No player in the world can simply replace Cristiano Ronaldo.
Whatever happens from here, Real Madrid have got to reconcile themselves to the fact that they’ve just kissed goodbye an average of 50 goals a season that Ronaldo got throughout his nine campaigns at Santiago Bernabeu.
Under Zinedine Zidane the team was structured to extract goals from Ronaldo. In all competitions he scored 44 times last season. He may well have been named on the left side of the Madrid attack but he certainly didn’t play there.
The days when Ronaldo gallops at his full-back and whips in a cross or a shot as his primary attacking moves are long gone. He’s a striker and a pretty good one at that.
His game has become about first-time instinctive finishes, clever runs into the box and anticipation. What’s more, it requires the rest of the individuals set within the attacking formation to cater for him. Madrid’s next top scorer last season was Gareth Bale with 21; two of which came in the Champions League final against Liverpool.
Jurgen Klopp’s team did a good job in keeping Ronaldo shackled but that exposed the second strength of having him in the lineup. Even if he is marked well then it leaves space open for others to work. Again, Madrid have lost that crucial decoy in their attack. Among the players they currently employ, there is nobody who can do what Ronaldo did – either in front of goal or simply to alarm an opposition defence by his very presence.
Maybe new coach Julen Lopetegui will seek to deploy Marco Asensio on the left, where the promising young Spaniard has played well, most notably in the Champions League comeback against Paris Saint-Germain last season. The left-footed Asensio would be a more direct threat on that side of attack and wouldn’t carry the poacher’s gift that Ronaldo acquired over the years.
In any case, Karim Benzema is too tame a forward to be catered to as a central tenet of the attack. He does not possess the ruthlessness of an Edinson Cavani or a Robert Lewandowski. He has got used to life as a facilitator – for Ronaldo or Bale – in the Madrid attack. To transform him into a relentless No.9 will take time and there are no guarantees he can do it.
The trouble for Madrid is that it currently appears unlikely they will go in for another centre forward in this transfer window. In that regard, Lopetegui is probably going to have to work with what he’s got.
Zidane also got used to fielding a playmaker in Isco behind Benzema and Ronaldo last season. And given the profile of both players, it again appears dubious that Lopetegui can replicate that system with the squad he’s got in situ at the moment.
Which brings us to Eden Hazard, the Chelsea double-title winner who has made no secret this summer about his desire to move to Madrid. Speaking in the aftermath of Belgium’s bronze medal match at the World Cup, he revealed to reporters that he felt his time was up at Stamford Bridge .
“After six wonderful years at Chelsea it might be time to discover something different,” he said in St Petersburg. “Certainly, after this World Cup. I can decide if I want to stay or go, but Chelsea will make the final decision if they want to let me go. You know my preferred destination.”
For the Belgian captain, the move makes sense. He’s 27 and has designs on winning the Champions League. That’s an impossibility for Chelsea currently given that they are not in it. Opportunities like Madrid don’t come around often in a player’s career and he appears determined to take it.
And with Ronaldo sold, there is a gap in the Madrid line-up that can be filled by a new Galactico like Hazard. But he won’t replace the new Juventus signing. He cannot replace his goals, his personality, his aura. Madrid will be playing a new style of football if they do end up going for Hazard.
He proved during the World Cup that he has the versatility to do a job for the team as required. He featured high and wide in a 3-4-3 alongside Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku. He also featured a few metres further back when Roberto Martinez opted to use Kevin De Bruyne as a false No.9 against Brazil in the quarter-finals. He also played in a partnership of sorts with Lukaku – albeit from the left – in the semi-final defeat to France.
Ex-Spain boss Lopetegui alternated between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 during the World Cup qualification campaign. He was denied the opportunity to showcase his work on the global stage having been sacked on the eve of the tournament for what the Spanish FA says was negotiating with Real Madrid behind its back.
He used a combination of Isco, Marco Asensio and David Silva in the position on the left side of the attack. None could be described as possessing a similar profile of Cristiano Ronaldo but there are certainly some similarities to how Hazard works.
One thing is for sure, the days of one player scoring 50 goals a season for Real Madrid disappeared with Ronaldo. And whether it’s Hazard – or a solution from the players on the books – things are going to be a lot different next season.