For Real Madrid, a season of triumph still ended on an anti-climatic note. Zinedine Zidane’s side returned from lockdown rested and revitalised, stringing together an impressive run of results to bypass Barcelona and win only their second La Liga title in eight years. And yet by the time Los Blancos got to the Etihad Stadium in early August, their momentum had stalled.
The meek Champions League exit to Manchester City in the round of 16 served Zidane and his players a reality check. Their charge to the Spanish title just weeks previously had hinted at a team on an upward trajectory, but failure in Europe underlined how Real Madrid had merely finished as the best of a bad bunch in La Liga this season.
Right now, all eyes are on Barcelona as the Catalans go through something of an existential crisis. It appears that Lionel Messi is staying at the Camp Nou this summer after all, but what subsequently happens in the boardroom could shape Barca for a generation to come.
This shouldn’t hide Real Madrid’s problems. Indeed, the La Liga champions have issues of their own to solve.
Much like Barcelona, this is an aging squad. If Karim Benzema, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos can be considered the spine of this Real Madrid team, all three players are well into the twilight of their careers. How much longer can Zidane count on them to carry his team? Modric is out of contract next summer while Ramos, now 34, is fading physically, even if his influence as a personality on the Santiago Bernabeu remains as strong as ever.
Barcelona aren’t the only ones in the midst of a generational transition. Martin Odegaard has returned to his parent club after a highly impressive season on loan at Real Sociedad, but it’s not yet clear how Zidane plans to integrate the Norwegian into his side. Tipped as the natural heir to Modric, Odegaard might have to accept a role as an understudy to the Croatian before taking on the bit full-time for the 2021/22 season.
Real Madrid’s squad is unbalanced in a number of areas. On the left side of the attack, Zidane is spoiled for choice. Eden Hazard is generally seen as first choice there, but Marco Asensio, Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior are also at their best when deployed in this position. On the right side, though, Real Madrid are decidedly light on options.
Gareth Bale, of course, was Real Madrid’s first choice right winger for a number of seasons, but the Welshman is now a fringe figure—who happens to be the highest paid player at the Santiago Bernabeu, picking up €15 million a season. This makes Bale the biggest problem Real Madrid have to solve. The money currently tied up in the 31-year-old is empty budget. In these uncertain economic times, Bale’s salary is a hindrance in a number of ways.
James Rodriguez is another that is barely justifying his salary in the Spanish capital right now, although the Colombian seems to be on the brink of a move to Everton where he will be reunited with former Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti. The departure of Mariano Diaz and Isco, as well as Dani Ceballos and Sergio Reguilon, would also help trim a wage bill that had spun out of control in recent times.
Then there’s Luka Jovic. The logic behind the €60 million signing of the Serbian striker from Eintracht Frankfurt last summer was sound, with Zidane keen to ease the dependence on Benzema up front, but the 22-year-old has featured so scarcely for Real Madrid that his potential exit has already been discussed.
That dependence on Benzema is another issue. 2019/20 might have been the Frenchman’s best, certainly most productive, season to date, finishing behind only Messi in the Pichichi standings, but there is no cover for the 32-year-old should he suffer an injury or serve a suspension. Real Madrid’s attacking line revolves around Benzema. Without him, they don’t just miss a goalscorer, but the valve through which so much of their final third play flows through.
Since returning to the Santiago Bernabeu in March 2019, Zidane has slowly, but surely, tackled one squad problem at a time. Ferland Mendy was signed to be the long-term successor to Marcelo and has now made the left back position his own. The emergence of Fede Valverde has given Real Madrid the energy they needed through the centre of the pitch and eliminated their need for Paul Pogba. Toni Kroos is back to his best.
But last season was just the first step on what will be a long road to a new generation for Real Madrid. Just because Barcelona are going through something even more excruciating doesn’t mean Los Blancos aren’t experiencing their own pain. The shiny La Liga trophy can't mask these problems. They're hiding in plain sight.