Real Madrid and when magical thinking goes wrong
When Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid called a surprise press conference back in May, the French manager who had just brought the club their third Champions League title in a row said, "If I feel like I am not going to win then a change is needed." This was offered up as his main reason for stepping down and while Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo discussed the potentiality of their own exits, Zidane did what Zidane does. He made the decision, told nobody and stuck with it until the end as the world and Florentino Perez looked on in disbelief.
If the Real Madrid president wants to understand the current Real Madrid malaise, he might go back to this moment to help him work it out in his mind. Since then, Cristiano Ronaldo has left, Real Madrid have slumped to the longest scoring drought in their 116-year history on 465 minutes and they’ve just been beaten by Barcelona 5-1 in a pitiful performance at the Camp Nou. If ever there was, quite literally, the perfect guide as to how badly Real Madrid missed the Portuguese, the lack of goals is it. As the seconds, minutes hours and matches rack up, Perez must have been wondering where it all went so wrong. For those searching for grist, they had plenty to keep the mill turning with Ronaldo’s lack of a replacement. Jorge Valdano, the high philosopher of football in Spain rightly said, "At Barcelona, they're terrified about Messi being out, while at Real Madrid they took the departure of Cristiano a little bit lightly."
But Zidane’s warning as he departed is not all the evidence we have of a team that needed to change. The clues had come thick and heavy prior to the farewell shot by the French man. Most notably, when they finished 17 points behind winners Barcelona and another three behind Atletico Madrid. In fact, Real Madrid were closer to falling below Sevilla and into seventh than they were of catching Barcelona in his last season in charge.
For all the wonderful memories, moments of magic and trophies that the aforementioned pair of serial winners brought the club, they brought something that is hurting Real Madrid in the long run. They provided a cloak of invincibility that has landed Real Madrid where they are today. They believed it was the Santiago Bernabeu that turned these two into magnet trophies but in reality, it was both Zidane and Ronaldo along with Florentino Perez, as someone averse to losing himself, who picked this pair because he knew what they could bring to the team.
Somewhere along the line, Real Madrid started to believe that the white jersey was advantage enough without the need to highlight and purchase the very best in the world. It was magical thinking gone wrong.
They thought that if they said Karim Benzema was a top striker enough times, they could will it to become reality. But it was the will of Ronaldo and the craftiness of Zidane as another man with the winning gene that took Real Madrid over the line on so many occasions in the past. It's a common refrain made by those at the Bernabeu that winning and fighting until the end is in their DNA, but the truth is, Real Madrid have been so successful due to their outrageous ambition with all of the other considerations that follow.
The three Champions League winning seasons when doubts remained over Zidane haven't helped. Los Blancos started to truly believe that they might just have a secret potion, a formula for success that transcends the physical. “When the Champions League music starts, we transform,” said Toni Kroos before the semi-final of the competition last season to add to the sorcery they served up as the world watched on.
Real Madrid forgot to consider the talent of the individual pieces of the puzzle and started to see it as one big successful blur. They suffered from normalcy bias, when one thinks the way things are going now is how they will continue to go in the future. There is no contingency plan because, well, why would we plan for an earthquake when we haven't had one in the over a decade.
You could argue that it would have taken an outright war to get Neymar last summer and by holding those bullets in the chamber, Real Madrid can be more ambitious in the coming windows and with more options available to them when they do hit the marketplace. With the transfer spending getting out of control, Perez backed off and kept his head while everyone else was losing theirs and there is little doubt that massive signings will start flooding through the doors again soon.
But for now, Real Madrid’s cloak of invincibility is gone, they have been left exposed and Sunday could have long-standing implications moving into a future of unknowns for the club. That change Zidane spoke about is here and while nobody likes change, sometimes it's inevitable and unavoidable even when there are harsh lessons learned along the way.
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