Florentino Perez is an idiot.
In a span of two days Real Madrid sold Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso, arguably the two most important players (outside of Cristiano Ronaldo, of course) in last year’s historic Champions League and Copa del Rey double. It’s just the latest depressing sign that, at the Bernabeu and especially in President Florentino Perez’s mind, splashy headlines and #marketing always trump the on-the-field necessities of the team.
If you took a time machine way back to Oct. 26, 2013 you would be surprised to see that as Real Madrid visited Barcelona for the first Clasico of the season, the team was mired in doubts and confusion. Carlo Ancelotti had been struggling to find balance in the opening months of the season. In the team’s first real test, he started Sergio Ramos in the center of midfield and Gareth Bale as the center forward. Barcelona won 2-1 but it wasn’t as close as the scoreline suggested. Madrid looked ragged and out of sorts, without any real coherent idea of play.
Meanwhile, Xabi Alonso missed the first three months of the year with a broken foot, and Angel Di Maria began preparing for an exit in the winter transfer market as the club had just signed Gareth Bale for a world-record fee to play in his position. The story of Real Madrid’s turnaround last year, in which they won the Champions League and Copa del Rey double, is defined by the contributions of these two players.
When Alonso finally returned from injury the team achieved some much needed defensive stability. With him in the lineup the team went on a 31-match unbeaten run – the second longest in the club’s history. Ancelotti admitted that he referred to Alonso affectionately as “The Professor”, and saw him as his coach on the field.
For his part, the winter of 2013014 was a dark time for Angel Di Maria. Upset at the club for signing Bale, he wanted out. After being substituted in a match at the Bernabeu, Di Maria grabbed his crotch as he walked off the field in a show of defiance toward the presidential box. His sale seemed inevitable. That is, until Ancelotti pressured the club to keep him and convinced Di Maria that he was going to be an important part of the squad.
Ancelotti then began starting him in the center of midfield, alongside Alonso and Luka Modric, to the astonishment of basically everyone sane. No one thought that Di Maria, a vertigo-inducing winger with an erratic streak, would have the pause and the tactical sense to play in midfield. But Ancelotti recognized that with Cristiano, Bale, and Benzema up front, he needed a player who could cover a lot of ground, and connect the midfield with the forwards. If there’s one thing Di Maria has always had, it is an inexhaustible ability to run for, like, ever.
The results were spectacular. Ancelotti finally found the balance he craved to be able to beat the stronger teams in Europe. Di Maria was named the MVP of the epic Champions League final in Lisbon after slicing through an exhausted Atletico Madrid defense in the 110th minute.
Now they are both gone. In their places come James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos, probably the two best players in the World Cup this summer. Both are fine players in their own right, but with question marks surrounding how they’re going to fit into the team dynamic. Instead of building on the success of last year, Ancelotti is being forced to start all over again.
To make matters worse for Carlo, he’s being forced to do it while playing the “strategic” signings that Florentino Perez likes to make every summer. “Strategic” is one of those fancy MBA terms that he likes to use to justify his own capricious desires. James Rodriguez was signed for a lot of money, is very #marketable, and conveniently helps open up some business in Colombia for Florentino Perez’s construction company, ACS, so he has to start.
The problem is that James is not Di Maria. He can’t cover nearly enough ground to make up for the lack of defending from Bale and Cristiano. And since Bale is another “strategic” signing who has to start, Ancelotti is caught in an impossible position.
Ancelotti has dealt with difficult owners in the past, but this may be his thorniest assignment yet. The team is coming off “La Decima” and signed a lot of big-name players. The expectations are tremendous. But he’s caught in the unfortunate position of having to deliver results without having free reign to make his own decisions. And he’s now without the two players who held everything together last year.