Xabi Alonso could be Real Madrid’s most significant signing of the summer
By Sid Lowe
The exit remains open, its doors flung wide, but the entrance to the Santiago Bernabeu has been closed and bolted. Five weeks, one transfer request and £30million later, Xabi Alonso finally joined Real Madrid from Liverpool. Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Raul Albiol, Alvaro Negredo, Esteban Granero and Alvaro Arbeloa had all arrived before him as president Florentino Perez’s spending climbed above £215m. Meanwhile, Ezequiel Garay – bought last summer but loaned back to former club Racing Santander – also appeared.
Nine new footballers had joined Real Madrid’s revolution. There was still almost a month of the transfer window remaining but Madrid announced that their summer spending was over. Alonso was the last – but certainly not the least. In fact, his arrival is arguably the most significant of the lot. At least in terms of what it says about Madrid’s project – that is, Madrid’s footballing project. He could well be the player who really makes the difference.
Garay was already a Madrid player. Former B-team player Negredo was bought back from Almeria on preferential terms – just £4.5m for a player who scored 19 La Liga goals in a struggling side last season – with a view to selling him on for a profit. And Arbeloa is, in truth, little more than a defensive utility player, signed for a relatively cheap £3m.
Raul Albiol will have an important role at centre-back after joining from Valencia for £13m, but Madrid’s defence was not the most pressing of their needs. Karim Benzema – whose £30m fee, rising to £35m, speaks volumes of the hopes Madrid have for him – is not the standard-bearer of the project. Madrid already have Gonzalo Higuain. And Raul.
Like Negredo, Granero was a former B-team player bought back for an exceptional price – not only did he cost just £3.5m from Getafe, he agreed to a pay cut to return to the club he’d originally joined as an 11-year-old. His signing provides midfield cover and maintained the pressure on Liverpool in Madrid’s pursuit of Alonso. With Granero’s arrival, Madrid attempted to convey the message that they did not necessarily need Alonso, preventing his price inflating still further.
The reality was that Madrid did need Alonso. They really needed him. By getting a fee believed to be in the region of £30m after Madrid insisted they would not go over £22m, Rafa Benitez has presented himself as the winner. The real winner, though, is Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini.
It is no coincidence that Kaka and Ronaldo turned up first. Nor is it coincidence that they did so for a combined total of almost £150m, becoming two of the three most expensive players ever. Perez needed to make an impact, to bring the world’s attention back to Madrid. They were the flagship of Florentino’s return, the last two FIFA World Player winners.
Perez has talked of “investment players” and “cost players”; Kaka and Ronaldo belong firmly in the investment category, players who Perez says generate so much money that they are in fact cheap. (Whether that is actually true is another issue, of course). It is not that Madrid could afford to sign them; it is, he insists, more a case of they could not afford not to sign them. Privately, he told the board that Madrid would fail without Ronaldo and Kaka.
Just as vital
If Ronaldo and Kaka were central to Perez’s project, Alonso was central to Pellegrini’s project – and just as vital as Ronaldo. Alonso’s signing represents a victory for the coach, for sporting director Miguel Pardeza and for the new executive director general Jorge Valdano. Together, they successfully persuaded Perez of the importance of signing Alonso despite the fact that, as a Spaniard who does not qualify for the 23 per cent tax band, and one who is not a self-financing galactico, he is expensive – a “cost player”.
Alonso’s signing is a victory for footballing decisions and hints at a president who has learnt his mistakes from last time. It hints at a president who is listening to his coach and technical staff; at a president who, despite his initial reluctance, is prepared to spend big to get players whose strategic, business importance is limited. Just as importantly, it hints at a change in style and identity at Madrid, at a new approach. An improved one.
What unhappily defined Madrid last season was the way they played as much as the results they achieved. They went on a remarkable run in the league, winning 17 out of 18 games – even if the 6-2 hammering at home to Barcelona and a 4-0 defeat at Anfield came to encapsulate the season. The lack of fantasy, the lack of fluidity and the reliance on the counter-attack were the side’s signature. Above all, there was a failure to dominate matches.
If the signings of Ronaldo and Kaka were important to the club’s economic model – and Perez has rarely talked of anything else – the signing of Alonso is fundamental to their footballing one. In fact, “fundamental” is exactly the word that Pellegrini used.
He is determined that Madrid will keep possession and dominate games, that they will play the kind of football that his Villarreal side played: quick, mobile and tidy in possession. He believes that would have been impossible without Alonso. Guti and Fernando Gago do not cut it; Granero, while talented, is a level below Alonso; Wesley Sneijder has different characteristics; Rafael Van der Vaart is not good enough. While Ronaldo and Kaka are brilliant, and Benzema will score goals, who gets them the ball?
Now Madrid have a probable starting line-up that looks extraordinarily strong – in quality, in balance, in solidity. They have one of the world’s best goalkeepers, an aggressive but intelligent defence protected by a deep-lying midfielder who impressed hugely last season, plus incredible fantasy and firepower. Pellegrini believes that, in Alonso, they at last have the man that can link it all together, the player who can make it all work. It’s the one thing they lacked. With his arrival, Madrid simply don’t need anything else.
Their work is not done yet, though. League rules only allow for a 25-man squad and Madrid have over 30 players. Shipping out has proven rather harder than bringing in; when you’re Real Madrid, it’s not easy to persuade footballers to leave.
At the start of the summer, Madrid set a target of £90m in sales and alerted clubs to the fact that they were making nine players available. They sold Javier Saviola and Javi Garcia to Benfica for £4.3m and £6m respectively but, while those were unbelievably good fees, they have struggled to do such good business elsewhere. In fact, they have struggled to do any business at all. Particularly with their Dutch contingent.
Gabi Heinze was sold to Marseille for £1.3m and Dani Parejo joined Getafe for £2.6m (with a buy-back clause), but the only other sale confirmed is Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who joined Milan for £13m. Trouble is, even that deal is not as good as it appears. How much Madrid will actually get is a moot point after reports suggesting that £6m of that will go to his former club Ajax – representing a £10m loss on a player Madrid had for six months.
In total, Madrid might just about have raised £26m, having so far failed to find homes for players such as Negredo, Van Der Vaart, Sneijder, Royston Drenthe, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Arjen Robben – even though Pellegrini insists he does not want Robben or Sneijder to leave. And all the while, the rest of Europe bides its time, waiting for prices to tumble.
“Buy low, sell high” the maxim says; not for the first time, Madrid have turned the rules on their head.