Have boots will travel – The Great Real Madrid reshuffle

Florentino Pérez doesn’t do things by halves. Neither do Real Madrid.

For most clubs, a season finishing second only to a magisterial Barcelona side in La Liga, and suffering an (admittedly humiliating) exit in the Champions League to a side as well-equipped as Liverpool would register as decent. Disappointing at worst.

For Real however it represented an unmitigated disaster. Not only did they finish the season trophyless, they finished it minus their pride, their belief and even their moral high ground. Barcelona’s spectacular season-ending success in Rome only heightened the problem. Pérez’s arrival would trigger the kind of summer overhaul not seen since Dream Team sadly left our screens.

In his first stint as Real Madrid, the charming and charismatic Pérez spoke openly about a policy for “Zidanes y Pavones”, a hybrid of superstars (Zidanes) and home-grown, humble young players (Pavones). A noble idea in principle, and with Vicente Del Bosque at the helm, Real coasted to the League & Champions League double in 2002, but when the “Pavones” of such a scheme are of insufficient quality, even the best collection of “Zidanes” can take a side only so far.

That is exactly what ended up happening, a team boasting the likes of Raúl, Luís Figo, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo and, of course, Zidane himself, defended their title in 2003, but then began to succumb to age, a lack of defensive stability, and a egotistical club at war. Del Bosque was sacked following the La Liga success of 2003, and players who could well have been considered half-way between being a “Zidane” and a “Pavone”- Claude Makélélé, Steve McManaman, Fernando Morientes- were either sold or loaned out. Pérez’s ill-judged dissection of the departing Makélélé was, for many, the beginning of the end of his stint in Madrid.

“We will not miss Makélélé. His technique is average; he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélélé to be forgotten.”

Without a league or European Cup in three years, and with players and managers heading in and out of the Bernabéu at an alarming rate. Carlos Queiroz, Vanderlei Luxemburgo & Juan Ramón López Caro all came and went, whilst the latter Galácticos- Michael Owen, Julio Baptista, Robinho, Jonathan Woodgate, Antonio Cassano- largely failed to deliver the kind of instant success Pérez and his supporters craved. Pérez left in February 2006, chastened, and seemingly never to return.

But return he did, the one-horse Presidential election of 2009 saw him elected as President for a second time on June 1, and he has since wasted little time in topping up his Galácticos. Seven days after his incumbency he had secured the signature he had long promised, that of Brazilian star Kaká from AC Milan. The fee? A mere €65m, and a new world record.

Yet there was more to come, his predecessor at Real, the unpopular and contradictory Ramón Calderón had spoken openly upon his departure of having secured a world record deal for Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo. A neat trick from the usurped Calderón- if the deal went through it was down to him, if the deal did not it was down to his absence.

As it happens, the deal is all but done, Ronaldo has agreed to join Real, Real have agreed a fee (believed to be in the region of €94m) with Manchester United, and the medical details should be ironed out soon. Two world record transfers in a fortnight is good going, even for Pérez, and reports suggest that any of the following could be soon packing their Louis Vuittons and booking a one-way ticket to Barajas Airport- Xabi Alonso, David Villa, Raúl Albiol, Franck Ribéry, Diego Forlán, Santi Cazorla, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Nemanja Vidić. It is a fearsome list.

Which leads us to the current squad. Ignoring the dominance of Barcelona, and the ignominious defeat to Liverpool, it is fair to say that Real possess a pretty handy bunch of players. Pérez’s insistence on star names and home-grown players may mean that, of the current crop, only Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Pepe & Lassana Diarra can be considered safe.

Indeed, as Soccerlens reported earlier this week, Real are ready and willing to sell a host of big money players, including Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Wesley Sneijder, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Royston Drenthe, Rafael Van der Vaart, and Mahamadou Diarra & Gabriel Heinze (just to prove that there is no inherent racism against the Dutch prevalent in the Bernabéu). Even the likes of Raúl & Guti- long time darlings of the Madrid hierarchy- are at risk, as is last season’s top scorer Gonzalo Higuain, if reports of bids for Villa & Forlán have any truth to them.

It is an impressive list of players for sale. So far, predictably, Spurs have been linked with just about all of them, with Huntelaar & Van Nistelrooy reportedly top of Harry Redknapp’s astronomical shopping list. Both would represent fine signings, Van Nistelrooy is one player to have maintained his reputation after a big-money move to Real in recent years, and would cost a maximum of €5m. His injury last season was a massive factor in Real’s subsequent slump in form, and he knows his way around the Premier League like few others.

Huntelaar was supposed to be the heir apparent to Van Nistelrooy, for club and country. A €20m signing last December, the former Heerenveen & Ajax man struck eight goals in twenty appearances for Real, but found himself very much second choice behind the likes of Higuain & Raúl in the fight for attacking spots, criticised by some for being solely a goal poacher, incapable of holding the ball up or running at defenders. Harsh criticism perhaps, and one which comes only at a club such as Madrid, where aesthetics have long been insisted upon as well as success. Despite this, the Dutchman would represent a smart signing for most European clubs, his career goals record stands at 179 in 265 (a rate of 0.68 goals per game), and he is only 25.

The case of the three Dutch midfielders behind him is a little more complex. At some point or other, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben & Rafael Van der Vaart have all looked like they were about to establish themselves as truly world class performers at Real Madrid, but all have failed to do so for a multitude of reasons.

Sneijder, a wily and technically superb attacking midfielder with a cannon of a shot in either foot, began his Bernabéu career in stunning form, three goals in his first two games (including the winner in the Madrid derby) made him an instant favourite. But his second season was blighted by a mixture of injuries and personal problems, and he made just 19 appearances, losing his place in the side to new signing Lassana Diarra, who offered caretaker boss Juande Ramos a more solid midfield base alongside Fernando Gago.

It is rumoured that Sneijder, along with former Ajax colleague Van der Vaart, has been offered to Bayern Munich as part-exchange for a deal for Ribéry, but there is sure to be a lot of interest in a two-footed, dynamic, midfield player who has only just celebrated his 25th birthday.

Van der Vaart, like Sneijder, started spectacularly at Real, a goal on his debut was soon followed by a Bernabéu hat-trick in a 7-1 win over Sporting Gijón, but his influence was quick to wane, and by the end of the season he was very much considered a luxury by Ramos, used only fleetingly, and had added just one goal to those early four strikes. His ostracism is not too surprising, given the tactics used by Real, the form of Higuain and the prestige of Raúl. Van der Vaart prefers to operate very much as a central second striker, but at Real such a place was very much taken. A return to Germany or Holland may represent a step down to a player of Van der Vaart’s stature, but may also prove a sensible career move with the World Cup looming large on the horizon.

But whilst such a move may be beneficial to Sneijder or Van der Vaart, it is likely that Robben will have set his sights higher. Robben was Calderón’s marquee signing, the one promise he delivered upon, and at €36.5m was a massive signing. It would be harsh to label his time at Real as a flop, he has undoubtedly delivered some magical moments and was playing well enough last season for Calderón- hyperbolic as ever- to label him “Madrid’s answer to Messi”. But injuries and reports of his negative influence in the dressing room have led plenty to believe that the 25 year old with the 55 year old’s head may be offloaded if the right bid comes in. Looking around Europe right now, it is hard to see a club with a) the funds, and b) the need, to spend €20m+ on a player whose track record suggests will play no more than 25 games per season.

The others are little less enticing, Javier Saviola is sure to find a club but has long since shed his “prodigious talent” tag, Guti has tested the patience of the club once too often, culminating in missing a match to attend his child’s holy communion, and is a reminder to most of the bad old days at Real, Royston Drenthe has undoubtedly regressed since he was signed from Feyenoord with comparisons to Edgar Davids ringing in his ears, whilst Gabriel Heinze was famously described by Sid Lowe earlier this year as an “ex-footballer”, and has seen his stock fall even further in light of some shambolic displays for Argentina. The days when Rafa Benítez was following him home from training and begging Sir Alex Ferguson for his co-operation are a long time ago now, and it seems unlikely that the 31 year-old will be playing Champions League football next season, be it at Madrid or elsewhere.

So with half the Dutch squad up for sale, and half the world on Pérez’s mammoth shopping list, it is sure to be an interesting time at the Bernabéu over the next few months, and expect more ins and outs than at a Hokey Cokey convention. Told you they don’t do things by halves.

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  1. Madridista 18 June, 2009
  2. Neil Jones 18 June, 2009
  3. BD Condell 18 June, 2009
  4. Venu 18 June, 2009