The biggest clubs in football try to shun away from using the word prospect. Managers, players, executives, and fans of the elite teams all expect consistent excellence. Though, the word has often been associated with up and coming clubs who have a generation of young players who are poised to become the next big thing in the game. The long-term and short-term plans for the European giants can be summed up in one word; win. The fact that Real Madrid – arguably the biggest club in the world – are in midst of a project and a rebuild is shocking to some. The Meringues just won three straight Champions League titles with four in the past five seasons. Domestic trophies have been harder to come by.
They have only won two of the past ten La Liga titles is somewhat of a point of concern. The departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane (the latter of whom resigned from the club just days after their victory in Ukraine) put Real Madrid in an unfamiliar position. For the first time since their inception, the Los Blancos did not have one of football’s best players or manager. Zidane left the club on a high and on his own terms. Unlike his predecessors, his departure was a choice he – and he alone – made. Ronaldo has always been rumored to leave the Spanish Capital. Earlier, he was alleged to rejoin the club where he made a name for himself, Manchester United. In recent years, word on the street was that Paris Saint-Germain were looking to make him the face of the new European Super Team. His shock move to the Old Lady shook the hierarchy of the European teams and leveled the playing field for the contention of the top prize in club football.
Real Madrid have begun a new era in their history as they look to prove to the rest of the world that they do not need to be led by one of the greatest to thrive. They were starting to prove just that by winning four of their five La Liga games along with a resounding 3-0 win in their pursuit of a fourth straight European title. It appeared as though they were sailing smoothly in the absence of their record goal scorer. That being said, their stunning 3-0 loss to Sevilla earlier this week was evidence of the fact that they are still in the process of reconstructing this team.
Nobody is denying the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo is irreplaceable. Aside from Lionel Messi, there is no other player in the world who could have a greater impact on a game than the Portuguese Captain. Only Neymar Jr. (1.60) and Lionel Messi (1.38) had more goals and assists per 90 mins than Ronaldo last season (1.22). Zidane (a club legend first as a player and then as a coach) has the presence and opulence of a once in a generation kind of figure in football. While he may not be the most tactically astute man in the world, his man-manager persona might never be seen on the sidelines of the Santiago Bernabeu.
Rather than sticking to their patented philosophy of being the Galacticos, Real Madrid President Florentino Perez made an out of character decision to not splash out $400 million on new players. Instead of luring Eden Hazard (who was strongly linked to leaving Stamford Bridge), Robert Lewandowski, Neymar Jr., Mbappe, Dybala, or Icardi; Perez opted for a more unorthodox approach (by his standards). For at least this season (the operative phrase being this season), Real Madrid are making a conscious effort to focus on creating a collective rather than fielding XI high-strung individuals on the pitch. The way Lopetegui has fielded his sides and the manner in which they play is proof of their new direction. And so far, it has been successful. They still rely on the strengths of their previous regime: Marcelo bombing down the left flank, Kroos’ sublime passing between the lines, and giving Isco free reign over the final third. While they may be starting from scratch, Real are still sticking to the guns that made them so successful to begin with.
Lopetegui has also decided to find balance in their attacking play. Much of their chances have been created from the left flank that Ronaldo and Marcelo operated from. Now, they play more as a team with chances being created with a more even distribution from across the pitch. Rather than constantly looking for a probing Ronaldo in the box, Real Madrid attack as a unit. There is more cohesion between the lines. Their focal point if the fact that they have none. Their chances are created from whichever part of the pitch is the easiest to break down.
It is not as though Lopetegui has inherited a squad that has overachieved with a host of mediocre players. Even without Ronaldo, this is still a one of the most talented squad’s in the world. They possess Gareth Bale (who is still in his prime) with heirs to the Bernabeu in Isco and Asensio. As an alternative to placing the burden all on one player, Lopetegui has distributed the scoring needs of the club across all their attacking players. Benzema has nearly equaled his goal tally from last season while the Welsh Maestro is finally starting to look like the player he was promised to be.
Their 3-0 win against Roma laid out a blueprint for things to come. They played their best football against the Italian side. The scoreline was kept to a modest three-goal difference because of the performances of Roma’s keeper Robin Olsen. Roma were in complete disarray as their numbers were overrun in the middle of the park. The trademark midfield of Modric-Casemiro-Kroos ran circles around De Rossi and N’Zonzi. Isco and Marcelo overwhelmed the left lank while Bale and Benzema had a ball down the right. Real Madrid has a certain poise and composure that was evident in the body language of the XI. They all played their natural games that pieced together perfectly – like parts in a jigsaw puzzle. Real Madrid played with an immaculate high press. Aggressive would be the wrong word to describe their efforts. It was coordinated; as if every player was attacked by a string. They trapped the opposition into compromising spaces. The Meringues either forced the Roma to play off the sidelines or squeezed out their deep-lying playmakers through the tireless legs of Luka Modric. Playing Roma was an example of the Champions League holders at their best. Their most recent performance against Sevilla was a sample of the worst of Los Blancos.
The same defensive issues that plagued Zidane’s managerial tenure have carried onto the Lopetegui regime. Marcelo and Sergio Ramos leave huge gaps on the left side of the pitch. The Brazilian fullback is one of the world’s best going forward though he defends like a revolving door. Opposition players stroll through him like he’s nothing. Let’s not get started with Ramos. The very fact that he is associated more with his goal scoring than his “defensive” abilities is enough proof that he no longer warrants consideration as the premier center back. The manner in which this club loses will draw more of the spotlight over their wins. It will relentlessly hound them – like their Super Cup loss to city rivals Atletico.
With all things said and done there are two sides to their loss to Sevilla. The half cup full outlook is the fact that they have struggled in their recent history at the Pizjuan. Real Madrid have won only a one of their past seven League Appearances at Sevilla. This may not be a result of bad play but the fact that every sports team in the world has that one boogey team that they historically struggle to beat. The other side to this story is that they have lost in two of their three toughest games of the season so far. Something like this would be out of character for a side that is still amongst the favorites to win the European crown.
The biggest change under Lopetegui has been their improvement and commitment towards defending. The chasms in their back four were covered by the sheer volume of Ronaldo’s goal scoring. He continuously bailed out the Los Blancos which lead us to turn a blind eye towards their lack of defensive competence. Now that he dons the colors of the Old Lady, they finally have to face the demons that they have ignored for the longest time. Their equal attacking on all fronts has to be complemented by a rethinking of their defensive strategy. It is still early days under Lopetegui though there are signs that this could drastic changes are needed.