After a stellar run of success in which his side won eight out of ten possible trophies during a two-year period, including back-to-back Champions League wins, Zinedine Zidane is facing his toughest challenge yet as Real Madrid manager.
Dumped out of the Copa del Rey by lowly Leganés in a performance that Zidane described as a “fiasco”, they are also 19 points behind Barcelona in La Liga and 10 behind Atlético and appear to have no chance of retaining their league title, with Stakers.com rating them as 251.0 shots to come from behind to win La Liga this year.
Pinpointing the reason for this decline is not straightforward. They are more vulnerable at the back this year than last, conceding a goal a game, compared to Barcelona’s 0.5 and Atlético’s 0.41, and full-backs Dani Carvajal and Marcelo are not contributing offensively as much as usual. However, they are also struggling at the other end. Their goals per game rate has dropped to 2.1 from 2.8 last season, and none of the forwards – Ronaldo, Bale, Isco, Asensio, or Benzema – have been at their best. That in turn has placed extra pressure on the midfield.
Real’s midfield has never relied as much on possession as some top teams, as they have depended on their prolific forward line to outscore their opponents. However, with the frontline struggling for fluency, there has been extra weight placed on the midfield, and they have not coped well, with their inability to keep the ball and kill off games proving costly.
Somewhat ominously for Zidane, there have been repeated stories of dressing room unrest this season, with the antagonism between Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos to the fore, while a number of players are said to be unhappy with Ronaldo’s behaviour. A divided dressing room usually spells disaster for a manager, and though he has a contract until 2020, Zidane may find himself out of a job by the end of the season, unless he can pull off a miracle in La Liga, or more realistically, land a third Champions League title.
Whether or not Zidane is at the helm next season, it is clear that Real need to refresh a squad that has become stale. What should be on the agenda for the Spanish giants this summer?
Break up the BBR axis
A major clear out of the squad seems inevitable. It is common knowledge throughout European football that Real will be open for business this summer, and Manchester United are reportedly showing interest in the likes of Raphaël Varane, Casemiro, and Toni Kroos.
However, any major restructuring that doesn’t involve the trio of Benzema, Bale, and Ronaldo will be tinkering at the edges. There is a sense at the Bernabéu that the BBR axis has become stale and in need of an overhaul. Clearing out two or even all three of these stars would enable Zidane – or his replacement – to free up funds and to start with a clean slate.
Settle the goalkeeping issue
Real have struggled to find a consistent replacement for the legendary Iker Casillas. Diego López proved to be a temporary solution, while Keylor Navas has never been able to provide the level of security and assurance that Casillas once offered. Bringing in an established world-class keeper such as Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois or Manchester United’s David de Gea will bring new stability to the defense.
When Gareth Bale arrived in Madrid back in 2013, the expectation was that he would become the natural successor to Ronaldo, but though he has produced some world-class performances for Real, his impact has been limited by injuries – 19 in all since he joined from Tottenham. Selling Bale would leave a vacancy for a star attacking winger, and while Chelsea’s Eden Hazard has been suggested as a replacement, bringing the Belgian to the Bernabéu would not have the same impact as recruiting Neymar.
The Brazilian ticks a number of boxes. He is one of the top three players in the world, a big-name signing that would make a bold statement, and is young enough to become the face of a new era. While persuading Paris Saint-Germain to part with their star will be tricky, there are indications that Neymar is not entirely happy in France, and the chance to become the focal point of a new-look Real Madrid attack could prove too tempting to resist.
Bring in a top-class striker
The surprising decision to let Álvaro Morata join Chelsea last summer has exposed the paucity of strike options at the Bernabéu. Karim Benzema is in decline, while
Borja Mayoral is not yet ready to play a major role. Zidane is also rumored to be unhappy with the performances of Isco, who could be on his way this summer. Real should therefore move decisively for a top-class specialist striker, with Tottenham’s Harry Kane, Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, and Torino’s Andrea Belotti all worth considering.