Limbo: The Result Of Tunnel Vision At LaLiga’s Biggest Clubs
Hunched over, unperturbed by the general furore, Florentino Pérez sat defensively. In the most understated way, he casually tossed out statements about football’s largest ever reform as if he were explaining a small rise in the price of milk. Like a government minister, the Real Madrid president and the public face of the European Super League looked as if had his mind on other, more important and more secret matters.
One of the barbs which seemed to sink deepest into the collective conscious of football fans was “how can it be that Real Madrid and Barcelona are losing money while the others are making money?” The absurd filled the room as the most bombastic interview was conducted on El Chiringuito with almost no expression on Pérez’s face. The stuffy construction magnate, who knows nothing but success, suddenly appeared without clothes.
Just eight days later, it was publicly confirmed that Julian Nagelsmann will be taking charge at Bayern Munich next season. Between those two junctures, the Bavarians had announced they would not be joining Schrödinger’s Super League. Whether that was due to Bundesliga rules, moral sensibility or simply disagreements surrounding the format, is open to interpretation. Still, it is hard not to see Bayern as diametrically opposed to Spain’s ‘Superclubs’.
Since 2004, the German Rekordmeister have been turning a profit while Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid buried themselves alive in debt. According to Forbes, Bayern are completely in the black. They paid off the loan acquired to build the Allianz Arena nearly 16 years early. Their model is successful and sustainable. About 1500 kilometres south-west, the money owed by Real Madrid and Atleti is skyrocketing towards a billion euros. Barcelona have already well surpassed that landmark – without yet beginning work on an ageing Camp Nou.
Initially, new Barcelona president Joan Laporta was biding his time with the Super League. He may not possess quite the same verve he once did, but his politicking remains first-class. In silence, he waited to show his hand before eventually declaring no remorse. Even he was reduced to brazen platitudes about sustainability.
Over the course of an interview, he tends to leave people in his thrall. Many a head of state must have looked longingly at his charisma and despite his own disastrous political career, Laporta’s discourse is a siren song. Part of that charisma and indeed his prior success in football, was an excellent understanding of a key principle: being ahead of the curve on talent.
Few are ahead of their peers in quite the same way that the 33-year-old Nagelsmann is, rumoured at one point to be high up on Laporta’s list of candidates. Early on in the Barcelona election campaign, Laporta had publicly backed manager Ronald Koeman. But with Barcelona languishing in 13th place as late as December, it would be naïve to think that alternatives weren’t drafted.
And yet Nagelsmann’s appointment feels redolent of a wider trend. Like in England, the world has turned to Germany for their ideas. That used to be Spain. That used to be Laporta; appointing first Frank Rijkaard then Pep Guardiola – instead of José Mourinho.
Real Madrid have always had a taste for a celebrity coach but when they needed a rebuild, they turned to... the guy who left just 10 months previously. Although Zinedine Zidane is as virtuous as they come – perhaps we are even approaching the point where we must consider him a better manager than player – he is not a man of the vanguard.
After the Frenchman’s first departure, Julen Lopetegui took his place. A good manager and one who is currently extracting everything possible from Sevilla. Yet also a man who failed to impose his personality on the club, much less new ideas. Following him was Santi Solari, a move of desperation. It felt as if there were few obvious choices for a club which generally has the pick of the bunch.
For their crosstown neighbours Atleti, the predicament is arguably even trickier. Diego Pablo Simeone is the club. Nearly ten years after his arrival, everything is entirely moulded to Simeone’s plans but above all his person. When they do try to find a replacement, the task will, by definition, be impossible if they seek a new Simeone. While speculation about Simeone’s position is probably unfair, the reality is that they too lack a wealth of successors to choose from.
Already, recent years at the club have been characterised by a struggle between evolving Simeone’s trademarks and reverting to his comfort zone. That’s something record-signing João Félix has come to understand. The highest-paid coach in the world, the club lives and dies by a philosophy named after their current coach; Cholismo. Even if they wanted to change, significant growing pains and a power vacuum seem inevitable if Simeone departs.
In Barcelona, there is stale scent around the managerial shortlist. Equally hamstrung by their style guide, only so many coaches are viable alternatives. This year they ended up with a journeyman manager whose career is a series of inclines and declines, seldom with a summit in sight. There are arguments for Ronald Koeman to remain now, yet he was undeniably brought in as short-term option from a short queue outside the interview room. Regardless of how things have transpired, the appointment itself was uninspired.
Before that, another manager who did not fit the ‘ideal candidate’ description was given the reigns. With a distinct sense of wonder, Quique Setién arrived with the right idea – just little ability to execute it. Ernesto Valverde was a hotly debated topic throughout his stint in Catalonia, but he was successful. Ultimately a safe a pair of hands, he hunkered his team down to make them as efficient as possible.
None of the previous six appointments at the so-called ‘Big Two’ give the impression that they are following a set course. Nagelsmann’s move to Bayern Munich was the story of a transfer foretold, while no obvious candidates are out there for Spain’s elite. There was no plan and now, should any one of those three head coaches depart, these clubs will be scrambling once more.
Perhaps it is that which should most worry the powers that be. All their ideas are old. The men entrusted with guiding them forward are very much concerned with the past. One is hanging onto the very last drops of a magical generation, squeezing and rolling and twisting his squad like the very last of the toothpaste. Another wants more than anything to recreate his side of the past and the third was given the job in no small part because of his playing career. None of the three institutions have a clear direction of travel.
Only Diego Martínez shines bright amongst the younger managers in Spain’s top division. With all his talk of suffering and surviving, he will likely need to prove himself on a bigger stage before taking that jump to either of the triumvirate. Alternatively, directors may be forced to brace themselves for Marcelino’s ‘forceful’ personality and live with the consequences.
It would be football’s way if Raúl González, Gabi Fernández or Xavi Hernández exploded onto the scene and found a new edge to cut with. That is pure speculation, however. The lack of a clear plan at these clubs is symbolic of their decay. At one point or another in the early 2010s, all three of these clubs could have claimed to have the best manager in the world. Their next appointments are far more crucial than who they bring in to renew their playing staff.
Financially, it seems the big three in Spain ran out of solutions and hastily put together a Super League in order to continue competing with the nouveau riche. Yet the football itself has fallen behind too. Laporta’s sideways glances maybe hint at an awareness of the other issue. Mired in their own decadence after dominating for so long, it is the ideas that must be renewed at the top, if these teams are to return to the summit.
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