Ramos-cen­tric ap­proach no longer enough

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Soccer -

Julen Lopetegui and Real Madrid was one of those re­la­tion­ships that looked doomed from the very be­gin­ning. Three days be­fore the World Cup kicked off in Rus­sia, Madrid an­nounced that Lopetegui, then coach of Spain with a re­cently agreed con­tract ex­ten­sion to 2020, would break that con­tract to join Real Madrid fol­low­ing the con­clu­sion of Spain’s World Cup cam­paign. This made the Span­ish FA pres­i­dent Luis Ru­biales so an­gry that he sacked Lopetegui the next day. The Basque got to take over at Madrid a cou­ple of weeks ear­lier than he had bar­gained for.

Madrid’s pres­i­dent, Florentino Perez, had ex­pected to be poach­ing the re­spected and suc­cess­ful man­ager of the na­tional team; in­stead his new coach was a na­tional joke from day one. At the time this seemed like the worst pos­si­ble start for Lopetegui. In hind­sight his first week in charge was the best spell of his Madrid ca­reer. It was the only time he seemed to be wanted.

In July Madrid sold Cris­tiano Ron­aldo to Ju­ven­tus and ev­ery­one waited to see who they would sign to re­place the man who had av­er­aged 50 goals a sea­son for the past nine years. On Au­gust 29th, Madrid an­nounced the sign­ing of Mariano Diaz from Lyon – a 25-year-old striker with 26 top-level goals to his name. A few days af­ter that, they un­veiled their ¤525 mil­lion sta­dium re­de­vel­op­ment plan. Clearly Perez’s pri­or­ity at that point was to re­build the sta­dium, not the squad. Lopetegui would just have to get on as best he could.

Perez was gam­bling that his team were so good that they did not need in­vest­ment. They had, af­ter all, won three Cham­pi­ons Leagues in a row. Clearly, Ron­aldo was cen­tral to all of these vic­to­ries, but Perez al­ways felt the Por­tuguese got too much of the credit. He be­lieved Madrid were much more than sim­ply the Cris­tiano team. Rather than wreck­ing the team’s at­tack, Ron­aldo’s de­par­ture would give oth­ers – such as Ser­gio Asen­sio, Isco and Gareth Bale – the chance to bloom and thrive.

Ter­ri­ble mis­take

We know now that this was a ter­ri­ble mis­take. The un­rav­el­ling be­gan with a 3-0 de­feat at Sevilla at the end of last month, con­tin­ued through de­feats to Alavés and CSKA Moscow and last week cul­mi­nated in a 2-1 home de­feat to Le­vante, a match in which Marcelo’s con­so­la­tion goal just about man­aged to pre­vent Madrid set­ting a new record for the long­est score­less run in their en­tire his­tory.

Lopetegui was al­ready washed up af­ter the Le­vante game, but with Barcelona next up in La Liga it was felt he might as well be al­lowed to re­main in place to ab­sorb the im­pact of one fi­nal dis­grace. Perez might now wish he had acted af­ter all, be­cause the 5-1 thrash­ing Madrid took yesterday will be re­mem­bered by fans of Madrid and Barcelona long af­ter they have for­got­ten about Lopetegui.

Who knows how bad it could have got for Madrid if Lionel Messi had not been ruled out through in­jury. As it was, the match bru­tally ex­posed Madrid’s weak­nesses all over the field.

First, they have no ref­er­ence point in at­tack. Perez once hoped that Gareth Bale would be­come a player on the level of Ron­aldo. Yesterday Bale, who had fewer touches than any other starter, was mer­ci­lessly bar­racked by the Barcelona fans for the clum­si­ness of the touches he did take. He can still look like a su­per­hero for Wales, but in tough matches for Madrid he so of­ten looks lost, iso­lated, not on the same wave­length as his team-mates. The lack of con­nec­tion with the play­ers around him would be wor­ry­ing enough if he were a new sign­ing, but this is his sixth sea­son in Madrid.

Karim Ben­zema’s dwin­dling band of ad­mir­ers can no longer ar­gue that he would score more goals if only Ron­aldo wasn’t there to hog all the chances. As for Isco, he is one of Perez’s favourites, but no amount of pres­i­den­tial ad­mi­ra­tion can change the fact he lacks the speed to play in a front three just as he lacks the stamina and strength to play in mid­field.

In mid­field Madrid were medi­ocre rather than dis­as­trous, with a tired-look­ing Luka Mo­dric and Toni Kroos strug­gling to impose them­selves on the game for all but a short spell af­ter half-time. But Madrid’s big­gest prob­lems were in de­fence, and they don’t come any big­ger than Ser­gio Ramos.

Now that Ron­aldo is gone, Ramos’s sta­tus as the big­gest player at the club is undis­puted. His rec­om­men­da­tion was key to the club’s de­ci­sion to hire Lopetegui, and he has taken ad­van­tage of the weak new regime to in­stall him­self as the taker of penal­ties and most of the dan­ger­ous free-kicks. Who’s go­ing to tell him oth­er­wise? Un­for­tu­nately for Madrid, it looks as though the cult of Ramos has kicked into a truly epic phase just as the de­fender be­gins to show signs of de­cline.

Ramos’s mis­takes

Ramos is now rou­tinely de­scribed as the best cen­tral de­fender in the world, but in foot­ball rep­u­ta­tion al­ways lags be­hind re­al­ity. Madrid won the Cham­pi­ons League last year but they con­ceded nine goals in the knock­out phase – more than any other win­ner since the com­pe­ti­tion moved to its cur­rent for­mat in 2003-4. They got away with this be­cause Ron­aldo scored 15 goals in the com­pe­ti­tion, but even Ron­aldo could not score enough to com­pen­sate for the 44 Madrid con­ceded in the league, their worst de­fen­sive record for a decade.

It was Ramos’s mis­takes that cost Madrid against Sevilla in the 3-0 de­feat that started their poor run, and nei­ther did he cover him­self in glory when Spain lost 3-2 to Eng­land in the re­cent Na­tions League game.

Against Barcelona, Ramos presided over a de­fen­sive melt­down that be­gan with Madrid fail­ing to no­tice Jordi Alba’s tele­graphed run down the left for the open­ing goal, and cul­mi­nated in Ramos stand­ing by and watch­ing the un­marked Ar­turo Vi­dal head the fifth for Barcelona. In be­tween, Ramos had chested a ball in mid­field down to Sergi Roberto, who im­me­di­ately played Luis Suarez in to com­plete his hat-trick.

Re­mark­ably, Ramos’ self-as­sur­ance is so bul­let­proof that af­ter the match, he was en­ter­tain­ing queries from re­porters as to whether An­to­nio Conte’s no­to­ri­ously un­com­pro­mis­ing man-man­age­ment could work in the con­text of Real Madrid. Ramos said that man­ag­ing the dress­ing room was more im­por­tant than high-level tac­ti­cal knowl­edge. In other words, what re­ally counts is not whether the coach has good ideas, but whether Ramos ap­proves of him. The Ramos-cen­tric ap­proach might have been good enough to win tro­phies for Madrid while the club was be­ing car­ried on the back of a 50-goal-a-sea­son for­ward. Now those days are gone, it’s start­ing to look like they might need to re­think the over­all strat­egy.

Ramos is now rou­tinely de­scribed as the best cen­tral de­fender in the world, but in foot­ball rep­u­ta­tion al­ways lags be­hind re­al­ity

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