Real Madrid's performance under Zinedine Zidane vindicates Julen Lopetegui
Background image: Rubén Vique, CC BY 2.0
It has been a season to forget for Real Madrid after the tremendous success from twelve months ago. Zinedine Zidane capped off a third campaign with the club by leading, the team to an unexpected treble of Champions League trophy wins. Sensing he had come to the end of a cycle, the Frenchman promptly quit as manager. Starman Cristiano Ronaldo also left, since then nothing was the same. Julen Lopetegui was chosen to take the side forward.
Having already achieved relative success with the Spanish national team, much was expected of the 52-year-old. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work as planned. A string of poor results in all competitions proved led to his exit. Performances both in La Liga and the Champions League left the team struggling to keep pace with Barcelona in the title race, while qualifying for the next round of the continental showpiece looked in doubt.
Already used to success on the continent, the club hierarchy pulled the trigger just 138 days into his reign. But that was after a 5-1 humiliation by Barcelona in October. It was a third successive defeat in the league. Letting him go then looked like the natural decision to take. But in hindsight, things look a little different now.
Youth team manager Santiago Solari was drafted in to take charge of the team on a temporary basis. After some good results, the 42-year-old was made permanent manager in November. He was given a two-year deal. Unfortunately, the problems continued and a grand collapse in the Champions League against Ajax led to his sack after just four months in charge. Zidane made a surprise comeback to the job. Many thought if there was anyone that knew how to bring out the best from the team, it was the Frenchman.
That expectation is yet to materialise as the team’s poor form has continued. With just three wins in the last eight games, it's clear Lopetegui was not the problem. As has been the case with Manchester United in the last few years, when a team continues to fail regardless of who is at the dugout, it shows the problem is beyond just changing the manager.
The signs have been there for Los Blancos. The last decade has seen Barcelona totally dominate the domestic scene in Spain. From La Liga to the Copa del Rey, it has been the same story. Eight league titles in 11 seasons with Atletico Madrid and Real sharing the remaining three tells the story.
Winning the Copa del Rey for the last five seasons in a row acts as confirmation. While Pep Guardiola's Manchester City has been highly praised for being the first side to retain the Premier League title in over a decade, Barcelona has done same in Spain to much less fanfare.
At this stage, celebrating the league title at Camp Nou has become a common occurrence. That's due to Real Madrid's failure. Champions League triumphs in the last few years have added to the distraction. The team has been praised for the accomplishment with the players consistently dominating the FIFPro World XI. But what has been ignored is the fact that Ronaldo's goalscoring exploits in the competition got the team out of jail time and time again.
The bottom line is that the team is long overdue an injection of top quality players. While the side struggled last season in La Liga as Ronaldo's early suspension affected his goal return, Zidane went the extra mile to insist he did not need additions up front. He backed his countryman Karim Benzema to come good. Unfortunately, despite hitting double figures at the end of the campaign, the former Lyon striker did not do nearly enough.
Ronaldo's departure exposed the weaknesses in the team to devastating effect. During his time, the team succeeded by outscoring opponents. Regularly scoring more than 40 goals each season like Lionel Messi does for Barcelona meant he single-handedly put the club in the conversation as far as winning trophies is concerned especially on the continent. For instance, lacking such firepower, the team scored just three goals in five of the last eight games. That resulted in three losses and two draws.
Zidane cannot run away from the fact anymore.
Real Madrid does not have a coaching problem and never did, even under Lopetegui. It's now clear that the problem is the need for better players, especially up top. The only solution to the problem is to make marquee signings. Eden Hazard, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Christian Eriksen, Mauro Icardi, Luka Jovic and more. The Frenchman can take his pick. Revamping the squad is the only way he can avoid towing the same path as Lopetegui and Solari.