On Monday night, for the first time since 2005, Real Madrid had no players in the top ten of the voting for the Ballon d’Or. Not one.
Prior to 2019, a Madrid player had won football’s most prestigious individual gong for three years on the spin and had had at least one representative in the top three since 2011.
2019, though, was a bitterly disappointing annus horribils for the biggest, most valuable and glitziest football club in the world, which prides itself on not just the team’s collective trophy cabinet but those of the individual players.
Real Madrid, particularly under Florentino Perez, has been about being the best while also having the biggest individual stars.
‘The Champions League. The Ballon d’Or. Social media followers.’ might as well be Madrid’s mission statement these days.
What then does 2019’s Ballon d’Or results mean, if anything, for Real Madrid’s transfer strategy?
Of their 11 most used players so far this season, five (Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Marcelo, Luka Modric) are the wrong side of 30, while Toni Kroos joins that club next month. There are no players under the age of 26 in that most-used group.
It’s not hard to imagine that the time for this generation of superstars came to a close with Luka Modric’s Ballon d’Or win in 2018 and that none of them will ever again be considered the very best in the world.
It seemed for a while, during the height of Zinedine Zidane’s first reign, that Madrid – perennial kings of Europe – had reformed their recruitment strategy as a club that plans for the future rather than the here and now, focussing on hoovering up and developing the best of the next generation, something which had previously been Barcelona’s domain.
Yet as 2020 approaches, expensive acquisitions like Eder Militao and Luka Jovic (both 21) have seen little game time, while Spanish additions of recent windows like Brahim Diaz and Alvaro Odriozola don’t quite look up to muster for whatever reason.
After bursting onto the scene with all the crackling energy and potential of a budding Ballon d’Or winner of the future, Marco Asensio’s development had stalled even before his devastating ACL injury this summer.
Expensive Brazilian teenagers Vinicius Jnr and Rodrygo are the flashy, twin hopes that the club is betting on to reach superstardom, but neither looks a sure thing at present.
From the current first team, 21-year-old Uruguayan Federico Valverde – who is becoming invaluable in Zidane’s midfield with his box-to-box displays – looks the most likely to become one of the best in the world in his position in the not too distant future, if not a guaranteed shirt seller.
Desperate not to lose ground on their major European rivals from Liverpool and Manchester City to Barcelona and Juventus, Real Madrid may be tempted by another expensive summer makeover, with Neymar or Kylian Mbappe likely atop of their wishlist – especially if they go another year without any trophies.
However, if you look outside of Madrid’s first-team there is still an incredible amount of young talent on their books.
Martin Odegaard, now 20 and one of the standout stars of the first half of the Spanish season with Real Sociedad, is expected to return to his parent club next year.
Dani Ceballos – Euro Under-21 winner with Spain this summer – too could be re-integrated next season under a different manager and doesn’t turn 24 until next August.
Also out on loan are Takefusa Kubo (18), trained in La Masia but snapped up by Los Blancos during the summer, who is described as a potentially generational Asian talent.
Achraf Hakimi (20) has developed into a serious attacking threat out on loan at serial prodigy enhancers Dortmund, with the Madrid-born Morocco international, who can play anywhere down either flank, scoring four goals in five Champions League outings this season.
Florentino Perez was in his first term as Real Madrid president back in 2005, the last year the club failed to get a single nominee into the top ten for the Ballon d’Or. That summer Madrid spent close to €100m on Sergio Ramos, Robinho, Julio Baptista, Cicinho, Antonio Cassano and Carlos Diogo (all 23 or younger) in an attempt to get things back on track both on the pitch and off it.
This year, Perez and Madrid may already have the young players they need to regenerate right under their noses, but whether they have the nerve to use them is another matter.
If Madrid fail spectacularly again in 2019/20 chances are the pressure will be too great to resist making more fan and sponsor-appeasing signings.
The irony, then, is that the loaned out stars of tomorrow like Odegaard, Achraf and the rest may need the old guard to play well rather than badly get a chance to really make their names as the future of Real Madrid next season.