“We’re a disaster, all of us”. As a phrase, it perfectly encapsulates Real Madrid’s season. Casemiro’s comment on his team’s insipid performance during El Clasico could be taken as representative for the state of affairs of some of European football’s leading lights. Whether due to systemic issues, a style of play, the absence of a star man, or Julen Lopetegui, the domestic dominance of the likes of Madrid and Manchester United seems to be crumbling.
Real Madrid has been infected with an impotence, going eight hours without scoring
When talking about fading European powerhouses, where better to start than with Real Madrid? Julen Lopetegui somehow managed to transform a side that had won three consecutive champions league titles into one that lost to Alaves and Levante in consecutive weeks. The squad has been infected with an impotence, going eight hours without scoring, losing five-one to Barcelona, and even in the champions league, so long a refuge from indifferent league form, have suffered defeat by CSKA Moscow.
Lopetegui indulged a squad who have grown stale from the fruits of success, with Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos especially not in the best physical condition. He failed to find a settled system, continually rotating Keylor Navas and Thibault Courtois, and the transition to a passing system has merely resulted in a lethargic style of play and a squad that is lacking identity. However, there are mitigating circumstances. Real have lost Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, losing both a manager who was loved by an egomaniac squad, and a leader who guaranteed 50 goals a season. This void hasn’t been filled, players like Bale and Benzema haven’t bridged the gap, replacements have not been sought, and youngsters such as Asensio need time to develop.
Mourinho simply doesn’t have defenders of the requisite quality to play his cautious approach
Elsewhere in Europe, Manchester United stand out as a side who are nowhere near the force they once were. The problems that plague the club are multiform, but the central issue is the lack of overriding identity, of any semblance of direction. The club has bought players with no clear plan in mind, with Alexis Sanchez epitomising the lack of care with which this United side was assembled, a collection of bolt-on superstars and bit-part players. This United side should be fluid, fast and direct, with the likes of Pogba, Martial and Rashford allowed to cut loose and play with freedom.
Instead, this is a team that is oddly constrained, full of stifled energy. This is partly due to the pragmatic style of Jose Mourinho, a coach who aims to disrupt first, but this is merely symptomatic of the broader lack of direction. Mourinho simply doesn’t have defenders of the requisite quality to play his cautious approach, thereby making the side less effective. The side lies eighth in the league, and its lack of outward philosophy is a stark contrast to its notional rivals, such as Manchester City, or Liverpool.
The gap in resources is simply unbridgeable, and while some underperform, this is an anomaly
However, for all the stasis in Manchester or Madrid, its business as usual for other domestic giants. Juventus have had their best ever start to the season and are already six points clear of their nearest rivals, and look set to claim an eighth straight league title. Similarly, after a comparatively shaky start, Barcelona are top of the league, and have just beaten Real five-one in the Clasico. PSG, too, continue to annihilate all before them in Ligue Un.
These sides will continue to dominate, as the financial imbalances that plague the top tiers of European football will remain in place. Sure, in theory money from broadcasting deals such as in the Premier League should redress that balance, but this isn’t the case. All it does is make for a more crowded middle class, with teams such as Everton, Wolves and West Ham able to spend hundreds of millions of pounds only to inflate the market, in a frantic bid to break into the top six. Teams such as Juventus can buy Cristiano Ronaldo and discard their central striker to a notional rival, and not expect to suffer any difficulties.
In short, this isn’t the death of the traditional powerhouses of European football. The gap in resources is simply unbridgeable, and while some underperform, this is an anomaly.