Real Madrid are made in Florentino Perez's image now more than ever
For someone who didn't want to tell us what he really thinks, Cristiano Ronaldo did a pretty good job of telling us what he really thinks. He could have said more for sure, but he said enough. As far as Real Madrid were concerned, he said too much. And as for his hope that the following morning's papers would not lead with him, well, that didn't exactly work out.
"I don't want to be on the front page of the newspapers tomorrow," Ronaldo said. Yet there he was, splashed across the front pages of both of Spain's biggest sports papers.
"If I was in charge, I might have done things differently," ran the headlines.
Ronaldo insisted there was "no need to set the alarm bells ringing," that the decisions made by Real Madrid president Florentino Perez should be "respected and supported," and that he was "sure that we'll do well." He'd even prefaced his opinion with a "maybe."
But there was no avoiding the phrase he slipped in like a knife: "I'd have done things differently." Now his words reverberated, the knife twisted.
It was Monday afternoon, the last day of the transfer window. That night, it would be confirmed that Radamel Falcao would join Manchester United, not Real Madrid. Angel Di Maria had already headed in the same direction. Two days earlier, Xabi Alonso made his debut for Bayern Munich. And the night before, Madrid was hammered 4-2 by Real Sociedad.
It had been just 100 days since Madrid won the European Cup. It felt a long way away already.
The cliché says never change a winning team, but they did just that. Two of Madrid's midfield three, the men who probably did more than anyone else to provide the "balance" that Carlo Ancelotti had talked about so obsessively, were gone. Their importance had been huge.
"When Xabi Alonso sneezes, Madrid catch a cold," it was said. Every time he was absent, he was missed. Meanwhile, no one in the squad offered what Angel Di Maria did, a key part in making the system work.
Ancelotti would not have chosen to sell Alonso or Di Maria, but they had been sold anyway. Now the identity of the team had changed, forcibly.
The coach insisted that the formation would remain the same: 4-3-3. But the night before, with Ronaldo also out through injury, Madrid played 4-4-2 and lost at Anoeta. When he looked at the bench to make changes, Ancelotti saw just one attacking player: youth-teamer Raul de Tomas. Alvaro Arbeloa and Sami Khedira were the men to whom he turned.
Suddenly, the team with no apparent weaknesses looked vulnerable. And they brought it on themselves. Madrid had gone into the transfer market and come out of it worse off. That, at least, is what 79 percent of readers polled by the sports newspaper AS thought. Seventy-nine percent of readers and Cristiano Ronaldo.
This has been an unusual summer for Madrid, yet there have been some familiar traits, too. In net terms, they have spent remarkably little. They have recovered almost as much as they spent: 122.5 million euros in purchases compared to 114 million in sales.
Having failed in their pursuit of Luis Suarez, James Rodriguez emerged as the star of the World Cup, a man in whom they had shown little previous interest, and they signed him for 80 million euros -- their latest Galactico. He came in with Toni Kroos, Keylor Navas and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez. Heading in the other direction were Di Maria, Alvaro Morata, Alonso, Nuri Sahin, Jesus Fernandez, Casemiro and Diego Lopez.
Di Maria insisted that he never wanted to go; instead, he claimed that he was forced out the door.
"My football isn't to someone's taste," he wrote in his goodbye letter, pointing the finger at Florentino Perez.
This week he told ESPN FC that only the intervention of Ronaldo had prevented him from departing the previous year. Madrid signed Gareth Bale in his position and nudged him towards the exit; contract negotiations stalled, with Di Maria claiming that he was not being offered a "fair" salary.
In the meantime, he had reinvented himself -- proven indispensable to winning the 10th European Cup, producing a man-of-the-match performance in the final -- and now they had signed another player in his position. James Rodriguez has arrived, the new superstar. As hints go, it was not very subtle.
Some saw parallels between the sale of Di Maria and the sale of Claude Makelele a decade before. Back then, Carlos Queiroz insisted that trying to win the league without Makelele was like trying to climb Everest without oxygen. A cartoon did the rounds in which a gold-plated Rolls-Royce (representing Madrid) had its motor (represented by Di Maria) removed and slotted under the bonnet of a car called Manchester United. Now, Alonso had gone too.
And as if to reinforce the point, Madrid were torn apart by Real Sociedad. The following day, they confirmed the signing of another striker, having said they would not buy one. The man they chose was Chicharito, a substitute at United. No one came to his presentation, which felt symbolic somehow; this time the doors of the Bernabeu were not opened. For James, they had been.
Some feared that this was the return of the mistakes of the Galacticos era, that priorities had been turned upside down. Madrid seemed to have shot themselves in the foot. If defeat can be damaging, so can success -- not least because it makes success seem simpler than it really is. It makes people think they are invincible. It emboldens people to take decisions they might not otherwise have taken, and those decisions can be mistakes.
Madrid are now faced with problems, and there might be further problems ahead; trouble could be brewing and much will depend on Ancelotti's ability to manage it. His own relationship with the board is a difficult one and he knows that his job has been made more difficult.
There is not a player truly like Alonso in the squad. No one does what Di Maria did. Iker Casillas' confidence appears to have departed, and with it his defenders' faith in him.
The motivation after winning the European Cup might have diminished too, as Alonso said in his departure. Rodriguez's natural position does not really exist -- yet -- in Madrid's formation, but one must be found for him. And signing a striker whose role is a consciously secondary one, rather than one who competes with Karim Benzema, might send a mistaken message.
Reports from the UEFA coaches' conference suggested Ancelotti admitted that he would have to start again. But here's the thing: He also admitted that he would do just that. And he probably has the material to do so.
Ronaldo would have done things differently. He might be right; he has a point. When Sergio Ramos was asked about it the next day, he said that players have to respect the club, but he did not say that his teammate was wrong.
Ronaldo's words have to be contextualized, though. He is a friend of Di Maria's. He also is represented, like Di Maria, by Jorge Mendes. Mendes also represents Falcao, who wanted to come to Madrid and who is also a friend of Ronaldo.
Mendes pushed and pushed for Madrid to purchase his Colombian client, but while some at the highest levels at the club wanted him and said that the signing was virtually guaranteed, Perez resisted. A virtual campaign began to bring Falcao to the Bernabeu. Ultimately, it failed. Cadena Cope reported that Perez had intimated that if he bought Falcao, he would have to make Mendes the president.
Ronaldo would have done things differently and others would have done, too. But would he, would they, have done things better?
In the short term, Madrid have been debilitated, the team will need to be redesigned, and some of their decisions are questionable. So are some of the priorities; politics and policy play a part. It is true that the model that Perez follows demands renewal, stars, players who can help expand the support base and the marketing potential. Even if they might not be a natural fit.
Yet this is not the same as when Makelele left. Not least because Makelele was not the only one to go; almost a dozen footballers left with him. Back then, one director admitted, "We basically only had 11 players plus Solari." Now the squad is stronger; there is depth there.
James for Di Maria might be a move they regret and might have been, at its root, a breakdown in relationships that was unnecessary and driven by non-footballing factors. But on one level at least, it is not especially outrageous, even if in the short term it might hurt them. James for Di Maria, given their ages, could be seen as an upgrade.
Signing Kroos was an excellent bit of business. Getting 20 million euros for Morata looks good, too. Keylor Navas was one of the best goalkeepers in La Liga last season. Jese is still to return to fitness. And the loss to Real Sociedad was a bad one, but it is not too late to be remedied.
Last summer's signings of Isco and Asier Illarramendi made strategic sense, even if they were in response to a populist desire to bring in more Spaniards, even if they have not played as much as they would like, even if the arrivals of Kroos and James pushed them further from the first team. What happens to them will become clearer as Ancelotti reconstructs his team. In theory, Illarramendi was the new Alonso, but he did not always convince. Now, he might have to.
Without Alonso, Madrid collapsed in San Sebastian. One hundred days on, it felt like it had all fallen apart. How could they go from European champions to
The sale of Di Maria hurt. The departure of Alonso deepened the problem -- his leaving was particularly damaging. A big mistake. Yet his departure, at 33, was not a decision made by the club, but by the player, and one that came late.
"I was going to play him," Ancelotti admitted. He was going to play Di Maria, too.
He can't now.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.