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Too much stability at the Bernabeu? Real Madrid's poor start in La Liga

News announced on Wednesday that Karim Benzema had renewed his Real Madrid contract until June 2021 was generally welcomed as further evidence of the club's new policy of squad stability, right up until the 1-0 defeat to Real Betis hours later suggested that maybe things had become too comfortable around the Bernabeu.

Benzema was following Marcelo, Isco and Dani Carvajal in agreeing new contracts, all up to June 2022, in recent days. Coach Zinedine Zidane has also confirmed he has agreed to extend his deal, with that announcement also expected soon.

This fit with comments made by club president Florentino Perez, earlier this month, when he said that after winning a third Champions League in four years last season the idea had been to keep disruption to a minimum in the summer. "My idea after Cardiff was that when things are going well it is best not to touch them," Perez said.

That appeared to make a lot of sense. For years it has been widely seen that the constant upheaval of the playing staff at Madrid was a big problem, especially during the 12-season wait between Champions League successes in 2002 and 2014.

But since that Decima triumph in Lisbon against neighbours Atletico Madrid, the squad has remained remarkably stable. Nine of the 14 players used in that game are still at the club; Keylor Navas and Toni Kroos arrived that summer. Since then, Perez has mostly just tinkered around the edges of the first team, even as most of their biggest rivals at home and abroad have been regularly changing things around.

There was a similar flurry of new deals last autumn, when Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Kroos, Luka Modric and Lucas Vazquez all put pen to paper on long term extensions. That led to Zidane's men becoming the first team to retain the Champions League in the modern era. They also won La Liga, meaning a first Double since 1958.

An important factor in this stability has been Madrid's ability to offer the level of salary required to make sure its most important players are not tempted elsewhere for more money or status. Columbia Business School expert Steven Mandis has argued that the club's board have worked hard to keep the dressing room happy, and big stars have responded by turning down offers to leave. This is something which even Barcelona found impossible to do when Neymar left for Paris Saint-Germain last summer.

At Barca, Lionel Messi is into the last 12 months of his contract (despite proclamations that he has already signed an extension), but there are no such contract issues around the Bernabeu. Club captain Ramos, Raphael Varane, Nacho and Navas are all signed up to 2020, while Mateo Kovacic (2021) and Marco Asensio (2022) are also tied down. Dani Ceballos, Theo Hernandez, Jesus Vallejo, Marcos Llorente and Borja Mayoral all have five more years at least on their deals.

Benzema woe
Real Madrid are seven points off Barcelona in La Liga following a poor start to the season.

Zidane maintains he is happy with his squad, even if elsewhere at the club some might have hoped a big star would leave so that they could bring in Monaco's Kylian Mbappe. He tried to persuade Alvaro Morata not to leave for Chelsea last summer, and also regularly played down speculation that Ronaldo or Bale might be tempted away.

"I want to keep this squad as it is," he said after Madrid's La Liga opener, a 3-0 win at Deportivo La Coruna. "I hope there are no changes."

But since then, Madrid's start to the 2017-18 campaign has gone wrong. Following Wednesday night's 1-0 defeat at home to Real Betis, they are already seven points behind Barcelona in the table. This is even more startling given the Catalan outfit's horror-show summer transfer window. Contract issues have not affected Messi's form, with the Argentine scoring nine goals in five games already. Even controversial Camp Nou arrival of Paulinho has had a positive impact on the team.

Just last month Zidane said his all-conquering side "were still hungry" after they had beaten Manchester United 2-1 to win the UEFA Super Cup. After they followed that up by easily seeing off Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup, the Frenchman said he had a "spectacular squad" which remained motivated, ready for new challenges, and would not be distracted by "euphoria" at their recent successes.

The evidence of the opening weeks of the new La Liga season, especially at the Bernabeu, suggests this may not be the case. It is too early yet to say that complacency has seeped into the squad. And it is worth pointing out that even in seasons which have ended well, Madrid have historically had a tendency to take their eye off the ball early in the campaign.

But recent results, especially Wednesday's defeat against Betis, suggest so much stability might be too much of a good thing. Perez and Zidane could well move in January to bring in a new attacker to change things up a bit. A little bit of disruption might not be a bad idea.

Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan


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