The remake’s never better than the original, is it?
Zinedine Zidane came back to Real Madrid in March after a much shorter sabbatical than he’d intended, resplendent in the jeans of a man 20 years younger and looking to inject that rejuvenation into a flagging squad at the Bernabeu.
The first two months were a write-off, and that was acceptable. There was nothing for Los Blancos to challenge for, no trophies to win, no danger of a Champions League spot being stolen away. Five wins in 11 games? Affected nothing material.
Still, it was a chastening end to the season for the man who had, in his first spell at the helm, what the Spanish might call ‘un flor en el culo’. Everything, in short, turned out right for him.
The second half of the season was all leading up to the summer, to the transfer window, to the rebuild. Club president Florentino Perez promised Zidane the world to try and bring him back; money, control, free rein over…well, everything. If Zidane wanted it, Perez said, he would get it.
What Zidane wanted was Paul Pogba, and to be well rid of Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez. He wanted the board to back him on the transfer targets he asked them for.
Fast forward to the dying embers of pre-season and Zidane doesn’t have Paul Pogba, the club actively nixed an exit for Bale, and James is in the squad and looks like spending his first season playing in the famous white shirt since 2016/17.
Not only has Pogba not arrived, but the club have been actively circulating the Christian Eriksen ‘interest’ stories. Zidane isn’t interested in the Spurs midfielder – the club are; as a cheaper alternative to Pogba, who will cost more money than they’re willing to spend. The honeymoon didn’t last long.
Money’s been spent though; €300m of it. That’s positive. Only one of the new signings is likely to start the season in the team. That’s…less promising, even if the likes of Eder Militao and Ferland Mendy weren’t brought in as impact signings.
Zidane won’t care in the long term, but the failure to sell James and Bale is verging on ruinous. The club have recouped barely a third of their €300m outlay through sales, and their astronomical wage bill is higher than it was at the start of the summer. Real don’t have a magical money tree at this point, more a semi-bare spare change shrub.
So things haven’t gone well off the pitch this summer. That’s okay though, because it’s the on-pitch stuff that really matters. Stuff like—like—oh, they lost 7-3 to Atletico Madrid, 3-1 to Bayern, absolutely can’t find a place in the formation for €60m summer signing Luka Jovic to look even remotely competent, and have lost a resurgent Marco Asensio to an ACL injury for most of the coming campaign.
Mendy and Jovic are injured too. So that’s good. And Thibaut Courtois. It’s great.
The only tiny, miniature silver lining is that Asensio’s injury removes the headache for Zidane of having to fit him, Hazard and Vinicius into one spot on the left. And Rodrygo. And Bale too, seeing as it’s his preferred position and he’s staying now. So…that’s helpful.
‘Disaster’ is relative. Real aren’t exactly going to get relegated – they’ll probably finish in the top three and qualify from their Champions League group, the kind of season most teams around Europe would kill for. For Real though, where dropping even a hair behind Barcelona is a polemic and falling behind Atleti is unthinkable, a second consecutive third place finish would be a full-scale, stock-up-on-flashlights-and-petrol disaster.
Reading too much into pre-season performance levels is a mug’s game, but when a team are struggling to tactically accommodate a new €60m signing, that’s a more extendable problem. And when things are as tense off the pitch as they always are at Real, trouble’s usually looming.
Want a not-especially-bold prediction? Zidane leaves this season, and possibly not very long into it. Never go back…