"I am not the one who turned Madrid into a battlefield," Jorge Valdano, Real Madrid’s former director general said when he left the club in May. It is not hard to guess who he believed had initiated the transformation; Jose Mourinho assimilated Valdano’s old job into his new role as the club’s head of football operations last Friday – typical Mourinho: the knife had gone in the front, not the back. He drew the battle lines, Madrid chose to stand on his side and he now has almost complete control over team affairs at the club. They made the right decision.
The latest development is, if truth be told, a minor shift. The major work was done last season. Mourinho’s message, that he needed full control, gained weight through sheer repetition. It began before he had even signed on at the club. If what we hear is true, he pushed for Valdano’s position to be reconsidered even whilst negotiating his move away from Inter Milan. And to begin with there was compromise: Valdano stayed, but the signings made that summer were, for the most part, Mourinho ideas – Mesut Ozil, Ricardo Carvalho, Sami Khedira and, most hard fought, Angel Di Maria were all his men.
Then, after six months of pushing, there were signs in January that he was winning the battle outright when the club signed Emmanuel Adebayor on loan, despite protests from Valdano. Mourinho asked for a striker as back up for Karim Benzema, a Valdano signing and a pledge from President Perez, and had his way – convincing a President to side with him over his own man. Valdano’s position became untenable and Mourinho had his way again in May, when the director general was fired. The story confirms what we knew already: Mourinho craves autonomy and will fight until he is satisfied he has it.
He has shown his teeth before. When Roman Abramovich began to show a strong interest in where his money was going at Chelsea, Mourinho took him on. Relegating Andrei Shevchenko to the reserves – his owner’s £30million signing – was considered by many at the time an attempt to provoke either managerial freedom after the club’s refusal to sanction several deals for centre backs as cover for John Terry, or freedom from his contract. In the end, Abramovich chose the latter. Madrid will have been sure, then, that The Special One would not back down.
But if they took anything from that decision, it was that Mourinho lifted the Champions League trophy before Chelsea or Abramovich did. Massimo Morratti offered him freedom to do as he pleased at Inter – even against a backdrop of Italian media fury – and he proved his point emphatically, with a treble. Inter believed in their coach as much as themselves. "[Mourinho] make[s] us believe in our dreams, to trust in our team, and that has been making a difference in everyday life in the competition," his captain, Lucio, explained before their European Cup final victory. Madrid seems to have learned that those who back Mourinho tend to end up with trophies, whilst the doubters walk away empty handed, sometime in the early rounds.
In the coming season, the doubters will be able to call on Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side as the hired muscle. With the internal wrangling at Madrid settled in Mourinho’s favour, those who still do not believe have already begun to point out that he now lacks an excuse for when he succumbs to Barcelona this time around.
They are right. Without the in-fighting to stop him the wider battle is now the only focus. The lack of a distraction is what makes the battle winnable, though. Madrid was, after all, getting closer last season. Of the five El Clasico’s played, they won just one, stealing away the Spanish Cup from the Guardiola collection. Yet in the end of season series of four games between the two sides, it would be foolish to refute that the gap had closed since the Barcelona stampede in December – the aggregate score in those games, just 4-3, compared to the 5-0 humiliation in winter. The Champions League semi-final may even have had a different outcome too, had Pepe not been sent off.
Though the work was not complete by any means, this summer’s Mourinho-only recruitment programme offers hope that it could be soon. Where Pepe paid for his lack of subtlety last season by seeing red at a crucial moment, Hamit Altintop, the new signing from Bayern Munich, now looks set to line up next to Xabi Alonso in games against Barca. Altintop offers the same physicality in midfield, but is by all accounts a cleverer player than Pepe – he is, in short, exactly what Madrid needs to compete even more closely with Barcelona.
He is also exactly the kind of player the old regime would never have signed. In his late twenties, not a star, and Turkish, not Latino, Altintop is not a fashionable player and may never be a popular one. Yet The Special One specialises in this kind of signing: Paolo Ferreira is the model. Never a fan favourite at Chelsea, it is notable that the right back position he occupied has been a problem position ever since he lost his grip on it. Mourinho signed him for the team, not the fans.
With Mourinho in full control Madrid is a more pragmatic club. We already know there is more to fear for Barcelona this time around than from a team that signed the winger Pedro Leon last summer "because he was Spanish". But Mourinho is out of excuses, out of time, and out of favours; That is what makes him dangerous. That is when he usually starts winning everything.