Dethroned and publicly chastened, Gareth Bale and James Rodríguez – the victims of a gradually searing Presidential impatience from notorious iron-willed operator Florentino Pérez, in the midst of recurrent injury layoffs – stand perhaps fortunate to remain the property of a side that has evolved in their absence. Not content solely with regaining La Liga omnipotence not witnessed since José Mourinho’s temporary 2011-12 season 100-point tutelage, Real Madrid have been guided astutely, and perhaps fortunately, by reluctantly glorified servant Zinedine Zidane to a quintet of dominance-affirming trophies – the UEFA Super Cup, Spanish Super Copa, La Liga, Champions League and FIFA World Club Cup – in a 2016-17 season where the underlying productivity of the Welshman was significantly dampened, yet the statistics of Colombia’s golden boy surged, prior to this summer’s signature to a two-year Bayern Munich loan deal. Surpassed by a resurgent Isco, emergent Marco Asensio and, to a lesser extent, belatedly blossoming Lucas Vázquez, in the eternally star-studded attacking hierarchy of a club unique in its internal political reasoning – Pérez looming as the mildly disgruntled spectre to Zidane’s modest aversion to both character management and prestigious transfer policies – are Bale, only a present starter courtesy of Cristiano Ronaldo’s hotly disputed five-match ban, and Rodríguez, exiled to the Bavarian capital, yet still in competition with Thiago Alcantara and Corentin Tolisso, victims of their own fortune-spinning success? What precedent does Zidane’s independent, alternative policy set for the opposing footballing elite, what benefits for both the club and the sport could, from it, stem, and does it, as a microcosm of events in the sensationalised history of the sport, truly prove the frivolity of praise and fickleness of modern supporters?
Fully mindful, even visibly hesitant, of the inherent obligations and restraints at the helm of the world’s foremost present club, and balancing his vision against that of his employer, the Frenchman – widely probed for the void of coaching reputation personally offered in the event of Rafael Benítez’s mid-term sacking in January 2016 – strikes his inevitable global audience as unequivocal, possibly struggling with the separation from his natural environment, the dressing room, and external duties. Truthfully, little has changed in the unflappable, gradually balding figure whose unparalleled power and genius, in a manner seldom witnessed, transcended all clubs and nations, amidst the transition into management. A kindred spirit to modern Los Blancos representatives, even arguably the living embodiment of the aspirational, driven and entitled spirit Santiago Bernabéu instilled within the structural entity that would later bear his name, the honorary Madrilenian is proven in his ability to secure results – a 76.09% win percentage from 92 matches (as of 8 September 2017) superior to all historical predecessors, while second only to the ignorantly derided Luis Enrique (76.24%, from 181 matches) in Barcelona folklore – thus maintaining Perez’s trust.
Having achieved this record, with a trophy cabinet only bettered at Madrid by Miguel Muñoz, a mainstay of the revolutionary 1950’s side including Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás who served, in his second managerial spell, for fifteen seasons between 1960 and 1974 – claiming nine separate La Liga belts – and Luis Molowny, a four-time ship-steadier in the ‘70’s and 80’s with eight trophies to his name, in a period defined by injuries to Bale and Rodríguez (at the time of respective signatures the first and fourth most expensive assets in history) is only further credit to Zidane’s ability. Statistically, proof for the issues presented to the 45-year-old in his drastic divergence from expectation lies in the explicit factor of Zidane in Bale’s record-breaking minutes per goal, per assist and per goal involvement ratios of 2015-16 (91.5, 158 and 57.9 respectively in La Liga), with a more defined goal-hungry role for the Welshman in the second half of the season delivering a vastly improved minutes per goal ratio, 69.6, to 115.8 under Benitez, while sacrificing minutes per assist records – 232 to 130.2. Markedly unsettled by the formational changes employed by the Spaniard – regularly having been reverted between shadow striker, left and right-wing positions –, Zidane’s appointment signalled an expressive rebirth on the right (other than one occasion, vs Las Palmas, with Karim Benzema side-lined by injury), whilst both Cristiano Ronaldo and Benzema prospered from the adoption of a fluid 4-3-3 formation. Naturally harnessing the multitude of chances created, the former enhanced minutes by both goal and assist averages from 115.7 and 324 to 74.5 and 260.5 respectively, while the latter reaped the rewards of an overhaul of the often-isolating preceding 4-4-2, grabbing an assist every 142.4 minutes, compared to a previous rate of 993, while only allowing goal focus to slip marginally, from a net-bulger every 77.7 to 83.1 for Zidane.
Never exactly fulfilling the French World Cup winner’s pragmatic tactical demands, however, was Rodríguez. Only playing 28 minutes in total in the Champions League quarter-final, semi-final and final stages of 2015-16, although fully fit, the Colombian playmaker lasted an entire 90 minutes only four times after Benitez’ departure – against no side higher than ninth in La Liga at the time – and, resultantly, scored only four times, complemented with a similar quartet of assists. Against no side higher than sixth in the table did he make any goalscoring impact over nine months, even rendering him disposable, and eliminated from the matchday squad, in the aforementioned Canary Islands excursion. Certainly, in comparison to his contemporaries, depressions from 191.3, 143.5 and 82 minutes per goal, assist and goal involvement, to 235.7, 235.7 again, and 117.9, don’t make for easy reading when attempting to defend his role in such an exorbitantly-assembled, and easily profitable, squad. Incompatible, bluntly, with the tactical perspective of this new dawn, the baby-faced South American started all but one of his first half dozen matches under Zidane on the right wing, with Bale hampered by a calf injury in February, and while compromises were made by the manager in the accommodation of a 4-2-3-1, eventually the sacrifice proved too costly; realised even as ineffective centrally in a 4-3-3, in which Toni Kroos and Casemiro would’ve been required to offset his defensive negligence, and subsequently ushered out of favour.
With the innovative deployment of unaesthetic workhorse Casemiro, as a defensive shield unparalleled in physical exploitation at Real since Claude Makélélé, drawing rightful plaudits as the crux of Zidane’s 4-3-3 triumph, the reasoned creative freedom granted to the previously burdened Kroos and Luka Modrić, thus accommodating Isco on the right of an attacking trifecta, or behind Ronaldo and Benzema in a midfield diamond, appear equally pivotal repercussions of detaching a dampened Rodríguez from regular pre-eminence. Despite returning figures resonating largely as records in his Merengues career – 147.6 minutes per every league goal, 196.8 minutes per league assist and 84.4 minutes per goal involvement – such statistics have significant caveats, in that while they reflect improved efficiency (eight goals and six assists from 22 league appearances, only six of which spanned 90 minutes), the expectation of universally elevated standards is inevitable of a side progressing from league runners-up to champions. Used less sparingly in the early stages of rotation-demanding cup competitions, it is noteworthy that, when deployed as a midfielder with attacking license for more than 45 minutes of a 90-minute match, Los Blancos were conspicuous in their vulnerability as a side; winning ten of 13 such occasions in all competitions, but conceding 14 times, drawing 2-2 twice against Borussia Dortmund and faced with only Legia Warsaw, Cultural Leonesa, Espanyol, Sporting Gijón (twice), Eibar, Leganés, Deportivo La Coruña, and a Tony Adams-led Granada, in their victories.
Assuming the 2014 World Cup starlet’s deposed position – strictly, in this case, in central midfield – was Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez, or Isco; once regarded as having "a temporary problem" with adapting to Carlo Ancelotti’s similar 4-3-3 style, upon a €30 million arrival at the Bernabéu. The former Malaga asset, of course, had been seemingly overwhelmed by the widely-lauded promise of his first Real season, in 2013-14, as it took him two subsequent seasons to match the cumulative goal tally primarily achieved – 11 goals from 96 appearances in 2014-15 and 2015-16 – while also biding the frustration of 30 continental matches in anticipation of another Champions League goal, which he would finally achieve, memorably, to secure this June’s Cardiff final against Juventus, and prevent their inner-city rivals steal the prize, in a 2-1 defeat at the Vicente Calderón. Making his fewest league appearances – 30 – of any La Liga season since 2010-11, the bearded maestro nonetheless produced his most efficient body of work in a side wary of the importance, for shared purposes of fitness and harmony, of rotation; producing ten goals and nine assists, while featuring more often, and more productively, in midfield than Kroos (29 apps, three goals, 12 assists), Modric (25 apps, one goal, two assists), the Croatian’s November injury replacement, countryman Mateo Kovačić (27 apps, one goal, three assists), Casemiro (25 apps, four goals, no assists) and Rodriguez (22 apps, eight goals, six assists). Respecting these fundamental statistics, the most commonly referred to of any fan, in addition to those that cement him as third only to Kroos and Kovačić in pass completion (89.4%), second to Kovačić in successful dribbles (1.8 per game) and fourth in successful tackles (1.6 per match), we must surely commend Isco, as the foremost midfield option in the world’s best side, for his extraordinary, Zidane-facilitated, resurgence to a rightful stature perhaps in the second bracket of talent within the entire profession currently.
If the 25-year-old Andalusian isn’t the toast of Madrid at present, however, there can only be one man who is; Palma de Mallorca-born and raised prodigy Marco Asensio. The scorer of 15 goals from 30 cumulative Spanish under-19 and under-21 appearances (including a Euro Under-21 2017 hat-trick against Macedonia, and late semi-final brace against France in the 2015 Under-19 Euros), the Balearic baby drew the notoriously inescapable attention of Real from the point of a late 2013 debut for his hometown, Segunda División side, rapidly earning a transfer coup in a €3.9 million December 2014 move, before being loaned back firstly to Mallorca, and to Espanyol for the 2015-16 season’s duration. Thriving on acclaim in a manner perhaps entirely deviating from Isco, the recipience of a Golden Player Award at the aforementioned nationally victorious 2015 Under-19 European Championships, in addition to a 2015-16 La Liga Breakthrough Player Award and momentous recognition of being selected as member of the 2017 Under-21 European Championship Team of the Tournament, has only appeared to signify a menial rung in the advancement of evidently ever-burgeoning aptitude for both tactical consciousness and headline-grabbing influence.
Entirely disturbing as a representative entity to Pérez’s infamous, yet long-since abandoned Galáctico approach, the rapid adjustment from third-tier to both Segunda División and La Liga demands has been nothing short of meteoric for Asensio, while the relative bargain status that will forever define his signatory fee could, potentially, blemish both Pérez’s pride and long-term authority. Blissfully ignorant of the stipulation to the misconception of Pérez, however, this argument greatly undervalues the President’s role in the production of a number of home-grown and modestly-purchased fledgling assets, who, regardless of their first-team success, have graduated with global distinction. Dani Carvajal – albeit only returning after proving first-team credentials at Bayer Leverkusen –, Nacho, Kiko Casilla – again after re-purchase, from Espanyol – Lucas Vázquez, Achraf Hakimi, Borja Mayoral and Luca Zidane are all present remnants of successive Castilla sides, while the sales of Álvaro Morata, Jesé, Diego Llorente, José Callejón, Esteban Granero, Javi García, Juan Mata, Marcos Alonso, Juanmi, Roberto Soldado and Diego Lopez as fellow C team and Castilla products raised net profits of £93.69 million over the past decade or so; considerable, as a sustainable resource, when valuing market fees prior to recent distortion. Zidanes y Pavones was the more pragmatic ideology ushered in by Vicente del Bosque under Pérez’s compromise to fans amidst the 2001 €75 million capture of Zidane; promising to balance his superstars with local interests, of whom centre-back Paco Pavón was the encapsulation of at the time, and there exists little foundation to counterargue Pérez’s enduring dedication to the sustainable cause.
Ironically, nevertheless, is the present situation wherein, Zidane, having witnessed Perez’s programme at all levels – arriving, alongside Luis Figo, as a catalyst for the policy, thus witnessing the fluctuations in dressing room dynamic and internal politics, particularly between manager and president, before assuming post-retirement roles as presidential adviser, special managerial adviser, sporting director, first team assistant manager and Castilla manager – is destructing it, piece by piece, from within. Devoid of a truly inspirational, Galáctico-style, signing since Kroos and Rodríguez in the post-World Cup fervour of 2014, and considering the tumult surrounding Rodriguez and Bale, without success at astronomic financial heights since Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2009 switch, a definite psychological change of tact has been enforced. It speaks volumes for the coaching ability of Zidane, that in their first La Liga-winning season since 2011-12, when Mourinho uncharacteristically restricted his purchases to that of two 23-year-olds, an 18-year-old, a returning 24-year-old and insurance policy 29-year-old to the tune of £49.5 million in Nuri Şahin, Fábio Coentrão, Raphaël Varane, Callejón and Hamit Altıntop respectively, Álvaro Morata was the only senior signing, at the cost of £27 million.
Evidently placing faith in the youth that, while not definitively earning him the position, bolstered his credibility, and navigating the inevitable power politics of Galáctico ideology by investing in gradually developing, largely Spanish, individuals, Zidane has proven himself not only a gifted man manager and tactician, but a canny political operator and business-minded architect of a brighter Real future. Recouping significant previous losses, arranging the first two seasons of net transfer profits since 1998-99 – largely by offloading eventually failed youth prospects Jesé and Denis Cheryshev and identifying the futility of retaining exorbitant rotation options Morata, Danilo and Rodríguez – has truly now established the Frenchman as a radical reformist in the history of Spanish football.
In the lower tiers of English football particularly, I certainly believe that settled squads – those that head into the season with clear objective, retaining their identity if previously successful and advancing standards with the signing of progressive, respected individuals – regardless of financial situation, are those, naturally, with a considerably heightened scope for continued achievement. While the effect of this modern phenomenon becomes upwardly saturated into the Premier League, where it isn’t unusual to witness, even expect, half a dozen new first-team arrivals every summer – 6.35, on average, for each club this past window, from which between three and four will likely be regular starters – and contingency is respected with the derision that others, in such a high-powered elite, will capitalise if you, as over-achievers, fail to adapt, Zidane has opted against such frivolous methods, also attributed to Barcelona in recent times. Investing €30M in French 19-year-old left back Theo Hernández on the basis of a season at the heart of Mauricio Pellegrino’s defensive watertight Alavés outfit, with fourteen clean sheets, four assists and two goals – including one against Barça in the Copa del Rey final – whilst on loan from Atletico Madrid, in addition to the €16.5M spent on 21-year-old Real Betis midfielder Dani Ceballos, another member of the victorious 2015 Under-19 Euros squad, and the recipient of the Player of the Tournament award in Poland this summer, Real exude the assured quality of their existing squad for these two prodigies to be key priorities.
For both Hernández and Ceballos, their transitional phase will take much the same form of Asensio’s, or Isco’s, or even Varane’s, as players vulnerable in their state of dissenting inexperience. Presently, Real is the most challenging obstacle an individual of their calibre can wish to approach, but psychology would have been immediately identified as a pivotal catalyst for signature – especially with Zidane, seemingly the least perturbed Real employee, or manager at such a rank of club, measurable currently. Quietly assembling a squad capable of defending the quintet of prizes currently in Real mitts for the coming five seasons, his approach entirely differs from previous sides to have reached such stature – Barça, for example, after winning the 2015-16 La Liga, UEFA Super Cup, Club World Cup and Copa del Rey, who splashed £110 million on six current rotational failures, and Inter Milan, after a 2009-10 triple, consigning themselves to the misidentified Andrea Ranocchia, Giampaolo Pazzini and Jonathan Biabiany. Rather than be governed, either, by the traps of confirmation bias in the situations of Bale and Rodríguez – overruling injury, media verse and presidential decree when considering form and squad role – when others, notably Mourinho, would’ve undoubtedly accentuated issues with egocentric public approaches, few appear to have been harmed by the scrutiny previously fixated upon the club. Mino Raiola and the rest of his merry band of super-agents may not be best pleased with the alternative approach Zidane has instilled, and what predictably is to come, and has come in this transfer window, is a dramatic inflation particularly of fees for under-21’s. Ousmane Dembélé, Kylian Mbappé, even Madrid’s own pending purchase Vinícius Júnior (less than a year older than I) – all have had prices unfathomably inflated not just by the presence of Madrid, Barcelona and Paris Saint Germain, but by their status as either the long-bequeathed challengers or guardians to the chalice currently situated within the Spanish capital. As Zidane builds for the future, others follow.
Attacking players, however, remain the disproportionate focus of these funds, largely as from Real’s present defensive line-up, only Keylor Navas has spent fewer than five seasons in his position. While in Catalonia, the most significant misjudgements of their restructure are widely respected as André Gomes, Lucas Digne, Aleix Vidal, Arda Turan and, prior to any real exploits, Paulinho; accused of being detrimental in their very presence to the prestige of the shirt, little such focus has been paid to Paco Alcácer for justifying his fee, perhaps inevitable in the shadow of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. Securing a talent worthy of assuming Sergio Ramos’ centre-back role upon the captain’s retirement, with Nacho unlikely to ever fulfil the season-long demand and unless Achraf receives tutelage this season onwards, is a prominent task on Zidane’s desk for upcoming transfer windows, and an unforgiving one at that, considering how other officials will react to Real’s advances.
Upon promotion to first-team duties, and after even two or three commanding performances, though, Achraf, and his like, could become the flavour of the month, with social media pressure snowballing into a public demand towards respect and trust in ability. Asensio and Isco only prove the tribulations of awaiting scrutiny upon every mere movement; they are idolised and lauded, despite registering as Segunda División and struggling Bernabéu representatives only two-and-a-half years ago, while deposed counterparts Bale and Rodriguez retain vast groups of online support, yet still outweighed by seething criticism. Reminders of the ready-made, immediately vulnerable Galácticos, and the failings of such an elite class of apparent saviours, the junctions in their careers arrive with prodigious, inscrutable youths and resurgent, opportune former starlets motoring past, without visible or conceivable hindrance; their enigmatic chief is powering them, after all. Praise is an indiscernible fuel, however, that can soon prove rapidly dissipating at such speeds. Everyone will fall victim to its perils at some stage; even the invincible.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!