Just over a year ago, Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid were claiming their fourth Champions League in five years, and their third in a row. A far cry from the side that crumbled against PSG on Wednesday evening.
They managed to hold off a Liverpool side yet to reach the heights of last season, helped by two calamitous errors from Loris Karius.
This Real Madrid side that ruled Europe was packed with individual brilliance, from back to front. Yet, particularly in the last couple of years, it has felt as though this is a side lacking in the collective.
There was no particular style of football you could really label Los Blancos with aside from that of being a pure winning machine, which some may very fairly argue is the most impressive and important style of all.
While their individual brilliance saw them through Champions League nights, it generally failed to sustain Real properly throughout a league campaign. Throughout their five year period of continental dominance, Los Blancos only won La Liga once.
On the flip side, you have Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. A superb collective that can dominate over a season in the league, where a one off bad result can be bounced back from. But the chaotic nature of the Champions League knockout stages does not allow for such things. It’s hard to deny that there is a strong element of luck in pretty much all knockout competitions.
At times, it has felt like fortune favoured Real. Spirited and deserving opposition performances were put to the sword with moments of fortune and brilliance. Overhead kicks have seemingly been a particular feature of Real’s recent dominance in the Champions League.
And who could deny the wondrous ability of their players. A front three of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric creating in midfield anchored by Casemiro.
Even in defence, Real Madrid had more excellent attackers. Marcelo and Dani Carvajal probably spent most of their time in the opposition half, and Sergio Ramos’s goal threat from set pieces is admirable.
But this attacking brilliance felt like a problem lying in wait – a lack of coherence and defensive stability. Casemiro was thrown in at the base of midfield, but at times it appeared to be more like Pritt Stick trying to hold an aeroplanes wings on.
There was a fragility covered up by superstar moments. Real’s midfield and attack had little defensive nous aside from their Brazilian anchorman. And Marcelo’s frequent raids forward left so much space in defence, not helped by Ramos’s instinctive drive to attack the ball.
It’s miraculous that these weaknesses were never really exploited. It felt inevitable that they would be, and that the time would soon come to shift on Los Blancos’s brilliant but ageing stars.
Now we skip ahead past their disaster of 2018/19, with Ronaldo’s departure and the chaos of Julen Lopetegui, to the present day back with Zidane.
There has been some forward shift. Eden Hazard has taken up the number seven shirt, and Vinicius Junior emerged into the first team last season – a child of the 2000s.
But in defence, there are still issues. Ramos is a conundrum – there is no denying his incredible and combative defensive ability, particularly in one on one duels. But he is reckless, often darting from his position and leaving space in behind him.
However, Real Madrid seem to struggle to cope without him. He was missing last night against PSG as Los Blancos fell to a 3-0 defeat. That was thanks to a two match suspension he picked up for deliberately getting a yellow card in the first leg of Real’s last 16 tie against Ajax. We all know how that second leg went.
Nacho Monreal also being suspended won’t have helped Zidane and Real, but their failings in Ramos’s absence shows their reliance on individuals – be it through their ability or character.
Ramos is far from the perfect defender, but he is an aggressive leader and Los Blancos seem to struggle without him. They also, of course, have struggled since Ronaldo’s departure. Not only have they lost his show-stopping moments on the pitch, but also the leading character of the Real Madrid blockbuster.
Marcelo, for all his frankly laughable defensive lapses, also seems to be a missed presence when he is not in the side. Even when he hits crosses woefully behind their intended recipient, they get finished off via overhead kicks. Some of those sparking moments seem to be fading.
And perhaps this shows what the strength of Zidane was and is. Somehow fashioning this unwieldy band of superstars into a single minded and driven unit, capable pulling off spectacular moments to win big matches – matches they arguably sometimes did not deserve to win.
But now there is a rebuild going on. The superstars from that team are dispersing, waxing and waning. Zidane has an entirely different task on his hand to when he first took up the Real Madrid job. Old structures will have to be knocked down for new ones to be built, and Zidane may not have the right managerial talents to do so.