Saying it’s been a tumultuous summer for Real Madrid would be a massive understatement. Fresh off an unprecedented third consecutive Champions League title that well and truly solidified their place atop the European footballing world, everything began to crumble very suddenly.
First was their manager. Zinedine Zidane took over Los Blancos at a difficult time, tasked with picking up the pieces of the failed Rafa Benitez experiment. His record in Madrid was impeccable: one league title, and three Champions Leagues. Zidane never lost a knockout tie in the Champions League as manager, a remarkable 12-0 record. That’s unheard of.
But Zidane was in need of a new challenge, after peaking at Real Madrid. His replacement was a shrewd one, but it was also marred in controversy. Julien Lopetegui was announced as Real Madrid manager days before the 2018 World Cup, and was promptly sacked by Spain on the eve of the tournament. The Spain team that he was set to coach underwhelmed in Russia, winning only one of the four games they played.
The big blow, of course, was their superstar. Cristiano Ronaldo, who moved to Madrid as an emerging superstar, left as arguably the greatest player the world has ever seen. His track record, statistically and culturally, are unassailable. But he, too, was in need of a new challenge, and he moved to Serie A giants Juventus during the World Cup.
Replacing Ronaldo was one of the dominant narratives of the summer, as owner Florentino Perez reportedly searched far and wide in search of the next great Galactico. Several big names were brought up: Neymar, who is thought to be the third greatest player on Earth, behind Lionel Messi and Ronaldo; Kylian Mbappe, who took the world by storm this summer in Russia, winning both the trophy itself and Young Player of the Tournament; Eden Hazard, who finished runner-up to Luka Modric for the Golden Ball at the World Cup; and Robert Lewandowski, who is among the world’s finest strikers.
None were acquired. Real Madrid signed youngster Mariano Diaz from Lyon (and gave him Ronaldo’s illustrious number 7 jersey), and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois from Chelsea, despite already having a world class keeper in Keylor Navas.
Simply put, expectations heading into the new year, with a new manager and a gaping hole up front, were low for Real Madrid, especially in comparison to their archrivals Barcelona. Those expectations worsened when Atletico Madrid defeated Real 4-2 in the European Super Cup, Lopetegui’s first competitive match in charge.
But, despite all the turmoil, Los Blancos are off to a flying start in La Liga. Real have won all three of their opening matches, keeping pace with Barcelona, and have been playing terrific football overall. Several of their big name players have stepped up massively, and others still have all the potential in the world to get going.
This begs the question: do Real Madrid really need another Galactico?
Let’s first address the fact that their squad is incredibly deep; the players Lopetegui has at his disposal are truly an embarassment of riches. Two world class keepers, arguably the best left and right backs in the world; two World Cup winners at center back; three genuinely top tier central midfielders; and a versatile and talented array of attackers.
But several players have stepped up their game, and more importantly, there is a cohesiveness to Real’s play that has made them a joy to watch.
Isco is one of the players who has truly risen his game– and unsurprisingly so. As Spain began to shift away from the old guard, that featured Andres Iniesta and David Silva, Lopetegui had begun to make Isco the focal point of the Spanish national team. Isco justified that by scoring a hat trick against Argentina in an international friendly heading into the World Cup.
Isco has tallied an assist in two La Liga starts, but is undoubtably the creative hub of the team. Ronaldo’s departure will allow Isco to be the focal point of the team, thus letting him run games to his best ability.
Another player that is thriving without Ronaldo is the man who has largely filled his vacated left wing– Marco Asensio, a player that could very well turn into the next Galactico himself. Asensio’s display against Croatia this international break, where he scored an outrageous long range shot and added three assists, should tell you all you need to know about his ability.
Asensio can play on either wing, is a terrific long range shooter, and is capable of running through defenses with his dribbling. Why splurge on Hazard when you have Asensio, who is only 22, and will continue to get much, much better?
The last player who has truly benefit from Ronaldo’s departure is his old running mate, Gareth Bale. Now that both Ronaldo and James Rodriguez have moved on, Bale is the last true Galactico on the team. The Welshman has taken up the goal as the teams talisman, and thus far, has delivered.
Often criticized by Real Madrid fans, and often left on the bench by Zidane, the writing was on the wall for Bale to break out after scoring one of the most breathtaking goals in Champions League history in the Final against Liverpool as a substitute.
In 3 games in La Liga, Bale has 3 goals and an assist. He’s been a constant threat from either flank and centrally, and has been given a new life under Lopetegui. At 29, Bale still has several top years left in him, and his new freedom from out underneath Ronaldo’s shadow could have a similar effect as leaving Barcelona had on Neymar.
Bale, Isco, and Asensio have all had flying starts to life in the post-Ronaldo era at Real Madrid. Karim Benzema has been banging in the goals. Luka Modric is the front runner for the Best Player of 2018. Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, and Marcelo are just a few of Real’s superstars who are still very much int heir prime. All of this begs the question: Do Real Madrid really need another Galactico?