The one potential positive in suffering such an embarrassing derby defeat has been that it could hasten the Frenchman’s arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu
“You don’t have to pore over it,” Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane argued after Friday night’s 7-3 loss to Atletico Madrid. “It’s a pre-season game.
“They were better [than us] at everything. But there has been nothing more to talk about.”
Zidane must have known that thinly veiled plea would fall on deaf ears.
The modern game specialises in hot takes and kneejerk reactions, particularly when it comes to its biggest clubs – and they don’t come any bigger than Real Madrid.
Defeats – even those that occur in friendly games – never escape intense scrutiny at the Santiago Bernabeu, so it was hardly surprising that the Atleti loss has provoked a bitter backlash.
Tomas Roncero of AS described it as Real’s “biggest humiliation in 50 years”. He was exaggerating, playing up to his public persona as one of the more colourful journalists in Spain, but Marca also felt compelled to gauge the feelings of the fans ahead of what has been hoped to be a season of redemption for Real.
The findings were certainly eyebrow-raising. Of the almost 225,000 supporters polled, 64 per cent do not believe that Zidane, the man who delivered three successive Champions League titles in his first spell in charge, has been the right coach for Madrid’s makeover.
However, a whopping 80% of the 215,451 fans asked about Real’s transfer window do not believe that the coach’s squad has been sufficiently strengthened this summer.
That has been a staggering state of affairs, given Madrid have already invested €303 million (£276m/$338m) in new players.
Club president Florentino Perez has even delivered Zidane’s top target, Eden Hazard, in a transfer that was essentially a decade in the making.
However, the soccer professional that Zidane arguably needs the most, Paul Pogba, has yet to arrive.
From the coach’s perspective, the one potential positive from the calamitous derby defeat has been that Madrid’s longstanding midfield deficiencies were exposed in the most brutal fashion yet.
With Dani Ceballos having been loaned to Arsenal for the season and Marcos Llorente allowed to join Atletico, Real are painfully short on numbers – and young legs – in the middle of the park.
Indeed, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Isco were the only first-team midfielders to make the trip to the United States for their International Champions Cup fixtures.
Kroos has performed particularly poorly, most notably in the loss to Atleti, when his lack of pace and dynamism was repeatedly and ruthlessly exploited by Diego Simeone’s side.
The 29-year-old German’s lethargy was merely symptomatic of a general torpidity in Madrid’s engine room, though.
Granted, Casemiro’s return will aid matters in that regard, with the Brazilian having been given extra time off following his involvement in his nation’s Copa America triumph.
However, it’s clear that Real’s ageing midfield needs an injection of youth, strength and enterprise.
For all his flaws, Pogba ticks all three boxes, which has been precisely why Zidane has been so intent on bringing his compatriot to Spain.
The Atletico humiliation may have been shocking but Madrid’s listlessness – particularly in the middle of the park – was hardly surprising.
Zidane bemoaned his players’ total lack of “intensity” after the game but his second stint at the Bernabeu has been characterised by a worrying absence of motivation.
It has been worth remembering that while Madrid’s hopes of winning a major trophy this year were over by the start of March, Zidane’s return failed to prompt an upturn in the team’s fortunes.
There was a lot of talk of players wanting to fight for their places in the 2019-20 squad but last season’s campaign spluttered to a sorry conclusion, with the team losing three of their last four Liga games.
It was hoped the addition of fresh faces would aid the reinvigoration process but Madrid have not yet been cured of their general malaise, as we have seen not only against Atletico but also in the loss to Bayern Munich earlier this month.
Physically, the Blancos are still some way off the pace, which has been, to be fair, to be expected at this time of year.
But it has been worrying that Ferland Mendy and Luka Jovic are both in danger of missing the start of the new season with minor injuries, while Marco Asensio has been expected to sit out the entire campaign with ligament damage.
All of a sudden, Madrid, in spite of their early-summer spending spree, look low on numbers – and quality.
The collapse of Gareth Bale’s proposed move to China and Madrid’s inability to find a buyer for James Rodriguez haven’t helped matters either, particularly as the sale of both players has been essential to generating sufficient funds to acquire Pogba.
Time has been not on Real’s side either, as the World Cup winner’s current employers, Manchester United, will not countenance a sale after the English summer transfer window closes on August 8, given they would not have the requisite time to sign a replacement.
The Old Trafford outfit are keen on Sergej Milinkovic-Savic but the Lazio ace has been only likely to arrive if Madrid are willing to pay at least €150 million (£137m/$167m) for Pogba.
The size of the fee will obviously provoke debate. After all, many United fans felt that the temperamental talent only really turned up for six weeks last season. And yet he still managed to play his way into the PFA Team of the season, which only serves to underline just how highly he has been rated by his peers – and how eye-catching a performer he can be when he has been focused and firing on all cylinders.
At the very least, he would bring with him a much-needed goal threat. He stuck 16 times in all competitions last season; Modric, Casemiro and Kroos racked up nine between them.
What Zidane covets above all else, though, has been Pogba’s almost unique mix of physique and skill. He has both the skill and the stamina required to rejuvenate Madrid’s midfield.
As former Blancos boss Santiago Solari recently conceded, “When [Modric and Kroos] are fit, they are the best but the truth has been that they aren’t getting any younger. It’s normal that the club are thinking about other players.”
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They are thinking about Pogba.
According to the AS poll, the majority of Real fans are also in favour of the France international’s arrival – 60% of them, to be precise – even if there has been an almost total acceptance (92%) that he will not solve all of Madrid’s issues.
However, Pogba says he wants a new “challenge”. Zidane can certainly offer him one.