The 2015 summer transfer window lasted 1488 hours. Real Madrid lasted 1487 hours before committing one of the most laughably mismanaged transfers in recent footballing memory. Manchester United fans are now heralding August 31st as “Fax Machine Day”, congratulating the antiquated device which kept David de Gea in England and Keylor Navas in Spain.
Through the 2016 summer transfer window, it felt like the club was marching towards a similar ending. Rumors ran amok all summer, as they always do, but one by one, all the big names wound up holding different clubs’ kits at pressers. And once the pool of incoming players dried out, the rumors shifted to linking Real players elsewhere.
Yesterday felt like a waiting game for one of Real Madrid’s “Comunicado Oficial” pages to be released online, announcing the entrance or exit of someone, anyone. Jason Concepcion described the feeling a few years ago as “watching a toddler wander alone toward a busy intersection.” Replace “The trade deadline for Knicks fans” with “Deadline day for Real Madrid fans” and that tweet is perfectly fitting. As fans, we were helpless as Real Madrid leaned closer and closer to making an irrational decision.
But Zinedine Zidane and Florentino Peréz’s decision to keep their hands in their pockets may be emblematic of a bigger change that’s happened (or happening) within Real Madrid. Has Real Madrid changed its ethos?
The sacking of Ancelotti was met with harsh criticism that was only upstaged by the decision to hire Rafa Benítez who, of course, was sacked months later.
These reactionary decisions might have wound up being a confluence of events which led Peréz and Real’s Board to change the way they operate. They’d been embarrassed on and off the pitch, from the 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Barça at home, to the inexplicable exit from the Copa del Rey. Real Madrid seemed to be going down the same road as Manchester United: managerial instability and endless spending with no results or silverware to show for it.
Right as the quicksand was rising for Rafa, Ancelotti chimed in and foreshadowed Zidane’s hiring, saying, “He could be a future head coach at Real Madrid or any other club. He'd do well at Madrid. He knows the club inside and out. When he talks, the players listen.”
It felt like Peréz turned to Zidane to replace Benítez because he’d already chewed up and spit out all the other top coaches out there, but now it looks like it was step one of a new plan.
Staring down a transfer ban which may embargo players from joining Madrid until 2018, Madrid looked only inward to bolster their quad. In lieu of spending a premium for superstars, Real recalled loanees Álvaro Morata, Marco Asensio, and Fábio Coentrão, all of whom addressed a major need.
Zidane was the talisman of the Galácticos era, and he coached Real Madrid Castilla. He’s played along big name newcomers, and he’s had to develop youngsters. Not to pretend to know the inner workings of the club, but it’s interesting that a player who lifted trophies alongside some of the most prolific signings ever is now leaning on youth and in-house talent to get by.
In the last few weeks, with the Pogba pandemonium over and the rumors of Isco and James’ departure dominating headlines, Peréz spoke to the press, saying, “We have a spectacular squad, impossible to improve, and a coach, Zinedine Zidane.”
The language Peréz used is interesting. “Impossible to improve” certainly carries a lot more gravitas than if he were to have said, “We don’t plan to buy.” A few days prior Juventus’ Giuseppe Marotta spoke about a conversation he and Peréz had. “We joked about a few names but today we did not talk about any footballers because they want to keep their players.” When was the last time you heard another club’s chairman speak on behalf of Peréz, particularly with that much certainty?
2018 feels a long way away, but all things considered, Madrid are in a good spot. Among Real, Barcelona, and Atléti, Real’s first team is the youngest in terms of average age. The presumed back-up six in midfield and attack (James, Morata, Asensio, Lucas Vázquez, Kovačić, and Isco), are all 25 or younger. The youth team is thriving, with the most promising youngsters out on loan. The age of the defense and goalkeepers is slightly concerning, but it’s not unreasonable to believe the likes of Keylor Navas, Sergio Ramos, and Marcelo will continue to excel for the foreseeable future, and Raphaël Varane may be unending Pepe’s starting position as we speak.
Big names will always be linked to Real Madrid, if for no other reason than the size of the club and its pocketbook. Agents love to float Real in the press as a negotiating tool to drive up the price of their player (see: Pogba, Neymar, Suárez). After this summer, these rumors will hold even less credence.
Maybe it was the embarrassment of 2015. Maybe it was Zidane’s doing. Maybe it was the way fans revolted against Peréz after the Carlo/Rafa debacle, demanding him to resign. Or maybe it was something we don’t even know about.
But the way Real handled this summer transfer window was encouraging, and it points to a change in how the club handles itself. A more efficient, inward looking, less impulsive approach might become the norm for Madrid. And after more than a decade of the inverse, it’s pretty refreshing.