As Real Madrid head into their UEFA Champions League knockout round clash with Atalanta, there’s an air of mediocrity that plagues the 13 times champions. All it takes is one look at Zinedine Zidane’s available squad and you’ll immediately question what has happened to the squad which once boasted such depth, that the likes of Pepe, Fabio Coentrao, Lucas Vazquez, Mariano Diaz and James Rodriguez didn’t even make the squad for the final against Juventus in 2017, which Madrid won at a canter, 4-1 in Cardiff, securing a 12th crown.
Even if Zidane had a full squad available, it still doesn’t boast the quality and the depth to mount a proper challenge in Europe’s premier competition. The most important question heading into tomorrow’s first leg is, how on earth are Madrid going to score goals? Marco Asensio, Mariano and Vinicius Junior are likely to lead the line in the absence of Karim Benzema – the trio have nine goals between them in 56 Champions League appearances. But even when everyone is fit, the starting front three would have been Rodrygo Goes – who has five goals in 11 games – and Eden Hazard, who has nine goals in 53 Champions League appearances across his career, either side of Benzema.
That’s a monumental fall from grace for an attacking line which once boasted Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema and Gareth Bale. So ultimately, while there’s obviously hope Madrid do advance from this round of 16 clash, are they good enough to go further? All hope rests on the old guard, if they all play to the level Zidane expects of them, then perhaps a quarter-final beckons, but it’s just not something to get excited about. Right now, there’s far more concern than there is hope. There is long-term hope though, that’s if the club’s hierarchy works with Zidane and backs the Frenchman to return the competition’s greatest side to where it belongs, to the pinnacle of the continent.
My mind can’t help to think back to how Bayern Munich transformed themselves from a side that accepted elimination in the round of 16 in 2018-19, losing 3-1 to eventual champions Liverpool on aggregate. That was a Bayern team in need of change, and within two windows, the summer of 2018 and the summer of 2019, they recruited Alphonso Davies, Leon Goretzka, Benjamin Pavard, Lucas Hernandez and Ivan Perisic on-loan, and by the time they returned to the knockout round the following year, it was a side which had the above additions, plus Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman, Thomas Muller and Joshua Kimmich performing at a completely different level, with a new lease of life. The injection of quality, and the change of mindset with the appointment of Hansi Flick changed the way Bayern operated, and they transitioned from a club which looked mediocre against Liverpool the year before, to formidable champions within 12 months. Not only were their signings smart, but they did well to get rid of the deadwood which had been stopping them from progressing, a process that was actively carried out in the prior three windows. That’s the change in dynamic Madrid needs, badly. So there is hope.
Although Madrid didn’t sign anyone last summer, there was a great deal of clearance of deadwood, which has to continue this summer. There are still players in the squad which need to be sold or just allowed to leave, some of them because they aren’t good enough anymore, but some of them just because it pays to bring in new and hungrier faces. There are talks in the Spanish and English media that Madrid have applied for a number of bank loans, which are undoubtedly to help manage during a tough financial period caused by the pandemic with no income from the two main revenue streams such as the stadium tour and the matchday ticket sales. But to my understanding, I don’t see why part of that can’t be used in player recruitment? Madrid, like many other clubs, more recently Barcelona in their signing of Antoine Griezmann and Atletico Madrid in their signing of Joao Felix, have previously taken out a loan from the bank to pay for transfers. If a club like Barcelona in financial ruins and uncountable amounts of debt can secure a long-term loan with a bank to pay for a transfer, then why can’t Real Madrid, when they’re in a far better financial state than their perennial rivals? Bank loans are a common way of securing transfers, banks trust massive organisations, even in a pandemic, there’s no reason why Madrid cannot secure a loan to fund a superstar signing this summer.
This is the summer which will either make or break Madrid’s next five years. “If you are two years wrong by buying players you have a big problem.” That’s what legendary Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said on BeIN Sports last week, analysing how Barcelona have continually failed in the transfer market which has led to their demise. Madrid are approaching that level of incompetency too, since selling Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018, Madrid have spend half a billion euros, and for what? Are we a better team now than we were after beating Liverpool in Kyiv? Absolutely not. And so the summer of 2021 represents a lot.
Florentino Perez will realise this. It’s an election year, and he simply cannot look at this team and think, ‘it’s fine and nothing needs to be done’. There needs to be a change in dynamic, like Bayern’s, there needs to be a superstar addition as well as other squad pieces. Madrid need to take this summer transfer window by storm, continue to sell the deadwood, and sign Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappe. Even if that means taking out a loan, it’s needs must at this point, especially if the hierarchy wants to be genuinely competitive in Europe again. Real Madrid are in desperate need for a squad revolution in 2021.
Muddassir Hussain | Follow me on Twitter: @muddassirjourno