As Real Madrid’s 2010-2011 campaign draws to a close, madridistas should take a step back to calmly reflect on the year as a whole: from the tepid opening, a 0-0 draw at Mallorca, to the Clásico “rally” at the end of the year, this team has evolved, both in its personnel and in its offensive and defensive philosophy.
There have been steady changes and regressions, positive and negative steps in the team’s formation throughout the year; as the personnel shifted, new players stepped up and old player stepped back in—these are the normal changes of a football team over time. Some good, some bad.
Overall, the campaign has left a rather sweet-and-sour, agridulce as they’d say on the Castellana, taste in most madridista’s mouths: from the glory of the Copa del Rey victory to the agony of the Champions League semifinal, and the disgusting drubbing in the Nou Camp, this year has been oddly mediocre. In past years, a season like this would buy the coach another year to flesh out his project.
This article isn’t to debate the validity of Mourinho as a coach, however: I’m in favor of his managerial philosophy, his style, and his personality. While I understand some people find him grating—he is aggravating—I genuinely believe in his project, and also know that he puts on this mask of talk as a mechanism of alleviating the crushing pressure on his players. He will get (and will want) at least another season with Madrid, I’m sure of it (if only to beat Barcelona a few times).
So instead of Mourinho-bashing, let’s look at some of Madrid’s weaknesses during the year, and try to figure out what players on the transfer market might be able to help los blancos dial it up a level next year.
One of Madrid’s problems against Barcelona (and quite a few other teams) is that Xabi Alonso is not a fantastic defender, and though he plays very deep, he needs someone to cover his back. Simultaneously, though, they need a midfielder who can also slot in front of Xabi on the offensive end to help make things happen further up the pitch.
This player might not exist. Sami Khedira seemed to be a perfect fit at the beginning of the season, but his form began to wane, and he was badly exposed against Barça in the Nou Camp. Lass Diarra, on the other hand, offers very little offensively, and while he constantly motors around on defense, he tends to be caught out of position from time to time.
Perhaps the best fit (oddly), was Esteban Granero, who was very fluid on offense, moved the ball quickly up the pitch, and was surprisingly mobile on defense. Granero did get caught out a couple of times, however, and we have yet to see him reliably play defense for a full season—he should be given a good shot to win the Center Defensive Midfield job next to Xabi Alonso over the summer.
There are players out there who could also be useful in this respect. Hamit Altintop, Bayern Munich’s versatile midfielder, has been rumored to be on his way to Madrid—he could provide some attacking and defending next to Xabi Alonso in a midfield pair, while Sami Khedira and Sergio Canales develop into a pairing for the future.
Madrid lacked depth all season at striker after Gonzalo Higuaín’s injury. And even with the young Argentine returning, Mourinho’s style is often-times centered around aerial balls onto a striker’s head—not Higuaín or young Frenchman Karim Benzema’s strongest suits. Both of Madrid’s striker-tandem-of-the-future (Benzema and Higuaín), are versatile, ground and through-ball oriented playmaking forwards; Madrid could use a tall traditional “9,” a striker who can blast around in the air and strike the ball in quickly. Basically, this Madrid could really use Ruud van Nistelrooy circa 2005.
Mourinho and Florentino Pérez tried to fix this problem by bringing in Togolese striker Emmanuel Adebayor in the winter transfer market on loan from Manchester City. While “Ade” has been pretty good while he’s been on the pitch (he scored twice against Spurs in the Champions League quarters—both with his head), he hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire. He certainly deserves some thought for Madrid’s 2011-2012 campaign, but might not be the best option on the market (he’ll cost €13 million).
There is a perfect option here, unlike the other two weaknesses. Fernando Llorente, Athletic Bilbao’s fantastic young striker has been absolutely lighting it up this year, and Florentino has openly expressed his admiration and desire for the young Spanish international. He can score from his head, from his feet, from just about anywhere; plus, he’s very young, with a lot of projection. The catch? His price tag, which should be around €40 to €50 million. But he would, in my opinion, be worth every penny.
This problem plagued Madrid all year. Marcelo and Sergio Ramos are just not defensive-minded backs, and while they can play defense when they put their mind to it, both of them are just inherently offensive players. This doesn’t matter too much when los blancos play teams like Levante (or whatever), but against teams like Milan, Barça, Sevilla or Valencia, these positions matter. Big time.
So what is there to be done? Can Mourinho fix these players, make them focus more on their defensive responsibilities, and attack as needed (instead of vise-versa)? I think so. Marcelo has shown flashes of absolute genius on both ends, so he is capable of being one of the best wing backs in the world; Sergio Ramos has also shown flashes of shut-down defensive ability, and real offensive prowess. Both of them need to perform consistently if Madrid is going to have a real shot at winning year-long titles next campaign.
While I do think these two players are Madrid’s future, Mourinho might have other plans. He could always chase after his beloved Maicon, a fixture of last summer’s transfer market. Or he could opt to go for some talent in the Portuguese or Argentine leagues, as Madrid has done to great effect recently. As all this drama unfolds, we can only sit back and enjoy the ride.