Will Real Madrid stop their showbiz approach to get team back on track?
Barring the most improbable of comebacks in La Liga (they'd need to make up four points in the final two games, strike permitting), Real Madrid will end the season empty-handed for the second time in three years.
It happened before. Very recently, in fact. They won nothing in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Before that, they had a three-season spell in which they won nothing: in 2003-04, 2004-05 and 2005-06.
That's the past 12 seasons, of which seven resulted in a big, fat zero in the trophy department. Common thread? In six of those seven winless seasons, the president was Florentino Perez.
I already had a go at him two months ago, so there isn't much point in going over old ground. But it's pretty obvious that he now has a choice to make. And he'd be wise to remind himself of his past.
After watching his Real Madrid team get knocked out of the Champions League semifinal by Juventus on Wednesday night, manager Carlo Ancelotti said: "I'd like to stay, but I don't know if I will be here next season ... it's not up to me to give myself a grade for this year, it's up to others."
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Above all, it's up to Florentino.
The football writer Jonathan Wilson recently quoted Real Madrid general director Jose Angel Sanchez as saying: "We are a content producer." Wilson writes that Real is "a commercial enterprise with a football club attached to it."
Under Florentino, you know the priorities. They sell dreams and accumulate stars. That raises revenue and generates hype, but it's not always conducive to creating an actual team. If it was, Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso would have been replaced with worthy alternatives (or, better yet, not sold at all), not by a second striker like James Rodriguez and an attacking midfielder like Toni Kroos. Outstanding footballers, but guys with radically different skill sets from those they replaced.
We knew this, of course, and -- likely -- so did Florentino. In Ancelotti, the uber-diplomat who keeps the stars happy and finds a way to make it work without grumbling in public, Florentino thought he had the right man to pull it off. After all, Ancelotti is at the opposite end of the pliability spectrum to the guy he replaced, Jose Mourinho. The Special One made demands, expressed his displeasure and forged a very specific identity. He won a Copa del Rey and a Liga with a record points total, but then fell out with key members of the team, while annoying a chunk of the media and fan base.
Florentino, who understands showbiz, knew he couldn't keep him around. You can't have a director on set rowing with the star actors in your telenovela, taking potshots at the media who are supposed to promote your show and rubbing some of your viewers the wrong way. It's bad business.
So he called on Ancelotti, the man who doesn't complain. The guy who gets "showbiz." Customers want to see stars and he delivers them. That's why he hardly rotated his squad. Audiences don't like it when the diva is replaced by the understudy, or when they show up at the theater to discover that George Wendt has stepped in for George Clooney. That's why the same guys played pretty much all season long. Other than Isco and Raphael Varane, there were no marketable stars to come in off the bench. That's what happens when your second-choice centre-forward is Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, who would have been fourth choice at Manchester United (James Wilson permitting), a team that weren't even in Europe this season.
Ancelotti put up with this without saying a word. He persuaded Kroos and James to learn their new roles, just as he had gotten Luka Modric, another attacking midfielder, to carry the can as a holding midfielder. Because he was saddled with two leading men who either don't want to do the dirty work or are pretty rubbish at it (you decide) he got Karim Benzema to make a sacrifice and run himself into the ground. Think there's another team in Europe who could carry Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo without a defensive stopper in midfield? Think again.
Then chickens came home to roost. Modric got hurt. Kroos' Ironman triathlete act caught up with him. Benzema got injured and rushed back while clearly still unfit. Isco and James dialed it down several notches: they had given all they could give.
None of it mattered if Bale and Ronaldo had played up to their price tags against Juventus. Madrid could still outgun almost anyone. But over the two legs, they did not. Not because they're suddenly a team of bad players or underachievers, but because this is a low-scoring sport, chance and probability matter and they simply didn't find the back of the net.
Critics say there is no plan, no identity, no big idea to define this team. They're probably right. But it's not because Ancelotti isn't capable of finding one -- this is the guy who reinvented the deep-lying playmaker position by putting Andrea Pirlo in front of the back four 12 years ago, at a time when everyone thought that central midfielders needed to be hulking Nemanja Matic-type RoboCops. Rather, it's not what he was asked to do. He was tasked with developing a system that would deliver results while shoe-horning an ill-assorted cadre of superstars into the same team. A bit like Vicente Del Bosque at the turn of the millennium, the last time Florentino was in charge.
That's why Florentino picked Ancelotti. With Mourinho, he ceded power to the manager, gave him license to build a proper team and faded into the background when noses got put out of joint. With Ancelotti, he did a 180-degree turn: keep the stars happy and they'll shine brightly for you and you can worry about tactics and balance later. Or, better yet, let Ancelotti worry about that.
Now the president needs to decide what he wants. If he goes for a system guy -- like, say, Jurgen Klopp -- he'll have to swallow plenty of things. Like maybe the fact some of his stars will have to be replaced by blue-collar types. Or maybe that Klopp's emphasis on the collective will dampen Ronaldo's scoring numbers.
If he goes for a man-manager -- a "diva whisperer," as one football executive put it recently -- who can keep the big guns happy and maintain harmony, Florentino might as well stick with the guy he already has. Because, simply put, he likely won't find anybody better in that department.
But perhaps first he should look in the mirror. In his past eight seasons as club president, Madrid have won nothing on six occasions (assuming they don't pull off the mother of all comebacks in La Liga). Changing the manager and chucking more money at the problem might not fix that, unless he, too, is willing to change.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.