They say misery loves company, and all the more when that company is a fierce, unforgiving adversary. Eighteen months is a long time for a transfer ban, the punishment becoming all too familiar to the premier clubs of Spain’s La Liga. I’d plug in the “just ask Barcelona” line but we all know the Catalans loop-holed their way into a treble by signing big during their moot yet tactical appeal to their own ban in the summer of 2014, a now proven practice that the football world fully expected Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid to replicate this summer after FIFA decided that the capital pairing were as guilty as Barcelona were for unearthed irregularities regarding the registration of academy players. But did they do enough? Though both Madrid clubs have vehemently disagreed with the decision to uphold the ban, how it will effect each club is a situation each to their own. So, how will their respective bows hold up against a storm that will rage on until January 2018?
As is the case every off season, rumors vigorously buzzed around the hive to which gives them relevance, the Santiago Bernabéu. At different points this summer the press had insured that Isco, James Rodríguez, Mateo Kovacić, and Toni Kroos were all headed to Barajas Airport on new career paths, and if not all at least one was expected to depart to make room in the squad. The reason being was young Marco Asensio, who spent last season on loan at Espanyol. The former Mallorca starlet had barged into Real’s preseason tour in North America and turned heads, including that of Zidane’s. The kid was ready, so who gets bumped? No one apparently… But whether Zizou had the charm to keep the rest of his talent around or the big money foreign deals for key players never fully surfaced, maintaining the cushy depth in the squad doesn’t seem so claustrophobic now. Everyone can be a resource if los blancos plan to escape the signing drought unscathed.
Real, for better or worse, are of the practice of signing young talent on sight as quickly as possible whether for their own practical use or to prevent it from falling into the hands of others (exp. James Rodriguez, Martin Ødeegard, Asensio, Isco even). Some call it impulse signing. Now whether you agree with policy or not, it has unintentionally given Real Madrid a young enough squad, particularly in midfield, to hypothetically withstand the transfer suspension. By January 2018 (if all contracts are renewed) only one of Madrid’s current midfielders will be older than the age of 30, Luka Modrić who will be 33. The rest will be 28 or younger (Kroos 28, Casemiro 26, Kovacić 24, Isco 26, James 27, and Asensio 22)! So if Zidane can come up with a winning combination of efficiency and rotation, his team’s engine should have oil to go the distance.
Here’s the catch. Cristiano Ronaldo, as inhuman as he may appear at times, will be 33 by January 2016, and 34 by the time that season ends. As for his BBC partners, Bale will still be 29 but Benzema will have reached 31. It’s not that 29 and 31 are geriatric numbers by any means, but both Bale and Benzema have shown more than enough signs of fitness frailties in their respective careers as Merengues. How their bodies endure in the next two seasons is anyone’s guess unfortunately. Real’s one actual purchase of the summer was to activate Álvaro Morata’s buy-back clause and bring the prodigal son, now 23, home from Turin, something the club exercised the previous year with Lucas Vazquez, 25, from Espanyol. Last but not least, Castilla-promotee Mariano Diaz has been given a first team contract after scoring 30 goals in 40 appearances with Real Madrid B since 2014. Though a relative unknown now, after impressing in preseason, Real have fended off multiple offers and will be hoping with some first team time under his belt, the Dominican international may have a more significant role to play for the club. So at the point of the spear, Real at least has players waiting in the ranks if not young experience like they do in midfield. The question is can they fill the shoes left by the stars when their time to deliver comes?
From a managerial standpoint Zidane can do no wrong at the moment. He’s a Real Madrid playing hero turned-manager who salvaged a European Cup from a failed project last season. Plus he’s off to a perfect start in La Liga thus far. But Real Madrid president Florentino Perez flips like pancake when the team goes through poor runs. Nevertheless, it would be unwise of him to execute one of his rash manager sackings if Real hits a rough patch in the ban because the president only pulls off these stunts to implement immediate change, an act tough to come by without the ability to sign personnel to the liking of the replacement manager. Florentino might have to suck it up when the time comes and show some patience and loyalty for once. Zidane may be the guy he can trust.
When one thinks of Real Madrid, they think of Cristiano Ronaldo. When one thinks of Barcelona, they think of Lionel Messi. But when one thinks of Atlético de Madrid, they don’t think first of Antoine Griezmann , or Gabi, or Diego GodÍn; they think of Diego Simeone. Once rojiblancos on-field enforcer, el cholo has reinvigorated his old side as manager and chased away the nickname that once personified Atleti –pupas – or unlucky ones. There was a well-documented self-depreciation, lack of belief in the squad before the second coming of Simeone, draped in black. Simeone is the cajones hanging between Atleti’s legs, the sense of conviction. That’s why the monsoon of morose following the club’s second defeat in the Champions League final to Real Madrid in three seasons was dwarfed by the fear brought on by their brave manager’s post-match remarks that melancholy night in Milan last May “We have to go home and lick our wounds. And I need to go home and think.”
It wasn’t as if Simeone was returning home to rethink the match in his head. It would be an agony too painful to revisit so soon after. He was going home to reevaluate his future at the club. Thankfully for the well-being of colchoneros everywhere, wounds licked clean, he’s decided to fight on. But just like years before the annual whispers have begun to slither into ears’ reach again. Can Atlético really keep fooling themselves into competing with Spain’s duopoly? Many seem to think as long as Simeone is at the helm anything is possible, because it’s difficult to imagine life beyond him.
In the process of the transfer ban’s appeal this summer and totally in contrast to club ethos, Atlético spent more in the transfer window than Real Madrid, double actually. But then again they also had more departures. But it’s no secret that in order for Simeone to impose his style of play, a hard-nosed, industrial approach that identifies with Atleti’s traditional working class fan base, he needs to sign Simeone-approved players. There’s no room for luxury players, and there is no room for players who won’t fight tooth and nail. When Arda Turan left el cholo’s Atleti last summer for the shores of Barcelona, the Turk’s agent was quick to point out that Atleti ran too much for Arda’s liking. However, a highly physical game comes with sacrifice and one might wonder whether or not the squad’s legs can continue on like that until the ban lifts.
Unlike Real Madrid, Atleti’s boiler room isn’t being operated by almost exclusively youths. In January 2018, providing the club re-up all the necessary contracts, the gritty Augusto Fernández will be 32, captain Gabi will be 35, and the decorated Thiago will be 37. In fact, of the currently rostered midfielders, only three will be in their twenties – Koke, Saúl, and Thomas Partey. But the silver lining for Atleti is that they currently have 13 players out on loan. If one of the kogs in the team begins to rust, there are options to choose from. They just have to bank on the fact that they’ve chosen the right outlets for their loanees to develop.