“There is always a player at Real Madrid who is considered to be the 'symbol' of its beating heart, the flag-bearer of madridismo and its symbolic partner españolismo. He is normally the captain, was probably, but not necessarily, born and raised in Madrid, and most important of all, he will have won the unconditional respect of the Bernabéu. They are never dropped, a theory to which Saint Iker's ten-year run as first-choice goalkeeper attests. The Spanish use the word indiscutible (unquestioned), and this line of players stand, as it were, for the fixed traditions and standards of the institution, above and beyond its seasonal vicissitudes. Luck comes, luck goes. Barcelona triumph, the shadows lengthen in Madrid, then fade again. Presidents come and go, as indeed do managers rather more frequently, but these iconic players are a fixed value of calm above the chaos on the Stock Exchange floor.”
In a recent article for ESPN Soccernet, Phil Ball made some pertinent observations about the problems plaguing Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid this season. None more significant than the one stated above. The Portuguese’s decision to drop Iker Casillas for the club’s 2-3 defeat against Malaga has the potential to decisively turn the tide against "The Special One."
After Real Madrid won La Liga last season, many expected the iconic club to further embellish its credentials this term as it strengthened its squad by buying a creative midfield presence in Luka Modric and a combative and versatile one in Michael Essien. The midfield already boasted the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso, not to mention Sami Khedira, Kaka and Angel Di Maria, and there was hardly a case for an upgrade. If your garage already had a Mercedes and a Ferrari in fine fettle, would you buy a Lamborghini?
You would, if you were Florentino Perez. However, by not investing in the defence, Real Madrid seems to have missed a trick in the summer. The central defensive pairing of Pepe and Sergio Ramos has rarely inspired confidence this season and the defence’s overall vulnerability has been critically exposed on set-pieces. Though Los Merengues has never been renowned for its players’ aerial ability, inept defending has made matters worse.
And then there is the perennial Cristiano Ronaldo problem on the left. The Portuguese star, for all his attacking prowess, is a sub-standard defensive asset in the wide areas. The speedy playmaker rarely displays the resolve to aid his left-back, be it Michael Essien or Fabio Coentrao, and this has hurt his team remarkably this year.
Ronaldo’s defensive fallibility was brutally exposed by Philip Lahm in last season’s Champions League semi-final first leg against Bayern Munich, when his reluctance to track back led to the German side’s winner in the 89th minute. That goal eventually proved crucial as Mourinho’s team bowed out of the competition on penalties at home.
Courtesy: The Sabotage Times
Bayern’s domestic rival Borrusia Dortmund learnt valuable lessons from the aforementioned fixture and applied them well as its right back Lukasz Piszczek played a vital role in his side’s 2-1 home win over Real Madrid in the group stage of this season’s Champions League.
But it’s Mourinho, and not Ronaldo, Pepe or Ramos, who needs to take the blame for the club's current predicament. Even if, let’s say, one were to just focus on the Ronaldo issue, it’s the manager’s prerogative to move him into a more central role where he wouldn’t have to undertake such a vital defensive duty.
Tactical issues aside, a significant part of the problem lies with the cult of Mourinho. Having cultivated a reputation which defies the notion of mea culpa, "The Special One" now finds himself in a situation where he needs to accept his own mistakes and rectify them soon.
With Real Madrid already out of contention for the league title (it lies 16 points behind leader Barcelona), the only way Mourinho can save this season is by winning the Champions League. To further compound matters, the Spanish giant has drawn Manchester United in the last 16. If his boys fail to win that double-header in February-March, it can be safely assumed that the Portuguese manager’s days in the Santiago Bernabeu dugout will be numbered.
So, how does Jose resolve this problem? Besides the obvious solution of reinforcing the defence, Mourinho faces a bigger task of winning the full support of his dressing room. It’s hard to miss a sense of disquiet at the club and the Portuguese’s run-ins with a few stars, like Ramos and Casillas, this season has further weakened his standing in front of the players. Hence, it will be nothing short of miraculous if the 49-year-old manages to regain the trust of the playing staff.
Until then, Mourinho’s claims to the title of “The Special One” can’t become indiscutible.