cut, surprisingly. Zidane will hopefully use him more often since goal scoring has been one of the greatest issues for the team, and Mariano could contribute in this area.

There have also been plenty of rumours regarding possible signings for Real Madrid next year, and some players like Kylian Mbappé, Eden Hazard, or Paul Pogba have expressed their desire to play under Zidane. However, I believe that the club does not need a huge change in its strategy, but should instead give a greater role to players like Ceballos, Asensio, or Isco. A world-class striker and a creative defensive center midfielder are the only additions I feel this team needs in order to get back to their dominating level, and the only players I would consider going for would be Mbappé if he is available; Timo Werner, a young striker for RB Leipzig that has great scoring capacity, netting more than 20 goals the past three seasons; or Harry Kane for the striker position. For the central midfielder option I would love N’Golo Kante, but giving the opportunity to perform to Marcos Llorente would not be something I would be against.

Zidane’s homecoming will affect most of the players on the team, but hopefully he can get the best out of them. His trust relies on the most experienced players, meaning the opportunities for younger players who had been playing well this season such as Vinicius, Marcos Llorente or Reguilón will be more limited. As for Keylor, Marcelo, and Casemiro, they will probably get the nod for the starting spots they lost under Solari.

I personally hope Zidane takes into account the players’ accomplishments on the field, not just giving the starting spot to certain players because of their role in the locker room, but because of how they play during the games. Non-Real fans are scared of Zidane’s return, thinking Madrid is going to come back even stronger with his managing. However, until Zidane realizes that we need to move away from some players that have not been performing and give opportunities to younger, more motivated players, we will not get out of the hole we have dug ourselves into.

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