Saturday, at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, in Madrid, Spain, hosts Real Madrid conceded the only goal visiting Atletico Madrid needed to decide a lackluster La Liga match 1-0.
Antoine Griezmann scored at the 53-minute mark, on one of a handful of Atleti opportunities, to seal the Blancos’ fate. But the game’s outcome, much like the season’s, and potentially much like the club’s future, were all determined in the same venue, back in November of last year, when FC Barcelona, mostly without the services of then reserve, Lionel Messi, clobbered their hosts 4-0. At that time, though, we were not fully cognizant of the root problem.
Today, Atleti derived three valuable points for their current domestic campaign, but the 60,000 Merengue Socios, the club members who own the club, and in particular those who form the Assembly of Delegates, who are charged with running the club, might have gained more if they analyzed what we all witnessed.
All season long we have been pointing out that the club has had three major liabilities that needed to be addressed if Real Madrid was ever to return to its best days. First, Florentino Perez had to go. He did bring many riches to the club via some interesting banking and real estate deals, but since then his tenures at the helm have become the club’s major weakness. As FIFA was forced to figure out, one must separate the business side of the house from the game’s side. Perez’s ego has blinded him to opportunities such as the chance of obtaining Neymar when he began in the driver’s seat in that competition with Barca, and his galacticos for galacticos sake mentality has long been a band aid solution applied to a patient in desperate need of surgery.
Second, Rafa Benitez would eventually be seen for the poor fit that he was and would also have to go. That liability, created by Perez, was partially blunted with the firing of Benitez and the elevating of Zinedine Zidane to his first big league coaching job. That needed transition to what is hoped will become coaching normalcy might, if all goes well, still be in the making for some time to come.
Third, the team had to be built around a core group of key players who were granted the opportunity to collectively succeed, while the roster as a whole had to be catered to in a manner the club has found hard to do for years. Essentially, the players need to be treated with respect and given a chance to showcase the reason for their hiring.
For example, there is no point in purchasing James Rodriguez and not giving him a chance to shine by playing him regularly for at least as long as some of his equally expensive predecessors. Remember that James’ arrival was supposed to make us forget that Mesut Ozil was mistreated and left. Last we knew a reinvigorated World-Cup-winning Ozil was setting European league assist records at Arsenal while an unhappy James continues to play for about half of most games he is scheduled to dress up for. This glaring issue has either not been addressed at all or been addressed in a counterproductive manner.
Thus, Real has continuously lost ground in Spanish Football.
Club fans and socios, players and coaching staff, and administrators all the way up to Perez, are pinning their 2016 hopes on the team’s Champions League fortunes. But if Real plays as they did today, against the likes of Barca, Bayern, Man City, Juventus, PSG, Atleti, or Chelsea, Madrid will be in for more hurt.
Thus, barring some unforeseen and sudden renaissance, Real will lose ground in European Football.
What we saw today was a visiting team who wanted to win more than the hosts did. There was no sense of urgency among the Real players, not even the sense of “this is our house” which most professional teams in most sports rightly seem to ooze. This is the ultimate sign of a demoralized clubhouse. But today it became obvious that it is also a sign that the three problems we originally posited have metastasized into one that resides outside of the clubhouse or coaching offices, most likely several floors up.
One exhibit from today’s match was emblematic of the singular and outsized nature of Real’s problem.
Among the starting players on the pitch today was Karim Benzema, again. Benzema is a decent player who has long been tasked with playing on a team with much better teammates. This is unfortunate in that Benzema is routinely off the pace, or rhythm, or page, of those trying to create around him. The Frenchman’s most significant contributions seem to come when he is well fed by those better players who often seem to end up making up for him. For as long as he has been at Madrid, it has been rare for Benzema to be the one to create consistent goal scoring opportunities, albeit he has done so in sporadic spurts. Also, as skilled as he is, over the seven years he has been with the team, he simply has never been the partner Cristiano Ronaldo has needed up front. The Frenchman has been unable to raise his level to complement CR7’s.
Barcelona has been smart enough to build a team around Messi, but somehow Madrid has not figured out that Ronaldo has been playing, and breaking records, often despite a lack of consistent support.
Today, when the opposition took the lead, putting the game’s outcome on the line, rookie French coach, Zidane, took Benzema out and replaced him with a second division striker who proceeded to outplay the starter, producing some of Real’s few creative minutes. To anyone watching closely, this substitution would seem to beg a question: why has Benzema been a starter under Mourinho, Ancelotti, Benitez, and now Zidane, when the likes of Kaka, James, Casillas, and Bale, have not? Why would a new coach substitute a long-time attacking starter when his team is behind on the scoreboard? Why would that coach take a chance with a second division player? It almost seems risky and counterintuitive. Could it be that the choice of starting players was wrong, or not the coach’s, to begin with?
If one were to surmise that Emperor Perez wanted his chosen man, Karim, on the pitch, then all becomes clear, as the boss would have spoken. Thus, the coach is not being allowed to coach, and the players are not being allowed to produce their best, because Perez is, unfortunately, allowed to be omni…everything. It is time for the socios to notice what their Emperor is wearing, which is similar to what he has long been contributing to the club’s success on the pitch, nada.