Down 2-1 in the 68th minute against Barcelona last weekend, but with momentum on their side and halftime sub Lucas Vazquez providing energy on the wing, Karim Benzema headed a potential match tying goal over the crossbar. Eight minutes later, Luis Suarez paused his run inside the box, received a cross from Sergi Roberto and powered a header standing still past Thibaut Courtois for the decisive goal of the match. It was a reminder of how over a 90 minute span with over 1000 passes completed, a result - and in this case, Julen Lopetegui’s job - comes down to whether each side seizes their one moment in front of goal. Following their 5-1 loss to Barcelona, with emotions still raw, Casemiro described how their attitude during the match was a reflection of their entire season. With 14 goals in 10 league matches, floundering in ninth place between Getafe and Celta Vigo, Real Madrid are scoring one less goal than last season’s rate.
We know who was responsible for those goals, and where those goals went (Ronaldo scored 44 out of Real Madrid’s 144 goals). Yet there were supposed to be ready-made replacements, and not just in striker Mariano Diaz taking Ronaldo’s #7 jersey. In his El Clasico analysis, Jorge Valdano hit out against Gareth Bale both in his specific tactics against Barcelona and for his overall lack of impact during his five year tenure with the club. Of the match itself, Valdano blamed Bale for his failure to track back and cover Nacho as Jordi Alba created Barcelona’s first goal. He continued digging in, saying that Bale’s price tag created superstar expectations the 29 year old has yet to fulfill (without Messi or Ronaldo in the match, Bale was billed as the television draw for El Clasico). He completed just 19 passes in his 77 minutes on the field.
Bale started the season with three early goals and paced himself for a breakout season, unshackled by Ronaldo’s gravity. Yet he, along with his attacking teammates, went cold. In their recent run of one win in their last seven matches that finally did in Lopetegui, they were shut out by Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, and Alaves in consecutive weeks. In a 1-0 loss to CSKA, they took 26 shots with just four on target. Valdano pointed out that Bale’s goal of the year moments - whether it’s this run against Barcelona or the bicycle against Liverpool - cover up other lackluster performances. That criticism feels strangely true for a player who’s scored 73 goals in 135 appearances, but has Bale truly fulfilled his potential? We can blame injuries for shifting his uneven perfection at Real Madrid, but it has played a role in his lack of development in carrying Real Madrid’s attack in a post-Ronaldo world.
Bale originally drew comparisons to Ronaldo when he moved to Real Madrid from Tottenham in 2013, and Ronaldo provided a template for the scoring winger that Bale could eventually develop into as the understudy. But whether due to injury, a lack of coaching, or just existing in a Ronaldo-centric world, Bale never had that personalized attention during his athletic prime, and thus has struggled to individually carry Real Madrid. Consider the care of Ronaldo’s professional development: then Manchester United assistant manager Rene Meulensteen was tasked with turning Ronaldo from showboat dribbler to goalscorer who elevated his side. Muelensteen criticized Ronaldo for scoring only 23 goals the season before and challenged him to score 40 goals by focusing on the little details and scoring ugly goals (Meulensteen also had the foresight five years ago to conclude that any side swapping Bale in for Ronaldo would become weaker).
That epiphany and development mirrors the arc of Raheem Sterling, whom at 23 years old is also a byproduct of detailed obsessed managerial team at Manchester City. In discussing his own maturity as a winger, Sterling mentioned how he focused on being an efficient, effective player instead of showing off with the ball. That mentality is the essential leap for any athletic, one on one, highlight reel dribbler in transforming to a world class player able to carry their team. Perhaps it is unfair to expect Bale to immediately step in as the main goal scorer after five seasons sacrificing his game. Regardless, Bale was voted by Real Madrid supporters as the side’s most underachieving player.
And while Bale is the easy target, Benzema’s role must also come into question. More than any of his teammates, Benzema was perceived under the lens of this last Ronaldo era. We’ve written off the missed headers as part of the experience, seeing players through the lens of a specific context and era. And his lack of goal scoring - five goals in 32 league matches last season - was excused and overshadowed by his ability to play with Ronaldo. Yet Ronaldo has gone, so what is Benzema left to do? Like Bale, it would be unfair to automatically expect him to turn in 30 goals this season when he was praised for his ability outside of goal scoring.
Lopetegui has escaped much criticism, considering he did get fired from Spain and Real Madrid in a five month span. And while most of the blame falls upon an unexplainable mystique surrounding the club turned rotten, there is one tactical mistake that could have bought Lopetegui more time. Lopetegui was blamed for his inability to develop and incorporate Vinicius into the side, with some seeing the Brazilian as on the same level of Marco Asensio. There were rumors of the former manager seeing Vinicius as a threat in the dressing room instead of a potential spark plug for an ailing attack. It’s too much to ask any player, much less an 18 year old, to fill the shoes of Ronaldo. But he could have added pace and energy alongside Bale and Benzema. Symbolically, the club successfully appealed to have his red card rescinded, making him eligible for El Clasico, but Lopetegui continued to leave the Brazilian on the bench.
Interim manager Santiago Solari stated that Real Madrid would play with passion. Perhaps strategically, Solari’s debut came against second division side Melilla in the Copa del Rey. They scored four goals in that match, with Vinicius playing 90 minutes and assisting Marco Asensio’s goal. Solari could only rave about the Brazilian’s “big future” after the match.
The early favorite was Antonio Conte. Mauricio Pochettino is making public his frustrations over Tottenham’s new stadium resulting in a lack of transfer funds. There’s a rumored return of Jose Mourinho. Roberto Martinez received Valdano’s blessing as their next manager. Of course, Solari could string together results and hold onto the position. Yet it wasn’t a matter of Lopetegui’s quality, but about the impossible task of following Zinedine Zidane’s legacy at Real Madrid.
Leave it to Sergio Ramos to strategically get out in front of the topic. Without even mentioning Conte or Mourinho by name, Ramos cryptically stated that respect is won in the Real Madrid dressing room, not imposed. It is its own unique style of management. In examining why Real Madrid have won three straight European titles, it wasn’t about innovative tactics. They won because of Zidane, because of Ronaldo, because of Ramos late headerse, because winning in Europe is what Real Madrid does. That’s the thing about crediting an inexplicable aura surrounding a club - when you lose it, you can spend years searching to get it back, as they did during a drought in the mid 2000s. But then again, that lucky feeling may just come down to cold, hard goals.