In the past, Real Madrid as a club have been duly criticized for failing to give young players an opportunity — opting to bring in highly successful athletes instead. The 'Galactico' era that Florentino Pérez pursued was a star studded one, but perhaps not as successful as they should have been. Times are changing. From the 2002/2003 season, up until the 2012/2013 season, Real Madrid won eight major honours. Since 2013/2014, Real Madrid have won nine major trophies... So, what changed?
2013 was the year that Dani Carvajal was brought back. Casemiro and Jesé joined him, and Real Madrid never looked back from there. Since then, countless young players have broken in from the academy and elsewhere. Florentino has turned his attention from bringing the best players in the world together and expecting them to gel, to investing in the academy and purchasing the best young talent around, and creating previously unseen sustainability at the club. For all of his dislikable tendencies, Pérez is a very intelligent man, and when he sees that something isn’t working, he doesn't hesitate to change his ideas for the good of the club.
Over the last few years Madrid have switched their focus to the development of young players, and have worked very hard to bring in some tremendous talent to the club. Join me, as we profile the best youngsters that the club has managed to accumulate, and put them together to form a surprisingly strong squad.
Real Madrid's best Under-23 XI:— RM Castilla Stats (@CastillaStats) June 6, 2017
How good is this team? ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/xgtheE2N8v
Rubén Yáñez - 23
Rubén Yáñez has been Real Madrid's current third choice — and youngest — goalkeeper ever since he graduated from Castilla via the academy in 2015. He has been capped by Spain at the youth level, and has won numerous honours already with the first team. The goalkeeping position is probably one of the weakest on this list, but Yáñez genuinely has the talent and ability to thrive at a top level, like countless keepers before him. Being honest, I don't see Rubén ever becoming first choice at the Bernabéu. He does however, still have a big future ahead of him!
Achraf Hakimi - 18
Another talent from the ever-growing La Fabrica academy. I have previously described Achraf as the second best right back I have ever seen play for Castilla, beaten to the honour by Dani Carvajal. He is brilliant! Strong on the ball, excellent going forward (which is vital at Real Madrid), and very switched on defensively, too! At 18, he is already poised to move on from Castilla, and has even made his full international debut for Morocco. If Real Madrid find the perfect loan move for him for next season, then he could easily return within the year. This boy really does have the world at his feet.
Diego Llorente - 23
Diego excelled at Castilla as a right-back, and was always destined for top level. In more recent times, he has been utilized as a centre half, and has developed in La Liga away from the club on loan. A Spanish youth international, Diego is now an established top flight defender. Although his path to the first team is a bit more difficult than that of others, Real Madrid would be foolish to let this one slip away, especially taking into consideration the success Nacho has been after taking his time to break into the side.
Jesús Vallejo - 20
Our first entry that has not gone through the academy. Vallejo was bought from Real Zaragoza in 2015 when he was 18 years of age. He was subsequently loaned back, before earning a shot at the Bundesliga with Eintracht Frankfurt for his good performances. 2016/17 has been his year. He has earned plaudits far and wide for his performances with the German outfit, and even helped them reach the German cup final, eventually losing out to Borussia Dortmund. With news breaking out that Pepe will be leaving the club, a space has opened up for Vallejo to grab with both hands. Be sure to keep an eye on the Spain u21 international’s progress next season!
Álvaro Tejero - 20
The very highly rated Tejero has just come off the back of his second season with Castilla. His debut season was near perfect, as he shone in the absence of Abner, guiding Castilla to the play-offs. He has made three appearances for the first team, making his La Liga debut this season, and also recording his first assist! The right footed player is comfortable in any position along the defensive line. His Real Madrid future could well depend on how he performs with his next destination.
Mateo Kovačić - 23
When Real Madrid splashed out €30 million for Mateo in 2015, many — including myself — were sceptical of the move. It's safe to say he has proved me wrong. After a successful first season, Kovačić cemented his place in the first team in 16/17. When Madrid suffered a midfield injury crisis, the Croatian international stepped up and turned plenty of heads. Having only just turned 23, the best this little magician has to offer is still a long way to come.
Marcos Llorente - 22
Has anyone ever had a better first season away from Castilla than Marcos Llorente? The midfield general starred in a highly impressive Deportivo Alavés side as they finished in the top half of La Liga, and reached the Copa Del Rey final. Having followed Marcos very closely during 15/16 with Castilla, I can tell you Marcos can pass the ball anywhere he wants on a football pitch. He has a lot of technical ability, with a decent shot to match. Defensively he is top class, leading to Madrid fans calling for him to replace Casemiro in the Real Madrid starting XI next season. After his stellar season, the Spanish under-21 international can be whatever he wants to be in football.
Martin Ødegaard - 18
One of the most famous young players on the planet. Florentino Pérez must be beaming at the thought of this kid. He's both a Galactico name, and a prestigious talent. He broke through with Strømsgodset, in his home country of Norway at a mind-boggling 15 years of age. It was at 15, that he also made his full International debut. A day after his 16th birthday, he signed for Real Madrid after being chased by every major club in the world for months. The others are still bitter about it to this day.
He made his Madrid debut at 16, becoming the clubs youngest ever player. Away from the first team, he shone for Castilla, forming a class midfield partnership with Marcos Llorente and Aleix Febas. This player has become of one my favourite players due to his performances, and at times has had me stood on my feet in awe of his ability. Currently on loan to dutch top flight club Heerenveen, he is quietly making progress on his journey into the first team. I think a higher standard of club is in order if he wants to jump straight into the first team, but time is definitely on his side.
Vinícius Júnior - 16
The newbie. Real Madrid signed him last month for a reported £39million from Flamengo. Wow! Madrid have allowed him to stay in Brazil and develop with Flamengo. He recently made his senior debut. Before that he had a glittering academy career, winning countless trophies for the Brazilian giants. It was only a mere months ago that he was named player of the tournament during the Under-17 South American Championships for Brazil, finishing as top scorer with seven goals. One of the best Brazilian football accounts I know, @BrazilStat, has branded Vinícius Brazil's biggest talent. That's no mean fete. Of course, the big money move is a risk, and I don't agree with it myself. But there's no denying that this kid is special, and if it goes well, he'll have us all forgetting about his price tag. Haven't seen anything of him yet? Here's a few clips from his senior debut with Flamengo the other day.
Real Madrid 16-yo sensation Vinicius JR came on as a substitute in the derby vs Botafogo and almost scored the winner.— Seleção Brasileira (@BrazilStat) June 4, 2017
The kid is special. pic.twitter.com/8e4EEG2GOl
Mariano Díaz - 23
What a season Mariano has had! He won his first four major honours, scored his first Real Madrid hat-trick at the Bernabéu; and earned a goals per game average of 1.49. The only disappointment? That he did not feature more for the whites over the course of the campaign. At times he played so little, that I forgot how good he was. Of course it took him only five minutes to remind me...
Still, he is a ginormous talent, and has a lot to offer Madrid. Without him, they would not be La Liga champions, let that sink in. A loan move looks best for this beast moving forward, but I highly doubt this is the last we will see of him a Madrid shirt.
Marco Asensio - 21
This man needs no introduction. The Spanish youth international has burst onto the scene in 2016/17. Having been signed from Mallorca in 2014, then loaned straight back, it took Asensio a couple of years to get a look in at the capital. But boy, was it worth the wait. Goals in the SuperCup and Champions League finals were some of the best highlights of a phenomenal year. Marco is very versatile going forward, and has been used wherever needed by Zidane. This boy will see plenty more opportunities come his way going into 2017/18.
Álex Craninx - 21
Craninx is arguably the most talented young keeper at the club. He's also the most wasted. The Belgium youth international has barely got a look in at Castilla over the two years he's played there. That could change now, though. At the end of 16/17, Álex earned a starting spot with his performances, racking up two 'man of the match' awards in his three games played. You can tell just by looking at him that he's a keeper. Tall, well built and agile, he has all the attributes required to make it to the first team. How far can he go? Who's to say. One thing is for sure: He has the potential to make it at Real Madrid.
Philipp Lienhart - 20
Austria’s under-21 captain is a rock at the back. It hasn't all been pain sailing for Philipp, who didn't have the best of years in 16/17, but he'll be looking to make amends next season. His performances for his nation have been excellent, and he even scored against Germany.
Mario Hermoso - 21
Made the transition from left-back to centre-back for Castilla this season, and hasn't looked back. He's now ready for a bigger challenge, and I can see him reaching the levels of Llorente and Vallejo before him.
Fede Valverde - 18
Massive talent. Currently shining at the Under-20's World Cup, where Uruguay are at the Semi-Final stage. Nurtured at Uruguayan giants Peñarol, where he won a league title, Madrid secured his services in 2015. His debut season with Castilla was exceptional, and he was one of the few positives to take away from a disappointing year. He also starred for the under-19s, in their UEFA Youth League campaign. I'm certain that Fede will make it at Real Madrid.
Aleix Febas - 21
Castilla's player of the year for 2016/17. Aleix has learned his stuff from the Madrid academy, and combines world class balance with bags of ability. He signed a contract with the first team in 2016, and will be looking for a loan move away to gain valuable top level experience.
Borja Mayoral - 20
One of the jewels of the academy. Mayoral's loan move to Wolfsburg did not go as planned, but he still has a huge future ahead of him. Mayoral has already been trusted by Zidane in games such as the Madrid derby. His academy goal record was ridiculous, and he scored for fun at Castilla, too! I expect that the Spain under-21 international’s big break is just around the corner.
Sergio Díaz - 19
The Paraguayan pearl. An enormous talent. When he first joined Castilla from Cerro Porteño, he was doing things with the football that I could not believe. This helped him receive his first Paraguay senior team call up, which saw him make his debut against France. If current Castilla boss Santiago Solari has anything to say about it, then Díaz has an uphill battle ahead of him to make it at Real Madrid. A change in Castilla management, or a good loan move away however, could see him shoot to stardom with the worlds best club.
There were a couple of players who only just missed out on this list, and also a couple that could potentially be added to it. These are as follows:
The players that missed out
Raphaël Varane - 24
Varane is one of the best defenders on the planet. He is such an athlete, and has already achieved so much at the club, but he turned 24, two months ago, so misses out on this list.
Víctor Campuzano - 20
Campuzano was Castilla's top scorer last season, and isn't as highly rated as some of the other strikers on this list, when perhaps he should be. If he keeps on improving, expect to hear a lot more about this talent.
Óscar Rodríguez - 18
The academy player really is the real deal, and is being sought after by some of Europe's top clubs. He isn't proven enough at the senior level to make this list, but be sure that one day in the near future, he will be.
Theo Hernández - 19
This is surely going to be a done deal. And if you add the 19 year old left back into that starting XI, then it makes that team even more amazing.
Kylian Mbappé - 18
What a tremendous player. This is someone that would surely come in and secure a starting spot at the club in no time at all. One thing’s for sure; he won't be cheap for the team that takes a punt.
So there we have it. The Real Madrid under-23's XI. What a team that is. That's a side that could easily compete in top flight football, and would make a few far more mature teams look silly. What this team really represents though, is the future of the club. Real Madrid are seeing so much success right now, and the people at the top are quietly building the foundations for the team of the future, to make sure that Real Madrid maintains it's position at the top of the tree for years to come. I for one, can't wait.