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2016-17 La Liga Team Preview: Real Madrid

Real Madrid will be good this year. But no one knows what will happen after that.

Real Madrid CF v VfL Wolfsburg - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

The first team up in our La Liga preview is eternal rivals Real Madrid.

What are Real Madrid’s expectations this year?

Real Madrid, like their Clasico rivals Barcelona, enter every season with the same expectations: Win every trophy you can and especially aim to win La Liga and the Champions League. That said, while Barcelona have been mostly well-run since the ascent of Pep Guardiola and have the trophy haul to prove it, Real Madrid have labored under the mostly-bad management of club president Florentino Perez.

Perez is the front-office equivalent to the rich kid who inherits all his family’s money and uses it to go out and buy a Vespa scooter, three yachts, two private jets, a hookah, and two pet tigers and then wonders where his money went and fires his investment adviser. He sees something pretty and shiny and he wants it—even if it means adding redundant parts to the team and selling off players who are actually valuable to the squad but don’t have the GALACTICO brand he loves so much. Thus Los Merengues have parted with Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso, and Angel Di Maria in recent years (we might add Gonzalo Higuain to that last as well) and added Isco, Gareth Bale, and James Rodriguez—none of whom filled huge holes in the Madrid squad when they joined the club. They’ve also fired the only big-name manager in the world capable of creating a winner from such a cocktail of mismatched ingredients, Carlo Ancelotti, and replaced him with a poor man’s Jose Mourinho, former Valencia and Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, only to fire him after less than a year on the job.

Fortunately for Madrid, club legend Zinedine Zidane stepped into the role after Benitez’s entirely predictable demise and turned out to have both enough sense to know he needed to have, like, an actual midfield and enough street cred at the club to get away with such a move under Florentino Perez’s regime.

Under Benitez last season, Madrid went 11-3-4 in La Liga. Under Zidane they went 16-2-1 in La Liga. That’s 2 points per match (good for 76 points in a 38 game season) under Benitez and 2.5 points per match (good for 95 points in a 38 game season) under Zidane. Put another way, Zidane’s Madrid is absolutely good enough to win La Liga this year and will also contend in the Champions League and Copa del Rey.

What kind of tactics should we expect?

Zidane Madrid abandoned the amorphous 4-2-3-1 favored by Rafa Benitez, which suffered due to the lack of an actual defensive midfielder in the squad, in favor of a 4-3-3 with Casemiro anchoring the midfield. It’s a testament to the structure and talent of the team that introducing a serviceable-but-not-elite holding mid like Casemiro would transform the team so radically.

We’ll expect more of the same from them this year. The 4-3-3 suits Madrid because it provides a holding mid to provide cover for the team’s more attack-minded players and it provides obvious, easy cover when Ronaldo inevitably drifts inside and becomes more of a second striker than proper winger as Marcelo or the left-sided advanced midfielder can easily slide into the space he vacates when necessary.

What we’ll see from this Madrid squad, then, is a functional 4-3-3 that relies on the individual genius of its world-class players - Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema - to create chances. They’ll also benefit from the added depth provided by returning academy grad (and former Atletico cantanero) Alvaro Morata, who the club brought back to the Bernabeu from Juventus via a buyback clause. If Isco and James Rodriguez both stay with the club through deadline day they will provide additional cover. That said, a great deal hangs upon Casemiro, as he’s the only established, proven holding midfielder who can sit at the base of the 4-3-3. As strange as it seems in a squad as star-studded as this Real Madrid team, much of the squad’s success may hinge on the health and performance of the least-heralded member of their first XI.

Who are the most influential players?

As the above makes clear, you can convincingly argue that the most important player is actually Casemiro, as he is the only player in the squad who can provide the kind of stability and defensive cover that Xabi Alonso did during his time at the Bernabeu.

That said, if you want to talk about who will attract the headlines and make the team’s attack tick, it’s the usual suspects: Modric, Bale, and, most of all, Ronaldo. You can argue that this is actually a pivotal year for all three of these stars. Modric will turn 31 in September. His ability is such that he can likely play at a high level into his mid-30s (like Andrea Pirlo) if given the right set-up. But one suspects this may be the final year that he plays the role for Madrid that he has since his arrival from English side Tottenham Hotspur. Ronaldo, meanwhile, will turn 32 in February. Every season now begins with the question “is this Ronaldo’s last year in Madrid?” One suspects he can probably play one more year beyond this one at an acceptable level at Madrid, but it’s hard to see him holding on much past that point. Given that CR7 has only one a single La Liga title, a number dwarfed by Barça’s five titles during the same span and equalled by Atletico, Ronaldo will be keen to lift a second La Liga trophy at season’s end.

Bale, of course, is the youngest of the trio, but has had a very stop-start career in Madrid, often suffering from unfair and frankly ludicrous comparisons with Ronaldo. If he can have his best season in Spain so far—say 25 La Liga goals in 32+ appearances, one suspects he’ll be set up to succeed Ronaldo as the lead Galactico. But if he struggles, as he did in his second season in Spain when he scored only 13 goals in 31 appearances, it’s not hard to imagine Manchester United or Manchester City entering the picture again next summer.

What have they done during the transfer window?

So far... basically nothing. They brought back Morata, which was a canny (if obvious) move, but beyond that they’ve done nothing. And that’s really, really strange. Real Madrid face an impending transfer ban that will likely cover this January’s window and next summer’s transfer window. That means that, come September, Madrid’s squad is basically locked in (barring academy grads moving into the senior setup) until January 2018.

If Madrid were a young team with a deep academy, that’d be one thing. But Madrid is neither. Modric, Ronaldo, Benzema, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, and Pepe are all the wrong side of 28. Kroos and Bale are 26 and 27 respectively. Isco and James are 24 and 25, but neither of those players seem to be particularly central to Zidane’s plans. The problems at the club’s academy are well-established at this point, as Morata is really the only elite talent they’ve produced in recent years—and the club just sold the second most promising academy grad, Jese, to Paris Saint-Germain.

So Madrid is headed into a two-window transfer ban with an aging squad full of players who are either at the tail-end of their prime or already past it. If there were ever a time to spend big on young, up-and-comers, this would be it. But while Barcelona sign Samuel Umtiti and Andre Gomes and Atletico pad its very young squad with solid veteran signings, Real Madrid has been strangely silent.

One Bold Prediction

Real Madrid will win La Liga. There are tons of issues with this club, most of which are tied to Perez’s awful management of the club’s resources, but for the 2016-17 season these are the two things we can say:

  1. They have a ludicrously talented squad with just enough quality in defense to get by.
  2. Their manager knows how to set up a coherent, well-structured team.

They won’t win the Champions League again—they managed to get to the final last season by going through the “daunting” draw of Roma, Wolfsburg and Manchester City and they won’t be so lucky again—but over a 38-game season in La Liga, they are very strong.