If you think back a decade, when Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were at the peak of their powers, the level of fascination his side generated appeared unprecedented. Tiki-taka tickled everyone’s lips. Books were written. Column inches overflowed. Ceaseless debate dwelled upon their place in the footballing pantheon, with many inserting them as the apex XI to ever grace grass.
All of which makes this Real Madrid side such an oddity. In the past two years Zinedine Zidane’s outfit have scaled heights even the greatest incarnation of their fiercest foes could never reach, yet they carry none of that same mystique. For all their exploits, it’s a group that seem strangely under-explored and even under-appreciated. For all his instant impact, Zidane seems to be framed as a man of fairly average aptitude in spite of the fact he’s taken Los Blancos to an altitude unprecedented in history.
“Taken” being the operative word. After a stuttering start to the season and an insipid defeat to Catalan upstarts Girona at the weekend, a lifeless display against Tottenham has left the double-defending European champions in an incipient state of semi-crisis. It’s a state of affairs, however, which underpins why they never received the same rhapsodical reverence. While that great Barca side breathed as one, this Real outfit has never really shaken the feeling of eleven outstanding individuals uneasily engineered into a brilliant but strangely brittle behemoth.
No one embodies this contradictory nature better than Sergio Ramos. An irreplaceable presence, lion-hearted leader, captain, talisman, yet a player for whom a meltdown is never more than a momentary misstep away. Ramos puts the Mad in Madrid. Had he been born a century earlier we’d probably refer to it today as the Ramosian period and spend our school years examining epic frescos of King Sergio standing triumphantly on a mountain of his enemies’ corpses. The real Ramos wanted to decapitate Dele Alli last night, drink the blood draining from his neck and wear his ears as accessories. In reality he had to make do with a booking for sarcastically clapping the referee. Throughout his career what Ramos has been crying out for is to be paired with someone to keep a tight hold of his leash when he starts to bare his teeth. A player-lifecoach acting as the white angel to counterbalance the legion of little red devils that have long since conquered both of those sculpted shoulders. Instead he’s spent the majority of his career alongside Pepe, who left the Spanish capital this summer, one presumes, to blowup the polar ice caps with a doomsday device despite the best efforts of Steven Seagal. That said, even the Portuguese would have been preferable against Spurs to stand-in Nacho, whose dillydallying led to the first goal.
At the other end of the pitch, Cristiano Ronaldo, now so bronzed he looks like a statue of himself (but not that one), was left to strike the pose of a parent whose just found their toddler drawing in crayon on a freshly furbished wall. Ronaldo is a player for whom the collective concept exists outside of himself. The ‘team’ is there to service his individual brilliance, a structure designed to funnel everything towards him as the throbbing phallus at the fore.
In between these two pillars, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, the telepathically intertwined little geniuses, like two recast characters from Stranger Things, have never seemed so overrun. Kroos and Modric are the tempo setters, the twin metronomes that normally keep everything ticking over without breaking into so much as a jog. Yet Spurs swarmed them, unsettled them and stole their dinner money. Even Isco, usually free to skip gaily about the pitch and sprinkle his rainbow pixie dust wherever he pleases, was sent home with a wedgie.
Spurs are very much a team on the rise and this result wasn’t wholly unexpected. A large part of that, however, owes to Real’s recent slide as much as their opponent’s ascent. The fact Zidane’s position may begin to come under question personifies the sheer insanity that infects the game’s gilded elite but even in an industry that can be best described as ‘results first, ask questions later’, Real’s unprecedented successes still hasn’t brought security. Spurs have won nothing under Mauricio Pochettino and he is the most secure manager in the Premier League. Madrid have won everything under Zidane yet the underlying sense is of incompleteness. In football perception is reality and, in this context, even a hanger full of trophies may not spare him.