Not that long ago, Real Madrid would win Champions League games almost by divine right. Often they wouldn’t play particularly well, and sometimes they’d even be down for a while. Nevertheless, with the well-earned arrogance and entitlement of a team that had won so much it had discarded with the notion that losing was even a possibility, Madrid would keep playing its game, confident as ever, until one of them scored the inevitable winning goal and they could all jaunt back into the locker room, reinforced in their belief that to win was all there is. But all of that is in the past now. The current Real Madrid sucks.
Evidence of this fall from grace could be seen on Wednesday, when the Blancos kicked off the new season of their favorite competition against Shakhtar Donetsk. This should’ve been a good opportunity for a Madrid team that has gotten off to a shaky start in La Liga to pick up a confidence-building win, at home against a Shakhtar team that was missing 10 first-team players who had all recently tested positive for COVID-19. Without stars like Taison, Junior Moraes, and Alan Patrick, Shakhtar had to pad out the gameday roster with youth teamers. On paper, Shakhtar were ripe for the picking. In reality, Shakhtar beat the breaks off the home team in a 3–2 win.
Shakhtar did the bulk of its damage in a blistering first half. Madrid’s backline was completely and routinely shredded by the Ukrainians’ forward trio, especially down the left flank, where Marcelo and Éder Militão almost looked confused about which team they were supposed to be helping. (Maybe it was seeing so many fellow Brazilians on the other team that mixed them up?) Madrid’s pressing lines had no coordination whatsoever. As long as Shakhtar could beat the first high line of pressure, they were practically free to run clear through on goal. The visitors feasted on the yawning gaps all over Madrid’s defense for three goals in the first 45 minutes, could’ve easily scored more, and kept the Madrid attack from doing jack shit in the other direction. Madrid’s performance was utterly embarrassing.
Freed to push everything forward in attack, and buoyed by the subbing on of key players like Karim Benzema, Vinícius, and Toni Kroos, Madrid fought back into the match in a much better second half. Luka Modrić hit a worldie to grab one goal back in the 54th minute, Vinícius added another off an awful Shakhtar turnover five minutes later, and in stoppage time it looked like Federico Valverde had saved the Blancos‘ blushes with an outside-the-box banger that VAR subsequently disallowed. But Madrid’s fight-back was deceiving. Neither of the team’s second-half goals, nor the annulled one, were fruit of improved, coherent, stabilized play, and only poor decision-making and errant finishing kept Shakhtar from adding a goal or two to its lead. Madrid deserved to lose, and unlike in years prior, when the Madridistas made a habit out of snatching draws or victories from the jaws of defeat, lose they did. Absent a major turn-around, they will continue to lose in the very competition where, just a few years ago, losing felt impossible.
It would be fair to point out that Madrid was missing crucial, world-class players like Benzema, Kroos, and Sergio Ramos from Wednesday’s starting lineup, and that any team could have a (very) bad day without three of its very best players. But the fact that Madrid can no longer weather a few missing pieces to its Gala XI, in a match against an inferior and COVID-weakened opponent no less, is proof that the times have changed.
The hallmark of the Madrid teams that won four European Cups in five seasons from 2013–18 was the club’s ridiculously, historically deep super-squad. Not only did Madrid boast starters like the BBC and the Casemiro-Kroos-Modric midfield triumvirate and Ramos and Varane and the rest, but it also had so many players on the bench—James Rodríguez, Isco, Álvaro Morata, Pepe, Mateo Kovacic, Marco Asensio, Dani Ceballos, Danilo, Jesé, Nacho, Lucas Vázquez—who would be starters if not full-on stars at nearly any other club in the world. The apotheosis of Madrid’s super-squad concept came in 2016–17, not coincidentally the best season of that whole run, where the Blancos won La Liga and the Champions League using essentially two completely separate yet still incredibly strong starting XIs to keep everyone fresh and motivated.
Not only is Madrid’s bench much thinner now than it was then, even the starting lineup is far weaker. This relative weakness is no sin, as the super-squad with about 18 starting-caliber players was always going to be unsustainable. Club president Florentino Pérez tried to keep the good times rolling with a calculated strategy of vacuuming up the world’s brightest young talents, hoping the relatively small (but quickly ballooning) transfer fees paid for an assortment of precocious youngsters would fill Madrid’s roster with budding stars to take over for the ones that left. It was a smart strategy. As of yet, it hasn’t quite worked.
The players who were so good as rotation options off the bench in prior years haven’t made the next step to solidify themselves as starters and stars. Isco’s career has been stagnant for years; Asensio had a major knee injury and still hasn’t recaptured his star-in-the-making form of a couple seasons ago; Kovacic and Ceballos are gone. The crop of youngsters Pérez bought as part of his gold-panning plan still aren’t ready for the bright lights, either. Martin Odegaard could very well become that emergent star this season, but he hasn’t broken out yet and is currently out for a while with an injury; Vinícius is electric with the ball at his feet in open space, but he’s too limited at everything else to be a regular starter for a team of Madrid’s ambitions at this point in his career; Rodrygo is more well-rounded than his compatriot Vini, but he too is still more of a prospect than a finished article. Other signings meant to flesh out the squad—Luka Jovic, Militão, Álvaro Odriozola—have been complete whiffs thus far. Of Madrid’s new additions over recent years, only Thibaut Courtois, Ferland Mendy, and Valverde look fully capable of upholding the Madrid standard right now.
The most debilitating performance from a recent Real Madrid signing has been its most expensive one, Eden Hazard. Fresh off the best season of his career, Hazard made his dream move to the Spanish capital in the summer of 2019, perfectly primed to thrive as the definitive Cristiano Ronaldo replacement. Instead, the Belgian has been haunted by injuries. Two different breaks of his right ankle made Hazard miss half of his debut season in Madrid, and a different leg injury has prevented him from making any appearances in this one. With no timetable yet for his return, it’s hard to know what, when, or how much Madrid will get from the man who should be leading the attack.
So while it might feel jarring at first to see the mighty Madrid getting spanked by an Eastern European club’s B team, this has been where Madrid has been trending for a while now. It is no fluke. Real Madrid simply isn’t very good anymore.
If this reality stings the pride of Madridistas, they should focus on their domestic competition, where the forecast is much sunnier. Yes, Madrid kind of sucks now, but so do all the other big contenders in La Liga. Let’s not forget that on the same day Shakhtar humbled Madrid, Bayern Munich whipped Atlético’s ass, and that two months ago Barcelona was once again the laughingstock of Europe when Bayern crushed them, 8–2. What was once the best league in the world has gotten considerably worse over the past couple years.
The Clásico is on Saturday, by the way. Madrid and Barça will both be looking for a victory to kickstart a push for a title that one of the two will most likely win, though I’m certain both clubs would settle for a draw if it saved them from another big embarrassment. That’s just the state of Spanish soccer at the moment, where even its two biggest clubs duke it out not to prove that they are great, but rather to avoid getting exposed for just how bad each of them have become.