These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.
Dominoes will fall, even if they haven’t yet. Fans have filled our mentions daily to inquire about what happened to ‘x player’, and soon their cup will be filled to the cusp. Officially, things are calm -- behind the scenes they are boiling. As players return from vacation, international duty, and golf tournaments; the Real Madrid ‘elections’ unwind. Piña Coladas are replaced with contracts — straws with pens. Just today, Theo Hernandez officially inked his shiny new deal. Atletico Madrid’s blood pressure rose.
Inactivity is a matter of perspective. The Club bustles behind the scenes. For the second consecutive summer, the priority is bringing back young players who’ve succeeded in mastering different waters — while dealing accordingly with the ones who couldn’t stay afloat. The emphasis, again, is youth and fine-tuning. Aleix Febas, Castilla’s best player of the 2016-2017 season, is heading to Real Zaragoza on loan, per sources. Achraf is likely headed to Alaves, with a slim-to-none chance of staying with the A-team next season to fill Danilo’s inevitable departure. Fede Valverde, another Castilla stand-out who did some exciting things alongside Aleix Febas in midfield, is loaned to Deportivo La Coruña — a team he’ll likely receive ample playing time for. Philip Lienhart will be loaned to Freiburg. Nothing official on Marcos Llorente yet -- but both he and his pug have confirmed he will be a Real Madrid player next season. Jesus Vallejo is coming back. Gone and likely gone for good: Enzo Zidane, Mariano Diaz, Diego Llorente, Cristian Cedres, Javi Muñoz. Dominoes yet to fall: A new transitory home for Borja Mayoral, Isco’s contract extension, and Florentino Perez dropping the Kylian Mbappe atomic bomb.
It’s gutting to see talented players go, but Real Madrid can’t hold on to them all — they knew this. Mariano was a hero against Deportivo earlier this season after shattering the back of the net mercilessly two seasons ago in Segunda B. He was well-loved. But he was also primed. 23 is on the verge of ripening. He’s way too talented, strong, and mature to be a third-choice striker. It’s not inconceivable that, in a hypothetical scenario that he went to Malaga to replace Sandro rather than going to France, he would net 10-15 goals as their starting striker. He’s really good. Real Madrid might not have milked him out in the most efficient way possible. Hold on to him for another year and loan him, and you’ll almost certainly raise his value two-to-three-fold. They were swayed otherwise — Lyon sniping in to take advantage of the no buy-back rule in Ligue 1, Jese Rodriguez style.
Ditto Diego Llorente, whose price tag of five million (with no buy-back) seems like theft. Sure, he may not have had a Marcos Llorente or Vallejo level of sovereignty, but his comeback as a starter in the second half of the season raised eyebrows. One of his best performances of the season came against Barcelona at La Rosaleda. Against Sevilla, he coaxed Sampaoli’s men into passing into central channels that he had secretly zipped up. Five interceptions and five tackles he racked up before scoring the game-winning goal. He did enough overall, by the end of the season, to prove he’s worth grooming. Real Madrid are going into this season with four central defenders — an experienced, clutch, and often suspended Sergio Ramos, a (still very solid and promising) young bulwark who can’t stay healthy consistently in Raphael Varane, a prolific vertical passing machine and positionally woke (yet still raw when it comes to defending crosses and set-pieces) Jesus Vallejo, and a multi-positional utility defender (who’s rickety when defending set-pieces) in Nacho.
The inevitable Vallejo - Nacho partnership is a concern. Real Madrid will get away with it generally, but allow a team like Bayern a few cracks on corners in a do-or-die melee again with Vallejo as Nacho’s partner, and they’ll make you pay more than once. Again, it might not be something that will manifest itself often enough to break a season, but it’s not ideal either. Pepe added muscle and security. Vallejo is a generational talent, but pair him with the wrong partner, and you’re vulnerable (letting Diego go hurts, for this reason — at that discount to boot).
Pair him with the right one, and you might run an elite defensive line for years and years. Fourth-choice Nacho is not a revelational puzzle-piece next to Jesus, but Varane and Ramos are. They’ll compliment each other. We’ll have a few years of Ramos next to Vallejo, and perhaps even more with Varane as the crony. Vallejo is the anti Ramos — disinclined to error, unflappable all-year-round, and uncertain aerially. They will be a marriage of polar opposites — and there is nothing wrong with that.
Out of the young crop permanently departing this season, Mariano and Diego Llorente win the yearbook award for ‘most likely to succeed’ — the rest don’t quite gut you the same way. Enzo has yet to appear as an imposing game-changing menace — or anything quite close to it. Aesthetically, you can tell his genes have been inherited — but aesthetics are superfluous, and in his case, the enemy of efficiency.
The risk, which to be clear is still minimal, ends with the jettisoning of Mariano and Diego. The rest are still stockpiled and tossed into the incubator. The prospect of seeing Achraf in La Liga for an entire season is mouth-watering. His pace is special. Real Madrid fans have fond memories of Roberto Carlos catching up to attackers who are yards in front of him before zipping past them and winning the ball back from a handicapped position. Guess what? Achraf has that. Raw as he may be, his pace is something we haven’t seen from a Real Madrid full-back in years.
There are murmurs of Real Madrid looking to latch onto the Odriozola hype-train. The Sociedad right-back is widely regarded as a Spanish heir to Dani Carvajal. If he arrives, that almost certainly makes more sense than rushing Achraf in to be Danilo’s replacement.
Fans have inquired about Febas’ situation. Some feel perplexed that he — though outplaying the likes of Valverde, Hakimi, and Enzo — is the one to miss out on playing in La Liga. Some things just don’t add up — nor do they need to. Enzo is gone. Where he plays now is outside Real Madrid’s control. Fede Valverde landed a great spot in a team that isn’t drowning in central midfielders. For Febas, a move to Zaragoza is fine. It’s still a level above Castilla, and not a relapse in his career. Vallejo dominated Segunda with Zaragoza — Febas will likely follow suit and catapult elsewhere in 2018.
These are long term moves — pawns that move early but ultimately result in victory. Marco Asensio was a pawn in 2014, as was Vallejo in 2015. Their fruits bear now. Febas and Hakimi are this year’s pawns. You will see their worth in the coming years, and in the meantime, we can say we had the chance to witness their rise first hand elsewhere, much like we did with Marcos and Jesus this season.
Stockpiling is a strenuous game. There are lines that need to be drawn, and even those lines remain blurry. A Dani Ceballos signing polarizes pockets of the fan base. Sign him, and you’ll have yet another young Spanish prodigy who’s ready to play at the highest level already — but figuring out what to do with him is another story. Signing him and loaning him back to Betis for a year, as discussed previously by David Cartlidge and I, is not beyond reason; but with Ceballos it’s extra slippery.
He has a chip on his shoulder — as he should. He took personal offense to Albert Celades’ decision to start Denis Suarez over him in the first game of the Euro U21 tournament. Ceballos responded by transforming the game when subbing in for Suarez against Macedonia — his presence binding the two-way efficiency and control of the team. In the coming games, he was unplayable, slipping through passes and penetrating defensive lines in a manner that no defensive scheme can adequately prepare for.
All of that is good. His talent and drive are unquestionable. You’d go to war with him in a high-stake affair and get a bonafide guarantee that he’d lay his soul on the pitch.
Kovacic and Ceballos could coexist together in midfield (few players on earth would have a pleasant experience trying to cope with those two dynamic box-to-box battalions while being supported by an anchor), but it’s hard to see that dyad being manifested due to the current roster construction — one that is heavily loaded in the middle. Kovacic and Ceballos could play together, but they’re more likely to fight for the same spot.
Yet, few are ready to sacrifice Mateo Kovacic for Ceballos, nor should they be expected to be. To fine-tune the future and lug both Ceballos and Kovacic into it, a sign-and-stash is necessary — but would the chip on Dani’s shoulder allow it? He could sign with Real Madrid and stay in Betis another year, but that might not be as enticing as getting first team football at either Atletico or Barcelona next season. Ceballos is a well-known Anti-Barcelona spewer. His pettiness towards them crosses the threshold of friendly banter — but Ernesto Valverde could offer him an immediate role there. Ceballos would be an instant upgrade over both Denis Suarez and Andre Gomes while easing the transition of the post-Iniesta era. Pettiness and hate tend to dissipate quickly in football when opportunities arise.
If Real Madrid can cajole Ceballos into signing and going back to Betis, they can buy time to see how the central midfield slots unravel — to see how Kovacic continues his development, how Modric ages, and where Isco’s place in the formation lies. Worst-case scenario, they end up selling Ceballos in an unlikely scenario and win anyway, given the absurdly cheap buyout clause he carries on his shoulders. That likely won’t happen, but the risk is minimal, while the benefits are infinite. You’re still flexible a year from now if the roster needs gutting.
But loaning Ceballos doesn’t magically free a spot for him two seasons from now. Kovacic burned through Barcelona and Atletico this season alongside Luka Modric in the absence of Casemiro and Kroos. He was phenomenal — winning the ball high up the pitch, and curating chances from the middle. Psst: He’s just 23. A year from now he’ll still be approaching his prime, while Kroos will be bathing in his, and Modric has yet to age. Isco is Isco. Blueprints don’t care much for what position you classify him in — he’ll directly fight for four positions on the field, and heavy minutes at the CM slot will be part of his job description. Isco leaped — he’s earned a long term gig.
Real Madrid can still cross that bridge when they get there, fully knowing football unfolds against your assumptions all the time. Twist Ceballos into a sign-and-loan, and you’re still not risking anything financially — you’re investing in a player whose value will soar in 2018. At worst, you control where he goes — making sure it’s neither Barcelona or Atletico. If you sign him, you control his immediate fate. Don’t sign him, and there is little doubt he joins Barcelona or Atletico directly, giving them an immediate and future asset to boast their midfield with. A Saul-Koke-Ceballos midfield would straight up compete with anyone; as would a Busquets-Ceballos-Veratti/Rakitic/Iniesta troika.
If Florentino can lock up both Ceballos and Odriozola, Real Madrid is in a laughably good spot with little parity around La Liga to combat it. They’ve already mopped up the biggest young assets in Spain. Ceballos and Odriozola are two that remain. Ceballos, Llorente, Asensio, and Vallejo (along with Saul), formed the nucleus of Spain’s U-21 team. Odriozola was Bellerin’s understudy, which brings no shame — but the gap between the two Spanish right-backs has narrowed.
Add Kylian Mbappe to the mix, and you might unveil a black-hole that sucks in the entire universe. The pace and flair of the team would peak to uncharted levels. The average age of the current roster is 27 — it is projected to plunge fiercely in the next season or two. This is a rich man’s RB Leipzig. It’s a collection of the hungriest and most talented young gunslingers on earth.
There is a case to be made that La Liga will drop off next season because of the stockpiling from top-down. Alaves have been gutted and absorbed into the league’s best team. Ceballos will join a top-three team. Roque Mesa is going to get paid in England, and Vitolo will kill time in Gran Canaria before joining Atletico in January. Iborra leaves Sevilla too. But these are good signs. Parity is ideal, but the amount of players graduating from smaller-market teams show that the league is breeding talent like clockwork. The league is deep, even if concentrated. More money gets trickled down. Scouting evolves. Sevilla were fleshed to its barebones last season — they bounced back tremendously.
Real Madrid have no moral obligation to deviate from their plans to pursue parity. They are a business — a colossal brand the transcends football. They do whatever it is they need to do to maintain their global image of having the best players in the world. In the past year, they’ve taken this idea to a different level — with no real cap in sight. They’re also faced with the reality of the Premier League’s cash-flow muscle. The allure of coming to Real Madrid can’t just be money, because plenty of teams have it. The allure is Real Madrid themselves. Florentino Perez deserves credit for this, as does Zinedine Zidane.
Competition is fierce, and it’s not just external. Having a deep squad comes with a price. James freakin’ Rodriguez watched the Champions League final in the stands in a suit. Lucas Vazquez — the man who chilled his blood in the penalty shootout of the Champions League final in 2016 — did the same. Juggling a locker-room with this amount of talent takes charisma and a clear vision. Along the way, players will fall off the wagon. It’s the ones who persevere that become elite. Those are the pieces you build around.
The dominoes are falling either way. Buckle up, because your seasonal ‘what is happening with x player?’ quota is about to be filled.