Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez seems to have finally worked out that there are some battles you just cannot win.
He has taken on managers with almost spiteful regularity in the past – including sacking three previous Champions League winners over his two spells in charge – but he has met his match in current head coach Zinedine Zidane.
There is a marked difference between the having the most power at a club and being the most revered – Pérez may have the former, but Zidane is undoubtedly the latter.
There have been signs that the controversial Galactico policy – so loved by Pérez – could be coming to an end. Not just with this summer’s business, but over the course of last season.
Zidane cited the 2003 sale of Claude Makélélé to Chelsea to make room for David Beckham as an example of where the that particular policy lost its way, famously asking the question:
“Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”
To that end, one of the first things Zidane did when he replaced Rafa Benítez in January was to re-install an engine. Brazilian Casemiro became one of the manager’s most important players. He is industrious and does the “ugly” stuff extremely well – the polar opposite of what Pérez wants in a player, but he is one of the main reasons why an eleventh Champions League trophy now sits in the Bernabéu cabinet.
In came Casemiro, out went James Rodríguez. The Colombian international has done nothing to endear himself to Zidane, and while his €80m price tag might have guaranteed him a starting role under some old regimes, Zizou is running a meritocracy – how much a player costs means nothing to him.
Even when Cristiano Ronaldo was injured at the back end of last season – a perfect time for either James or Isco to stake a claim for a place – Zidane placed his faith and trust in Lucas Vázquez, an academy product who had been on loan at Espanyol the previous year.
Zidane’s influence has already spread to potential signings. The David de Gea story was one of the most tedious sagas of last summer and was all set to be reignited this year until the Frenchman got involved. He made it quite clear to Pérez that he was more than happy with current goalkeeper Keylor Navas, as were the Real Madrid fans, and that was the end of it.
For Zidane to stand up to Pérez like that is significant – for Pérez to step back and finally trust a manager’s judgement, even more so.
There’s a sensibility about Real Madrid now which has not existed for some time. One gets the sense that this is not the same club that sold Ángel Di María or Mesut Özil on a misguided whim, or sign James just because of a decent World Cup. They could have signed De Gea, but as far as Zidane is concerned, what would have been the point?
In years gone by, Real would be at the front and centre of the Paul Pogba circus. They could have signed him, and but for Ed Woodward and Manchester United throwing obscene amounts of cash at Juventus then they probably would have, but, uncharacteristically, they knew when to walk away. Even though Zidane would love to have recruited him, they understood it was not worth it.
For Real to show a level of maturity heretofore unseen by the club, speaks volumes for where they are now as an entity (and Man United fans should heed some caution, because the destructive galactico route is a pathway Woodward will gladly take them down if it means more of those sweet, sweet commercial deals come in).
The Álvaro Morata situation is another case in point. In Karim Benzema they have one of the finest strikers in the world, and in Morata one of the brightest prospects in Europe. The Real of old would probably have sold both of them to bring in someone like Robert Lewandowski or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Both are fine strikers in their own right – but, again, why upset the applecart so much to change things just for the sake of it?
They will probably sign at least one player before the end of the window, but it will not be a galatcico. Spanish reports suggest that Bayern’s David Alaba has been mentioned, and despite the fact that he would cost upwards of €65m, his signing would make sense from a footballing perspective. Expensive signings are one thing, ostentatious shows of wealth are another.
Further to that, Zidane appears to be placing some degree of importance in youth. The presence of Mariano, Martin Odegaard and Marco Asensio, and even Zidane’s two sons Enzo and Luca, in and around the squad in pre-season hint that maybe the the new manager is laying the groundwork for a long-term plan – previously a blasphemous notion to Pérez.
There will inevitably come a time when Pérez will attempt to force a new layer of gold paint on Zidane’s Bentley; leopards can’t simply change their spots so readily. However, in doing so he would risk upsetting a thriving manager, a settled squad and a fanbase who appear to be satisfied for once.
To borrow a line from Omar Little in The Wire – if he comes at the king, he best not miss.