In 2001 when Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez began the second summer of his Galáctico revolution with the signing of Zinedine Zidane from Juventus for a world record fee of £45 million, the only available squad number between one and 11 was No5. And so the greatest midfield player of his generation glided around the Bernabéu for the next five seasons with a swan-necked centre-half’s shirt on his back. Two years later David Beckham turned that notion on its head when he took No23 because Raul held the freehold on No7, but before the marketing phenomenon arrived it was felt that 1-11 remained the most valuable slots for merchandising.
When Mesut Özil signed for Arsenal last August he left Real Madrid’s No10 shirt vacant – which, for Pérez, must have been like leaving the most prestigious property in his portfolio empty. For a man whose entire strategy and electoral appeal are based on constant renewal each season to ramp up interest and income ever further, it was both an extravagance and an opportunity. On Tuesday he found the man to fill it by paying £63 million to Monaco for James Rodríguez, the Colombia attacking midfielder who scored the Brazil World Cup’s greatest goal and was arguably its best player, undoubtedly eclipsing the official, fanciful choice of Lionel Messi of Argentina, who, not uncoincidentally, wears Barcelona’s No10.
Pérez and Real Madrid are understandably portraying it as another coup and one that takes the spotlight away from Barcelona’s purchase of Luis Suárez. Thousands of chalkboard-style formation graphics, or the backs of fag packets for traditionalists, have proliferated throughout the day as amateur tacticians attempt to work out how three of the four world’s most expensive players - Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rodríguez – will fit into the same team.
Last season Ronaldo scored 51 goals in 44 league and cup appearances, Bale 22 in 44 and Karim Benzema, the man whose running makes the forward line thrive, 24 in 52. In 2008-09 Barcelona became the first team for 12 seasons to score a century of La Liga goals and have managed it three more times since. In this astonishing arms race, however, Real Madrid have responded with five successive seasons of 100 league goals or more. With Rodríguez joining the established trident that looks certain to continue though it will mean that Carlo Ancelotti, level-headed pragmatist and elite coaching’s most sensible operator, will once again have to come up with a system to accommodate and assuage all his expensive assets.
If, as seems likely, Ángel di María and Sami Khedira are sold to subsidise some of the fee spent on Rodríguez, as Özil was last year to mitigate spending £85m on Bale, it will signify a change away from the flexible 4-3-3/4-4-2 with which Ancelotti won the club’s 10th European Cup in May. As he was last summer, the manager is keen to keep hold of Di María, who created more goals than anyone else last season, but reports that he was offered to Monaco as a makeweight and turned down the chance to move suggest that Pérez is willing to overrule Ancelotti.
If Di María is sacrificed and we assume that Benzema will spearhead the attack – each of Ancelotti’s signature sides has a dynamic, hard-running centre-forward - from Enrico Chiesa at Parma to Filippo Inzaghi at Juventus and AC Milan and Didier Drogba at Chelsea - 4-2-3-1 seems most likely with Toni Kroos, the other new signing, partnering either Luka Modric or Xabi Alonso in central midfield leaving Ronaldo, Rodríguez and Bale, the fluid advanced trio, to buzz like wasps in bottles, changing positions, dropping deep and drawing defenders out of position before metaphorically debagging them.
It is a system which demands selflessness, and though Ronaldo enjoys and protects a status of first among equals, his vanity rarely infects his responsibility to his team. If he appears greedy at times it is because he believes – and a return of 256 goals in 242 games for Real Madrid bears him out – that he is the best option to score, but Rodríguez, like Bale before him, will not be starved of the ball. Neither will Suárez at the Nou Camp when his ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini expires at the end of October and he forms a dazzling forward line with Messi and Neymar. Although they struggled for fitness last season, each made 30 appearances, Messi continuing his ridiculous strike rate with 41 goals, the Brazil prodigy grabbing 12. Suárez joins Barcelona at a time of transformation with Victor Valdes and Carles Puyol already gone and Xavi, the team’s heartbeat and puppet-master, about to depart.
With Suárez’s movement and finishing - he has scored a La Liga-esque 54 league goals in 66 games for Liverpool over the past two seasons - Barcelona’s willingness to overlook his disciplinary record involving one ban for racism and three for biting opponents is understandable if unpalatable. His on-field strengths are precisely what Barcelona need during this transitional period with Ivan Rakitic joining Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in midfield and Messi forming the tip of the diamond behind Neymar and the Uruguayan.
The obsessions with elegance and possession that have characterised pseudish analyses of Spanish football over the past decade have foolishly and misleadingly valued style over substance.
For the past six seasons, the major currency for both clubs has been goals in freakish quantities and Suárez and Rodríguez will contribute yet more. The brutal inquisition of goalkeepers will continue.
Two years ago when Middle East sovereign wealth fund investment revolutionised French football, it seemed that the days of the dominance of the two Spanish giants at the top end of the transfer market was at risk. By signing Suárez and Rodríguez, Barcelona and Real Madrid have demonstrated once again that they have the wherewithal and ambition to put Paris Saint-Germain in their place.
With their benefits of tradition, lifestyle, enormous wages and glamour, they remain the destination of elite players’ dreams and the league itself endures as a self-perpetuating, self-mythologising showcase for the world’s best.
By winning the title last season, Atlético Madrid opened themselves up to raids on their talent from wealthier clubs. They also provoked the disputatious twin empires of Spanish football to strike back.
Costliest players of all-time
Tottenham to Real Madrid
Manchester United to Real Madrid
Liverpool to Barcelona
Monaco to Real Madrid
AC Milan to Real Madrid
Real coach >Carlo Ancelotti.
The former AC Milan, Chelsea and PSG coach must find the right balance with his attacking superstars.
Barca coach >Luis Enrique.
He faces the challenge of making Suarez as productive as he was at Liverpool where he was the go-to man.