Now that the announcement of Rafa Benitez as the next manager of Real Madrid has been made official, the natural progression of events turns to the transfer market. Virtually ever summer brings about a flurry of transfer rumors and newfound hope in the fanbase of the club signing that one missing puzzle piece (or often more than one) that'll complete the squad. World class names get linked to Real Madrid on a daily basis with price tags that would make Scrooge McDuck blush as fans play videogames like FIFA and Football Manager with potential lineups filled with unrealistic and mismatched superstars. However, is relying on the club's seemingly never-ending reserve of funds the most efficient and prudent way to solve its deficiencies on the pitch? Is simply hoping that money will solve all problems the way to success or should Real Madrid try to find a different plan to collect trophies and establish a successful squad?
Real Madrid is the club which has taken the identity of glamorous excess and has run with it. It hasn't always been this way, but looking back at its first era of success with Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Paco Gento it was apparent that this club would be the home to glitz and glamour. This often, though not always, manifested itself in high-profile signings at exorbitant prices, particularly exemplified in the last two decades with the transfers of players such as Luis Figo, David Beckham, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez. Excellent players who've often contributed a great deal of that there's no doubt, but a sign of the club's over-reliance on massive names at the expense of the collective. There's the Zidanes y pavones debate which can be had at another time, but the debate over the vision in mind when purchasing these superstar players needs to be had. How is this team trying to play? Can this team adapt and play multiples ways? Who is needed in this system? Will they be happy with reduced minutes? Are they a short-term acquisition or a long-term one? You have the summer of two years ago where the club attempted to build on a young core and for the future, and then you have last summer where a series of baffling decisions were made both in terms of acquisitions and departures. Is this club trying to build something lasting or just trying win at all costs? What on earth is the thought process here?
The names bandied around so far this summer include the likes of Paul Pogba, Marco Verratti, Marco Reus, Sergio Aguero, Arturo Vidal, David Alaba, Ricardo Rodriguez, etc. These are players whose quality is without doubt and who could contribute at any club in the world, but are they that necessary? With the exception of goalkeeper, and some can even argue that Keylor Navas could stand to hold down the position for a few years, there's no immediate need of ‘upgrading' any of the starting 11 spots. Certain players may have underperformed or not taken the next step in their development but we're all aware of the immense quality they have; after all, you can't make it to the level of Real Madrid without having a wealth of inherent natural talent. When you take the fact that some players hit a developmental wall, coupled with a new manager's system and superstar names coming in to wreak havoc on the rotation and minutes available, it can lead to more headaches than necessary. We saw what a stylistic change did to some players last season under a manager they had experience with, one can only hope that a second new system in two years won't lead to disaster.
Bale, for example, is one of the world's most physically gifted attackers capable of some day being a challenger for the Ballon d'Or simply on natural skill alone. However, surrounding him with talents who don't cater to his playstyle, or including him in a system which doesn't maximize his abilities will hinder his full potential. What if this board buys a midfielder who is highly skilled but has a preference to play in a slower, possession-based system? How will Bale and Ronaldo, to some extent, thrive in that? Do we have more faith that the manager and board will take stylistic differences in mind or more faith in them spending big money and hoping for the best? Being stingy for the sake of being stingy isn't the way to go either, but throwing money at players which have great individual skill but don't fit into the collective or mesh with the players already at the club will only serve to further exaggerate the problem. When have the powers-that-be at the club exhibited any kind of coherent, rational decision-making when it came to transfers and addressing the weaknesses of this squad?
One doesn't have to look far to see how being financially prudent and putting player characteristics first can pay off in dividends. Sevilla just recently won its second consecutive Europa League and fourth overall in club history. They did it on the backs of players such as Grzegorz Krychowiak, Carlos Bacca and Vicente Iborra. None of their players were high-profile, big-money acquisitions, in fact, the entire roster that won this season's Europa League cost just slightly north of €30m. However, the club offset the low transfer costs with a clear vision in mind of what kind of football they want to play and which potential acquisitions fit this brand of football. They sell off star players such as Ivan Rakitic and use the funds to both reinvest in their youth system as well as pick up multiple system players for the price of one. Instead of relying on one or two big names, a collective mentality has been established at cost-effective prices.
Immediate rivals for the league title can also be observed in order to learn from financial prudence. Eternal rivals Barcelona enjoyed their greatest period of success on the back of a homegrown core which is still around while inner-city rivals Atletico Madrid almost pulled off a Champions League miracle thanks to castoffs, lesser-known names and a brilliant manager. That's not to say that they don't spend big because they certainly do (Barcelona spent €157 million last summer while Atleti spent €117.6 million), but their transfers often have an identity in mind, a sporting reason behind them. Players are bought to fit the system and identity in mind rather than just based on a monetary valuation and splurging on the most expensive toy on the market.
Perhaps it's not fair to compare Real Madrid and Sevilla, for example, given the resources and ambitions present at both clubs. Madrid's goal each season is anywhere from three to six trophies, far loftier hopes than that of Sevilla, but there still is some overlap in their goals. Both aim to qualify for the Champions League, both aim to progress to the latter stages of the Copa del Rey, both are expected to beat 75 percent or more of the competition within the league. The critical difference, budget aside, is that Sevilla's manager is allowed the time to mold the team to his linking and to instill a cohesive system. Instead of racking up debt by buying big stars, smart and cost-effective decisions can be made to specifically address key holes in the roster. Madrid's manager, whoever it may be, is afforded virtually no opportunity to build something lasting, the only man in recent memory who was given anything resembling that was Jose Mourinho and he only lasted three seasons. Despite his short tenure, his spending decreased each season and an identity, for better or for worse, was forged at this club. Maybe it's too small of a sample size to use in order to make any grand judgement but we can draw from his time at the club that smart spending and buying niche players can have just as much of an impact as blowing big money on Galacticos.
At the end of the day, this club will spend and spend big. They'll buy a couple players who'll be worth as much as several of the European-qualifying Liga sides and they'll expect the world of them. These players will likely put up gaudy numbers and this club will likely compete for trophies across multiple fronts as they almost always do. It's in this club's nature to bank on the most profitable names who'll not only score on the pitch but in the marketing books as well, much to the chagrin of those who would prefer a more rational and balanced squad-building approach.
It's possibly too much to ask for this club to invest in the Callejons, the Gio dos Santos, the Kevin Gameiros of the world. Players who aren't household names but who do certain specific things and do them well all while being affordable and happy to come off the bench. It would be refreshing, for once, to see this club conduct its transfer business quickly and in an affordable fashion while specifically addressing the two or three needs it has with a team identity in mind. But instead, we should buckle up for a long summer of endless rumors and exorbitant prices for players who might not even be a natural fit.
The sad thing is that there appears to be no deviation from this practice on the horizon.