Real Madrid may not get its money’s worth.
The only guarantee you get in the game of soccer is that things never stay the same: one flick of the ankle, a divot in front of the goalkeeper, or, sometimes, a hundred million dollar check can change everything. Wipe the slate clean and start all over again.
Take Real Madrid, the traditional toast of European club football, who boast a record nine victories in the Champions League Final, not to mention thirty-one La Liga trophies. Last year, Real finished runners-up to Barcelona in Spain and advanced into the Knockout Rounds of the Champions League. A good record on paper, surely, but not good enough for a club with Real’s pedigree and fanatical fan base, given that they finished nine points behind Barcelona-and to add insult to injury were given a 6-2 spanking by the champions at their own home ground – and were knocked out of European competition by a 5-0 thumping on at the hands of Liverpool.
Halfway through this last season, in December of 2008, following a string of poor results and even worse performances by the team, manager Bern Schuster was sacked. His replacement, Juande Ramos, injected some much-needed confidence into the squad and even brought Real back into the title-race before the team collapsed again and lost their last five matches. His contract was not renewed when it expired in June of this year. Instead, Real turned to the Chilean wizard Manuel Pellegrini, whose stewardship of tiny Villareal is one of the most amazing stories of the decade. In five years in charge, Pellegrini transformed a perennial lower-division club from a town of just 48,000 into a fierce competitor in both the Spanish League (runners-up in 2007-08) and the Champions League (defeated semifinalists in 2007). He has made his name as a tactically sound coach who is not afraid to put players with real flair onto the field. He is also known as a no-nonsense leader who does not tolerate selfish play or big egos in his teams, even shipping off the team’s top talent, the Argentinian playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, back to his homeland after a series of personal and professional disagreements. Despite the pessimistic predictions of most pundits following Riquelme’s departure, el Submarino Amarillo, as they are known to adoring fans, continued to over-achieve. Pellegrini can hope to continue his winning ways with his new club, though he is no longer an underdog.
Pellegrini is walking into a tricky political situation at Real. After being unceremoniously booted from the office of club President in 2006, Florentino Pérez, the construction company magnate and one of Spain’s wealthiest men, has returned to his former post after a bitter and contentious election campaign. Real Madrid is run as a cooperative, known in Spain as a socio, whose dues-paying members are given the privilege of electing the President; a new President is usually elected when Real doesn’t finish the season with a major trophy. Pérez is famous across Europe for the Galacticos policy of his first tenure (2000-06) which saw Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Owen and others join the team in deals that each ended up costing tens of millions of dollars.
Just a few months into his second term, Pérez has already outdone the first generation of Galacticos (who were brought in gradually, one at a time, year by year) by signing the two of the world’s absolute best attacking players: first, the Brazilian playmaker Kaká for $111 million from AC Milan, setting a world record for a transfer fee and, then, Manchester United’s sensational Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo for $132 million, a deal which again set the record. Ronaldo will make $21 million per season until 2016 and his legs have reportedly been insured for $160 million by his employers. Also joining the team is the young French striker, Karim Benzema, who is expected to become the team’s dominant central striker, in a deal worth $50 million. Perez has promised instant results with a totally revamped Real, one that will win but more importantly win with a style that challenges title rival Barcelona’s eye-pleasing game (let us not forget that Pérez ignominiously dismissed Fabio Capello as manager in 2007, despite the latter’s having won the league for two seasons running).
We have heard this sort of talk from Mr. Pérez before. Unfortunately, despite a Champions League win in 2002 and two league titles between 2005-07, Pérez produced largely uninspired teams that labored to victories and were unevenly balanced between top quality global superstars on the one hand and a mix of unsteady youth products and unspectacular journeymen on the other. Factional strife grew uncontrollable. A clique of Spanish players formed around the team’s home-grown forward, Raul Gonzalez, and his midfield deputy Jose Maria Guti, in opposition to a South American contingent headed by Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos. It does not seem that Pérez has learned from many of Real’s previous failures other than that one.
Currently, the conflict in the team is between the Spanish players and a group of talented Dutchmen brought in for large transfer fees by former President Ramón Calderón. Pérez has spent most of his summer trying to find buyers for the Dutch players, despite their good performances for the team and obvious talent. He is clearly eager to encourage squad harmony and lessen the nationalist conflicts which have raged through the clubhouse-and also to recoup the losses the team incurred with their summer purchases of Ronaldo, Kaká, and Benzema.
All within the last week, Pérez has sold the skillful attacking midfielder Wesley Sneijder to Inter Milan for $35 million (he was originally purchased from Ajax of Amsterdam for $38 million in 2007); the striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to AC Milan for $28 million (purchased for the same amount from Ajax in 2008); and the talented but injury prone winger Arjen Robben, known by many fans as “The Glass Man,” to Bayern Munich for $35 million (bought from Chelsea for $39 million in 2007). With both Arsenal and Liverpool hovering, few expect playmaker Rafael Van der Vaart to remain a Real player for much longer, especially as the club declined to give him a squad number for the coming season. It appears that of his Dutch players, Pérez plans to retain only the reserve defender and winger Royston Drenthe and the striker Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Aside from this Dutch massacre, Real have dispensed with few other players. Only the aged defenders Fabio Cannavaro, Gabriel Heinze, and club legend Míchel Salgado, the little-used striker Javier Saviola, and a host of youth products not deemed worthy of a spot in the first-team have departed (including the unfortunate Rubén de la Red, who had just managed to force his way into former manager Ramos’ squad and won a European Championship with Spain in 2008 before he was diagnosed with a career-ending heart condition).
Because of this massive influx of players and lack of movement the other way, the current Real squad is a bloated behemoth of unevenly distributed talent. Alex Ferguson reportedly joked to Cristiano Ronaldo before the latter’s departure for Madrid that, because of Real’s lack of defensive balance, the flying winger would find himself playing stopper by the end of the season. While that prediction was clearly hyperbolic, the fiery Scot has a point: Real’s squad is over-loaded with high priced attacking talent and troubled by a defensive frailty that puts Iker Casillas, their magnificent goalkeeper and the captain of Spain, through hurricane-like bouts of pressure in nearly every game.
Poor Pellegrini must be scratching his head over what to do with the under-performing unit. Last year, Real usually lined up with Sergio Ramos at right-back, Fabio Cannavaro and Pepe in the middle, and Marcelo on the left. On paper, it is a formidable enough group. Ramos, especially, was a standout and is probably among the best in his position at the world, flying up the field to supply his forwards before tracking back effortlessly to halt his opponents’ attacking forays. Cannavaro, however, never lived up to the very, perhaps unreasonably, high standards expected of him and has since returned to Italy to join Juventus.
For the Brazilian-born Pepe, who plays with Portugal’s national team as a naturalized citizen, last season was a case of Beauty and the Beast – not that anyone would call this brute a great beauty. Pepe sometimes turned in performances of stunning authority and physical ferociousness that left his opponents desperately dribbling away from him. In other games, however, he clearly let his temper get the best of him – as when he stamped on the face of a Getafe player late last season in anger after conceding a crucial last-minute penalty – and at points has demonstrated clumsiness and a lack of positional responsibility. The young Brazilian Marcelo had a solid season going forward in support of the attack but has proven to be a defensive liability.
Real have made several astute signings in order to upgrade their struggling defence, bringing in the well-regarded stopper Raúl Albiol from Valencia, the versatile Álvaro Arbeloa from Liverpool, who will probably see playing time across the defensive line, and the young Argentinean center-back Ezequiel Garay. Holdovers from last season’s defence include the promising full-back and Real youth product Miguel Torres and the Marx-quoting German intellectual-cum-center-back Christoph Metzelder, a competent player who has unfortunately spent more time on the trainer’s table than the football field.
Given his pre-season choices, Pellegrini will likely field a back-four of Ramos, Albiol, Pepe, and Marcelo, although we can expect Pellegrini to insert Arbeloa into the line-up rather quickly at the expense of any player who dares to underperform. On paper, Real do indeed have a solid defense. But that has been the case for several years, no matter how many international quality defenders the team has boasted in its lineup; the likes of Salgado, Cannavaro, Walter Samuel, Roberto Carlos and Ivan Helguera have generally been unable to prevent Real from leaking cheap goals.
No, Real’s problems lie further up the field and this is where it will get truly tricky for Pellegrini. He has enough players to field two different starting elevens. In some sports, that might be a blessing. In soccer, it usually leads to tactical confusion, poor team chemistry, and an abundance of bruised egos. Barca’s squad, paper-thin in comparison to Real’s, last season managed to take home the La Liga, Champions League, and Spanish Cup trophies.
By all accounts, the Chilean believes a 4-3-3 formation will best accommodate the talent available to him. Given the type of players Pellegrini has available, the midfield trio will likely have largely defensive responsibilities, a necessity given that Kaká and Ronaldo are not known for their love of tracking back. Real’s midfielders come in two varieties: defensive killers (Fernando Gago, Mahamadou Diarra, and Lassana Diarra – who are no relation) and deep-lying central playmakers (Xabi Alonso, Guti, and Esteban Granero). Mahamadou Diarra, a Malian, seems to have fallen out of favor with the club hierarchy after a serious injury in 2008 and is unlikely to start, despite an excellent first two seasons. Not only does poor Mahamadou’s replacement have the same surname but, to make matters worse, Lass also took his favored number 6. The availability of both Diarras and their clear superiority to Gago in the role of defensive shield has made life a little unpleasant for the highly-touted Argentinean starlet. Once hailed as a future star for both club and country, Gago has undoubtedly impressed but is clearly no Galactico.
To accommodate the more athletically accomplished Diarras, Gago has been pushed further up the field, serving as a pivot point between defense and attack. It is there that he will likely start. Taking over the playmaker’s role will be the high-priced new boy Xabi Alonso, a Basque who made himself famous with some excellent performances for Liverpool, and is a regular on the Spanish national team. Guti, a fan favorite and an elder statesman for Real, will have to make do with time off the bench. Having served Real loyally since 1995, Guti remains a dependable super-sub, capable of scoring important goals. The youngster Granero is also a home-grown talent, well-liked by the crowds, but will probably find his elders preferred to him, for this season at least.
The problem for Pellegrini is that his midfielders individually are all excellent players but as a unit provide no variety. None of them are capable of playing effectively in wide positions and they all need significant time with the ball at their feet to be productive, with the exception of the Diarra twins, whose first instinct is usually to boot the ball as far away as possible when they find it at their feet. I predict that there will come a point this season when Real fans are left cursing the sale of the winger Arjen Robben and, to an even greater extent, that of Wesley Sneijder. He alone possesses the dynamic qualities lacking in Real’s midfield, most notably the ability to run with pace through the midfield, beat defenders, and join the strikers.
It seems that Real are content with a pedestrian midfield because they expect their magic to come from the three attacking players, who will probably be the Brazilian wizard Kaká on the left, the young Frenchman Karim Benzema as the lone striker, and a player who needs no introduction, the world-famous Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo on the right. Together, they cost Real $293 million in transfer fees alone! I, for one, believe there is a good chance it will be money wasted, for this season at least. This is especially true given that Pérez turned down the opportunity to sign David Silva, a left winger, and David Villa, a striker, two fantastic players, both Spaniards and veterans of the league and national team, for much more reasonable prices.
Now, there is no question that Kaká is a fantastic player. But his skills are not best served when played out on the wings. Pellegrini plans to play him on the left of attack, a position where he has previously turned in a series of good but not dominant performances for Brazil. Kaká’s outing in that very same role during this summer’s Confederations Cup was proof of the fact. In isolation, Kaká’s performance might have been impressive (2 goals and an assist in 5 games as he helped Brazil to lift the trophy). But it paled in comparison to his epic outings for Milan over the last few seasons where he played centrally in the hole behind Filippo Inzaghi or Andriy Shevchenko in Carlo Ancelotti’s famous “Christmas tree” formation. This is not a criticism of the player but an observation that Kaká’s style reaches its fulfillment when his team is built around him and plays to his strengths.
Unfortunately, to fill in the right side of the attack Pérez and Valdano have recruited a very similar player to Kaká in global stature and ego but not at all the same in style of play: Cristiano Ronaldo is a superb player but one who also demands that the team be built around him and who, much more often than Kaká, is willing to run crying to the media when he does not get his way. At least Ronaldo is a winger and naturally built for the position but I imagine a massive tug-of-war taking place this season between Real’s right and left flanks, especially when the two superstars realize that Benzema is not the predatory goal-scorer Real thought they were getting.
Benzema, playing for Olympique Lyonnais, has been one of the most promising young strikers in Europe for the last several seasons, and has been publicly itching for a big move abroad since the summer of 2007. He had an impressive goal-scoring record of 43 goals in 112 games with the French club but one must remember that the quality of that league’s defenses is generally far inferior to those of England, Italy and Spain. His performances in the national team have been competent but certainly not spectacular.
Indeed, many in France wonder why their eccentric coach Raymond Domenech continues to start Benzema, whose only goals in competitive matches for France have been against the Faroe Islands, at the expense of Chelsea’s high-flying Nicolas Anelka. Benzema simply looks nervous and somewhat out-of-his depth on the international scene (see his ineffective performances during France’s abortive Euro 2008 campaign) and this does not bode well for his performances in front of a raging crowd of 80,000 at the Bernabeu. The transfer, valued at $50 million, makes even less sense given that Real already have several proven goal-scorers. The twenty-one year-old Argentinean star Gonzalo Higuain hit 22 goals in 34 games last season and also scored the goals that won Madrid their last two league titles in 2006 and 2007.
Higuain might rightly feel that Real have shown him little respect by splurging on Benzema and demoting him to the substitutes’ bench. Raúl Gonzalez, the team’s captain will no doubt be equally aggrieved. Raúl, a somewhat touchy personality, has contributed 47 goals to Real’s cause in the last two seasons and will not take kindly to being a second or even third choice striker. Meanwhile, Ruud van Nistelrooy, returned to full fitness after a lengthy spell on the sidelines, will surely be eager to add to his mighty tally of 45 goals in 67 appearances for the club. Given that the presence of Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo will generally limit the team to a single central striker, only one of Benzema, Higuain, Raúl, and van Nistelrooy will start (though Raúl could see playing time as a support striker on the left if Pellegrini decides a more attacking formation is needed and drops the midfielder Gago in favor of his captain).
Florentino Pérez’s right-hand man Jorge Valdano recently told reporters that anything less than a trip to the Champions League final would make this season a failure. I imagine he will be sorely disappointed and, even worse, that Real will not win the league. Pérez seems to have learned only one thing from his last tenure: a club-house divided by nationalist in-fighting cannot stand. Unfortunately, Pérez’s solution to his Dutch problem has been to sell off or marginalize his team’s best midfielders. Yes, little seems to have changed at Real Madrid except for the ballooning price tags of their expensive foreign imports.