With the recent departure of Martin Ødegaard – albeit on loan – due to a distinct lack of game time, Real Madrid’s inability to bridge the gap between an all-conquering generation and a youthful squad with bags of potential could cost the club both at the bank and at the trophy cabinet.
The Los Blancos squad arguably peaked following their La Liga and Champions League double of 2016/17, a feat no Madrid team had achieved since the 1950s. In addition the club is still yet to recover from the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus in the summer of 2018, after their third successive European triumph.
What could arguably be the final nail in coffin of a once great squad may have been last week’s bitterly disappointing Copa Del Rey defeat to third division Alcoyano.
Zidane’s Trust in the ‘Old Guard’
Of course, it is easy to see why Zidane trusts his old players, after all they have rewarded him with two La Liga’s and three Champions Leagues amongst other honors. But, without a major squad overhaul this aging Madrid team faces a bleak future. Very little squad rotation has led Toni Kroos (31 years old) and Luka Modric (35) to play 72% and 75% of league minutes respectively. While these are two good players, they have certainly declined since Madrid’s last Champions League victory.
Up front Zidane’s overreliance on aging marksman Karim Benzema is obvious when seeing that the Frenchman has already played over 2000 minutes this season. The 33-year-old is having an excellent season by providing 15 G/A this season in La Liga while outperforming his XG by 2.3. These admittedly excellent statistics also illustrate his team’s over reliance – evident by the fact that he has contributed to 44% of Madrid’s league goals this season.
Zidane’s side clearly lack depth in this position but, the decision to send Luka Jović back to Frankfurt on loan (Jović has already scored three goals in only 79 minutes) is a damming indictment on the Serb’s ability. Essentially this means, Zidane is betting his job on Benzema to help deliver some sort of silverwear this season.
Over the past season and a half Zidane has built his team around a rock-solid defence rather than an invigorating attack. This arguably makes Sergio Ramos, the ever-present captain their most important player. Not only because of his impressive goal scoring rate for a defender but, because when he is absent the back line falls apart.
This was particularly evident against Shakhtar Donetsk twice this season and against Manchester City last year. The loss of the long-standing captain seems particularly real when you consider the Spaniard has made no attempt to renew a contract which ends in June. This loss would be particularly dire when realising Zidane’s team aren’t overly high scorers therefore, this departure would no doubt have disastrous implications.
Failure in recruitment since Ronaldo’s Departure
When Cristiano Ronaldo departed for Turin in 2018 a decline was inevitable and a rebuild was expected. However, from Florentino Perez’s perspective this wasn’t an option. Madrid never turned their attention from silverware to the bleeding of younger stars for the future. Although, with hindsight, this may have been the better option.
Perez’s transfer market approach since the departure of Ronaldo has clearly been to attract wide attacking talent with an emphasis on younger players. Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior (£40.5 million respectively) both fit this mould. Unfortunately, the young Brazilians have been rather underwhelming since coming to the Bernabeu showing that although they still have great potential. They weren’t ready to make such a great leap in their career. Instead, at such a young age they should be learning their trade further away from the scrutiny of Madrid.
Eden Hazard on the other hand, a fantastic wide attacking talent certainly wasn’t young. Signed at 28 as a short-term solution, Hazard’s time in Madrid has been marred with unfortunate injuries (Hazard has already missed 41 Real Madrid Games) and so far only three La Liga goals.
Regardless of the £465 million spent by Madrid since Ronaldo’s departure there has only been two players to establish themselves as effective first team regulars – Thibaut Courtois and Ferland Mendy, although both players needed a season to settle. Simply speaking this much spent to add very little to an aging squad is simply unacceptable for Real Madrid in both a financial and competitive perspective.
Sale of key assets
Poor recruitment alone may not be enough to sink a great club despite the financial implications. But the club has repeatedly failed to promote players from within their own ranks instead, flogging them for relatively cheap across Europe. Some players to leave the Bernabeu in recent years because of the lack of first team opportunities include Achraf Hakimi (£36 m); Sergio Reguilón (£27 m); Theo Hernandez (£19 m); Dani Ceballos (loan) and the aforementioned Ødegaard. This merely scratches the surface.
The rapid decline of Marcelo over the last season or two and the inconsistency (and expense) of Ferland Mendy are two problems that could be solved by keeping Theo Hernandez at the club. After establishing himself as one of the best left-backs in world football, the AC Milan defender who would no doubt slot straight into Zidane’s side. Theo’s appetite for attacking football would please not only Zidane and the Real Madrid hierarchy but also the Los Blancos faithful who have been outspoken in criticising Mendy’s offensive skill set (while being more reserved in praising the Frenchman’s defensive acremen).
On the right-hand side of defence Madrid have a similar problem. After an injury ridden season Zidane has struggled to find someone to play in Carvajal’s absence. This lack of a solid second choice right-back has resulted in the two footed Mendy being asked to fill in there along with Nacho Fernandez, Lucas Vasquez and Alvaro Odriozola. Vasquez has provided the most consistency in this position for Zidane but still, this isn’t up to the Real Madrid’s high standards. This is what makes Ashraf Hakimi’s sale even more frustrating. The sale of an already world-class player (who would probably start most weeks) when there is not even a solid back-up at the club is terrible planning to say the least.
Of course, it is not just defensive players leaving for pastures new. In the midfield especially, players have had to leave (quite often on loan) to secure some vital game time in the hopes of both fulfilling their potentials and establishing themselves in the Real Madrid first team. Dani Ceballos, Martin Ødegaard and Matteo Kovacic all fit this mould (although Kovacic’s Chelsea loan was later made permanent), even Casemiro had to leave on loan and impress in Portugal before playing an important role in Madrid.
Is the future bright?
Overall, it is clear that between their last Champions League victory and today the club has failed to overhaul an aging squad that, in fairness, has also lost one of the greatest footballers of all time. This failure has not been done out of neglect rather, a failed flip flop strategy between signing the next up-and-coming thing in Rodrygo and Vinicius or for the short-term immediate impact – Hazard and Courtois.
This failure will no doubt affect players like Isco and Lucas Vasquez the most, players who can be considered as between these two generations, because although they may have won some trophies with the first generation they not have played as big a role as they would today.
On one side of the squad, there are players like Benzema, Modric, Ramos and Marcelo not only won an incredible number of trophies but, they played a starring role and received deserved international recognition. While on the other side there is Madrid’s young guns, Rodrygo, Vinicius, Kubo and even Ødegaard who will all no doubt become top players and most likely win trophies, just possibly away from the Bernabeu.