As Real Madrid prepare to take on Liverpool in the Champions League final in Kiev at the end of the month, there is a very real possibility that Los Blancos could win Europe’s elite trophy for an unprecedented third consecutive season.
There will, however, be an underlying concern in amongst the excitement at the prospect of further European glory over their (relatively) poor domestic campaign.
Madrid have dropped a long way off the pace in La Liga, as they currently sit behind local rivals Atletico Madrid in third place and 15 points adrift of league leaders Barcelona.
Ahead of Zinedine Zidane’s side’s final league game of the season away to Villareal, here is a look at what the 2017 champions must do ahead of next season to dethrone their rivals and return to the top in Spain.
5. Settle on a Starting XI
In amongst Madrid’s Champions League exploits this season, the team which Zidane has fielded in La Liga matches has often been heavily rotated, particularly in the latter stages of the season, to give priority to the European competition.
Whilst this has proved successful in terms of getting Madrid to the final in Kiev, it has also been detrimental to Los Blancos’ league campaign. The recent 3-2 defeat to Sevilla was a clear example of Madrid’s rotated side not being up to scratch in domestic competition.
Next season, it is important that Zidane maintains a core set of players which forms a spine of the team which can be maintained in most matches, barring any injuries, and rest given to minimal amounts of players from game-to-game.
Making two or three changes each game is a lot different to the wholesale changes which Zidane has been ringing in his Madrid side week by week this season. It disrupts the stability of the side, with the squad players often thrust into action all together with few around them having played regularly, giving the team a disjointed look and a subsequent lack of results.
4. Improve Tactical Discipline
Madrid’s team boasts a vast number of global superstars, each with tremendous individual quality, but they do not always seem to be on the same page.
The likes of Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo often seem to be playing their own game, shouting to others for not doing what they expect of them, not passing to them when they want the ball, and often lacking a clear team mentality and identity in the side.
There is an over-reliance at times on the likes of Luka Modric, Casemiro and Karim Benzema to compensate for the individualism of others, as they try to sew things back together, fill the gaps left by their marauding teammates and try to bring others into play.
This may be adequate in the Champions League, in which it can only take one moment of individual brilliance to seal a tie – and Madrid have plenty of that. The league, however, is a marathon, not a sprint, and ZIdane’s side have often been found out for not having a clear tactical approach or team dynamic this season.
Barcelona and Ateltico Madrid are highly regimented sides, with Diego Simeone’s team in particular punching regularly above their weight because of their outstanding team mentality and collective approach to every match. That is largely why Madrid have fallen short of their two rivals in La Liga this season.
3. Add Fresh Impetus This Summer
Madrid are widely renowned for their Galactico approach to buying the best players around the world to cement their status as Europe’s elite club. Their record 12 European Cup wins owe much to that approach, as it has successfully set them apart and above the global standing of all others.
The important aspect of adding big names for big money goes beyond the excitement that it generates among fans and the media. It also gives the team a huge boost and added belief that they can win every game and beat all who come before them, because they have these star players around them. It has a galvanising effect which gets the best out of everyone.
The previous summer transfer window had very much the opposite effect at the Bernabeu, with high profile departures overshadowing the understated recruitment of younger squad players.
The likes of Alvaro Morata, James Rodriguez and Pepe all departed Madrid last summer, with the expectation being that those funds would be used to recruit new stars to challenge the current team. The arrivals of Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos as Madrid’s only purchases, however, failed to do so, and as a result the Madrid team has largely gone stale. Devoid of fresh faces to inject new life into the side, Madrid’s withered league campaign has rather reflected their uninspired transfer window.
The likes of Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois have been linked with big money moves from Chelsea to Real this summer, and it is that calibre of additions that is required this summer to add renewed impetus into Madrid’s title challenge next term.
2. Maximise Youth Potential & Manage Squad More Effectively
Madrid’s transfer activity last summer seemed to focus primarily on the promotion of youth and investment into the future. The signings of Hernandez from Atletico and Ceballos from Real Betis seemed to point in that direction.
The recalling of Jesus Vallejo, Marcos Llorente, Borja Mayoral and Diego Llorente from loan spells, along with the promotion of Achraf Hakimi to the first team picture seemed to further suggest a new approach to success from Florentino Perez and Madrid, moving away from the Galactico philosophy and instead promoting youth to breed long-term success.
The use of these young players so far has, however, been more a case of misuse. Instead of truly embedding these players into the Madrid setup organically, playing alongside Ronaldo and co, they have generally been thrown in at the deep end when the senior stars needed a rest.
The defeat to Sevilla, again, was clear evidence of this. Players who had lacked competition throughout the season which would allow them to be eased into the action and demands of playing for Real Madrid were instead thrust into games which Zidane and Madrid were clearly not prioritising.
Therefore, the careless approach to such domestic commitments and the use of these young players in a team which was essentially thrown together, devoid of an identity or direction, largely hindered these players’ progress this season, and so too Madrid’s league results.
The use of the squad needs to be better structured, better organised and better managed by Zidane next season if he is to maximise the potential of his young stars and achieve a greater consistency in results across all competitions.
1. Stop Depending on Ronaldo
Madrid’s dependence on the goals of Cristiano Ronaldo is not a new topic of discussion or issue which has only surfaced this season.
Ronaldo’s presence has come to be the defining feature of this Real Madrid side almost immediately since he joined the club in 2009. His 25 La Liga goals this season make him the joint second top scorer in Spain this term, whilst his 15 strikes in the current Champions League campaign make him the competition’s top scorer this season.
Rather than diminish in significance over the years, Ronaldo’s goals have become ever more important to Madrid since he joined the club. This has been both a blessing and a curse for Los Blancos.
The question is often: where would they be without him? This is not a healthy question to be asking of any top European club and their over-dependence on the input of a single player.
The great Real Madrid sides of the previous decade, the original Galacticos, were not all about just one great player. They had several, all of whom were capable of making the difference for their side. The Brazilian great Ronaldo of Madrid’s past was their primary source of goals during his time at the club, but he also had the likes of Raul, Zidane, Luis Figo and many more around him.
Madrid have tried to supply Cristiano with a similar supply of accomplices, but the likes of Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez, Kaka and more have all shrunk in the Portuguese’s shadow.
Perhaps one of the biggest tasks before Madrid next season is to lessen their reliance on the presence and consistency of Ronaldo in the side and his goal scoring exploits, and to instead focus more on their approach as a team, not as individuals.
This could be key to getting the best out of the likes of Bale, and may even free up Ronaldo to play under less pressure and take up a more team-based role similar to that which made him a star at Manchester United.