After falling short in both La Liga and the Champions League last season, it has been an eventful summer at Real Madrid. It started with the man who had led the club to a 10th European Cup just 12 months earlier, Carlo Ancelotti, being sent on his way, with the club turning to former Real Madrid player and B Team coach, Rafa Benitez.
It has also been a summer of high-profile transfer sagas. After more than two years of scrutiny over his declining performances, former captain Iker Casillas has been moved on to Porto. Yet the player earmarked as his successor is not yet in place. Real Madrid have so far failed to meet Manchester United’s demands for David de Gea, meaning that the club will go into the start of the Primera Division season at Sporting Gijon on Sunday with last year’s No. 2 Keylor Navas and new signing from Espanyol Kiko Casilla as the two established goalkeeping options.
It is hardly ideal, given that both will be fully aware that they are not the club’s first-choice for the position and that De Gea could yet arrive to push them aside. And if De Gea does come then he could well take some time to find his best after not playing at Manchester United since preseason.
One of the reasons a deal for De Gea has not yet been done is that Madrid refused to allow Sergio Ramos depart in the opposite direction. The long-serving defender had told the club he wanted to leave, yet Casillas’ sale meant he was handed the captain’s armband, and reported rifts with president Florentino Perez have seemingly been healed to the extent that the 29-year-old has signed a new contract.
With Danilo joining in a big-money move to presumably take over from Dani Carvajal at right-back, the defense looks strong. And, while Benitez showed at Napoli that he is not the one-dimensional defensive coach he has often been portrayed as, he will put more of a focus on ensuring the basic structure of the team is solid week in, week out. While Ancelotti has always been more about fitting tactics around stars, Benitez will surely require his squad to occupy more defined roles.
How that balance plays out between indulging the galacticos that Real Madrid adores and the precise tactical instructions that form the basis of Benitez’s coaching will be fascinating and crucial to the success of the team this season.
It has long been seen as a matter of time before Benitez would get a chance to return home to fulfill his ambition of managing Real Madrid, but there are also a lot of questions over the appointment. He is hardly coming off the most successful job of his career in charge of Napoli and it is now several years since he achieved the highlights of his resume -- winning La Liga titles with Valencia in 2002 and 2004 and winning the Champions League with Liverpool in 2005.
It is in midfield and attack where Benitez has most work to do. Rather than the 4-3-3, 4-4-2 hybrid preferred by Ancelotti, it appears that he is intent on using a 4-2-3-1, utilizing a double-pivot of Lukas Modric and Toni Kroos in midfield. Casemiro, returned from a successful season on loan at Porto, can also expected to be handed significant minutes as the sole established defensive midfielder. But quite how big a part the clubs’ biggest signing of the summer so far, Mateo Kovacic, will play is hard to decipher. His signing was curious, with the former Inter Milan youngster not appearing to fill a particular need.
Further forward is where things really get interesting. The big tactical shift of preseason has been the decision to try and get the best out of Gareth Bale by moving him off the right flank and into the integral No. 10 role. So far it has not been a resounding success, and there are doubts, not only over whether Bale can flourish in the position but how Cristiano Ronaldo will react to greater emphasis being put on the €94 million Welshman.
Meanwhile, there has been plenty of speculation over Karim Benzema’s future, with even suggestions that Benitez could field Ronaldo as the No. 9 player. Certainly, he is short of natural striking options, with Javier “Chicharito” Hernández’s loan spell coming to an end, and some creative solutions may be needed as the season wears on.
There is, of course, oodles of talent in attacking areas, however. In Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema, James Rodriguez and Isco Benitez already has a huge, but welcome, selection headache, while there is more depth following the arrival of winger Lucas Vazquez from Espanyol and return from loan of forward Denis Cheryshev. The big question, though, is whether Real Madrid will have enough to come out on top against a Barcelona side that swept all before them in the second half of last season.
Betting odds: Real Madrid are 13/8 second favorites to lift the Primera Division title, behind Barcelona at 4/6.
Prediction: If everything clicks, there is unquestionably the quality in Real Madrid’s squad to win the championship for the first time since 2012. But there are also an awful lot of question marks, about not only how Benitez will manage his star names on and off the pitch but how he will handle the challenging and complex political climate at the Bernabeu. Other than at Valencia, Benitez has also shown himself to be more adept at guiding teams to cup glory, especially in Europe, rather than league success. And in the end Real Madrid may struggle to overcome Barcelona, while also having to look over their shoulder closer to home for an Atletico Madrid side that promises to be much stronger this season.