Every Real Madrid manager knows pretty well that one day he ends up sacked: the only real issue is how many he will have won by that time.
Rafa Benitez may have fulfilled his dream – as he said in his unveiling – but he knows well that a dream at Bernabeu can suddenly turn into a nightmare. Bad results are of course the main reasons behind a dismissal, but sometimes there are more articulate causes behind a split-up with a manager.
According to reports in Spain, Carlo Ancelotti was not sacked for failing to win either La Liga or the Champions League in his second season, but his dismissal was related to his negative attitude towards Florentino Perez´s desire to get the best from Gareth Bale. The Italian manager won four trophies in 2014 – included LaDecima, the coveted tenth Champions League – and he had a great relationship with the players, but that was not enough for him to keep the job.
Bale was substituted in Valencia-Real Madrid with 20 minutes to play and Perez didn´t take it well, feeling that Ancelotti wasn´t treating the Welshman as he should have. The relationship between Bale and manager was fine and the substitution was motivated by tactical reason. However, Perez feared that Ancelotti didn´t understand his remarks and at the end of the season, he reached the decision that he needed to change his manager. And here came Benitez.
When Perez hired the former Liverpool and Chelsea boss, the first target was – besides winning trophies –to get the best of Bale and give him a more important role instead of a marginal one. The Welshman had a good first season with Real Madrid – scoring in both Copa del Rey and Champions League finals – but basically he was employed as right-winger with defensive obligations. Ancelotti found a winning formula with a 4-3-3 where the BBC (Bale, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo) played upfront with Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric and Angel Di Maria in midfield. Without the ball, Bale and Di Maria had to drop deeper and cover respectively the right and the left wing, and it became a 4-4-1-1 with CR7 enjoying a free role behind Benzema.
However, that balance was gone in the following campaign: Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez replaced Xabi Alonso and Di Maria in the line-up and Real Madrid played a 4-2-3-1 with no defensive balance in midfield. Despite a good start, Real Madrid lost the La Liga title and were eliminated by Juventus in the Champions League semi-final. Meanwhile Bale was always confined to the right wing and he endured a quite disappointing season. With James used in his natural position (no. 10), Bale struggled to have a great influence in attack.
The Welshman scored 21 goals in his last season with Spurs when he played behind the striker, a similar role he enjoys with Wales. In both cases he has been the main man, and the teams have been set-up to get the best of him. He has freedom to roam around and with his terrific pace, he was splitting defences apart. Nevertheless, at Real Madrid things are different: the only star who enjoys those privileges is Cristiano Ronaldo and Bale has to play second fiddle to the Portuguese. Obviously, the situation is not the easiest.
According to the book Cristiano Ronaldo: The Biography, Bale´s agent Jonathan Barnett sat down with the club last summer and explained the matter. Manchester United were interested in Bale, and a return to Premier League may have been a good solution. Perez assured instead that “Bale was the future” and he would be given more influence in the team.
Why Perez is insisting so much with the Welshman? And what does it mean for Ronaldo?
Firstly, Perez signed Bale in 2013 for a record sum of €91m and a massive failure will be surely used against the actual president during the next electoral campaign. New election are planned in 2017 and by that time, Perez has to prove that the money splashed in his tenure was justified. That´s why he seems desperate to get the best from Bale, and maybe the phrase “Bale is the future” could also mean that “CR7 is not anymore the future” with the intention of reviewing the pecking order between the two stars.
However, on the field, it seems a dog chasing its own tail. Benitez started playing Bale in a no. 10 role this season but results and performance have not improved. Real Madrid are still on the run for La Liga and the Champions League, although goalkeeper Keylor Navas and defensive midfielder Casemiro have been the best players so far this season. The latter was left on the bench during the Clasico – when Benitez fielded all his stars – and consequently Real Madrid were thrashed by Barcelona 0-4. We cannot prove the contrary, of course, but it was a tactical suicide: with James, Bale, CR7 behind Benzema, nobody pressed Barcelona properly, there was no unity and Real Madrid were ripped apart.
Benitez is well famous for his tactical wisdom and the common feeling was that he didn´t field his formation but the board´s. With such talented players of this ilk, you can still win matches but against a better team – or a team that runs more or have the ball more – you are definitely going to struggle. Winning trophies is going to be hard without the right balance and the performances could go downhill as well. Benitez knows it and maybe the defeat could have worked in his favour and given him more decisional power, although recent blip against Villareal added further pressure on the coach.
Yet, a question is still pending. Is Ronaldo leaving? Despite he and his agent Jorge Mendes are coy about the future- and he still has three years left on his contract -next season the Portuguese could make a new step in his career. Last summer Ronaldo was strongly linked with PSG and the French club have enough cash to negotiate the move, although his buy-out clause is €1 billion.
PSG have improved a lot recently and CR7 could be seduced not only by the money but also by the challenge to win his third Champions League with as many different clubs. Furthermore, according to Spanish press, he seems to, with the actual coach and with the club as well. Rumours are rumours but they can have (bad) effect anyway and he may feel upset and think that it is the right time to move on.
Of course, only if Ronaldo goes, Bale would take the main stage. The club could be right to endorse a succession on the squad, but to give one player precedence over another, without having earned it on the pitch is a risky business and can backfire. And above all, Bale has not earned it yet.
There are plenty of doubts about his ability to take over his teammate. The Welshman is an amazing player but he lacks the defiant personality, the ability to turn a game around and the obsession to win trophies and personal awards. With 334 goals, CR7 is Real Madrid´s all-time leading goalscorer and his records in Spanish and International football are outstanding. He seems to break them almost every week and his CV speaks for itself. On the other hand, Bale has had a difficult time in Madrid. His shyness and lack of Spanish language did not help him to integrate with the rest of the squad and he is not the most loved player among the fans. He experienced loud hisses and even the local media have criticized his performances.
The jury is still out on whether Bale can be the right man to kick off Real Madrid´s transition to life without Ronaldo. At moment, probably not. Maybe in a couple of years, although it´s time for Bale to really step up because, if the Portuguese goes, the team will go for a likely roller coaster ride of result. And the responsibilities -coach aside – will be all for the Welshman.
Written by Juri Gobbini