Things change, and time moves on. To be successful in life — in any and every aspect of life — you need to recognize those changes and adapt to them. History is full of those who have ignored or refused to believe this one irrevocable fact. In so many ways, football mirrors life, and it does in this aspect. This summer is likely to be one of the most important in Real’ Madrid’s recent history, and they can go down one of two routes. One way is to steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that the footballing world has changed and continue to do what they have always done. The other route is to rip up the old way and forge a new path, a new Real way.
Papering Over the Cracks
Let’s be honest: The results this season and the position Real find’s themselves in is not a huge surprise to those of us who have followed this great club closely over recent years. The changes in the game alluded to above, and the ones that needed to take place at the club, were there for everyone to see perhaps two years ago, and for sure last year. The thing is when a club achieves what no other club has even come close to achieving in the modern era — winning three consecutive Champions Leagues — it is quite difficult to admit something could be wrong and even harder to change anything. Despite winning it, last season’s Champions League campaign was far from a classic. Even the most rose-tinted glasses failed to disguise the fact that Los Blancos rode their luck and ground out unlikely and occasionally ugly results. They also relied quite heavily on one man. Meanwhile, in the league, they finished third, 17 points off first place and three off of the second. This season looks like it will be similar. The difference this year, however, is that they also crashed out of the Champions League, so it is impossible to hide from the facts.
A Footballing Sea Change
On the June 1st, right here in Madrid, Liverpool will face Tottenham in the Champions League final, with Liverpool odds on to win at Oddschecker. There are two notable things about those two clubs. First of all, there’s the style of football they each play. Liverpool and the Spurs (and also Ajax, who lost to the North London side so dramatically in the semifinal) play a game that is all about high energy, high tempo and high pressing. It is a philosophy embedded throughout the club, from the top to the bottom, from the goalkeeper to the front one, two or three, and in everyone on the bench and the squad. It is a tactic, a style that is all about the team where the sum of the parts become far, far greater than each of the individuals. It requires every single member of the team to buy into it, and it also requires high fitness levels. Other excellent exponents of this style of play are Manchester City, Bayern and Dortmund.
Of course, Real is no stranger to the pressing game, and at times, has used it to a good effect, but it never feels like everyone buys into it the way that they do at the likes of Manchester City, Bayern, Tottenham and especially at Liverpool.
The other thing that jumps out from the two teams that have reached the Champions League final is at the heart of the whole issue. Of the 22 players who lined up in their respective teams last week, with the probable exception of Virgil van Dijk, there is not one who Real’s fans, management or board would have welcomed to the club last summer — or even this summer.
Something New or Revert to Type
The Real of old would face down their current crisis — if indeed that is what it is — by getting out their chequebook and bringing in one, two or three big names.
Far too often, though, of late, those big names haven’t worked, and you can’t help but feel that they are only that, names: Someone the fans can rush out and buy the shirt of, as opposed to the type of player that will become part of a team and make that team better.
The problem is Perez is under pressure, Zidane is under pressure to turn it around and this being football, and more importantly, this being Real, they are under pressure to turn it around quickly. But is a quick fix what they need? All reports are that Chelsea’s Eden Hazard is Bernabéu bound this summer. The Belgian is undoubtedly a good player, but is he what Real cries out for at the minute?
Changing the style of play, changing the philosophy require a fundamental change in recruitment. That won’t be easy or quick. It’s also not something that they can do overnight, or more pertinently, over one summer. It’s Jürgen Klopp’s fourth season at Liverpool, and the fact is that it has taken that long for him to instill his beliefs and his (here’s that word again) philosophy into the club and bring in the players that he knows will both buy into it and be able to cope with it. Ironically, much of his side exists because of the funds from the sales to Barcelona, the club, of course, that they overcame in the semifinal.
Liverpool is a big club (there is no doubting that), but the pressure on the board and Klopp is not on the same scale as faced at the Bernabéu. It is extremely unlikely that anyone would tolerate (or still be around to tolerate) three more fallow years, even if there is progress.
We started this piece by saying there are two routes the club can now go down. There is the easy way, the one they have always chosen and in truth, the one that has a lot more often than not proved successful. There is also the other way, the harder way, the one that could well prove more fruitful down the line. To go for this second option, however, requires a lot of people in powerful positions to make brave decisions, and it also requires the fans to be patient. I will leave it with you to decide the likelihood of either of those two things happening.