This summer feels long and awkward, at least from the perspective of most Real Madrid fans. The days of the prohibitive, but exciting signings are gone. Instead, the club has kept a very low profile, and only speaks to the press in the form of public statements denying negotiations with Neymar or Mbappe, when it was quite obvious that the rumours associating those players with Real Madrid were completely implausible. Reminds one of an ageing playboy denying having had anything to do with up-and- coming stars just to make himself relevant again, but failing in the process.
The fact is that Real Madrid have not been relevant during the silly season since they signed Gareth Bale in 2012. That speaks well for their planning, as they’ve been outstandingly successful in Europe with a squad that was built between 2009 and 2012. After that, only the De Gea fiasco and the Julen Lopetegui hiring got them into the spotlight, but hardly for the right reasons.
That is six silly seasons without a memorable piece of trading. This could be portrayed as a shy approach in the most inflated market one can remember, or as a smart-investment policy that ended up building a phenomenal roaster in the last two seasons, thanks to a very successful sequence of loans+comebacks that have added at least four competitive players to the squad at a very low cost.
That approach indeed worked quite well until this summer, but has become suddenly outdated. Cristiano Ronaldo’s exit has changed the situation completely, as the squad was designed to get him into scoring positions as often as possible. Occasional help from other players was only the cherry on the cake, as Ronaldo’s finishing was enough to get Real Madrid to the latter stages of the Champions League, which is apparently all that matters now at the Santiago Bernabeu.
But even if the formula was more successful than anyone could have imagined, the writing was already on the wall last season. Real Madrid’s performance in La Liga was simply atrocious, and suggesting anything different is a major self-deception. It took Ronaldo too long to get going in the initial third of the season: his four-match ban and Zidane’s sensible decision to save the Portuguese’s best shape for May saw Real Madrid start poorly, but they never got any better as the season advanced. Their inability to win convincingly at the Bernabeu during 2017/18 tells a story of a large number of below-average performances that were only forgotten thanks to another superb Champions League run.
But this team, without Ronaldo, does not seem as threatening in a two-match contest anymore, and its bench appears too shallow when compared with its two biggest domestic rivals, now that Atletico have finally embraced their reality as a dominant, buyer team.
Just a couple of lines about Ronaldo’s exit: I do believe that neither part will benefit from this decision, but the relationship had deteriorated so much that there was no other way out. It goes without saying that Real Madrid are a far worse team without Cristiano. I also have to say that Ronaldo’s endless public complaints about his salary and the club’s justified lack of interest in his tax issues with the Spanish IRS – I’m in fact proud they did not resort to this – made me think that Cristiano had taken things a bit too far. As Madridistas know well, nobody is bigger than the club, not even a star who guaranteed 50 goals a season and who was absolutely instrumental in the last two Champions League titles. If he wanted to go, hasta luego.
If Ronaldo’s exit was a serious hit on this team’s depth, now we witness a textbook case of the Disease of More, as described by Pat Riley in Showtime. After a good run, everyone wants more money, more playing time, more recognition. Alvaro Morata was an early example, and now Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic look bound to repeat the feat, reducing the team’s options and the talent pool to a concerning level, especially in midfield.
As you probably know, I’m not a big fan of Lopetegui, but this is a challenge I would not want for my worst enemy. Coming off a successful season, with an extremely high bar, he’s lost plenty of dynamite up front and has to trust the offensive side of the team to Gareth Bale – unable to play more than 40 games in each of the last three seasons – and Karim Benzema – goals scored in the last three seasons: 28, 19, 12.
Yes, Real Madrid have promising youngsters in Asensio, Ceballos and Odriozola. Lopetegui should know how to get the best out of Isco, as he’s coached him since the under-17 national team. But this team will only get to May with chances of winning a title if three or four players step up, and none of them looked mildly threatening last season, or at least consistent enough to be considered dangerous over the course of the year.
There are a few moves that may still happen before the transfer window closes, but Real Madrid only seem involved in the selling side of them. Yes, Courtois might arrive, but that will hardly change the concerning situation in attack. The move that would make more sense – a centre-forward such as Kane, Lewandowski or Icardi – does not look feasible. And if the club does not take a step on that direction, it’s not the Ronaldo jersey sales that Real Madrid will miss during the season, but the trifling statistic of 50 goals.