18 months ago, Real Madrid was in a dark place — fallen too quickly, too violently, too unapologetically, and too horrifically from their Decima triumph. How can such a team and fanbase, riding a hypnagogic and metaphysical high be sucked to such murky depths? 2014 was a year of festivity, it was etched in history as a time to remember. 12 years Real Madrid fans had suffered in search of a trophy that was expected to come not long after 2002.
Ancelotti finally brought it to them. On and off the pitch he was lovable — off of it was because he was humble, sincere, and soul-stirring; on it because he had reinvented Di Maria into a two-way midfield menace, among many other things.
Ancelotti had his peeves, but not enough to justify sacking him. 18 months ago, la Decima had not only not been built upon, but it was berated. Ancelotti was long gone. Di Maria was long gone. Rafa Benitez was off too, because he never stood a chance to begin with. Real Madrid were well out of the title race at that time, to boot.
Too many saw parallels with Ancelotti and Del Bosque’s departures. If Del Bosque’s exile was followed by years of mediocrity, Ancelotti’s banishment foreshadowed much the same.
The remedy, Zinedine Zidane, induced plenty of skepticism. A folk hero? Yes, but just as a genius with the ball at his feet. Beyond that he was as raw as present-day (and heavily criticized) Santiago Solari. Even as an ever-evolving and growing manager the skepticism didn’t evaporate entirely. The last-second (20 seconds, to be exact) collapse of el clásico was met with crashing waves of snit. Fans wanted Zidane’s bald head, because he wasn’t perfect, nor is any coach. If you were a Zidane apologist at that moment, you had a lot to answer to, and your head was wanted just as much as Zidane’s — bald or not.
Football cycles are wild, unpredictable, and bi-polar. The hard fall from 2014 hurt, and seemingly came out of nowhere. Zidane’s rise to an uncharted peak since Benitez’s inevitable sacking was just as unpredictable. It was going to take a lot to drag Real Madrid out of the mud in January of 2016. Few thought the colt Frenchman could do it — yet he did. He not only dragged them out of the mud, he hoisted them on his shoulders, did a Super Saiyan squat, and catapulted into outer space where he conquered the universe and did something no other coach has done since the 80s — repeat as European champion. Zidane was Superman, Real Madrid was Lois Lane — trapped beneath the earth, in a pool of water, underneath rubble.
Yet, this article isn’t about Zidane. It wasn’t just Zidane that dragged Real Madrid out of the mud. It was also Cristiano Ronaldo. It was Luka Modric. It was Toni Kroos. It was Sergio Ramos. It was Marcelo, Isco, Carvajal. It was even Mariano for a moment, and James, Bale, Morata, Nacho, Benzema, Casemiro, Navas, and Pepe in others. Heck, it was Florentino Perez too. He may shove your face in the mud and try to drown you, but just as much, he takes you out, bathes you, wraps you in a hot towel, kisses you on the forehead, and slides a hundred dollar bill in your pocket.
It would take a lot to suck Real Madrid back down into the mud now. Yes, maybe the tone changes next season, when everything is potentially a disaster, and the Bernabeu has whistled Mbappe into oblivion for missing a few sitters (hypothetical situation, of course. Read here for the full story of Mbappe’s doomsday scenario), but it really would take an astronomical fall for that to happen. It might take a black hole to halt Real Madrid’s growth from here, which on its own is bewildering, because rarely do you look at a back-to-beak European champion and call it a work in progress, or a project yet to hit its peak. Not to get a head of ourselves, but the current set-up of the roster is incredible.
Look no further than the U-21 European Championship in Poland. The spine of that team consists of Jesus Vallejo, Marcos Llorente, and Marco Asensio — the third of which, to be clear, looks like prime Shaq going back to play against junior high kids (he’s just too good to be there). Last season, Vallejo and Llorente blew us all away while out on loan to Frankfurt and Alaves respectively. Vallejo was one of the Bundesliga’s best defenders, orchestrating a three-man backline and binding it into one of the league’s best defensive teams. That defense was so good and so dependent on him, that when he went down injured, Frankfurt’s defense fell off a high cliff, took multiple tumbles, and exploded in a near-by valley. Llorente, meanwhile, was the anchor of a tactically-astute Pellegrino machine which we’ve discussed to death. Of the two, Llorente blew us away the most — not because he was necessarily better than Vallejo, but because his leap was more surprising.
When he was with Castilla, we didn’t quite see the augurs of what he’s morphed into today. He was, in frank terms, fine. In the 2015-2016 season, Llorente was a nice player to have, but nothing to put him on par with the season Aleix Febas had this season with Castilla, for example. Speaking among journalists who watch Castilla regularly, the feeling is the same. No one quite saw this coming. The consensus was that Marcos was a nice kid, coming from a family of Madridisimo blood — a good player but nothing other-worldly about him. Again, he was fine. When the playoffs struck at the tail end of his final Castilla season, he took a leap. Maybe it was the stage that catapulted him, or his sheer will to get Castilla to Segunda — either way, he put in some unprecedented performances.
Those leaps continued with Alaves, and continued, and continued. He looked better and better as the season went on, and speaking of rising to the occasion, his two best performances of the season came against Atletico Madrid and Sevilla where he zipped the ball with precision and efficiency, and constantly dished orders while intercepting passes.
That commanding presence is something that doesn’t get talked about enough. Follow Marcos and Jesus both without the ball, and they’re always yapping, pointing, communicating. From Marcos’ point-of-view, it’s something that has to come naturally when you’re the anchor. That is, arguably, the position that requires the most communicating of all. He is the shield and the sword all in one — the last buffer between midfield and defense, and the first instigator from the back. The play is channelled through him, much like it is with Busquets. One day, in the not-so-distant future, it’s not inconceivable for opposing coaches to draw up blueprints that outline a plan to man-mark Llorente out of the game the way they’ve learned to do with Busquets. Stop the bleeding from the source, as they say.
Some feel that the biggest reason behind Llorente (and Alaves’) success was Mauricio Pellegrino, who, if not for Mendilibar taking Eibar to uncharted heights, would make a strong case for most underrated manager of the season. Pellegrino being the mastermind behind all this is very true. Him leaving Alaves is just as gutting as Marcos and Theo doing the same. But rather than pinning Llorente’s season as an anomaly, fans should be thankful to Pellegrino for being the nurturer that he was. Alaves was a massive stepping stone for Llorente, and had he been been loaned elsewhere, there’s a chance we wouldn’t be raving about him today.
“At Alaves I am demonstrating that I am prepared to compete at the highest level,” Llorente said in April. “I want to succeed at Real Madrid, but I would not like to be on the bench – even if it is at the best club in the world.”
It’s unclear whether Marcos will start over Casemiro next season. While he does many things better than the Brazilian anchor, it would be naive to think Llorente would walk in and take the throne. And that begs the question — would he accept a bench role? It’s true, that having ‘Real Madrid’ and ‘bench’ in the same sentence is almost an oxymoron. In Zidane’s rotation, everyone plays — but you’d be lying if you said players like Morata, Asensio, James, and Marcos don’t crave more. They want to be a part of the big-game festivities. What they don’t want, is to wear suits in the stands.
There’s no question where Marcos’ allegiance lies. It’s not a knock on him to ask these questions. Players also shouldn’t be vilified for admitting they don’t want the bench, or branded disloyal for not staying and fighting for their place. On the slim chance Llorente gets loaned out one more time, he’s still destined to obtain sovereignty at the Bernabeu.
Marcos is a character guy — him and Jesus both. On the latest Churros y Tácticas Podcast, David Cartlidge and I spent some time talking about the head on their shoulders. They have charisma and maturity beyond their age — another perk alongside being young and talented. On last night’s Managing Madrid Podcast, the topic came up again. Someone asked us if we could compare Vallejo to Ramos at age 21. It’s impossible to do. Ramos was an athletic freak, bombing up and down the right wing and planting crosses for his teammates. He is, and was, erratic — but insanely clutch. Vallejo was made in a different lab, by a scientist who tried to create the most anti-Ramos defender he possibly could. Vallejo is weak defending corners and crosses, but is calm and composed, and consistently keeps his head in the most flustering of situations. He’s positionally woke, and will rack over 100 successful passes in a game like he’s playing a video game. He’s vertically incisive too — always looking for the dagger. If it’s not on, he’ll recycle possession. Vallejo has a high floor and high ceiling. He’s um, really good.
“On the day, when I signed, they told me that they’ll keep an eye on me and it has been so. They come to see me in person, they call me … I’m grateful because it is the recognition for a job well done,” Vallejo told AS back in January.
“It is a tremendous joy [to know Zinedine Zidane is watching]. To be recognised for your work is a joy and helps me to strive even harder.
“I have that dream [to play at the Bernabeu], I hope the day comes. If I’m honest, that’s why I work every day of my life.
“My head is very focused on Frankfurt, but I am realistic and I have that desire. I’m looking forward to that day, playing at the Bernabeu.”
One thing is for sure, no matter how many people try to force the Ramos comparison, they are vastly different players.
“Oh, I still lack a lot,” Vallejo said back in February of how he compared to Ramos.
“When I was a little boy and went to La Romareda I always looked up to Gabriel Milito and also Alberto Zapater because I played in my first youth years in midfield like he did.
“Today, of course, I am focusing on Sergio Ramos, but not just on him, on all the good central defenders – especially those of Real Madrid who are the best in the world.”
In another instance, Vallejo insisted he’s carving his own path: “I appreciate it so much. To be compared to those players is a great pride. But I do not compare myself with anyone, I try to go on in my own way.
As he should. He is a generational talent, has a unique skill-set, and an admirable sense of calmness to his play.
As eyes continue to shift towards Spain’s blitzing U21 campaign, they will automatically converge onto Real Madrid’s influence on that team too. And, in a funny way, lifting the Euro trophy is irrelevant. If they can do it, great. But ultimately it’s about player development, building for the future, and cracking the World Cup squad next summer. This Real Madrid team is ridiculously deep. It’s also young. In a few years, the average age is projected to drop below the current number which is 27. Real Madrid is stockpiling elite assets and building something beautiful. Whatever happens this summer in Poland, Real Madrid is a winner.