Real Madrid and Chelsea's fall from grace: Transfer windows to blame?
Was 2016-17 just another year in the football calendar? Certainly not for Real Madrid, for whom it was glorious, to say the least. They won their first league title since the 2011-12 season and also became the first club in the modern era to win back to back Champions League titles when they beat Juventus 4-1 in the final.
Fast forward 10 months to present day and they've had a serious fall from grace. Madrid are now 14 points behind leaders Barcelona and any hope of retaining the league title is all but gone.
Like the Madrid fans, the Chelsea faithful too had a season to remember a year ago. They finished tenth the season before but Antonio Conte's arrival breathed fresh air into the club and what followed was a truly incredible year. They enjoyed domestic success by winning their fifth Premier League title by a comprehensive 7-point margin over second placed Tottenham.
Today, however, they find themselves 19 points behind champions-elect Manchester City with Conte himself admitting that a top four place is what they should fight for as defending the title has become almost impossible.
On closer introspection, we can trace this back to two very contrasting transfer windows for the two sides.
Real Madrid's complacency in the summer transfer market
Let's start with Madrid, shall we? They sold three extremely important players in Pepe, James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata. Pepe wore the white of Madrid for a decade and with each passing year, his influence was growing. Varane, who came in as an understudy, started showing glimpses of his incredible talent and soon Pepe was reduced to a squad role, playing only 13 times in the league in his final season. He was thus sold to Besiktas for free in the summer of 2017.
James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata are two extremely gifted players who also had to be content with opportunities from the bench. Though both of them were given the "super-sub" tag, they scored a combined 31 goals in all competitions in the 2016-17 campaign and were used as a perfect plan-B to nick important wins when their teammates could not find a way through. Zidane used them well to rest some of the first team stars which resulted in deep Cup runs.
This demanded more game time for them and Zidane was reluctant to change his system to accommodate either player. So, James was loaned to Bayern Munich for two years with an option to buy and Morata was sold to Chelsea for £60 million. Brazilian fullback Danilo was also sold to Manchester City. The Brazilian who was an able deputy on either flank when Marcelo or Dani Carvajal were unavailable.
This need not necessarily lead to a sudden failure had Madrid been able to sign players of similar stature. They made only two major signings: left-back Theo Hernandez from Atletico Madrid and an attacker Dani Ceballos from Real Betis. Neither could fill in the void and live up to expectations and this resulted in the reduction of squad strength and contributed to a lack of options particularly with top players under-performing and often looking leggy in the league this season.
A similar case can be accounted for Conte's Chelsea as well. They decided not to extend the contract of arguably their greatest ever player in John Terry, and sold two of their most consistent and highly influential players- Nemanja Matic and Diego Costa.
Terry's departure can be accounted for to an extent. He captained his squad to the league title for a record fifth time and probably there wasn't a better time to call it a day. Gary Cahill was given the armband and was expected to fill in the void, but he has been woefully out of form all season. Andreas Christensen was another talented defender who had developed very well during his loan spell at Borussia Mönchengladbach and was introduced to English football.
The controversial part was when Conte decided to sell Matic to direct rivals, Manchester United and let go of Costa because "he wanted his forward to stay central." Matic was a mainstay in that Chelsea midfield ever since Mourinho signed him back from Benfica for his second stint at Chelsea and had missed only 10 league games in 3 years.
Costa was that bullying, aggressive, supercharged forward who would stretch himself to his physical limits to score a goal. He scored 52 goals in 89 games in the league and on many occasions, was the deciding factor between a draw and a win.
Now contrary to Madrid, Chelsea's downfall cannot be attributed to a lack of transfer activity, but to a rather chaotic one and I am not referring to their muddled loan system. They spent nearly £230 million in the last two transfer windows on players that can only be termed decent.
In the summer, Morata was the big name signing who arrived for a record fee but has failed to live up to expectations despite showing glimpses of brilliance. Tiemoue Bakayoko and Danny Drinkwater were signed to fill the void left by Matic. The former has already been described by pundits and fans alike as a total failure (with many not even wanting to see him play again!) and the latter is yet to replicate his heroics when he won the league with Leicester in 2016.
Chelsea's defence, though, has been more or less stable for the good part of the year with new signings Rudiger and Zappacosta proving to be able deputies. In January, they decided to loan Michy Batshuayi out, who was slowly proving to be a consistent goal scorer, to Dortmund and signed Olivier Giroud from Arsenal as an able back up and option from the bench. They also signed Ross Barkley from Everton who was coming on the back of a lengthy layoff and is injury prone and added Roma's fullback Emerson Palmieri to the roster.
What does the future hold?
Although Madrid's hopes of retaining La Liga is practically over, the season is not yet over for them as they have a 3-1 advantage over PSG after the first leg of the Champions League round of 16.
If they can get through to the quarter-finals, you can never risk betting against them. Their superhero Cristiano Ronaldo and many others save their best for the last and an added incentive of winning the Champions League for the third time in a row may prove to be a catalyst to bring their A-game to the table. If they can finish the season strongly and sign one or two 'Galacticos" in the summer, rest assured, you can expect them to be firing on all cylinders next season.
As for Chelsea, the speculation regarding the future of Antonio Conte, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois continues to grow with each passing day and this may add further pressure on them particularly when we are nearing the business end of the season. They still have a chance to advance to the Champions League quarter-finals as they held Barcelona to a 1-1 draw in London in the first leg and will play against Leicester in the FA Cup quarter-final.
Their chances of retaining the league is only mathematically possible, and if Conte can sort out his system right and employ key personnel at their natural positions, we can expect Chelsea to lift at least the FA Cup, come May. Also, if Conte can dodge an "imminent" sack and remain at Chelsea, they are one or two quality signings away from challenging on all fronts.