Cristiano Ronaldo’s €105 million move to Juventus this summer turned the football world on its head. For once, Real Madrid were left on the back foot, their record scorer leaving for Turin following years of rumours linking him with a move away from the Santiago Bernabeu.
That came a month after Zinedine Zidane announced he was stepping down as manager, having led the club to three consecutive Champions League titles in little under three seasons. Now Los Blancos must face up to life without two of their most important figures in recent history.
This is a leap into the unknown for Madrid for whom losing Ronaldo means changing an entire tactical approach. Julen Lopetegui is the man entrusted with the seemingly impossible task of filling the void and is aware of the difficulties which lie ahead.
“It is an exciting challenge to make a competitive team without Cristiano,” the former Spain manager told the press during their preseason tour of the US.
With this season the first since 1999-2000 that their squad won’t feature a Ballon d’Or winner, could his side be even better without the Portuguese star?
A more balanced tactical approach
Real Madrid were hard to pin down under Zidane.
Nobody can argue with the nine trophies the former midfield virtuoso won in his brief time at the helm, but Madrid did not always play well. The Spanish press even came up with a phrase to describe the phenomenon – ‘La flor de Zidane’, Zidane’s flower – referring to the Frenchman’s lucky streak.
That was exemplified by Ronaldo, who was not always dazzlingly brilliant in his final campaign in the Spanish capital. He didn’t need to be, however, adapting his game to become a lethal poacher and helping Madrid to win their 13th European Cup with 28 goals in 22 games in the second half of the season.
As one of the two best players in world football, Madrid inevitably channelled much of their attacking play through Ronaldo. But many wondered why Zidane didn’t make more of silky midfielders such as Luka Modric, Isco and Toni Kroos.
With the number seven gone, Lopetegui can implement a more balanced system. He has spoken of his desire to do just that, stating that he wants to “reinforce the word ‘team’” on Madrid’s preseason tour.
The Basque coach demonstrated his tactical versatility while in charge of Spain, switching between a range of systems including 3-5-2, 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 with inverted wingers. His Spain side kept possession and pressed aggressively as a unit when they lost the ball, cutting apart their opponents at will as they did in the 6-1 friendly mauling of Argentina.
Isco scored a hat-trick on that day to put Jorge Sampaoli’s team to the sword, and he will be central to this new-look outfit having been unable to nail down a starting spot under Zidane. Lopetegui’s fondness for the midfield wizard is no secret having guided him through the ranks for Spain, and the Basque coach built his side around him in the build-up to the World Cup prior to his sacking on the eve of the tournament.
If Lopetegui opts for a 4-3-3 with Casemiro at the base of midfield and Modric and Kroos ahead of him, then we could see Isco on the left of an attacking three cutting inside. Alternatively, he could play as a more traditional number ten or as a false nine: the position from which he scored a brace against Italy in qualifying for Russia.
The emphasis, then, will be on midfield where Madrid have been bypassed in recent seasons. With players of the quality of Isco, Kroos and Modric at his disposition as well as the likes of Mateo Kovacic and Dani Ceballos from the bench, Lopetegui has all the tools he needs to give this team more control in the post-Ronaldo era.
A chance for Bale to take centre stage
If there is one Real Madrid player who will have been encouraged by events in the Spanish capital this summer, it is Gareth Bale.
The Welshman came on in the Champions League final to score twice and change the game – one a spectacular overhead kick which ranks among the best goals scored in any final – but then cast doubt on his future with the Spanish giants.
“I need to be playing week-in, week-out and that hasn’t happened this season for one reason or another,” he said in the aftermath of Madrid’s victory in Kiev. “I have to sit down in the summer and discuss my future with my agent and take it from there.”
He received a timely boost, however, when Zidane announced his departure. It was telling that Bale was the only Madrid player not to write a farewell message on social media given his relationship with the manager broke down completely last season.
Then came Ronaldo’s exit. Bale knew he was always likely to play second fiddle while the two were at the club together; now he has an opportunity to stake a claim as the star of the team.
As Real gear up for the new season, much of the focus has been on who will take up Ronaldo’s 50 goals a season. The rumours are that Perez has his eye on another Galactico, a player in the mould of Eden Hazard, Kylian Mbappe or perhaps even Neymar.
While Perez may still choose to splash out before the transfer window closes, he would do well to remember he already signed a tailor-made replacement for Ronaldo five years ago.
Bale has struggled with injuries and form during his time at the Bernabeu, but 83 goals and 45 assists in 147 starts for Los Blancos is still hugely impressive. Then there are his vital goals in finals; the breathtaking sprint in the Copa del Rey final which left Marc Bartra in the dust, the header which set Madrid on their way to the Decima in Lisbon, that brace against Liverpool in Kiev.
Even so, this is a make-or-break season for Bale at the age of 29. Lopetegui has assured him he will have a starring role, and he could play just off Karim Benzema in a more central position, freed of his defensive responsibilities on the wing.
“Gareth Bale is a magnificent player with so many qualities,” Lopetegui said. “He can help fill the void.” If he is given the kind of freedom which Ronaldo enjoyed, then we could see Bale return to his devastating best.
New beginnings at the Bernabeu
It is anybody’s guess how Los Blancos will fare without Ronaldo.
Much depends on whether Bale and his teammates can step up to the plate in the absence of their Portuguese talisman. We could see one of the most balanced Real sides in years or Lopetegui could be axed by Christmas.
Either way, it promises to be an intriguing fresh start at the Bernabéu. Losing Ronaldo may have been the end of an era, but this season heralds the start of a new one for Madrid.