Real Madrid’s inability, or unwillingness, to make a serious effort to sign Paul Pogba this summer points to big differences between coach Zinedine Zidane and president Florentino Perez. And it spells serious trouble for the former galactico’s second spell on the Bernabeu bench.
On his return last March to clean up the mess overseen by failed successors Julen Lopetegui and Santi Solari, Zidane talked openly about a “second project” and how the current squad badly needed to be shaken up.
“We will change things, for sure,” Zidane repeated regularly over the following weeks. He soon made clear that signing star players he had long admired including Pogba, Eden Hazard and Kylian Mbappe was central to this new project.
Meanwhile, underperforming big names in the existing squad would be moved on to ensure a proper fresh start could take place. Most obviously Gareth Bale, but also other long-serving players who had been through back to back disastrous La Liga campaigns.
“Zidane’s return was almost a heroic act,” veteran Bernabeu figure Jorge Valdano said in May. “He knew it was risky, but he took that risk in exchange for having the power to design the squad for next season.”
Valdano’s words seemed self-evident at that point, and were confirmed by those who were already working with the Bernabeu hierarchy on transfer matters. “Zidane has complete control,” Bale’s agent Jonathan Barnett said at the end of last season.
The smooth arrival of his long-term target Hazard from Chelsea at the start of the summer suggested Zidane’s project was on course. Mbappe publicly declaring he would not leave Paris Saint-Germain was a setback, but it left Pogba as the main objective for the remainder of the summer.
The idea was that the 2018 World Cup Winner, 26, would replace the ageing Luka Modric in midfield, and bring more athleticism and goals while being the central figure in a new more direct team. Pogba is as “a truly different player… a midfielder who can defend, attack, do everything”, Zidane himself said, approvingly.
The France international did his bit to make the move happen. “Madrid is a dream for anyone,” he said while on international duty, before last season had even ended. Pogba’s agent also played his part. “Everyone within United, from the coach to the owner, knows Paul wants to move on,” Mino Raiola said.
Early summer also saw Madrid successfully moving on players who Zidane did not rate highly enough. Marcos Llorente, Dani Ceballos, Sergio Reguilon, Borja Mayoral and Jesus Vallejo were all seen at one point as future first team members, but the club backed the coach over their exits.
Meanwhile, senior players who Zidane wanted were also convinced to remain at the Bernabeu. Centre-backs Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane publicly floated the idea of leaving, with Perez more or less opening the door for Ramos to leave in a radio interview, but both decided to stay.
When Madrid returned for pre-season in early July, Bale’s situation was the most pressing. Other senior players close to leaving included Keylor Navas, Mariano Diaz and James Rodriguez – back from two years on loan at Bayern Munich brought about by a public falling-out with Zidane during 2016/17.
The biggest problem for the Madrid hierarchy was that all these players were into mid-career at least, and on huge wages which made it finding a buyer very difficult. With €300m already spent on a mix of Zidane and Florentino targets including young left-back Ferland Mendy and forward Luka Jovic, no new funds were available to bring in Pogba.
At a ‘transfer summit’ in mid-July with Perez and club director general Jose Angel Sanchez in Montreal, Zidane was told it was going to be difficult given United’s £180m asking price. That led Zidane to attempt to force the issue, saying publicly a few days later that he wanted Bale gone “as soon as possible”, and claiming the Welshman had asked not to play for the team.
Interest from Chinese side Jiangsu Suning appeared to offer a solution, but Perez could not in the end allow his €101 million signing to leave on a free transfer, much to Zidane’s disappointment. James was also stuck in limbo, with only Atletico Madrid offering to pay the €50 million asking price, and Perez unwilling to let one of his galacticos join the neighbours.
Pogba was by now back preparing for the new season with his current team, whose manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was making clear that United were not keen to sell. A reported offer of €30 million plus James was not taken seriously by anyone around Old Trafford. Pogba again showed he was worth much more than that with two excellent assists as Solskjaer’s side began their season with a thumping 4-0 victory over Chelsea on Sunday.
Last Thursday’s closing of the English transfer window saw Madrid very publicly switch their attentions to trying to sign Neymar from Paris Saint Germain, suggesting that money was available to sign the Brazilian that had not been forthcoming for Pogba. Neymar has always been a Florentino obsession, but his arrival would be more of a problem than a solution for Zidane, given his choice Hazard plays pretty much the same position.
Madrid’s final warm-up outing on Sunday at Roma was lost on penalties, following a very uneven performance in a 2-2 draw in which the team’s midfield issues were clear. Afterwards Zidane faced reporters spoke for the first time since 31 July.
“We’re here with the team we have, the players we have,” he said, while visibly not enjoying the questioning. “We just think about that. Next week our league begins, and our minds are just thinking about Saturday. The reality is I have this squad, full stop. We can have a good season.”
Zidane also said that he was “at the moment” counting on both James and Bale, while pointing out that the La Liga transfer window does not shut until 2 September. His final sentence during a short and tense press conference was a cryptic message: “You [journalists] can keep asking, but I won’t tell you the things you want.”
One of the Madrid press pack’s closest observers of Bernabeu intrigue is Diego Torres of El Pais, who told The Independent that Zidane is furious with his boss.
“Not signing Pogba puts Zidane on the brink of resigning,” Torres says. “Zidane personally promised Pogba he would bring him to Madrid, and now he is left looking bad. This has only increased the lack of confidence between Zidane and Florentino. For Zidane, his project and Pogba are almost the same thing. Nothing that he was promised has really come to pass. Zidane returned as a protective shield for Florentino, but he has already fulfilled that political and social mission.”
A summer which was supposed to see the coach leading a major squad shake-up has instead ended with the president re-exerting control over everything at the club. Hazard is almost certain to be the only new player in Madrid’s starting team for next Saturday’s La Liga opener at Celta Vigo, while 30-somethings Marcelo, Ramos, Modric et al remain at the team’s core.
There is still time for things to change again, and more transfer action does seem likely given how unbalanced the squad now looks. But the failure of his public Pogba pursuit means Zidane’s second spell as Madrid coach may already have been fatally damaged.