Zidane transfer policy timed right as Madrid profit from Barcelona strife
Fernando Alonso stood on stage in the depths of the Bernabeu, accompanied only by an oversize, windswept cutout of himself.
"I'm Real Madrid because I'm Real Madrid," the 36-year-old Formula One driver said.
"Nor do I know why I have brown eyes or why my pulse rests at 55."
Alonso spoke on Monday at an event to mark his induction as an honorary member of Real Madrid, a gesture the club make to Madridistas who have achieved highly in their field.
"A pioneer, a genius who achieved for our country what nobody before had managed, to be the Formula One World Champion," Real Madrid president Florentino Perez said.
Perez can be excused for his effusive tone when talking about the two-time world champion. In a low-key transfer window for the club, Perez has not had the opportunity to stand behind a lectern and laud the arrival of a global star. The McLaren-Honda driver was as glitzy as it got.
The "big-name signing plus youngster" model that defined Perez's first term as club president morphed in to an approach solely focused on young talent this summer. The six players Zinedine Zidane has brought in to his first-team squad all have one thing in common: youth.
Theo Hernandez, 19, crossed the city from Atletico Madrid in a move that served to bolster the left-back berth, and confirm the redundancy of the "non-aggression pact" between the neighbours. Dani Ceballos, 21, moved north from Andalucia after a season as the bright spark in an anaemic Real Betis side. At 22, Marcos Llorente is the oldest of three players returning from loan spells. The defensive midfielder returns after reaching the Copa del Rey final with Alaves, while Jesus Vallejo and Borja Mayoral -- both 20 -- have profited from loan spells in the Bundesliga. Right-back Achraf Hakimi, 18, is the wettest behind the ears, yet the Madrid-born canterano has already made his debut -- and scored his first goal -- for the Moroccan national team.
The pursuit of youth has been healthy for Madrid's bank balance. Zidane has spent €82.5 million in his two summer transfer windows as manager. To place that in context, Carlo Ancelotti parted with €290m during his time in the dugout, with a sizable chunk used to acquire Gareth Bale in 2013 and James Rodriguez the following summer.
Zidane honed his managerial skills with Real Madrid Castilla before progressing to the first team, and has generally favoured promotion from within over ostentatious external recruitment.
"This is exactly the squad I want and I hope it doesn't change," the 45-year-old said after a comfortable victory over Deportivo on the opening day of the La Liga season. Zidane's unwavering faith in the tools at his disposal is a positive in terms of consistency. All 11 players who started the Champions League final against Juventus in Cardiff remain at the club, but it is beneath the starting lineup where the texture of the squad has changed.
Real Madrid's squad is weaker than in the 2016-17 season. Pepe has left for Besiktas, taking wily defensive nous with him. Even at 34, the Portuguese was a useful player and a strong figure in the dressing room. Few will mourn the departure of Danilo to Manchester City, although he provided adequate support, and even fewer Fabio Coentrao's loan to Sporting. Madrid's attacking armoury is less potent for the absence of James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata. The Colombian scored 11 goals last season despite struggling as a natural No. 10 in a team where that role did not exist. With Morata's heavy-hearted move to the Premier League, Madrid have lost a 20-goal man and the best backup striker in Europe. Ceballos, Mayoral, and the rest of the incoming players must prove that they can channel their talents to become reliable stand-ins.
A frenetic September schedule of seven matches will be an early acid test for Zidane's squad. The loss of experienced backup -- coupled with a long-term transfer approach centred on the recruitment of young talent -- leaves Real Madrid without the same level of depth as six months ago.
Yet with Barcelona wracked by internal strife and Atletico shackled by a transfer ban, Real Madrid have chosen the perfect summer to invest in the future. The breathing space between Los Blancos and their rivals justifies a transfer policy that looks beyond the present and towards consolidation.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93