The pressure is on at Real Madrid after a disastrous campaign last season, their worst arguably since the turn of the millennium. The club are throwing money at the problem. For the first time in five years—when they made their last galactico signing, the 2014 FIFA World Cup star James Rodriguez—Real Madrid have spent big in the transfer market.
Some 50,000 Real Madrid fans flocked to the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in June to witness the unveiling of Eden Hazard. Elsewhere, the squad has been bolstered by defenders Ferland Mendy and Eder Militao as well as attacking players Luka Jovic, Rodrygo (a deal that was negotiated last year) and Kubo, an exciting 18-year-old Japanese playmaker who may well go on loan to Real Valladolid. The new arrivals have already brought the total spend to approximately €300 million, and more reinforcements are expected in midfield.
The plan of Zinedine Zidane, who sensationally returned as head coach in March, is to rekindle old glories with the formula—and in many places the same players for his gala XI—which brought him a league and UEFA Champions League double during the 2016-2017 season, the first at the club since 1958. His team's brilliant form that season, which concluded with five trophies in the calendar year, was based on a heavy rotation policy in which he managed to keep the squad's egos in check, rest Cristiano Ronaldo and play a reserve team in several must-win away league fixtures.
That season, 20 of his squad played more than 1,000 minutes in the league. Zidane's vaunted "Plan B" squad of players—Alvaro Morata, James and Pepe among the secondary figures—helped keep the fight going successfully on two fronts and ensured competition remained fierce for starting places. The season finished in an epoch-defining 4-1 defeat of Juventus in the UEFA Champions League final with a gilded substitutes' bench that included Gareth Bale and goalscorer Marco Asensio.
"Obviously Real Madrid has made these transfers to strengthen its reserves more than to add guaranteed starters because Zidane trusts a lot in his old guard, the guys who won him all those Champions League titles," says Jaime Rodriguez, a journalist with El Mundo. "So in Zidane's starting XI there's little space for new players. In theory, we can already imagine Zidane's starting XI. We've seen him use them in his pre-season friendlies. It's a strong bench—Jovic, Militao, Rodrygo. We have to see how they perform and if they can compete to become starters.
"Last season, Real Madrid showed they missed having a strong bench. A lot of as we say in Spain 'fondo de armario'—classic clothes that will save you in any occasion. When Zidane had a good list of reserves, he had his best season—2016-2017. Effectively he had two starting XIs. He could go to grounds like Gijon or other difficult grounds and play a with a team of 10 subs. This is his idea. He's looking for almost 20 players that he can trust in, so he wanted to sign in this area.
"Of course, another thing is what Real Madrid's fans would like. Obviously they're not signings that excite them—that give them ilusion (dreamy sensations) except for Hazard. They're not signings that drive the fans crazy, but they are signings that make for a competitive squad."
A lot will hinge on Zidane's man management. He's not one for tactical innovations. Or a martinet like, say, Jose Mourinho (who had been linked with the vacant managerial job in March). Zidane trusts that the world's most talented players can find their own solutions on the pitch. He's betting on being able to recreate a good working environment again that will allow his players to flourish again, explains Diario AS' Santiago Segurola.
"Zidane is a prudent trainer," says Segurola. "He understands the club Real Madrid well. He doesn't burden himself with elaborate tactics or the vanity of the chalkboard. He's not concerned with tactical revolutions. He's more interested in taking proper care of his players and making them feel they are in a nice place. He's a players' manager. In general, Real Madrid does well enough with this type of trainer. Real Madrid's fans knew this season would come with a lot of changes, with a lot of new arrivals ... [although] Zidane puts his faith in veterans."
Because last season was so dispiriting for Real Madrid's fans—attendances at the Bernabeu have dropped by an average of almost 9,000 over the last decade—there has been a clamour to usher in a "revolution" in the squad make-up. So far it's difficult to discern a revolutionary overhaul.
"It's a semi-revolution!" says Rodriguez, laughing. "The truth is that Zidane never uttered the words 'revolution,' but on various occasions he said there would be changes. Until now there has been a lot of changes. He wants to give chances to his 'people,' the old guard, to prove themselves again. The ones he has confidence in—Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Modric, Kroos—have given him a lot of glory. The question is: Are these guys able to reach that level again?"
Last season, they had their excuses. They were sated from perennial success, especially in the UEFA Champions League. Players were tired from the FIFA World Cup in Russia. There was the loss of Ronaldo, a huge psychic blow to the club's morale. But this season there can be no excuses. Those eight Real Madrid players who made last year's Ballon d'Or longlist must scale the mountain again. It's a last chance saloon.
"Real Madrid's fans wanted a greater revolution—maybe a change of two players per line [defence, midfield, attack]—but Zidane believes not," says Rodriguez. "He reckons he can revive these players and win again. It's his great challenge. But as we know, second parts historically rarely go well.
"If you remember, for example, the Spain national team of Vicente del Bosque. It has similarities with Zidane's situation. Del Bosque had won the World Cup and the European Championship. He arrived at the World Cup in 2014 with a squad that was crying out for renovation, but he showed faith in the same players who had brought him success—Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xabi Alonso. It ended in a disastrous World Cup in Brazil. Sometimes it's not possible to re-energise a group of champions, but Zidane believes he can achieve the feat. Let's see."
Apart from a surplus of players in attack—what is referred to as "overbooking" in Spain—the remaining piece to be solved in Zidane's puzzle is his midfield. He has discarded Marcos Llorente, Dani Ceballos and Mateo Kovavic. He has no back-up for Casemiro as the team's holding midfielder.
Zidane set his heart on bringing in Paul Pogba as the X-factor player for his second project, a box-to-box player who would invigorate his team's midfield axis. That move seems unlikely to happen now, however, as Manchester United failed to find a replacement before the English Premier League transfer window closed on Thursday (the Spanish transfer window remains open until September 2).
"The urge Zidane has to sign Pogba is because he knows that Real Madrid needs a shake-up, above all in midfield, where Real Madrid has played with the same trio for many years now—Modric, Casemiro and Kroos," says El Pais' Oscar Sanz.
Zidane has to contend with other headaches in his squad composition. The Gareth Bale saga has been torturing the manager all summer. A couple of weeks ago, Zidane said: "If Bale leaves tomorrow, the better." Then Real Madrid got thrashed 7-3 by Atletico Madrid. Real Madrid need a player like Bale who can score goals. The same weekend of the humiliating defeat to Atletico, a free transfer to China for Bale was vetoed by Real Madrid's board. They believe Zidane is cutting off his nose to spite his face.
Bale sat out Real Madrid's ensuing trip to Munich, owing to "stress." He was then pictured playing golf while Real Madrid lost 1-0 to Tottenham Hotspur. Zidane's old World Cup teammate Frank Leboeuf suggested during the week that if Bale remains at Real Madrid under Zidane, it will be like "gangrene" in the dressing room. Bale's agent, Jonathan Barnett, has yet to find a new club for Bale. The door has shut on any chance of a return to England, his most likely destination. The stalemate has left Zidane in a bind and exposed his poor diplomacy skills.
"It would be legitimate to sell Gareth Bale if Real Madrid got a good transfer fee," says Sanz. "The club should be telling the whole world that he's an extraordinary player. You can't have Zidane in a press conference saying, 'If Bale goes tomorrow, the better.' You immediately devalue the player. Whatever team might have been interested in Bale wouldn't give €70 million or €80 million, they'd offer €10 million. It's a disastrous negotiating ploy. It was absurd.
"If Bale stays on the books at Real Madrid, with the club paying so much money each year for him, he won't be sitting in the stands eating pipas (sunflower seeds) or playing golf when Real Madrid travels for away trips. He might not be a starter, but Zidane would have to use him. Zidane has phobias with Bale and James, but Bale and James are far superior to a lot of the players in Real Madrid's squad—for example, Lucas Vazquez or Vinicius or Isco—but Zidane doesn't want them."
If Zidane can't get who he wants—Pogba, as seems likely—the club could be in for 22-year-old Ajax star Donny van de Beek as a cheaper alternative. Christian Eriksen, whom Diario AS has reported Real Madrid have a long-standing verbal agreement with, could also be of interest.
"Neither options would be too bad," says Sanz. "Real Madrid need to reinforce their midfield. Eriksen is a player that would give the team a lot of control of the ball. He's a very good midfielder in the style of Modric.
"Van de Beek is a magnificent footballer. He's good at arriving in the box. He would be a player for the future. The only issue is that both players are attacking midfielders. Real Madrid already has an over-supply of them. Zidane believes Pogba could give Real Madrid something it doesn't have."
If those options aren't convincing, Real Madrid's president Florentino Perez might have one more trick up his sleeve.
"Florentino doesn't want to pay the fee of a superstar—€150 million or €180 million—for Pogba," says Rodriguez. "It's an astronomical fee, the kind a Messi or Cristiano would command. Florentino won't pay that kind of money for Pogba, who would strengthen the team but wouldn't unbalance opposition teams.
"In my opinion, Real Madrid intend to buy someone like Neymar. Despite all the noise around whether he will return to Spain, and the scandals, Real Madrid need a player of this stature. Somebody who will impose themselves. Since Cristiano left, they don't have that kind of figure."
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