Real Madrid have a gaping flaw right now, and it's not one that Zinedine Zidane can fix. It's one that dictates where they are now: no longer in contention for two of their top three competition targets, when they could, legitimately, be emulating Pep Guardiola's 2008-2009 six-trophy debut.
It's also a flaw that threatens to dictate a number of big issues: whether the right decision is made about Zidane's future, whether Madrid rebuild adequately in the summer, whether they handle the Cristiano Ronaldo situation deftly and whether the right players are sold and retained. Despite this incredible lack of fundamental know-how at the Bernabeu, all their rivals who have nevertheless been made to kneel by Madrid over the first two years of Zidane's reign must also kneel at the end of their beds each night and pray to their maker that this terrible flaw is never addressed.
It is, of course, the fact that the closest thing to a proper Director of Football at the Spanish champions is Florentino Perez, a man who still makes decisions that are heavily based on a Galactico model that was invented in the 1950s. It's a model that functions but is increasingly outmoded, which breaks down the instant money doesn't talk loudly enough and which, inevitably, will lead the pendulum to swing between famine and feast.
For a long time before Zidane was appointed coach, it was Zidane who was acting as a de facto Football Director for the club. He not only scouted players but recommended signings too. He went to their club to sign or persuade them (Raphael Varane), argue with the president after he spoke negatively about a potential acquisition (Isco) and even talk nervous prospective signings (Gareth Bale) through the long process of becoming a new recruit.
Right now, it isn't as if Zidane doesn't have a voice: it's a strong, clear influential one. But in case anyone hasn't noticed, he's in charge of a high-performance engine that is malfunctioning, and his time is exclusively spent on that major engineering job. The wealth of experience, vision, wisdom and know-how that "Zizou" lent to the structuring of Real Madrid's football decisions is temporarily missing.
What of the president himself?
I was at a football symposium not that long ago, sitting next to a Madrid-based [and Madrid supporting] media executive. We were talking about this very issue. He reckoned that in his last conversation with Perez, he enquired who Madrid's Director of Football was going to be and, apparently, was told "the same guy who brought you La Decima and the La Undecima" (Madrid's 10th and 11th European Cups).
It's not a point to be wholly ignored. Perez believes that buying the next available superstar(s) of global football is an automatic guarantee of bringing quality, class and hunger, as well as mega marketing power, to his club.
To a certain degree, trophies back him up. Madrid have won nearly double Barcelona's European Cups/Champions Leagues, and the past two years have seen repeat world and continental triumphs. More than that, there have been times over the past two years when Madrid have been damn good fun to watch: gritty in spirit, lightning fast in their passing, capable of scoring both intricate and incredibly powerful goals, with sprinklings of magic whether from Isco, Marco Asensio, Karim Benzema or Bale.
Having said all that, the flaw not only remains but also is threatening to undermine all that good work.
A Director of Football is the person who adds that all-embracing vision: the needs of the president, the needs of the club, the needs of the coach, the needs of Financial Fair Play and the needs for the future, whether the next six weeks, six months or six years. Plus, if you're doing things right, the Director of Football is the person who ensures that there is a guiding football philosophy agreed to by those above them in the organisation chart and by those who answer to them.
Your Director of Football is the nerve centre: planner, contacts man, organiser, strategist, guardian of values, transfer-market maestro, housekeeper, link man between the football development resources and the first team. It's a massive job. It's one for the talented, the experienced, the shrewd and the dedicated. It isn't a job for a 70-year-old industrialist with a major construction company to run.
You'll have heard of Jose Angel Sanchez, Perez's right-hand man since before the pair won power back in 2000. He's a marketeer and a businessman, the guy who'll get deals done, the man who knows which agents matter, which don't and what elite players need in order to sign on the dotted line. He's very good at his job and a superb lieutenant for Perez. But Director of Football is a role that can be successfully filled only by someone with an acute football brain, football eye and a career in the sport.
Sanchez is the guy whose work would flourish even more if his skill were aligned with a colleague who could supply the football DNA at the executive level.
Let me give a few examples.
Balance. When Madrid agreed, between Perez and Zidane, that the primary emphasis last summer would be on restocking the first-team squad with largely Spanish youth talent, I'd have been one of the first to congratulate them and approve.
If handled correctly, there is genuine talent in Jesus Vallejo, Dani Ceballos and Marcos Llorente. Borja Mayoral and Theo Hernandez might well make it at the club, too. But there was an imbalance when guys such as Alvaro Morata, James Rodriguez and Pepe were being shipped out, while it looks strongly as if Mariano Diaz should have been retained and Borja loaned or sold.
Experience was discarded, and goals flooded out the door, all to underwrite the purchase of an exceptionally talented 18-year-old by the name of Kylian Mbappe. Not only was that not an injection of the type of experience which was patently missing, but also Mbappe's message all summer was "sell one of the BBC [Bale, Benzema, Cristiano], or I'm not joining." By the time Perez realised that he wasn't bluffing, it was too late.
Now, it's just hypothesis, but I'd like to think that a Director of Football's job would have been to say, "president, I believe what we are being told. Let's be careful" and to have a plan B not just up his sleeve but clenched tightly in his fist. It didn't happen.
Zidane is halfway through his second full senior season as a coach. How on earth is it reasonable to think he has all the solutions? An experienced Director of Football would and should have been the voice saying "Look at how Sir Alex Ferguson managed success at United! He bought and sold by figuring out which players might be sated, and he kept every single player believing he'd have to fight for his place. We may be at risk here."
Nobody was giving President Perez that message.
When Madrid spent several weeks sniffing around Kepa Arrizabalaga, Athletic's exceptional young Spanish keeper, the idea was that this was someone to win the first-team position and keep it for a generation. His price was low, given that he was out of contract in the summer, but Zidane went maverick and stated, "I don't need a keeper." Whatever breakdown in communications or internal battle was being fought wouldn't have mattered. A Director of Football would have had the responsibility to see it and sort it before it reached the media.
Now let's cast forward. Madrid want to rip things up in the summer and add both Harry Kane and Neymar to their squad. It's daring and well within the playbook of Madrid's past 17 years under Perez, which have seen "impossible" deal after "impossible" deal achieved. But things have changed.
Money usually talked in those Perez-inspired conjuring acts. Now there are clubs such as Man City and Paris Saint-Germain, to whom the phrase "guaranteed selling price" might as well be written in Sanskrit. How can Madrid prise Neymar free? How can they negotiate with Tottenham's Daniel Levy, one of the few men who have comprehensively stuck it to President Perez not once but twice? And if Madrid try to chase Mauricio Pochettino as well as Levy's star striker at Spurs, then I'd literally pay very, very good money to be a fly on the wall when they first pass that news to him.
Simply put, these are jobs for a Director of Football, someone with the contacts, deal-making skills and football experience to augment the fact that Madrid will offer kings' ransoms all round to get the staff they need. Right now, that person would be developing the plan B in case Kane, Pochettino, Neymar, Dele Ali, Eden Hazard, Paulo Dybala -- just name your talent -- simply isn't realistic.
My view, for what it's worth, is that while Zidane might well choose to dip into his deep well of fighting spirit and stay on toward the contract deal he signed until 2020, there's also a scenario in which he steps away from the hot seat for a few years with the intention of returning one day.
In that hypothetical scenario, why lose him to the France national team, Juventus or Qatar, or I don't know where? Why not plan now for Madrid to promote their current coach to Director of Football and let him pass on his deep knowledge of this squad to the incoming coach?
It's just an idea. But it's a good one.