It's quiet in Madrid - almost too quiet. In the aftermath of Chelsea and PSG signing two of Real Madrid's most ideal targets, the dust has settled, and the club has filled just one of the team's three glaring holes. And it's surprising, to be sure. There is no evidence of Real Madrid pursuing Krychowiak and Kante before they were snatched by two other free-spending slingers, ultimately meaning that Zidane is either confident with the trajectory of his current squad, or he's currently riding the eye of the transfer storm - keeping his cards tight in the process.
What are some of Real Madrid's options moving forward? Let's get unconventional.
It should be concerning that Real Madrid have yet to address the fact that Casemiro is the only pure defensive midfielder in the squad. To some, that concern is overblown - maybe even to the club itself. They might look at the squad now and say 'well, we did win La Undecima while coming within a hair of the La Liga title - all without a backup striker, left back, and defensive midfielder'. If that's the case, they will be banking on Casemiro making a leap - as he has been year-by-year already - to stabilize the midfield on a more permanent basis, with mainstay Toni Kroos shuffling in as an understudy when needed. It's a gamble, but if Real didn't opt to pursue Krychowiak and Kante, they may have decided to take that gamble well before the off-season gale got underway.
But yet, even some of Casemiro's best performances this past season don't trump Kante's emergence as a whole. For a bargain, Real Madrid could have brought in a player who's barely one year older, about to enter his prime, is better with the ball at his feet, has better positioning, more composed defensively, and pound for pound the best ball winner on the entire continent. All this, by the way, they would have done without stifling Casemiro's development - keeping him floating high enough in the depth chart to absorb plenty of playing time throughout the season.
And yet, Real Madrid's reverence during this transfer window is far from disastrous. It's strange, and somehow exciting - maybe even refreshing. The Board hasn't proceeded the post-Euro window with blazing guns, and that's OK. The team is aware of its budding talent at the grass roots level as well as the stability of the starting lineup and the upside that lies within. One of Zidane's biggest traits - his genuine interest in grooming Castilla players - is manifesting itself. All the activity this off-season has revolved around those players - a rarity to be sure, and a sign of continuity. Mayoral and Vallejo have been moved in hopes of accelerating their growth, Marco Asensio has been locked up for the next six years, Marcos Llorente may somehow end up being the defensive midfielder off the bench, and Alvaro Morata was the club's only major signing up to this point - that last bit was a tremendous decision in its own right. Heck, it's supposed to be the silly season, and our entire podcast this week used Castilla discussion as its pivot.
Zidane's era is underway, and we're starting to see his vision. He's engineering a team balanced with an injection of youth and superstars. The team is being filled with the kids who grew up with the colors embedded onto their heart, folding them gently into the team's identity. Everything behind that idea is sound - once you have the core of your team built, why fill it with expensive reserves rather than pump in young talent for those positions? Under Zidane, Lucas Vasquez broke out and leaped over James Rodriguez - something truly unthinkable a season ago - while Jese has resurfaced into a relevant player again. Even the Pogba rumours have hushed down.
"I like Pogba. At the moment, he's a Juventus player. I'm happy with the squad I have and it's difficult to improve it," Zidane said at training camp in Montreal.
"It's difficult because a big squad creates problems. But I don't dislike the idea of looking to the academy. There are a lot of competitions and we need everyone.
"Working is the most important thing, it's what we're going to do here. Then, bit by bit, we'll decide things. You don't know what will happen until August 31. We're happy with the squad we have and we've just won the Champions League."
It's hard to imagine Real Madrid not pouncing on players like Kante and Krychowiak for such reasonable prices, and it would be fascinating to be a fly in the room where conversations between Zinedine and Florentino took place regarding this summer's vision and where transfers fit in. In previous podcasts, we've discussed the importance of building your system before choosing your players - an idea that Zidane seems to embrace too.
Under Zidane, the thinking has shifted long-term. Development of Castilla players has been prioritized, even accelerated. Trusting that process, if Real Madrid do sign another midfielder before the window closes, it will most likely come in the form of competition for Casemiro - not replacement. There are available defensive midfielders out there, but not more than a small handful who would walk into the starting lineup. Once you get past players like Alaba, Kante, and Krychowiak, you start venturing into Lassana Diarra and William Carvalho territory. And that's fine, but if you really want to sign someone with high promise and talent, Zidane should consider looking at Portuguese prodigy Ruben Neves. Neves has done a remarkable job filling the void that Casemiro left in Porto, and he plays well beyond his age. He's a ball-winner, and when he has the ball at his feet, possesses a rare elegance to him. He's an anchor / box-to-box hybrid who's versatile and has tremendous upside.
In the end, Zidane could essentially refuse even a signing like that, reiterating the fact that the team is now the de facto best in Europe if the final in Milan is enough to proclaim it. Zidane knows that Toni Kroos can be the back-up DM if needed. The German is beginning to prove his worth in that role during a makeshift situation, and has even improved in that role as his Real Madrid career unfolds. He's even been integrated as a deep-lying playmaker with Germany. Kroos could morph there if needed, with Marcos Llorente, one of Castilla's standout players to end the season, easing in as third choice anchor - gaining experience in Copa Del Rey games and blowouts at the Bernabeu. Llorente, during Castilla's breakdown in the playoffs for promotion, was one of Miguel Ramis' best players during that run.
The midfield still has some unknowns heading into next season, but the underlying message here is that that may not be disastrous when all is said and done on August 31st when the team will be all but finalized.
*Note - I'd be licking my chops if Zidane swooped in for Neves.
Bar a couple of legitimate concerns, everything about Real Madrid's backline is straightforward and solid. Three behemoths hold down the central positions, while the blossomed Dani Carvajal and Danilo - who is just starting to find his feet in Spain - provide a safety next on the right flank. What happens on the opposite wing is less unequivocal. Marcelo resides, and depending on him for large chunks of the season is always a risk when there is no sound backup. Danilo is a makeshift left back who will slide in if needed, but Zidane still needs to address that void.
He now has Fabio Coentrao back in the squad, and the timing of his return is miffing. It was miffing that Real Madrid even loaned him out in the first place without any justifiable reason, it was miffing that Coentrao continued his run of prolonged injuries while struggling in France during his loan spell there, and even more miffing that Real Madrid are ready to incorporate him back into the team now. Unless Zidane can somehow unleash Coentrao's very dormant form, this is not the same Coentrao who put in some vital performances for Real Madrid in big games up until 2014 - capping it with a brilliant and monumental two-legged outing against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinals. The Portuguese defender is but a corpse these days, and to boot, he rocks an injury that will see him out until November, and beyond that - who knows? Keeping up with Coentrao's perpetual injuries is a difficult task.
But even despite the concerns at left back, there may not be any signings at all. After all, Coentrao has a squad number, and Zidane may feel comfortable enough with that depth chart as is - with Danilo and Nacho (more on him shortly) swinging over when needed.
Wendell Borges, a player who has been tweeted my way on several occassions, is a really nice left back who can play at both ends of the field - he's a promising player who can defend and join the attack. But Borges is also a non-EU player, and with that situation already tricky as it is with #Brexit (Gareth Bale could have non-EU status when everything is ratified in a couple years from now, and the squad already has Danilo, Casemiro, and James), bringing him in now is not realistic.
So maybe Real Madrid got the entire Coentrao situation completely wrong. They loaned him out without replacing him, and now he comes back to the squad as a 28-year-old who can't catch a break health wise. But they may just sit out the left back market a little while longer until someone emerges naturally. Coentrao's contract runs until 2019, and it may just be easier to bring him back now and see if he can regain his form from two-three seasons ago.
On an unlikely whim, Real Madrid could convince Wolfsburg to unload Ricardo Rodriguez, and in this podcast with bozz, we discussed the idea that a motive behind loaning Mayoral to them might be to use him as leverage in a potential RR signing.
Rodriguez would be an interesting piece to the puzzle. He's too good to be Marcelo's understudy, which could create problems, but that's something you could see Zidane weathering, and it would create the same healthy competition that Morata and Danilo bring to Benzema and Carvajal. Having a healthy Ricardo Rodriguez to rely on as a defensive presence in Marcelo's absence would be a huge asset to have.
The left back position is something to address one way or another, but Real Madrid fans should be equally fearful of the rumoured departure of Nacho. On the surface, Nacho's far enough down the depth chart that his presence seems irrelevant, but play closer attention and you'll see much than a fourth-string center back. Nacho is a loyal servant to the club, embraces his role as a squad filler, has an exemplary attitude, plays hard and sound, and can even fill in as a left back in certain situations. Losing Nacho would be a blow. If he wants to leave in search of a starting position, that's something you can respect, but Real Madrid should do everything they can to keep Nacho at the helm for at least another season - particularly given that Vallejo and Diego Llorente have already been loaned out for the upcoming 2016/2017 campaign to Eintracht Frankfurt and Malaga respectively.
This is the department where Real Madrid have excelled this off-season, without doubt. Like the DM and LB positions, the team needed some patching up in the striker role where Benzema had no proper competition - or cover, for that matter. The Frenchman had his best season to date, but he also suffered through stretches of injury. In response, Real Madrid tried to shuffle Jese up front, transition Ronaldo up top, and even morph Isco into a false 9 role in order to mask Benzema's absence. None of those solutions proved viable, and Morata addresses that problem immediately.
"He [Morata] is one more player in the team," Zidane said. "He knows what Madrid is and we're happy to see Alvaro with us.
"We're going to have a much bigger squad and everyone will be important. He'll be one more."
You just get the feeling that if he could, Zidane would incorporate Mayoral as early as next season, but he has the luxury of buying back Morata instead while buying more time for Mayoral to gain experience. In an ideal world, in a few years, Mayoral becomes what Morata is now to Benzema - a reliable young back-up who can transition into a starting role. This entire scenario is encapsulated in an article I wrote earlier this summer, so I won't rehash it again here.
45 days left
Anticipated: A busy, busy off-season with the integration of new stars. Reality: A pragmatic approach and the birthing of an identity of sorts where players are signed based on fit, not image. Intriguing. Still, there are 45 days left before teams call it quits on building their finalized squads for the summer, and anything can, theoretically, happen. Right now, Zidane is brewing an interesting collection of players which embodies continuity. It's exciting, even if it provokes impatience and frustration at the same time. The team's nucleus is incredibly powerful and still in its prime - why tinker? Build around, built on top, strengthen, use your assets.
Those panicking over the impending transfer ban should zoom out and understand what 'two windows' really means. It's one season, and Real Madrid rarely splash in the winter anyway. It's not a time to panic and desperately fish for shiny objects. Besides, if there was ever a time to suffer through a ban for one season it's now - with the team riddled with talent and youth.
And that's what it comes down to - Zidane has a vision (and perspective) that no one else can claim to have. He sees his building blocks as constant pieces who can contribute to the team's identity and long-term growth, and perhaps bring more league titles to the Bernabeu as a direct result to the faith instilled in them. Maybe it's time to embrace that perspective.