How do you solve a problem like Madrid?

by Charlie Coffey

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

The fact that Real Madrid, recognised by FIFA as the most successful football club of the last century, have not managed to reach the quarter finals of the Champions League since 2004 is almost unbelievable. The team that swept all others aside as they won the competition three times in six years at the turn of the millennium are now unable to surpass a team such as Lyon, who have been struggling in Ligue 1 by their standards this season.

So what has changed since Real last lifted the cup in 2002? The club have lost players like Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Carlos, but even they did not leave until some time after (2006 and 2007 respectively). In my opinion the finger of blame can be pointed directly at the club presidency, both the presidents as individuals and the system that allows them so much power.

Each manager (or more accurately head coach given the nature of the hierarchy) that has been brought in has admittedly had the players to challenge for the Champions League, but have not had enough time to shape the team in their image. Requirements such as always playing ultra-attacking football and Raul’s untouchable position in the team (as well as his reported influence in the dressing room) mean that managers have often had their hands tied. Also the knowledge that they will probably be sacked if they don’t win every cup they enter puts too much pressure on them and does not make for a healthy working mentality. For instance Fabio Capello, a man with a proven track record in the Champions League, was shown the door after one season despite having won the league.

Managers such as Capello were not given the time to make their own signings for the sake of building a football team. Instead presidents like Florentino Perez insisted on signing the biggest names in world football at the time: so-called ‘Galacticos’. Perez’s resurrection as president was welcomed at Madrid, but it should be remembered that in his first reign at the club, from 2000 to 2006, Madrid won the Champions League only once (in 2002, he was voted in after the victory in 2000).

When Perez took over he made some huge signings in Luis Figo and Zidane, but after the success in 2002 he became obsessed with the galactico model and made some oversights in the pursuit of it. When Real lifted the Champions League trophy in 2002 they arguably owed as much to Claude Makelele as they did to any of their flair players. Makelele’s prowess in the holding role allowed his team-mates to bomb forward while he plugged the gaps. When Perez showed that he did not value him highly enough when it came to negotiating a new contract, Makelele left for Chelsea in 2003 and Real’s form dropped and they have not won the trophy since.

But Makelele was not the shirt-selling galactico that Perez craved. No, he wanted David Beckham, and (the fat) Ronaldo. Although Beckham’s transfer did pay for itself, he didn’t fit into Real’s formation. He is neither a defensive, nor an attacking midfielder but instead a wide or central midfielder more suited to a flat 4-4-2. He did well to force himself into the team by reinventing himself as a deep midfielder, but he helped the club off the pitch more than he did on it. Perez seemed to presume success on the pitch and concentrated on bringing in revenue from the new markets opened by Beckham’s worldwide appeal.

What Perez has done since his second coming is try to do the work in the transfer market he did in the six years of his first tenure in just one summer. The result is a team who have not been improved gradually, and have not bonded properly as a unit as they have had too many unfamiliar faces at one time. A good team is much more than a collection of individuals, yet this is exactly what we saw last week when Real could only draw 1-1 with Lyon and were sent crashing out at the first knockout stage again.

Money can’t buy you love; Cristiano Ronaldo fluffed a good chance when he shot against Lyon rather than to pass to Gonzalo Higuain who was much better placed to score.  There is a good chance that Real Madrid, and Perez in particular, will not win the Champions League unless they learn to be patient. Real’s squad probably did need adding to when compared (as is always the case) to the treble-winning Barcelona, but as usual Perez bought the best footballers on the market rather than the footballers that Madrid needed in a tactical sense. Barca have a player perfectly suited to their system in every position. Real, meanwhile, bought big names such as Kaka and persist in playing him out of position. One quick comparison between his form as Milan’s central playmaker and this season out wide for Madrid tells you all you need to know.

For football fans who do not bow to the altar of Real Madrid there is a satisfying irony in the way that this season’s Champion’s League campaign ended for them: to an established team who overcame the galacticos of Madrid even though Real signed their best player, Karim Benzema, in the summer along with Ronaldo, Kaka et al. Even the impatient Perez cannot be so naive as to ignore the significance of this detail, can he?

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  • Matt Quinn

    The presidents are always the main problem. Perez has initiated a hate campaign in the Madrid media against Higuain. This is because Higuain was bought by the previous president and is not deemed a big enough name. This is despite Higuain being Madrid’s best player and top scorer for 2 seasons now.

    Every Madrid President gets elected on the back of who they promise to sign. The managers seemingly have no choice in the matter and until this changes then i think they will continue to struggle (as much as a team full of Galactico’s can struggle)

  • mickeymarbles

    Poor old Ronny, he should have seen it coming. When will The Presidents realise that spending all the cash in the world isn’t always the solution.

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