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One year ago, Carlo Ancelotti was being hailed as the manager who finally delivered Real Madrid’s long awaited 10th European title, or La Decima. Fast forward 12 months and the Italian will be lucky to still have a job next week.
Eliminated from the Spanish Cup by Atletico Madrid, ousted from the Champions League by Juventus and overtaken by Barcelona in La Liga, Real Madrid will go trophy-less this season despite having spent more than $100 million on players last summer. So where did it all go wrong for Real and its manager?
At the turn of the year, the club was in the midst of a record-setting 22-match winning streak, perched atop La Liga and looked to be the favorites to become the first club in the Champions League era to win back-to-back European titles. Then, it all began to slowly unravel.
Although looking back, the seeds of Real Madrid’s problem may have been sown before a ball had even been kicked. While Ancelotti will likely be the fall guy, Real Madrid’s struggles this season have as much to do with club president Florentino Perez as with anyone else.
Perez is known as someone who collects players like Panini stickers. And to accommodate his flashy post-World Cup acquisitions, Toni Kroos and James Rodrigues, he sold off Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria. Kroos and Rodriguez are spectacular players, but neither has been played in their best position.
While Alonso was a true defensive midfielder, Kroos is essentially an attacking midfielder who’s been deployed in a deeper role. Meanwhile, James, who typically plays as a second striker, has also been relegated to a deeper midfield role.
Kroos and James are world-class players and both have responded admirably to their new roles. It’s also a testament to Ancelotti that he was able to build a team that could accommodate all these players and still maintain some semblance of balance. And it might just have worked had Luka Modric remained fit.
If you could pinpoint the moment it all began to go wrong for Real Madrid, it was when Modric tore his hamstring on international duty with Croatia back in November. With his ability to win and maintain possession while dictating play with his passing, Modric was the lynchpin that held the disparate components of Real’s midfield together.
During Modric's four-month injury layoff, Real went from being crowned FIFA Club World Cup champions to being knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Atleti, losing the top spot in the league to Barça and barely squeaking past Schalke in the Champions League. Modric made a brief return to action in April before suffering a knee injury that ruled him out for the rest of the season.
Then there were the problems with Cristiano Ronaldo.
Just as he did the first time he was awarded soccer’s highest individual honor, Ronaldo suffered a dip in form after winning this year’s Ballon d’Or in January. He then fell afoul of fans when unfortunate images of his birthday party surfaced on social media – the same day Real lost 4-0 to Atletico.
While Ronaldo has since regained his form, he’s also seemingly become obsessed with scoring as many goals as possible, regardless of whether that’s what his team needs from him or not. Several times over the latter half of the season, the former Manchester United player has appeared visually out of sorts after one of his teammates has scored instead of him. In the past couple of weeks, he’s reportedly been chastised on separate occasions by Sergio Ramos and by Pepe for seemingly putting his personal quest to outscore Lionel Messi above the good of the team. There are also rumors about ongoing problems with his knee. And after two seasons together, Ronaldo hasn’t really gelled with Gareth Bale.
While the “BBC” won plaudits last season, Barcelona’s front three of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar have shown how much more effective an attacking trio that truly works together can be. A recent injury layoff by Karim Benzema hasn’t helped matters. The France striker typically works as a conduit between Ronaldo and Bale. But without his holdup play to create chances for the other two, Real has become more disjointed in attack just at the time it needed to be most clinical.
Ancelotti, for his part, has done an admirable job at playing the hand he was dealt this season. Admittedly, there are worse problems in soccer than having to accommodate too many world-class players in your team. But part of the blame must be laid at his feet.
Top managers find ways to get their players to work together, no matter how big the egos. Can you imagine Sir Alex Ferguson having tolerated Ronaldo’s behavior this season when the two were at Man United?
According to the latest rumors, Ancelotti is about to be replaced by either Rafa Benitez or Jurgen Klopp. Which is unfortunate, because it’s doubtful that either is really a better manager than the Italian, who won the Champions League twice at AC Milan before claiming La Decima. But such is the way at Real Madrid.