If there was any question Real Madrid’s squad requires a massive overhaul, those doubts were dispelled Tuesday in the Spanish capital.
An inspired and insatiable Ajax side ripped the three-time defending Champions League winners to shreds in a frenzied affair that made one thing abundantly clear: Real are in need of large-scale change.
A failure to replace Cristiano Ronaldo’s 45 goals in the summer was always going to be an issue. It’s now clear Ronaldo’s exploits – and some luck on the continent that ran out (or rather, ran out of bounds) – have papered over the cracks of an outfit that has long demanded refreshing.
The writing was on the wall – for some time.
Glaring squad concerns
During this season’s Champions League, Real has fielded starting XI’s that average over 28 years old, and a squad that’s felt old for some time was, finally, fatally exposed.
Ajax’s press smothered Real in possession in their own half, and Santiago Solari’s three-man midfield of Luka Modric (33 years old), Toni Kroos (29), and Casemiro (27) afforded Dusan Tadic so much space that it bordered on charitable.
Worse yet, with a median age of 26.75 years against Ajax, this was the youngest average squad Madrid have started in Europe this season. But it’s not just that Real are old. They’re also brazenly ponderous and desperate for a spark; complacency runs riot at the Bernabeu.
Against the Dutch behemoths, Casemiro and Kroos were stationary objects too easily beaten, and Ballon d’Or winner Modric was a shadow of the player who previously used Europe’s premier competition as a plaything.
Sergio Ramos’ deputy, Nacho, was aimless. Dani Carvajal was too easily bypassed on the right. And Gareth Bale’s substitute appearance amid a chorus of whistles dwindled with each touch. The Welshman’s biggest contribution after the interval was a period spent writhing in pain on the pitch that permitted his fellow footballing fossils to catch a breath.
Solari will inevitably take the blame for all of this when he’s sacked in the summer, though he’s not the only one at fault.
For all of club president Florentino Perez’s free-spending influence that ushered in a pair of famed “Galacticos” eras, Real’s brass should have seen this coming. Not since James Rodriguez’s addition in 2014 has Real signed a player that fits the Galacticos profile, and their current crop of stars are no longer good enough.
Of the players 25 years old or younger, only Raphael Varane (25), Marco Asensio (23), and Vinicius Junior (18) are certain to figure into future plans.
La Fabrica product Sergio Reguilon (22) and Alvaro Odriozola (23) have shown signs. To a lesser degree, so have Marcos Llorente (24), Dani Ceballos (22), and Federico Valverde (20). Borussia Dortmund loanee Achraf Hakimi (20) could also play a part.
To Solari’s credit, he’s doled out debuts to a quartet of youngsters this season in Javi Sanchez, Fran Garcia, Cristo, and Fidalgo. Brahim Diaz’s signing signals a move with the future in mind, but for a club of Real’s financial capacities and a stature that demands yearly success, it’s not enough.
They’ve been linked with Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen this season, and Harry Kane continues to feature in transfer rumors. Add those names to the likes of Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi, and Eintracht Frankfurt goal machine Luka Jovic, and it’s likely the record 13-time European champions will prioritize replenishing the squad with a new core they can pair with a high-profile manager that satiates Perez’s demand for names of notoriety.
It won’t come without tabling hundreds of millions of euros, and clubs negotiating with Real would be wise to milk the desperate Spanish colossus for every penny.
End of an era
The aforementioned issues were compounded Tuesday by some inopportune – and uncharacteristic – moments of unluckiness. Real hit the post on two occasions in their 4-1 defeat. In previous seasons, those efforts would have gone in. At least, they always seemed to.
During last season’s semifinals against Bayern Munich, Karim Benzema was gifted a fortuitous goal by Manuel Neuer understudy Sven Ulreich. The former French international replicated the feat in the final against Liverpool, courtesy of Loris Karius’ calamitous efforts.
The capital city side have made a habit of limping into the Champions League final following underwhelming group-stage endeavors, and that luck has run out. Even in the first leg against Ajax, Real benefited from a Nicolas Tagliafico goal that was ruled out by VAR.
Reinforcements need to be brought in, chiefly a goalscorer who can fill the void left by Ronaldo’s move to Serie A. But other issues within the current squad also need to be addressed.
Bale’s influence as a top-tier footballer has waned, creative force Isco continues to rot on the bench, and it’s not clear why the club splashed €21.5 million to bring Mariano back from Lyon only to play a total of 73 minutes in Europe. The James Rodriguez situation also requires sorting.
Above all, Real require some vision and a plan. At the moment, it seems they have neither.
The one negative consequence of Ajax’s stunning victory is that more members of Erik ten Hag’s budding lot are likely to join Barcelona-bound Frenkie de Jong on the way out in the summer. Real Madrid have the opposite problem, and for Perez and Co., recruiting some of the players who outclassed them Tuesday would be a good place to start.
Zinedine Zidane knew what was coming when he stepped down in the summer, so why didn’t anyone else at the club? The failure to address glaring squad issues by a club of Real Madrid’s size and stature borders on arrogance, perhaps explaining the unbridled joy with which the football world endorsed their stunning continental dismissal.
After three consecutive home losses across all competitions over the last week – by a combined score of 8-1 – Real Madrid are now left to sit and assess what Carvajal described after the match as a “shit season.”
It didn’t have to be, though.
The writing was on the wall for this collapse. Madrid have nobody to blame but themselves.