Football Features

Hit or miss? The victims of Zidane’s loyalty to Real Madrid’s ‘old guard’

By Ben Green

Published: 19:30, 2 February 2021

It’s an impossible task, trying to improve a team that has won three Champions League titles in a row.

Sir Alex Ferguson was the master of sustained success, but his managerial creed was deeply entrenched in the idea of quadrennial change. “I believe that the cycle of a successful team lasts maybe four years and then some change is needed,” the Manchester United legend famously mused.

Zinedine Zidane may have been wise to heed Ferguson’s words because three years after his Real Madrid side completed a Champions League three-peat, sealing the European crown for a third successive season, cracks have started to emerge at the Bernabeu.

Eight of Zidane’s starting XI against Liverpool in the 2018 final were on the team sheet the year prior against Juventus, and the year before that against Atletico Madrid. But, where Ferguson would have looked to slowly implement change after the win in Kiev, ushering in new stars and easing out tired legs, Zidane has not flinched.

Plenty of promising players have looked to make strides in the first-team but have fallen victim to Zidane’s staunch loyalty to the club’s ‘old guard’, subsequently leaving Madrid in search of regular playing time, with Martin Odegaard the latest to part ways (albeit temporarily). But, was Zidane right to let those players leave?

Achraf Hakimi

Real Madrid appearances: 17

Sold to: Inter Milan

Fee: £36m

To say that Achraf Hakimi’s two-season loan move at Borussia Dortmund was successful would be a huge understatement. The Madrid-born Morocco international was a revelation for the Ruhr Valley giants. Last season alone he registered 10 assists from open play (the only full-back in Europe’s top five leagues to do so), netted five goals and recorded a top speed of 36 km/h in a Bundesliga match (the only player ever to do so).

A return to the Bernabeu in the summer seemed almost inevitable for a player who was one of Europe’s best right-backs/wing-backs across the 2019/20 season. However, Dani Carvajal (who followed a similar trajectory after a successful year at Bayer Leverkusen) was never going to cede his starting berth at right-back without a fight, and so, Hakimi subsequently joined Inter Milan on a permanent deal for just under £40m.

Since relocating to the San Siro, the buccaneering full-back has been the defensive linchpin in Antonio Conte’s Scudetto-chasing side, with the Nerazzurri currently second in the Serie A table, and through to the Coppa Italia semi-finals. Real, meanwhile, have largely had to rely on habitual winger Lucas Vazquez at right-back with Carvajal missing half the season through injury. A huge mistake, Zidane.

Hit or miss? Miss

Theo Hernandez

Real Madrid appearances: 23

Sold to: AC Milan

Fee: £18m

When rumours first surfaced of Real’s interest in Atletico Madrid forward Radamel Falcao in 2012, Jose Mourinho responded by saying: “there is a non-aggression pact. I think it’s a forbidden subject.” The Portuguese was referring to the fact that no player had crossed the Real-Atleti divide since Santiago Solari in 2000, but Zidane broke that unwritten rule when he signed Hernandez in 2017.

The Frenchman had good reason for doing so, but even after a fruitful loan spell at Real Sociedad, Hernandez was unable to supplant Marcelo, so he too ventured to Milan in search of playing time, and his reason for doing so? Paolo Maldini. The legendary left-back and Milan immortal, travelled to Ibiza to convince Hernandez to join the Rossoneri, and the technical director got his way. “I needed to play and my meeting with Maldini made me change my mind,” Hernandez reflected. 

Since joining Milan he has been the keystone of their title challenge this term, with Stefano Pioli’s side the current front-runners in Serie A, and looks an absolute world-beater from the back. Meanwhile, Real had to go out and splash £47m to find Marcelo’s successor, in the form of Ferland Mendy.

Hit or miss? Miss

Sergio Reguilon

Real Madrid appearances: 22

Sold to: Tottenham

Fee: £27.6m

Reguilon, like Hakimi, spent last season on loan at one of Europe’s biggest clubs, and like the Moroccan full-back, he too rose to meteoric prominence, helping Sevilla win the Europa League to consolidate their status as the competition’s most successful club. It seemed a dream scenario for Florentino Perez that he had a ready-made, soon-to-be-world-class full-back pairing returning to the club in the summer, but Reguilon likewise was sent packing.

The 24-year-old has impressed since sealing a move to Spurs, adding plenty of zest and zeal to the byline for Mourinho’s men, but Real did include a £40m buy-back clause in his contract, according to Sport, which the club are reportedly monitory. Still, win-win for Spurs: they either keep hold of the growing star, or make a tidy profit on him and leave Madrid’s board with egg on their faces.

Hit or miss? Miss

Marcos Llorente

Real Madrid appearances: 39

Sold to: Atletico Madrid

Fee: £35m

That Hernandez deal opened the floodgates, and Llorente has since crossed the divide, joining Diego Simeone’s charges after finding playing time scarce at the Bernabeu. Few have been able to unsettle the Modric-Casemiro-Kroos triumvirate, and Llorente was no exception to that rule during his stint for Los Blancos.

Since moving to Atleti, Llorente has transformed into one of the most versatile, dynamic and prolific midfielders across Europe, which is a testament to Simeone’s tactical ingenuity. Llorente made headwaves after famously knocking Liverpool out of the Champions League last season with a brace at Anfield, and is now the midfield fulcrum in Atleti’s La Liga title chase, providing 11 direct contributions (six goals, five assists) as the club sit comfortably atop the table.

Hit or miss? Miss

Alvaro Morata

Real Madrid appearances: 39

Sold to: Chelsea

Fee: £60m

At the time this looked tidy business from Real; Karim Benzema had not yet turned 30, with Zidane a staunch advocate of the 4-3-3 (in other words: only room for one recognised centre-forward), and at £60m it really would have been unwise to give Roman the ol’ double-blue-tick treatment.

The move looked even more inspired when Morata started struggling at Stamford Bridge, and then again for Atletico Madrid. But, this season on loan at Juventus, the Spaniard has been in stellar form, so far leading the Champions League scoring charts with six goals to his name, as well as providing a club-best five assists in Serie A.

That considered, Benzema has netted 21 goals in successive La Liga seasons, and is already on 10 in just 18 games this term, while it’s hard to argue that £60m is not good business for a striker who hasn’t exactly proven consistent across his career. We’ll let Zidane off the hook for this one, just.

Hit or miss? Hit

Mateo Kovacic

Real Madrid appearances: 109

Sold to: Chelsea

Fee: £40m

A part-time starter in Madrid, the Croat was never going to disrupt that Modric-Casemiro-Kroos midfield, so he too travelled to west London in search of playing time. After largely flattering to deceive under Maurizio Sarri during his maiden Premier League campaign, it looked uncertain whether Chelsea would make his temporary switch a permanent one, but they spent a king’s ransom to get the deal over the line.

And, under Frank Lampard, Kovacic was in his element, transforming from a player who largely watched games pass him by under to Sarri, to the midfield kingpin at Stamford Bridge, and he aptly clinched the club’s ‘Player of the Year’ award last term. Oh, how Real’s current midfield could use an adrenaline shot of energy, and Kovacic brings that high-voltage zeal in abundance.

Hit or miss? Miss

Dani Ceballos

Real Madrid appearances: 56

Sold to: Arsenal

Fee: Loan

It’s hard to imagine where Ceballos stands in Madrid if Isco can’t even cement a consistent starting berth. The 24-year-old has spent the past season-and-a-half on loan at Arsenal and, while he has produced some truly outstanding performances from time to time, he has not quite been consistent enough to merit ‘undroppable’ status in Mikel Arteta’s starting XI. A very elegant and attractive player on the ball, and someone with obvious, preternatural talent, but he probably hasn’t done enough in north London to attract Zidane’s attention.

Hit or miss? Hit

Brahim Diaz

Real Madrid appearances: 21

Sold to: AC Milan

Fee: Loan

The Milan clubs really have profited from Real’s reluctance dish out playing time. Diaz, like Hernandez, has been a pillar of excellence in Milan’s barnstorming 2020/21 campaign, and has really stepped up in the recent absence of Hakan Calhanoglu. The Spain U21 international has impressed with four goals and two assists across Serie A and Europa League games this term, and there has been talk of making his temporary stint a permanent one.

Diaz could have been a key creative outlet for Zidane this term with Eden Hazard struggling to rediscover his west London form, but alas, he is instead doing the business for Pioli, as the Milan giants aim to end a decade-long wait for Serie A title success.

Hit or miss? Miss