The Disintegration of Real Madrid
The final minutes of Real Madrid’s defeat to Ajax were covered by an oneiric atmosphere. Partly this was because of the rarity of the spectacle; a Madrid defeat in Europe. This is a side that has lost only one knock-out European tie since the summer of 2013.
But the sense of unreality was owed to more than just this. An effectively nine-man Madrid side watched Ajax pass around them to the tune of unbelieving Oles. Their most expensive player was visibly injured and received no sympathy or support. Their manager resembled a man not so much on trial as already condemned. In this strange setting, Real Madrid’s second great European dynasty came crashing down.
Ajax had dominated the game. They came to the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu and felt no fear. They played their passing game, seeming not to even acknowledge the potential risks of playing out from the back while in the cauldron of Los Blancos. De Jong’s late mistake, giving the ball away to the ever-running Benezema, was their only notable blip. They had played attractive passing football. Their team was made up of academy graduates like De Jong and the resplendent De Ligt, as well as undervalued veterans such as the on-the-night sensational Dusan Tadic. This was a vindication, however temporary, of the philosophy of a club.
Ajax not only played with more cohesion and style than Madrid, their third and fourth goals were the sort of European wonder-strikes that Madrid pride themselves on. Tadic’s third and Schone’s fourth will surely be remembered along with the bicycle kicks of Ronaldo and Bale and the volley of Zidane on the carousel of replayed Champions League moments. By showing individual flair and an unwavering self-belief, Ajax out-Madrid-ed Real Madrid.
Real might be said to have Madrid-ed themselves into this spectacular mess. Their season has been a catalogue of self-inflicted wounds, all apparently driven by the belief that route out of any crisis is for Madrid to be more sure of themselves. Sergio Ramos felt so serene, basking in his self-satisfaction, that he thought he could boast of being intentionally unsportsman-like without facing consequence. One manager had to leave months into his job. The second is a dead man walking. Keylor Navas sits on the bench so that team can accommodate an adapting and underperforming Galactico. Multiple members of the squad have taken to public in-fighting, believing, correctly, that they are assets too valuable for this mismanaged club to upset.
The club’s appointment of Julien Lopetegui in spite of his dismal club record, in the middle of World Cup preparations, stank of arrogance and short-sightedness. Madrid felt entitled to a high profile Spanish manager, whatever the cost to the national team. The subsequent handing of the job to Solari was an attempt to redo the magic of Zidane’s appointment merely by following the same formal steps of promoting internally. Solari is not Zidane, and his Madrid side has devolved into a parody of itself.
Much of the blame for this sad state of affairs can be directed at the players themselves. They effectively vetoed the appointment of a stronger coach. When well-sourced rumours linked Antonio Conte to the role vacated by Lopetegui, Ramos made a bold public stand against it. This prefiguration of dressing-room rejection perhaps helped to push the Madrid board towards the ineffectual figure of Solari. The players are clearly self-coaching to some degree. Their management by committee has been showed up tonight for what it is; a confederation of millionaires, without the tactical knowledge, camaraderie, or sense to deal with setbacks.
The club hierarchy ought not be excluded from this accounting of error. Madrid have hollowed themselves out considerably over the past two years. The team that blew Juventus away in the 2017 Champions league final was comically stuffed with talent. James Rodriguez often couldn’t even make the bench. A fit Gareth Bale was only brought on late in the game against Juve, mostly to take part in the pre-final whistle victory lap.
Since that night, Madrid have lost Rodriguez, Morata and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo. Not only lacking the depth needed to succeed in the Champions league, they lack a strong first team. They have left themselves with an unbalanced and strange squad. To be sure, there are talented young players among Madrid’s team. Vinicius in particular has emerged as a true prospect.
However, these future stars are stuck in orbit around fading, bloated, giants. Ramos’ absence was felt keenly in defence, but his presence had done little to sure up matters in their two clasico defeats last week. They do not have the personnel to take over from the faltering midfield trident of Kroos-Casemiro-Modric (has a world player of the year ever had such a precipitous decline?).
More worrying than all this tactical and squad disharmony is the sense that Madrid has undermined some of their more creditable traditions. Where is the señorío in rugby tackling a player and then attempting to slap his teammates? What is gentlemanly in the pathetic sight of Bale’s teammates, so willing to take primary-school swipes at him off the field, failing to check in on him when he is visibly injured on it? What is the point of having the world’s largest support if your fans leave well before the final whistle? Where, for that matter, is the belief in the remontada that supposedly define the club? Would La Quinta del Buitre ever have looked as clueless as this team did? Would the team of Di Stefano?
If these seem like unreasonably high benchmarks against which to judge a side, then one ought to remember that this team has invited the comparison. The unmistakably hurt and chippy tone with which players addressed the media after their third consecutive champions league win last May are evidence of their own self-regard. They thought themselves European greats. Their trophy cabinet allows them this status, but it can be an unforgiving one to be judged by.
While Madrid search for a way to salvage this mess, the rest of European football can savor a truly exciting Champions league. The loss of Madrid suddenly makes the trophy seem attainable for many of the remaining sides. Manchester City and Liverpool, so relentless domestically, must fancy themselves against a depleted field of competitors. Atletico Madrid, if they can sustain their first leg advantage, will have seen their bogey team vanish. Barcelona do not have to worry about the prospect of a two legged clasico quarter or semi final, if they manage to beat Lyon. And Ajax’s heroics will surely inspire Manchester United, who themselves have quite a mountain to climb against PSG tomorrow night.
Among the ruins of Madrid’s strange European dynasty, no team will celebrate quite like Barcelona. This is not only because any defeat for one of the two Spanish giants is savored by their opponents, but because of how this defeat occurred. Ajax and Barca share the DNA of Johan Cruyff and passing football. Their share a belief in aesthetic purism and internally produced talent (a belief more commonly espoused than evidenced by the Catalans recently). Madrid have been dealt three consecutive defeats by a philosophy of football. This surely numbers among the many aspects of tonight that will delight Catalonia, and embarrass the capital.