Suffice to say, it’s been a season to forget for Real Madrid fans. After enduring their worst start to a campaign since 2001-02, with four losses and two draws in their first 10 La Liga outings, Los Blancos fired coach Julen Lopetegui, who had been controversially poached from the Spanish national team days before the 2018 World Cup.
His replacement Santiago Solari concluded his tenure in March, when the Spanish giants’ season effectively ended with a humiliating Champions League Round of 16 exit at the hands of Ajax. Spanish newspaper Marca called it “The Failure of the Century.”
They proceeded to finish 19 points behind Barcelona in the league, suffering 12 defeats in the competition. Marca wrote their headline a little too soon, it seems.
So what’s wrong with Real Madrid?
1. They have spectacularly failed to replace Cristiano Ronaldo
Shortly after winning his fifth Champions League title — and his 15th overall title with Real Madrid — Ronaldo announced his decision to leave for pastures new. The Portuguese megastar may have seen that the writing was on the wall for the club at which he had become a legend, and he left them with a mammoth task: Los Blancos had to replace their all-time top goalscorer, a once-in-a-generation talent who had dragged them to victory on countless occasions.
They were never likely to find a true successor to one of the greatest players of all time, but their attempts to do so were clearly insufficient. The €45m spent bringing Vinicius Junior from Flamengo may prove to be a wise long-term investment, but it was far from a direct replacement. As for the decision to give Dominican Republic striker Mariano his vaunted No. 7 jersey? That hasn’t worked out so well. Essentially, Ronaldo’s departure left a huge void in the team in terms of goalscoring and leadership.
Madrid’s 2018-19 top goalscorer was Karim Benzema with 30 in all competitions. Ronaldo scored no fewer than 42 goals in each of his last eight seasons in Spain. Their next-highest scorer was the much-maligned Gareth Bale, who managed to find the net only 14 times.
Real Madrid’s defensive numbers were comparable with Barcelona, but they only scored 63 league goals in 2018-19. In the previous eight seasons, they averaged 108.4 goals per season.
A team that has prided itself on world-class firepower simply hasn’t shown up in front of goal. They desperately need a proven goalscorer in their ranks, while clearing out some of the players who have past their prime.
2. Their aging squad needs an overhaul
Captain Sergio Ramos, vice-captain Marcelo, top goalscorer Benzema and current World Footballer of the Year Luka Modric are all on the wrong side of 30.
Thirteen players are over the age of 27, and in the October Champions League group stage match against Viktoria Plzen, the average age of the starting XI was 29.2 years.
Marcelo’s best years appear to be behind him, 27-year-old Isco is barely making the squad, and only Pepe and Ronaldo have moved on from the side that won the 2016 Champions League.
To their credit, Madrid have made some effort to turn to youth, and Ronaldo’s exit was arguably part of this process. Brahim Diaz, Marco Asensio, Sergio Reguilon, Dani Ceballos and Vinicius Junior are among the spritely stars who have earned minutes, but only Asensio has really broken through as a regular at this point.
Manager Zinedine Zidane, who was re-hired in March after resigning last summer, has also given test runs to young players during the meaningless games he has presided over in the past term, but the jury is out on whether the Frenchman trusts his young players.
Clearly, a huge rebuild is on the cards at the Bernabeu, as the current blend of innocence and experience, with little in between, isn’t working out.
For that rebuild to go ahead, however, something must be done about the most expensive player on the wage bill.
3. Gareth Bale’s contract looms large
When Ronaldo departed the Spanish capital, Bale was supposed to become the object of the Bernabeu’s affection. Instead, on the final matchday of the season, he was an unused substitute, who quietly disappeared down the tunnel as his teammates did their lap of appreciation/commiseration at the end of the game.
The Welshman played a crucial part in Madrid’s four recent Champions League victories and has enjoyed plenty of standout performances in six La Liga seasons. However, Zidane has made it quite clear that the former Tottenham fullback does not fit in his plans. Bale has barely learned any Spanish in his time abroad, he reportedly shuns any extracurricular team-building activities and appears more motivated to be on the fairway than in the penalty box.
The most logical step would be to move Bale on to another club — but that is easier said than done. After signing a new deal in 2016, the winger earns an eye-watering £600,000 per week, and he will continue to do so until June 2020. His buyout clause is set at €1 billion.
In committing to paying Bale so much, Real Madrid have severely lowered their ability to sell him. He turns 30 in July and has a well-documented history of injuries, having suffered five separate setbacks in 2018-19 alone.
While clubs like Manchester United or Bayern Munich could put Bale to good use, they would be mad to attempt to match his wages, given his age and fragility. Madrid, therefore, likely have two choices: put him out on loan and agree to pay a substantial proportion of his wages, or pay him over $34 million a year for the next three years to play golf.
If they choose the latter, Bale would become the fifth-highest paid golfer in the world!
4. They don’t sign ‘Galacticos’ any more
While Barcelona built their modern success around players developed in the La Masia academy, Real Madrid have operated a model of buying megastar players at the top of their game. Every summer, you could guarantee that Los Blancos would swoop in and take the hottest names in the game off the market.
The last “Galactico” signing, however, was James Rodriguez, who arrived in 2014 after a spectacular World Cup campaign.
A club that used to pride itself on outbidding its opponents no longer puts its money where its mouth is. In fact, Barcelona have outspent their fierce rivals to the tune of over $400 million in the past seven seasons.
To their credit, Real Madrid have taken a fiscally responsible approach and currently have no debt — contrast that to 2013, when they were nearly €600 million in the hole. But this summer, they must abandon their thrifty ways in order to fund the rebuild. Transfer target Eden Hazard will likely cost nine figures if he is to be pried away from Chelsea, Eder Militao has already cost them €50 million, and Eintracht Frankfurt’s sensational Serbian striker Luka Jovic is likely to cost at least €60 million.
But even if Los Blancos do make major moves in the market, they will need to sell to avoid Financial Fair Play (FFP) sanctions. If they go on a reported €300 million spending spree, they will need to offload at least €200 million worth of talent to avoid breaching FFP rules.
Given that their most valuable assets are on the downturn of their careers (and their most valuable asset Bale is something of an albatross), it may be difficult to raise that capital.
5. They do not have a philosophy
Real Madrid’s final problem might be their biggest, and it’s one they share with fellow fallen giants Manchester United.
As discussed, Real Madrid used to have a philosophy of spending big to bring in big players, who delivered big success. They are not that club any more.
Their squad is a mishmash of veterans and sub-par youngsters, who have become stale under three separate managers in 2018-19. And while Madrid have not built their reputation on buying players who exactly fit their needs (they may have occasionally chased glamor and shirt sales over defensive reinforcement), the spending that club president Florentino Perez has sanctioned in recent years has seemed misguided.
The €35 million spent on Thibaut Courtois last season, when the club already had an outstanding goalkeeper in Keylor Navas, could have been better spent. The €22 million spent to bring back Mariano, a player they had sold for €8 million the previous summer, also seems a little baffling.
A club like Manchester City have a clear philosophy: They spent money on players who fit the kind of soccer they want to play, and they deliberately brought in executives who could help lure in Pep Guardiola to oversee a project that has essentially been built for him. Compare that forward planning and wise spending with Madrid’s folly, and the Spanish giants are in a mess of their own making and they have no identity. It could take a while before they are back on track.
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