31 May 2018, Zinedine Zidane’s call for a surprise press conference that evening sent alarm bells ringing through the Spanish capital. A few hours later, the Los Merengues’ fan’s worst fears were confirmed. After almost 3 seasons at the helm of the European champions, Zizou had decided to step down from his role as Real Madrid manager. His reign brought about a rare sense of calm and stability in the infamous Blancos dressing room. During his stint, the former Ballon d’Or winner led Madrid to an unprecedented three consecutive European cups, Madrid’s first title in 5 seasons ending Barcelona’s domestic dominance. Zidane’s decision to quit one of the top jobs in the football world just 5 days after leading Madrid to European glory in Kiev came as a shock to fans and pundits alike and sent the club into turmoil.Speaking about his decision to leave, Zidane said:
“The time is right, It’s not a decision I’ve taken lightly. I thought about it carefully and it’s the right decision, even though I imagine many may not agree. After three years, Real Madrid needs a change, another way of working, another idea, if we are to continue winning. I feel it’s going to be difficult to continue winning. And because I’m a winner, I’m going.”
This statement did not help reduce the ambiguity of the decision. Several plausible reasons for his departure were discussed in the media worldwide. One of the theories that were stated was that perhaps Zidane felt that a Champions league triumph papered over the cracks of a dismal league campaign as Real Madrid finished 17 points off eventual Liga champions Barcelona or the fact that the club was heading towards a rebuild as echoed by post-match comments after the win over Liverpool by Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
However, club legend Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus, after a long drawn out transfer saga did shine some light as to why the former French international chose to leave. A lack of support from the board, especially in terms of signings might have been one of the reasons as Madrid were in dire need of strengthening upfront after their Portuguese talisman’s ill-timed exit.
The departure of two of the clubs all-time great personalities who had an immense impact on 21st century Madridismo symbolically represented the end of another Galactico era. After the initial flourish at the turn of the century with two European cup victories in three seasons where the likes of Luis Figo, David Beckham, Ronaldo were acquired by the club for astronomical sums. These players, christened as “Galacticos” led Real Madrid to limited success in the seasons that ensued, Club Supremo Florentino Perez decided to do things a bit differently in his second term after being re-elected as president in 2009.
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Though his stint started off with huge outlays in the market with the likes of Ronaldo, Kaka, Benzema, Xabi Alonso and later Gareth Bale, the club was heading in a different direction this time around. The transfer of James Rodriguez from AS Monaco in 2014 for a sum of 67 million pounds marked the end of impulsive big-name signings that were characteristic of the Galactico period. In the seasons that have followed, the Spanish giants have spent frugally and seem to have established a new strategy for recruitment.
Beginning 2015-16, with the signing of Marco Asensio, Jesus Vallejo, and Mateo Kovacic, the club has shifted its focus to procuring the finest young talents across Europe and South America. Los Blancos have since consistently signed players under the age of 25 for a net transfer gain of about 4 million pounds over the past 4 seasons. This is a tremendous change for a club once known to have spent upward of 200 million pounds in a single transfer window in the summer of 09-10.
Why then, has a club synonymous with signing global stars in their prime years altered its transfer model to a conservative and youth promoting one? The recent acquisitions of Brazilian starlets, Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo Goes and recent transfer targets Mario Hermoso of Espanyol and Brahim Diaz of Manchester City further underline the club’s objectives in the market.
Real Madrid regrets passing up on the Parisian superstars in Kylian Mbappe and Neymar as the pair had a trial with the club as youth players. Fast forward to 2018 and the duo finished 4th and 12th in the Ballon d’Or ranking respectively and are a marketing dream for any club. Moreover, the club is priced out of their potential transfer thanks to an inflated market. The only way then to ensure that the club always has the players of the calibre of Di Stefano, Puskas, Zidane and more recently Ronaldo is to scout the potential world-beaters at the grass root level and to get them when they are young and more importantly affordable. The right players will be brought in to the club but for a reasonable price, the club aims to prevent bidding wars in the future for these exceptional talents.
Madrid are planning a 600 million pounds facelift for the famous Santiago Bernabeu. “It’ll offer a new stadium, heritage and be a new source of pride for our members and fans,“ said Florentino Perez. Granted the permission for the proposed revamp of the stadium, the board has sanctioned a significant amount of the budget towards the construction. The impending financial constraints- the loans which the club intends to take to finance the project, the existing net debt of 10 million euros and the gross debt that stands at 187 million euros have curtailed the club’s exploits in the market to an extent.
Performance suffers, how has the plan fared so far?
Madrid were Spanish Champions in the 2016-17 campaign and the squad had immense depth that season with a combination of youth and experience helping the capital club lead a title charge in Europe and domestically. The squad contained the likes of Alvaro Morata, James Rodriguez, Pepe, and Danilo, all of whom are experienced campaigners in the European game. Zidane was able to rotate effectively and utilized the bench players dubbed as the “B Team” by pundits to wrap up La Liga.
Morata was successful in front of goal and finished the season with 20 goals in all competitions with a healthy return of 15 in La Liga, despite playing second fiddle to Karim Benzema. This move ensured key players like Ramos, Ronaldo, Modric, and Benzema were in top condition during the latter part of the season as Madrid navigated a tricky path through the knockout stages of the Champions League, beating Bayern, Napoli, Atletico, and Juventus on the way to the Duodecima
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The 2017-18 season saw a reversal of fortunes for the club as Madrid had a dismal domestic season. The club lost most of its understudies with the departures of the Morata, Pepe, and Danilo on permanent deals and James on loan to Bayern. These players were replaced by youth team players and young signings. Borja Mayoral was entrusted with the role of bringing the extra goals as Benzema had his poorest return in front of goal with a meagre 5 goals in 32 league appearances. Achraf Hakimi was promoted from Castilla and had a mixed season. Though Hakimi’s performances displayed youthful exuberance in spurts, the Moroccan was often out of his depth in crucial games as he deputized for Dani Carvajal.
Vallejo put in some inspired performances when filling in for Varane and Ramos, but his progress was stalled as he was constantly plagued by injuries. Insufficient squad depth saw Madrid surrender the league early and concentrate their efforts towards the prime European competition once again. Los Blancos weathered the storm with uninspired performances for the most part against Bayern and PSG on the way to the three-peat.
The primary objective of the board as this season began was to appoint a manager who specialized in youth development, a coach who would suit this new model the club was implementing. Ronaldo’s departure was a double whammy; the club was now without two of the most influential personalities in Zidane and Ronaldo. Julen Lopetegui was brought in as manager, but after a tenure marred by mediocre performances and a 5-1 humbling at the hands of eternal rivals Barcelona, the Andalusian was sacked by the time November came around.
Madrid had consciously made the decision to give Marco Asensio a starting role instead of spending big bucks to replace Ronaldo’s goals; after all, he had scored some important goals in some crucial games since his introduction to the big time. This would also give an opportunity to give relevant minutes to Vinicius Jr. However, this move has been far from successful with Asensio managing just one goal in the league this season in about 1000 minutes of play and the Spanish international coming under some heavy criticism in local media. After his comments refuting responsibility, stating “it is not for me to carry the team”, the Madridistas have understandably questioned his minerals in emerging as the top dog. The club was not only missing the Portuguese superstar’s 50 plus goals, but also his talismanic presence and drive which in reality was too much to ask of young Asensio.
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Santiago Solari was promoted from Castilla and was handed the unenviable task of getting the club in order. The results since have been a mixed bag, initial success was followed by shock defeats against Eibar in the league and successive drubbings to CSKA Moscow in Europe. However, the club’s problems seem to be far from sorted with the change in manager. Solari has taken bold decisions to relegate Isco to a place on the bench, puzzling experts and the media. However, he has promoted academy players such as Sergio Regullion and Fede Valverde which is commendable.
Dani Ceballos has come off age this season and new signings Alvaro Odriozola and Vinicius Jr. have also impressed when called upon. Marcos Llorente has seized the opportunity in the absence of Casemiro and has anchored the midfield remarkably, putting in some brilliant performances over the last few weeks. This includes a special goal in Madrid’s recent Club World Cup triumph. Solari seems to be the right choice to bring the clubs strategy to fruition.
Real Madrid is one of the biggest clubs in the world and there will always be expectations for the club to be at the pinnacle of world football. There will always be a demand to win trophies, to build on the legendary success on and off the pitch and to maintain a certain image among football’s elite. The conservative, youth-centric transfer policy with a focus on Spanish talent has not only affected the results on the pitch, but it has also had an impact financially.
Losing the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the most popular and marketable players on the planet and James Rodriguez who happens to be a household name in South America has affected the fanfare of the club and resulted in a drop in kit revenue. Attendance at the Bernabeu this season has plummeted due to poor performances, with an average of just 65,000 spectators. Managers at the club are always judged based on results and short-term success. To stay competitive on and off the pitch, Madrid should once again recruit few of the best names in the game albeit at a reasonable price. The likes of Icardi, Hazard, and Kane have been mentioned. These signings would definitely go a long way in helping the club reach the goals it has set for itself.
Feature Image via Chicago Tribune
Edited by Srinivas Sadhanad