Mateo Kovacic Signing Indicative of Real Madrid's Plan, but Will the Plan Work?

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistAugust 19, 2015

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Mateo Kovacic fits the profile.

He's talented, he's multi-skilled and he's expensive. He's a player who's already an international, an emerging star who is considered among the brightest prospects in the sport. His trajectory through the club ranks is going the right way, from Dinamo Zagreb to Inter Milan to Real Madrid. His progression through his nation's ranks is just the same. 

But above all else, Kovacic is young. Twenty-one years young. To sign for Real Madrid right now, that's the sort of age you need to be. 

Consider this bunch: Gareth Bale, Isco, Asier Illarramendi, Daniel Carvajal, Casemiro, James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos, Lucas Silva, Martin Odegaard, Danilo, Marco Asensio, Jesus Vallejo and Lucas Vazquez. Those names represent 13 of the 15 players Real Madrid have signed permanently over the last two years. Their common trait? Age. 

When those men put pen to paper at the Bernabeu, respectively, they were: 24, 21, 23, 21, 21, 23, 24, 21, 16, 23, 18, 18 and 24. Kovacic, at 21, adds to the bunch to make it 14 out of 16 after signing on Tuesday, Real Madrid's only ventures outside the 16-24 age bracket coming for the purchases of goalkeepers Keylor Navas and Kiko Casilla. And that pair might soon be supplanted by the 24-year-old David De Gea, who would make it 15 in 17.

To this haul, we can add Jese, Nacho and Denis Cheryshev, a trio who were elevated from the Castilla squad in 2013 and who currently reside at the Bernabeu. When promoted, they were 20, 23 and 22, respectively. Completing the picture is Raphael Varane, who's still just 22 as we speak. 

#CHAMP13NS 🏆⚽️ @realmadrid

Comunicado oficial: Mateo Kovačić. http://t.co/t5BjaE0QFD #BienvenidoAlRealMadrid http://t.co/KEsqNDoge5

Kovacic, therefore, represents the continuation of a plan for Real Madrid.

Though he's far from the finished article, the Croatian is a precocious talent ready to be moulded to a manager's liking. A player of positional versatility, quick feet, long shots, deft touches, surging runs and incisive passing, Kovacic has a skill set that could propel him to stardom—a skill set that may only need a launchpad. 

Real Madrid, it seems, see themselves as that. The launchpad. 

Thus, what we have in Chamartin is now of great contrast to the maligned Zidanes y Pavones of over a decade ago. That group, defined by Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo and David Beckham, was a collection of established footballing rockstars surrounded by academy products, built by president Florentino Perez in the misguided belief that star power would conquer all else. It didn't. 

Now, however, Perez and Co. are assembling something different. In the Spanish capital, unlike elsewhere, there are no Bastian Schweinsteigers signing on the dotted line. No Arda Turans. No Arturo Vidals. No Radamel Falcaos. No Jackson Martinezs. No Angel Di Marias. Instead, Madrid are putting together a cluster of emerging faces, a group that the club will hope can grow together, evolve together. Eventually dominate together. The squad is so young that Marca has dubbed them "Benitez's boys."

Essentially, what Real Madrid are doing is picking the juiciest young fruits in the forest and throwing them into a blender, hoping they'll combine to make the most delicious smoothie of all—one that tastes magnificent for hours rather than minutes. 

But will it work?

GUANGZHOU, CHINA - JULY 27: James Rodriguez of Real Madrid celebrates his goal with Lucas Vazquez and other teammates during the match of International Champions Cup match between Real Madrid and FC Internazionale at Tianhe Stadium on July 27, 2015 in Gua
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On the face of it, this is a positive step forward for Perez's Real Madrid. Too often under the construction magnate, the man whom AS accused of treating the club as one of his "playthings," there hasn't been an identifiable plan, an obvious project. Stars have come and gone, plenty of them needlessly. Managers have faced the guillotine like it's the French Revolution. Titles have been squandered. 

That Real Madrid have won one league crown in the last nine years of Perez's two-part presidency says it all. A Real Madrid that remains the world's glamour club. A Real Madrid that outdoes them all for resources, for allure. A Real Madrid that was voted the world's greatest club of the 20th century. 

One in nine is a catastrophic return for Perez. 

Now, though, at least one can see what's being built, a sense of long-term thinking clearly evident. Instead of pursuing immediate fixes, stars there for a good time but not a long time, Perez, for perhaps the first time at the Bernabeu, is constructing something that in theory is built to last—ironic when you consider the industry in which he's made his money. 

However, this is a project that's far from flawless. And Perez's own tendencies have the potential to upset it. 

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Kovacic, like others before him, doesn't fill an obvious need. Though extremely versatile, capable of playing in both advanced and withdrawn positions, the Croatian is, at the heart of it, a creative and attacking talent. Just like Rodriguez. Like Kroos. Like Isco.  

Like countryman Luka Modric, who isn't going anywhere fast. 

Thus, despite Perez's plan to build a white army of future stars who'll learn to fight together, the reality is that their growth won't be simultaneous or parallel. You can't fast-track the development of Rodriguez and Kroos and Isco and Kovacic and all the others. It doesn't work that way. 

For a good example, you only need to look at the base of the midfield. In 2013, Real signed Illarramendi and Casemiro, later loaning out the Brazilian. Then last winter, Silva arrived to play the same role, before Casemiro was recalled. 

Now you've got a situation in which there are three midfield anchors all vying for the same position. All three are of a similar age and experience. All three are talented but works in progress—they could become very good but aren't there yet. But Casemiro's return pushes the club past the quota for non-EU players, meaning Silva will likely go out on the loan. And Kovacic's arrival essentially spells the end for Illarramendi.

Consequently, in using the current model, it's possible that plans get made for a future that never arrives. The new face, the latest sensation to develop, becomes the priority, halting the progress of the men who've come before him but who still aren't the finished product themselves. 

In such circumstances, the result would be a succession of young prodigies whose ultimate level is never reached, the patience missing to see the process through to the end for each player. It's like building a car to the point of putting the wheels on, but then stopping to start a new car from fresh. Over and over again. 

Naturally, there will be exceptions. But there will be numerous casualties, too. 

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So here's the crucial part: This plan can work, but it won't if the arrivals lounge is constantly filling. At some point, the spending on the latest "it" talents has to cease, patience shown toward the crop who are already part of the process. 

Inevitably, then, it all comes back to Perez.

The problem? He's rarely shown an ounce of that crucial quality, patience. 

Only during the tenure of Jose Mourinho has the current president ceded ultimate control to a manager, doing so on that occasion because he had no choice: he needed an all-powerful leader to wage war on a rampant Barcelona. 

When you examine the squad's evolution during those years, illustrated neatly by Transfermarkt, you instantly see stability and continuity, the comings and goings limited to only what was necessary. The result was a record-breaking league title in 2011-12, Perez's only one in his last nine years at the helm. 

In almost every other period, though, Perez has hastily ripped everything up and started again. Whether it be the sackings of popular coaches Vicente del Bosque or Carlo Ancelotti, or the dismantling of a European title-winning squad in 2014, the current president's aversion to footballing principles is startling. 

"Each year, we do the impossible in order to win, but they always take it from us by two points or something like that," he said in 2013. "I do not know why."

Strange, because everyone else does. 

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 25:  President Florentino Perez of Real Madrid holds a news conference at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium on May 25, 2015 in Madrid, Spain. Perez announced the club's decision to let go their head coach Carlo Ancelotti.  (Photo by Denis
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What exits at the Bernabeu, therefore, is a solid and potentially fruitful plan built on youth, but one whose success hinges upon the president's willingness to change. 

To work, emerging stars need to be given time to become actual stars. They need to be shown patience and loyalty, given consistent messages from those above. On the pitch, systems, formations, positions and playing philosophies need a sense of familiarity, coherence. Clarity. If the plan is to build a group together, then the wider environment at the Bernabeu needs to be thought about in the same way. 

Can Perez, then, resist the urge to pull the trigger on manager after manager, a process that always results in upheaval on every level? Can he fight the temptation to sign the next Rodriguez, the next Isco and the next Kovacic, while those players—Rodriguez, Isco and Kovacic—are all still there?

In short, can he stop viewing Real Madrid as his "plaything" and realise there are ingredients to success that can't be bought?

Certainly, there are other elements to Perez's stockpiling of young talent; this process also denies such players from rivals, and gives the club the option of eventually selling on at a profit with a "made at Real Madrid" sticker attached. 

But at the core of everything at Real Madrid is the demand for success. Relentless, unyielding success. The current plan of hoovering up the world's emerging talent could potentially deliver that, but only if the club and its president do what's unnatural to them: sit tight, be patient, and actually see the plan through.


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