Not long after Lisbon, Florentino Pérez was asked: what next? The European Cup had just been won, the décima finally raised after a wait that stretched back more than a decade, but appetites are never fully satiated, not even by the trophy that defines Real Madrid. The story must always move on and few doubted that Madrid’s president wanted to add to the team. Who would be the next galáctico?
Pérez replied there were not many left on the market. There was a certain satisfaction in saying so. How do you improve a European Cup-winning team? Who would even get into this side? And you cannot sign the players you already have. Whatever happened to all the heroes? They came here, that’s what. There were not many left out there because Madrid already had so many and those that they do not have, Barcelona do.
The Ballon d’Or winner is theirs. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale are already the most expensive players on the planet and both had scored in Lisbon. Meanwhile Karim Benzema, a man Pérez had personally pursued, might not have always convinced but he had just completed his best season at the club. On the other side of the divide, Barcelona had Lionel Messi and Neymar. Madrid may have cast covetous looks their way but they were unreachable.
And yet if there was satisfaction in Pérez’s words, there was also a hint of sadness. He has talked often of the need to project ilusión: hope, excitement, expectation. There is something of the illusion to it too. At times it is hard to avoid the sensation that Pérez enjoys the summer as much, or more, than the season. It is then that he takes centre stage, when summer presentations become Spanish football’s great occasions. He did not want to be denied that opportunity.
It was suggested to Pérez that there was one huge name out there – Luis Suárez –but Pérez did not commit and Suárez later joined Barcelona. Perhaps Pérez knew that was probable already: the Uruguayan’s transfer from Liverpool was not a product of what happened in Brazil.And so then there were none. Where would the ilusión come from now? The World Cup came to the rescue, as it was always likely to. Nothing creates superstars like it. There is almost always a player who emerges from the tournament as a galáctico-in-waiting. Some of them are already targets, some are not. There was an inevitability about James Rodríguez being linked to Real. Lazy journalism, some decried. This was too easy. But it was true.
The 23-year-old, top scorer at the World Cup and scorer of the best goal in Brazil, for many the player of the tournament, was the revelation – if you can call a player who cost €45m only a year ago a revelation. He has joined Real officially for an undisclosed fee, but one that is reported to be €80m (£63.2m). Ronaldo, Bale, Rodríguez ... between them they have cost just short of €300m.
He did not come alone of course: Toni Kroos has signed for €30m, Keylor Navas will almost certainly be next, and Real have not yet ruled out moving for a striker: Radamel Falcao would leap at the opportunity.
Rodríguez is perfect: brilliant, young, exciting, hugely popular now, impossible to dislike, and a Real fan who travelled to see them play in the Champions League last season, proudly posting a photo with Ronaldo. Represented by Jorge Mendes too; the right man with the right agent.
Rodríguez has said “I would go to Real Madrid with my eyes closed” but it was not quite as simple as just paying the money and taking their choice, although it often seems that way. Even Real cannot simply sign everyone they want without blinking. Last season Mesut Özil departed to allow for the arrival of Bale: the money raised from Özil paid for half of Bale. Supporters protested over the sale at the Welshman’s presentation; when they won the European Cup nine months later, they had forgotten all about the Arsenal playmaker.
This summer, Ángel Di María will almost certainly follow. He was already the other candidate to leave alongside Özil a year ago, a man who had to be reinvented to remain in the team. Sami Khedira may do so too.
As upgrades go, for a team who are already European champions, it is not bad at all: Kroos and Rodríguez for Di María and Khedira. It also means that the strength in depth that Real have is astonishing, able to withstand even the worst of injury crises. Indeed, bans and bumps may almost be a welcome break from the agony of choice. Xabi Alonso, Asier Illaramendi, Kroos, and Luka Modric (and Khedira?) for the central midfield positions. Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo, Rodríguez, Isco, and Jesé for the creative ones. (And Di María for both?) But the qualities that Di María brought may yet be missed if he departs. Carlo Ancelotti did not want to lose him last season and nor did Ronaldo.
In the 2013-14 season Di María provided more assists than anyone else in the league. He added bite from a deeper position than the one he initially anticipated playing in and was named the Champions league final’s man of the match. It suggested that Di María was even more important than Real had imagined 12 months ago. There is no one else with his energy, acceleration or adaptability now.
This is a signing that, on the face of it, imposes a shift. How Ancelotti constructs his team will be interesting. Rodríguez said that the chance to play with Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale would be a “dream” and now it is a reality. Or is it? Will they play all four? Do they fit together?
Last season, Real played what was broadly a 4-3-3 but it often morphed into a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, particularly in the bigger games. Technical, clever, happy to drift away and vacate spaces for others to occupy, Benzema was the ideal forward to allow Madrid’s bigger threat to be Bale and Ronaldo to come in diagonally from the wings. The athleticism of the world’s two most expensive players was too much for most teams to counteract. From deeper, Alonso launched, Modric passed, and Di María raced about.
Rodríguez’s arrival would suggest that one of those three could be replaced or the formation changed. Three up front with Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale/Rodríguez? Ronaldo as a centre-forward? Ronaldo, Rodríguez, and Bale behind Benzema? Ronaldo and Benzema up front with Bale and Rodríguez either side? Does that work for the team? Does it work for them?
In neither of Ancelotti’s favoured formations last season was there a clear No10: the natural role for Rodríguez. The case study is Isco, another player happiest in that role, and sometimes included as a false No9 last year. Neither the style nor the shape entirely suited Isco. Will it suit Rodríguez? Isco signed last summer, persuaded to choose Madrid over Manchester despite his fears that he might not play as often as he wanted to. Pérez described him as a player of the “highest level”, the director Emilio Butragueño as an “extraordinary footballer”, but those fears ultimately proved well-founded.
At €80m and the latest galáctico, Rodríguez is unlikely to suffer Isco’s fate. But there are questions: what now for Isco, signed as the star for the future, only a year younger than Rodríguez? Until now, Isco and Real have insisted that the playmaker is going nowhere but there is much of the summer remaining. And what shape, and what style, best suits the Colombian? And the Portuguese? And the Welshman? And the Frenchman? But those are questions for another day.