Real Madrid must give Zinedine Zidane a hand in summer transfers to improve
"Signings?" asked Zinedine Zidane during his news conference ahead of the Las Palmas game. "I don't even know if I'll be here next season."
It was a very familiar response by any coach labouring under the shadow of Florentino Perez. Zidane knows that the performance his players subsequently put in on Gran Canaria, particularly in an insipid second half, didn't warrant three points, let alone any plaudits. But the Frenchman is Perez's protege, handpicked to succeed Rafa Benitez. Blame will always be laid at the manager's door while Perez holds the keys to the Bernabeu, but Real's problems can only leave the man who hires and fires at the club unscathed for so long.
Perez craves instant success, but the side's regression has been a long while in the making. There has never been any attempt under the construction magnate's grip to build anything more than a castle on sand in Chamartin. Very expensive sand, but shifting and treacherous nonetheless. Real are currently up to their necks, and there's no safety rope for the latest experiment. If Friday's Champions League draw pits the club against one of the favourites for the title, the foot will be firmly on Zidane's head. It's not an appealing place to be.
However, Perez should avoid the chronic temptation to sacrifice Zidane if another season sinks without a trace. The president longs to be seen as the club's saviour -- his ability to generate income the religion by which he leads his flock. But when simply throwing cash around doesn't work, surely it's time to try something else.
Signings. That's the key issue for Zidane. He should demand full control, preferably with a sporting director by his side whose vision is based less on marketing potential and more on getting the right players for the club.
Consider Real's current reported targets: David De Gea, an excellent keeper but not exactly a priority; Robert Lewandowski, an excellent striker but one who will be 28 before next season starts and compete directly with Karim Benzema, not complement the Frenchman; and Eden Hazard, who has had a dreadful season at Chelsea and been accused by sections of the Stamford Bridge support of not exactly overexerting himself for a lost cause.
The Bernabeu, of course, loves a slacker.
Not one defender has been mentioned in dispatches, and that is an area of the Madrid squad that really does need an urgent overhaul. Perez treats recruitment like a Panini sticker album but chases after the most glamorous players regardless of whether they complete the set. Bayer Leverkusen left-back Wendell said recently it would be "an honour to be Marcelo's deputy."
PSG reportedly had a bid rebuffed in January, but Leverkusen are willing to do business for a fee of around €35 million. Zidane handed Alvaro Arbeloa a first Liga start of the season in Las Palmas to avoid anything unpleasant befalling Marcelo ahead of the visit of Sevilla next weekend.
Real have embarked on a policy of signing young talent in recent seasons, adding the likes of Sergio Asensio, Martin Odegaard and Jesus Vallejo over the past year. Asensio has been Espanyol's best player this season but, like Borja Mayoral, will he ever be given a fair crack at the whip at Real?
"Now Borja [Mayoral] is playing, but next year, the club will sign another striker to compete with Benzema and he'll be left out in the cold. He needs to be given confidence, like for example, with Raul," said former Castilla coach Alberto Toril in a recent interview.
"If you analyze all of the successful sides in the history of football, such as Barca or [Arrigo] Sacchi's AC Milan side, the nucleus of those sides was formed by players groomed in the youth teams," he added. They also weren't thrown together by the power of a cheque book alone.
Alex Ferguson did not build his Manchester United empire in a day, and Pep Guardiola didn't wave a magic wand around La Masia to create one of the finest sides of the modern age -- the remainder of which are still dominating in Spain and Europe. The structure had been in place for years.
Success, like mashed potato, is best avoided in instant form. It won't leave a pleasant taste and it will lack consistency.
Real still have a potential transfer ban hanging over the club, which could lead to a barren year in terms of new players in 2017, which coincides with the presidential elections. Not that there will be more than one candidate anyway.
A Galactico or two is the usual offering when Perez awards himself another Rome-esque glory. What the president fails to understand is that a large section of Real's support -- many with the requisite time stamped on their membership cards -- don't necessarily want to see another influx of superstars on bloated wages. They want a competitive side that can challenge for honours on a regular basis.
Real have never been dominant under Perez and have only tasted fleeting success. The club's sole Liga title since the president's second spell in charge began in 2009 was obtained in such a poisonous atmosphere under Jose Mourinho in 2012-13 that the team disintegrated the following season. Carlo Ancelotti subsequently led a happy camp to Champions League triumph but was discarded after a trophyless 2014-15. There is no quick fix. Zidane must be given time to build the side in his own image and that means a casting vote on transfers. If that is a bit too much for El Presi, he would be well advised just to leave Perez to his own designs.
Rob Train is a freelance writer who lives in Madrid and covers Real Madrid for ESPN. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.