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Signing a backup striker was not that easy for Real Madrid

New column: on the quest for a back-up striker, and why it’s complicated.

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Real Madrid v Valencia - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

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.

Real Madrid and Kylian Mbappe flirted with each other for five years before the two parties turned around and started walking the other way — defying half-a-decade of augurs and fate.

Mbappe should do whatever he feels is conducive to his career. Too many were quick to jump on his character — labelling him a greedy kid who didn’t appreciate what Zidane was building. Players shouldn’t be chastised for this. They’re in their right to ask for things — money, playing time, experience, and anything else you’d want to go your way in any profession. Fair game to him, his father (let’s be real, we often condone young players for things that are clearly being pushed by their families — and also in cases like this, their agents), and fair game to Florentino too.

Both Monaco and Kylian’s camp weren’t shy about what it would take to pry the ‘Giannis of football’ away; it just became too complicated for Florentino to delve into, and ultimately, what seemed like a complicated decision to make, broke down into a simplified ‘no’.

Mbappe was a world record transfer in a non-Neymar world. There are, somehow, many reasons to argue that a world record fee for an 18-year-old kid with a small sample size is worth taking a gamble on: 1) He played at an elite level in that short time frame, terrorizing world-class opponents on the biggest stage in Europe; 2) Possessed some mechanics on the eye test that reminded us of peak Thierry Henry; and 3) This market doesn’t really make sense, and rolling the dice on a future superstar that’s needed to cement your contention for titles in a world of ever-increasing ‘super teams’ would further separate you from your rivals.

But Real Madrid were not that desperate, and you can almost hear the counters ring-around for every single one of those points made. Florentino is a master of finances — he’s in his right to turn down a deal where finances can be allocated more wisely. He is not the trigger-happy president he once was, and beyond financial reasons, he takes into consideration the serenity of the squad when bringing in a teenager who’d make almost as much as kingpin Cristiano Ronaldo, and a ton more than a player who is currently better than him — Marco Asensio. Player salaries should be set in a vacuum, but it’s not always that easy. Numbers drum around the locker-room, and dominoes would have already been in motion as soon as Mbappe got on a theoretical plane to Madrid.

We saw caveats of a potential Mbappe signing earlier this summer. I didn’t believe bringing him this season was ideal, and would’ve rather seen him replace Benzema next season; but that if I had to chose between ‘now or never’ — I would’ve chosen ‘now’.

But it would have still been a shoehorn — a crammed log-jam that had only just been relieved with the sales of Mariano, Morata, and James. You’d be banking on a negotiated-patience with Kylian, and a bet for the future.

Bringing in a back-up striker is not that simple; and keeping Mariano or Morata was equally convoluted. What few realize is that Morata and Mariano weren’t ready to stick around. Both were luxuries last season, both performing at a high level while killing time in a temporary situation. Morata’s return in 2016 was almost perfect -- the team looked paralyzed whenever Benzema was injured or suspended the season prior as there were no replacements for him. Isco and James were tried as a false nine — but in the limited minutes they spent there, neither looked comfortable. Morata’s arrival solved that problem. It allowed Zidane to play his scheme without having to shuffle things drastically. It allowed for continuity and rhythm in his blueprint.

Keeping Morata was not just a matter of deciding not to sell him. Ditto Mariano, who, was better than most people knew — he just didn’t have enough time to showcase it. He should shine in Ligue 1 — a competition he’s built for, and may even return in a couple seasons. But even asking him to be Morata’s replacement as a second-choice striker was complicated. That still wasn’t enticing enough for Mariano, who just wanted to play and bag loads of goals. With Morata, it was essentially a ‘Benzema or me’ scenario; and although fans will bark for the board to choose Morata nine times out of 10, there are more knots in a decision like that than appear on the seemingly clear-cut surface.

Ronaldo is the alpha-male, and he’s transitioning into a role that makes extra strikers on the bench superfluous rather than conducive to building a balanced squad. Benzema is not a nine, he’s an interchangeable piece among the front three. When Ronaldo plays, Benzema is a creator. The starting striker for Real Madrid is Ronaldo — not Benzema. And guess what? Ronaldo has a say of who he partners with in attack. He’s a huge fan of the Frenchman and loves playing with him. It’s a similar appreciation that he shows for Andre Silva in the national team. Ronaldo feeds off of selfless forwards detached from their goal tally. He does not feed off of pure strikers.

Problems arise when Ronaldo isn’t in the line-up and Benzema is asked to score goals. In the Supercopa, and against Valencia, Asensio stepped up and scored freak-goals despite his balls dragging on the turf. Against Valencia, those super-sized gonads weren’t enough to carry the team to three points. Benzema missed three-to-six clear-cut chances, while Bale is still coming to grips with realizing he should be an alpha male himself.

What happened against Valencia could be chalked-up as an anomaly. In most cases, Real Madrid won’t be so unlucky, and neither will Benzema. Ronaldo sat nine games in La Liga last season, and Real Madrid didn’t miss a beat, winning all nine games and scoring 31 goals in the process. That, is closer to reality than what we saw against Marcelinho’s revamped Valencia side — one that defended valiantly but ultimately conceded enough chances to sweat out a draw.

Moments where Ronaldo and Benzema are both out of the team sheet are too few and too far in between to entice players like Morata and Mariano to stay; and that extends to the players Real Madrid were linked to bring in. Playing time issues would exist with almost any striker good enough to play for Real Madrid. In the last 24 hours, there were whispers about Harry Kane — a striker far too good for the role Real Madrid are asking to fill. Borja Mayoral is one of the few who’d conform. His confidence was shot in Wolfsburg after a disastrous loan spell the club regrets. Zidane will hope to re-build his mojo in Copa games and sporadic league appearances.

Mbappe was one of the few names that would’ve enticed Real Madrid to bite — versatile, young, marketable, and superstar-like potential. Like Benzema; Mbappe could drift to the flank and switch across multiple positions on the field, allowing Zidane to let Ronaldo spearhead the attack and gorge on being a clinical gunslinger. It could work. It would give Zidane an interesting problem to juggle. But the financial structure of the deal, one that Florentino rightfully turned down, is just one of the hurdles.

Leap past the financial snag, and you’ll hit a new obstacle — Mount Asensio, impeding new signings with his pure dominance on the pitch. Two months ago, the club knew what they had in Asensio, but fast forward to present-day, and now they know even more — that Asensio is not just a promising player, he’s a fucking Avenger.

The emergence of Asensio has dissipated the urgency of Mbappe. At some point, the club knew they’d have to put a cap on the stockpiling of young stars, and Mbappe’s demands, coupled with Asensio’s humility, drive, and ascent; was enough to draw the line and allocate the eggs in the right basket. Asensio was signed in 2014 for less than €4m. Real Madrid didn’t know it at the time, but they had signed a top-three young star of world football alongside the (now) infinitely more expensive Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele.

Real Madrid will eventually need to sign an assassin in front of goal, but that bridge will get crossed down the road, when Ronaldo has either taken a backseat, or left the club entirely. Until then, he will dictate the choice of his full-time wingman, and any forward the club will bring in will have to accept a Mayoral-esque role. This is, relatively, a newer problem, to be sure — one that didn’t exist as much before with Ronaldo playing a deeper role. But as Zidane’s scheme calls for his striker to be an energy conserver, Ronaldo will play higher and higher up the pitch; requiring better ball carriers behind him, making the influx of capable players at that position -- Asensio, Ceballos, Isco. Kovacic — timely and quintessential.

Fans have spent so much energy debating Real Madrid’s starting XI while Zidane has continued to blitz the continent. Those blips against Valencia are minor glitches in the grand scheme of things — glitches that existed a season ago too. The trophy count remained un-phased among the anomalies.

Zidane is right to remain calm and ignore extraneous noise from fans and media. He’s stuck to his guns, and has proved doubters wrong all of last season. The heat aimed down his neck waxed the hottest in last season’s last-second-Clasico-loss at the Bernabeu. Fans were furious with his gung-ho gamble, and prior to that, his wonky rotations. Both of those approaches have been foundations of his quest to colonize Europe. The nutty offensive scheme that aims to slam a foot down on the opponent’s throat has worked. Teams just can’t tread water without drowning as the offensive waves crash against them.

The question of ‘this player vs that player’ has yet to require an answer from Zidane this season given the missing pieces — not in attack anyway (there are always questions deeper down the squad, with Marcos Llorente and Dani Ceballos, both of whom are starters in almost every single team in La Liga), and not for at least another three league games given Ronaldo’s suspension. But that question will arise at some point, and Zidane will have to decide who it is that’s sacrificed in a do-or-die melee with a full squad. With Ronaldo’s evolution, Benzema should still be the one to get a demotion to an off-the-bench role. Real Madrid have proven they can steamroll elite teams with Ronaldo up front and a packed, imperious midfield behind him capable of controlling tempo while staying compact defensively and plugging the passing lanes.

All of this culminates into the key ‘issue’ (if it even is one): Signing a back-up striker is not simple, because the back-up striker is Karim Benzema, and the leftover minutes are too scant for either club or prospect to nibble on.

Kane, Aubamayeng, Morata, and whoever else rolls off your tongue — all these players need to mesh with the scheme, the equilibrium, the alpha-males, and the general vision of the team. Zidane has earned the right to build it on his own terms, without trigger-happy, assertive assessments interfering.

It’s still unknown just how much the BBC era will last; but it’s not inconceivable that it doesn’t stick even beyond September, with Asensio being the undroppable, unplayable bandit that he’s been. This season may be used as a measuring stick for Bale and Benzema, and one of them may be jettisoned next season. But there are just too many dark horses within the team right now to accurately predict what will happen next summer.

How will Bale bounce back this season? How will Benzema perform off the bench if everyone is available? Does Isco ultimately end up competing with Asensio more than he competes with Bale? All these questions need answers to. Benzema becomes a much more movable piece if Ronaldo is the starting striker. Cristiano is not as dependant on Benzema in such a scheme (as if he’s dependant on anyone, in truth, given who he is) that has him as the lone-spur with creators behind him.

But sell Benzema in 2018, and you’re stuck in the same situation as you’re in now — you need a back-up striker content with being Ronaldo’s understudy, while playing as a nourishing shadow when starting alongside him in lieu of Big Benz.

Real Madrid’s shortlist of strikers to bring in this summer was short and limited to one name — and even then, it was a fuzzy move that required some financial and rotational juggling. It was doable, but ultimately, the headache outweighed the gamble. The bat-signal for a back-up striker is not as answerable as fans think.

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