So where do Real Madrid go from here? That’s the golden question, isn’t it?
In the past fortnight, we’ve seen the club embarrassingly exiting two cup competitions, a world class midfielder leaving due to a lack of opportunities and minutes, and there now appears to be a clear difference in direction of the project between the hierarchy and the head coach that they begged to return to lead this project. So much has gone wrong since the UEFA Champions League final in Kyiv, and so much more can still go wrong, if action isn’t taken imminently.
Kyiv is probably the perfect place to start if you want to rant about the direction the club is going. Zinedine Zidane had just guided Real to a third consecutive Champions League crown, the team’s fourth in five years, and all of sudden, he decided to step down. Perhaps there were other reasons, and perhaps Zidane really did want a break from the pressures associated to managing Madrid, but his words were clear: “This team needs to continue winning and they need a change. After three years they need different ideas, different ways of working and that is why I took this decision,” the Frenchman said at his press conference, sat next to a teary eyed Florentino Perez, as he announced he was stepping down.
Months later, Zidane’s talisman Cristiano Ronaldo joined Juventus, having hinted after the final whistle in Kyiv that maybe his time at the club was up too. Call me cynical, but I still believe the two were linked, and as Zidane said, he discussed his future at length with the President, before making up his mind. It’s no secret that Zidane wanted fresh ideas, he wanted Ronaldo to stay, and he wanted the likes of Sadio Mane, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe, to refresh the squad and lead the transition.
But that seems an age ago now. If only we could rewind back time, but instead, let’s forward time, and three seasons later, we’re still wondering what could have been. The financial outlay back then wasn’t difficult for Madrid, in a pre-Covid world, Madrid had the Santiago Bernabeu full to the rim, they hadn’t exceeded €150m in spending in the three summer windows prior to Zidane stepping away, and they had the prize money from the three consecutive Champions League titles too, so money wasn’t the problem back then, the problem was Florentino, the root cause of Madrid’s issues today.
Madrid were far from a finished team back in the summer of 2018. Sergio Ramos, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema are still going extremely strong in 2021, back then, they were two to three years younger, and with some intelligent signings, Los Merengues could have been competing and winning on all fronts yet again. But what a shame. A shame because in the proceeding windows after Ronaldo and Zidane stepped away, Real have spent €518,250,000, and for what? For the mess we’re currently in. Not only did Zidane ruin his reputation by coming back for a second stint, in which he somehow won a league title with this mediocre squad, but now, financially, it appears Real aren’t what they once were when the transition should have taken place, so now, we’re forced to accept mediocrity, when in fact the transition could have been completed by now, with Ronaldo still at the helm.
Ronaldo’s decision wasn’t financial, it was down to a lack of respect. He told the Guardian “I felt it inside the club, especially from the president, that they no longer considered me the same way that they did in the start.” Even at 35-years of age, he would still be winning Real major titles had Florentino given him the respect that he earned, that he deserved, and that his performances over the better part of a decade merited. To the fans who still think it was better to move on from him, why? You don’t move on from arguably the greatest player ever, you make him your crown jewel, and you build around him. When Zidane said “a new direction”, he also said “Cristiano has to stay forever”. Zidane’s plans were with Ronaldo at the helm, he wanted to continue winning the Champions League, but he wanted backing.
Instead, we’re now half a billion euros worse off, with a far worse squad, with Zidane back in the hot-seat, on the verge of being sacked, or stepping down again at the end of this season. It’s a total mess. Zidane isn’t faultless, of course not, his mishandling of Luka Jovic, Martin Ødegaard, and to a lesser extent of Marcos Llorente, who ended up at Atletico Madrid, and looks likely to win La Liga with them this year as a crucial member of Diego Simeone’s squad.
Madrid haven’t even improved under Zidane, that’s the problem. The Frenchman doesn’t appear to be willing to adapt to these youngsters, and in fact, he continues to trust about 12-14 players from his squad. There’s definite blame on his shoulders too, you would be blind to say otherwise. Zidane claimed in 2018 that the club “needs different ideas, different ways of working”, and yet, he’s too stubborn to realise that the youngsters Madrid actually have the quality, they just need development and attention. Integrate them around the old core, and you have yourself a team with a new dimension, with fresh ideas. And what’s even more painful, is that after a summer of no spending, Ødegaard was the only addition, and fans were genuinely excited for his return, because he’s a genuine world class midfielder who deserves to start for Madrid. During 2019-20, although Real won La Liga, there was a clear lack of vertical play and attacking threat, goals weren’t coming as frequently as they should for a Madrid team. Now, even Ødegaard has grown frustrated at Zidane, the Norwegian was promised game-time and influence on this team by Zidane, but he’s on the verge of joining Arsenal on-loan. The sickening thing about all of this is that Madrid clearly need Ødegaard’s creativity and quality, but Zidane seems incapable of integrating him. I said it in a past piece of mine too, and I’ll say it again, Zidane’s stubbornness has been his main downfall in his second stint, one which he may not recover from.
But there’s a difference of opinion, which is getting clear by the day. In my opinion, Zidane doesn’t want to continue with this ‘youth project’, whereas Florentino does. And so, a divorce makes sense. Madrid clearly aren’t financially able to invest in the players Zidane wants, and Zidane clearly isn’t willing to give the heavily invested youth a good enough chance. The current problems are a culmination of issues that began in Kyiv, and can be summarised in the handling of two players particularly – James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale. Two players, who Zidane didn’t want back in 2018, but Florentino’s ego did.
Florentino turned down offers for both, only for James to join Everton for free, while Madrid are paying half of Bale’s ridiculous salary, only for him to sit on the bench, or at home, while he’s on-loan at Tottenham Hotspur, under Jose Mourinho, who too has handled Bale in the same manner which Zidane did, if not worse.
So who was right at the end of it all? I’ll let you decide. But Florentino’s ego has always been the issue, and while Zidane too has an ego, I know which one of the two I’d back if it came to it. New reports indicate Zidane won’t be head coach next season, and it’s probably for the best. Julian Nagelsmann is touted by BILD to be the next in line, but you can bet the mortgage of your house that Raul Gonzalez is the one Florentino will choose. The question is which route Madrid’s hierarchy wants to take? Whether it’s youth or immediate success, Florentino needs to choose his next head coach wisely, because he’s made mistake after mistake over the past five years, any more, and Madrid will continue the downward trajectory which AC Milan and Liverpool suffered from for a decade, two clubs who had poor leadership and decision makers. Madrid are closer to becoming a joke, than they are to dominating Europe again.
But at the end of the day, Florentino and his ego, who seems more focused on a European Super League than he is on improving his team’s current state, are culpable for Real’s sad, and hastened demise.
Muddassir Hussain | Follow me on Twitter: @muddassirjourno