Real Madrid have struggled to improve their team in the past two years, and their familiar European problems continue to haunt them.
Real Madrid's defeat to Borussia Dortmund last night carried with it the anguish of a routine problem at the heart of their team - namely, their inability to consistently produce their best football against proper teams. Dortmund are a good side, but hardly one oozing with Champions League pedigree. Yet they were allowed to comfortably defeat a Madrid team that once again lost its bearings on the big stage, in a 2-1 defeat that would've been more comprehensive but for two refereeing errors denying a penalty for Mario Gotze and a one-on-one for Robert Lewandowski.
Choking on the big stage is familiar territory for Real Madrid. Jonathan Wilson wrote that they seem to be the traditional whipping boys for young teams on the rise, which he speculated could be down to "their historical insistence upon the individual", which "renders them prone to destruction by well-drilled teams." He may have a point, particularly with Mourinho's current system, a 4-2-3-1 with each player in a highly-specialised role.
Modric ought to have been a move away from that, an all-round midfield playmaker who does not fit into any specific blueprint, but ironically, the system has defeated the individual and left him without a clear role. He can function in a double pivot, but needs a defensive foil alongside him, which Real Madrid do not possess - and even if they did, would then move Xabi Alonso to the bench. He can play in the hole, but this then means that Ozil cannot, and must also therefore miss out, or be pushed out to a less effective position on the wing.
The problem is the specialisation of the other three players makes fluidity impossible. Alonso has the discipline to control a game, but lacks mobility. Khedira is supremely mobile, but lacks creativity. Ozil has creativity, but lacks the discipline to control a game. And so on. This vicious rock-paper-scissors at the heart of the Real Madrid team makes a transition to a fluid model necessary to compete at a higher level impossible. An all-rounder like Modric cannot be deployed without compromising at least one of his colleagues.
There is the notion that the Barcelona model fails when someone doesn't 'turn up' or 'the passing doesn't click', but this is a fallacy. If all of the players are capable and willing to perform all-round roles, one member of the team having a bad game is easily covered for. Real Madrid are far more prone to such problems in big games, because in a system of specialised roles, one player having a bad game compromises the whole machine. And big teams will always have enough room to target a weak link.
Which begs the obvious question: how many players are there around who would improve the team? The defence is probably the most obvious candidate for an upgrade, but world-class centre-backs are in short supply. Thiago Silva was allowed to go to Paris, Nemanja Vidic is approaching a decline in fitness and form, and the likes of Mats Hummels would represent a minor upgrade for the considerable cost involved.
Radamel Falcao would certainly improve Madrid's frontline, but attacking impotence is rarely their downfall, and prising him from their intra-city rivals would be difficult. In any case, Mourinho has already stated that he will not make a move for the Colombian. Wayne Rooney could be persuaded at considerable expense to reprise his partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo, but both players have changed since then, and while Rooney's skillset matches Madrid's needs perfectly, he has simply not shown consistent world-class form for two years now.
Perhaps the midfield? Well, Xabi Alonso, Mesut Ozil, Luka Modric and Sami Khedira are probably the best players in the world at their roles, of deep-lying playmaker, number 10, midfield schemer, and box-to-box midfielder respectively. At least the best not currently playing for Barcelona, which would be fine at any club other than Real Madrid. Most frustratingly, no combination of the four has shown that they are likely to gel together in a way that can give Real Madrid the requisite consistency and control in big games.
So, is there any other hope for Madrid? Ozil, Marcelo, and Benzema are yet to reach their peak, but even their progress will not solve the root problems. Manchester United achieved a remarkable consistency and effectiveness in Europe with a worse squad than Madrid, but they did so with a rigorous discipline combined with attacking fluidity, which Madrid's players are not as well-equipped to execute.
This squad deserves a Champions League victory, but cannot get it without considerable improvement which looks increasingly impossible with every passing game. The team that started against Barcelona in this season's first Clasico was identical to the one that suffered a 5-0 defeat two years previously, with one exception - Alvaro Arbeloa in for Ricardo Carvalho, hardly an upgrade. That shows that the core of Madrid's team has progressed, but also reveals that the only path for Mourinho is to work with what he already has. Unfortunately, there is the growing sense that what he has may not be enough.