Real Madrid spent big this summer but Bale, James and the old guard still reign supreme
It was Saturday afternoon. The sun was out, the bars were full and they were back at the Bernabéu. They'd waited a long time; there hadn't been a truly meaningful game there for six long, depressing months, not since the week they lost everything, beaten by Ajax, beaten by Barcelona twice, just beaten. There had been no game at all for over three months when they'd watched Real Madrid lose, ending the season as they'd played it. Those that had watched, that is: many had walked. Attendances were at their lowest for a decade; even Zinedine Zidane's arrival only momentarily lifting them from a gloom deeper than they imagined. Now, though, they returned. The promise of something different: hope anew, new season, new faces.
Oh. About that.
Of Real Madrid's starting XI on the opening day of the 2019-20 season, only goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois wasn't there in 2014. All of the outfield players were: Madrid spent €300m on new players this summer, but none of them started. The right-back was beginning his sixth season in the first team and alongside him were men starting their 15th, ninth, 14th, sixth, seventh, fourth, seventh, 11th and seventh seasons.
Even the new faces were old faces: James Rodríguez, the only player not there last year, was back for his fourth season and six years since he signed, after his loan at Bayern ended. He replaced Luka Modric, who was injured. This is Modric's eighth season.
Modric is 33 years old. Saturday's starting XI are 27, 27, 25 (yes, Raphael Varane is still only 25), 31, 29, 27, 28, 27, 31 and 30.
The day Zidane took his first news conference after he came back, 284 days after he left, there was a familiarity about it. He looked at the man who asked the first question -- the same man who always asks the first question -- and commented on his hair, like old friends meeting again after the summer. Oh, you look well.
Zidane wore the same smile. It was all the same: same place, same people, same words. "You'll hear the same things," Zidane said. "As we were saying yesterday," ran the headline in one newspaper.
One man was no longer there, of course: Cristiano Ronaldo had gone. And it wasn't supposed to be the same, not exactly. The initial impact of Zidane's return after 138 days under Julen Lopetegui and 119 under Santi Solari was a masterstroke: calming and comforting, the embrace of familiarity putting out fires. But there was a reality behind it, a reason they had turned to him to rescue them -- they had 11 pointless games left in their season, a long wilderness -- and work to be done. Zidane came back, and came back when he came back, on a different mission to before. He also came on a promise. The fact he'd been away made this different -- or it was supposed to. His authority renewed, his voice heard.
"There will be changes," he said.
There weren't. Not yet, at least.
It may be a little unfair to turn to the line about €300m spent on players and none in the team. Madrid had signed players they knew were there to strengthen the squad rather than the starting XI. At least to begin with. The one player expected to go straight into the team, their first galáctico signing in five years, was Eden Hazard, aged 28, and he was injured. So was Ferland Mendy, 24. Luka Jovic, 21, came on and hit the bar.
The age balance can still tilt too, conditioned by chance and bad luck: Marco Asensio, 23, suffered a knee ligament injury in preseason. Vinicius was a second-half substitute: he's still only 19. Rodrygo is 18 and also injured. As is 20-year-old Brahim Díaz.
Not that they appear set to be central figures. And when it comes to talent, there's a case to suggest that there's little wrong with the collection of players on the pitch. They have been there a long time, sure, but they also have a long list of titles. Most of them won three Champions Leagues in a row. Even without changing them, it might make sense to think that this season could be different from last season: it's not post-World Cup, post-that three European Cup winning run, lessons learned, mortality glimpsed, attitudes changed. Add Hazard and even more so. If it ain't broke, don't fix it and all that.
Only this was broke: Madrid finished last season empty-handed, in third place, and over the past two years they've finished a combined total of more than 30 points behind Barcelona.
And this was still a bit too familiar. More familiar than some wanted. More familiar -- and this is important -- than Zidane wanted.
Marcelo, Modric and Kroos were among those who most had fingers pointed at them last year, but Zidane remained convinced by them. His support of Marcelo was especially striking: just ask Sergio Reguilón. The Brazilian returned 6 kilos lighter, ready to repay him. Others left with his good wishes, namely Marcos Llorente, Dani Ceballos and Reguilón, but not all of them did. And some that were supposed to be there, are not. Paul Pogba is still in Manchester; Gareth Bale is still in Madrid.
Zidane wanted Bale out and James out. When Zidane left Bale out late last season, he said "it's clear what I have done." When he thought Bale was going to China, he said it was better that he leaves "sooner rather than later." His public words were aimed at pushing the club, too, forcing their hand: a glimpse of his frustration, his determination to get the deal done, and his lack of faith in the Welshman.
It had come to look personal, entrenched.
Zidane had rejected Madrid's suggestion that he incorporate Bale back in the team. In preseason, the Welshman played just 104 minutes across six matches. He was not in Zidane's plans. Well, he was: his plan to get him out. But then, Madrid lost 7-3 to Atlético and backed down on their promise to let him go. Bale's camp was furious; Zidane was not best pleased either.
"Gareth's staying," he said. What's changed, he was asked. That has, he replied. That he's staying, nothing else.
Zidane had also wanted James to go, but the suitor was Atlético. That didn't happen either, just as Pogba didn't. Zidane refused to listen to alternatives: it had to be Pogba. But what if it can't be?
On Saturday, both Bale and James started. In part it was down to necessity -- Hazard and Modric were unavailable, Pogba not there -- and they may well respond. Madrid had played well on the opening day against Celta at Balaídos, too, with Bale in the team. Who knows: perhaps his anger will fuel him? The fans were prepared to welcome them back, to give them a clean slate; new season, new old faces, new hopes.
In Bale's case, the difference was stark: Madrid fans had been relentless in their rejection of him during his last game, against Athletic, late last season; here, they clapped when his name was read out, applauded his runs, didn't whistle. Zidane made a point of greeting James as he went off the pitch.
Maybe the best thing that could happen to Zidane was that what he wanted to happen didn't happen? To be stuck with the players he wanted to sell made them "new" signings for a new season. Or maybe not. There was something about this that looked the same. It wasn't just in a name; it was also in the game. Same players, same faces, same flaws.
Madrid's start was decent enough against Valladolid, with Bale and James seemingly taking it in turns to shoot, but Madrid didn't take their chances and didn't create that many clear opportunities. And then it drifted, as it does. Deflation is their thing.
Karim Benzema opened the scoring for Madrid -- he has scored 59% of Madrid's goals since Zidane returned -- but then Madrid conceded a late equaliser, which Valladolid had threatened for a while. Two points were given away: Kroos was sluggish, Ramos was running somewhere or other, the ball slotted beneath Courtois. Zidane complained that they should have sent the ball "a tomar por saco:" hoofed the bloody thing. And that wasn't the only thing that was a bit basic: Madrid had gone to a 4-2-4 formation and slung in crosses, which was familiar too. They'd been largely one-paced, not taken chances, not really made many when the defence before them was closed. They looked like what they probably are: a talented team but a tired one, with few ideas. Stale.
"Back to bad old habits," moaned one Madrid-supporting columnist. "Back to the past," ran the front-page headline in AS; the match report led with the line "Madrid have a past and it reappeared like a ghost." Marca called these the "sins of the old Madrid."
Madrid had dropped points at home, again. They let 17 points slip away at home last year and the year before: five draws and eight defeats over two seasons.
Zidane was their saviour, returning to rescue them, and he promised that things would be different now. But the day after the second game of the season, the second meaningful match of his return, there was criticism, questions from within, messages filtered out, ground prepared and blame apportioned; he was expendable. That was familiar too.