There was an incredulity to the British reaction following Tottenham Hotspur’s Champions League win over Real Madrid on Wednesday.
Steve McManaman, co-commentator for the host broadcasters on the night, was left aghast for the full 90 minutes, exclaiming that he couldn’t ‘believe what I’m seeing’ at one point. He shouldn’t have been so surprised, though.
Of course, the nature of Spurs’ win was highly impressive. The European champions were dominated from start to finish, with Mauricio Pochettino’s side deserving of their emphatic victory. But many of the issues that have dogged Real Madrid over the early part of the season bubbled to the surface once more at Wembley. This was, going on the past few weeks, par for the course.
It was the same against Girona on Sunday. That was, arguably, the nadir of Real Madrid’s season so far, not the Champions League defeat to Spurs. At the tiny Estadi Montilivi, Zidane’s team were out-fought and out-thought by an opponent who shouldn’t have come close to the standard of the Spanish champions. Girona, just like Spurs a few days following, were worthy winners.
There can be no denying that this season has been a struggle for Real Madrid. The fall in their level has been drastic. The Spanish Supercopa thrashing of Barcelona, culminating with the toying of their Catalan rivals at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, suggested another season of success was on the cards for a side at the peak of their powers. The dynamic has changed since then, though.
It’s time for Zidane and Real Madrid to embrace that this is a team in transition. The Frenchman shouldn’t be too surprised that this is a challenge he is facing, although it may have materialised sooner than anyone had previously envisaged. But the evidence is now irrefutable – Real are moving between one cycle and another.
This isn’t to say that a downfall is inevitable. There is a way to manage transitions of this sort. Real Madrid have the depth of talent in their squad to maintain a high level while simultaneously moving the club into a new age. An age that might not depend so much on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric.
Some have suggested their slump is down to complacency, but does that explanation really pass for a group of players that become the first team in a generation to retain their Champions League crown?
If one side has shown a capacity for staving off complacency, it’s Zidane’s Madrid. Besides all this, there is no reason for anyone at the Bernabeu to be complacent right now after such a dismal start to the 2017/18 campaign.
Wednesday’s defeat to Spurs wasn’t an anomaly, but the culmination of many factors that had built over time.
Injuries have been one such factor, with the squad significantly depleted right now. But the performances of key figures such as Benzema, Modric and even Sergio Ramos suggest there is a collective decline happening. Their form will return at some point over the course of the season, but Zidane must recognise something bigger at play here. Everyone at Real Madrid must recognise it.
That might mean using Mateo Kovacic more prominently in rotation with Modric when the Croatian returns from injury. Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos might have struggled to find their best form in the early days of the Real Madrid careers, but Zidane must continue to show them faith. The same goes for Achraf Hakimi, Marco Asensio and the rest.
These players are the club’s future, and that future might arrive rather quickly. In fact, it might already be here.