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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.
For years, Luka Modric has harped on the idea of Mateo Kovacic being his heir. He took Mateo under his wing when Real Madrid signed him from Inter Milan in 2015, and has been a key mentor throughout the entire process. The two initially met when Modric was 21 and Kovacic was 13. Modric mentored Kovacic even then, giving him advice based on his experience at Dinamo Zagreb — the club Kovacic also went through in the fledgling stages of his career — and years later did the same when the two crossed paths in Madrid.
“Having the support of a player like Luka Modric is really important for me,” Kovacic said back in 2015. “He has been here for two or three years now and I’m sure that he’ll be able to teach me a lot. I hope that we can play together for many years.”
Kovacic being Modric’s heir sounds ideal, in theory. The club could give him the keys when Modric gets phased out, build around a team-engine-room of Kroos and Kovacic, and dance into the sunset while grooming Dani Ceballos and Fede Valverde as the next scions. How ideal! Let’s just zip up any external noise into a vault, ignore player emotions and demands, lock up the safe of fake problems, and throw every possible negative thing into a wormhole so that we don’t have to worry about anything ever again.
But these things are complex. Keeping players is convoluted into different directions. You’ll be able to swoon certain role players for a year or two as they play limited minutes whilst knowing they can be key cogs elsewhere — but let enough time pass, and you’ll start hearing noise. Depth comes and goes. Choices arrive. Crossroads are plenty. If Florentino woke up everyday picking who stays and goes without worry about the human emotion on the other end, we’d be living in a computer simulation — a scenario where nothing matters, everything is easy, running the biggest club in the world can be done with the press of a few buttons, and life as we know it would be meaningless and effortless.
Now Mateo Kovacic will be wearing a Chelsea shirt this weekend during the birth of the 2018 - 2019 Premier League season. He’ll be doing it as, technically, a Real Madrid player — and a hurried loan spell to London was about as much as you can salvage from another tricky situation in and already knotty summer.
Sending Kovacic on loan is a win, given the scary alternative of losing him — and along with him, losing one of the best young central midfielders in the game. Now the risk is small: One year under Maurizio Sarri’s wing in London, a temporarily decluttered midfield in Madrid, and a huge uptick in the playing time (and in turn, the development) of Dani Ceballos in a scheme that suits him.
Now you have one year to sort it out, and that’s where you’ll meet another crossroad. Bar a catastrophe, Kovacic under a tactical wiz like Sarri, playing alongside elite midfielders in N’Golo Kante and Jorginho, will be a success. If it is, Real Madrid will want Kovacic to return. (This not a revelation.) Kovacic may be courted into a different direction. And besides, what is it that Real Madrid can offer him in one year time? Playing time, likely. The question is, at whose expense?
It’s impossible to say how this will pan out definitely. Kovacic is far and away the better midfielder between him and Cesc Fabregas. He’ll improve Chelsea’s midfield and get significant minutes as he wants. En route, he can help the team get back to Champions League football, and will be playing alongside (and against) elite players under an elite coach. If the cards play out as hoped, he’ll return as an improved player, and that’s exactly what you want from a loan spell.
Alternatively, and less likely, Kovacic is a bust at Chelsea. He has an unthinkable regression, and Real Madrid bring him back anyway without pressure to feed him minutes. They continue holding on to the ageless Modric, and continue to pump Ceballos into the team. In this scenario, Real Madrid still wouldn’t let Kovacic go for nothing. They hold his contract until 2023 once he returns from London, and would still have to start picking and choosing who they’d want to build around — Kovacic or not.
To think this is a cake walk next summer is silly. If Modric is retained, the same issues of over-depth linger. There will never be another Luka Modric, and there has never been one like him. He is impossible to replicate just as Cristiano Ronaldo is. The club have been trying to come up with a Modric succession plan for years. They are prepared — as much as you possibly can be after losing a unicorn like him — and have kept their options abundant.
If Kovacic lights the Premier League on fire, it would be impossible not to prioritize keeping him happy. You almost give him what he wants. If Modric has to be parted with at the age of 33 — de facto, he’ll be 34 to start the 2019 - 2020 season — then that’s a move you make in order to keep the human flame that is Mateo Kovacic. That’s a decision you’d be pressed into making based on age alone. And, if simultaneously, Ceballos takes a leap under Lopetegui this season and makes himself impossible to divorce with, you’re going to have to pick your poison. And guess what? When you say goodbye to Modric, it’s not inconceivable that three-to-four years from now, Dani Ceballos is the one who wants to start over Kroos and Kovacic. There is nothing wrong with any of this — it’s just the perpetual cycle of crossroads and eternal decisions to keep players happy and achieve the very difficult task of sustained winning while trying to juggle continuity.
As much as fans will hate to hear it, this season will be a trial of how the team can survive without Modric. Julen Lopetegui will give the Croatian ample rest. How will Isco, Ceballos, and Federico Valverde (if he doesn’t go out on loan) tread water when Modric sits? How confident will the team be to part ways with Luka next summer? Isco is one of the best midfielders in the world. He will play as a central prong plenty. As great as Modric is, there isn’t a team on earth better equipped to succeed him. Some pockets of the fanbase feel it would be beyond illogical to let Modric walk. The club may see it differently a year from now.
The worst-case scenario — losing any one of these brainiacs — is not that scary. When you aim to replace a player like Luka Modric, an effort to stockpile will have its consequences. Who succeeds Luka? Let’s hope one of these central midfielders take the mantle. Going this route means you fully accept not being able to retain one or two of them. There is more than one player who could fulfill this role now. Whoever gets ‘cut’ will simply be cashed-in on. Again, this is worst-case. The alternative — having no one to replace Modric — has been avoided.
Kovacic is in the unfortunate situation of playing the first half of his career behind two of the greats in his two respective teams — Kroos and Modric at Real Madrid, and Ivan Rakitic and Modric in the Croatian national team. If one year as a starter at Chelsea buys time to launch him as a starter in Madrid in ‘19-20, then Florentino and Jose Angel Sanchez have navigated the situation sensibly while keeping Mateo happy.
There is something to be said about the remaining depth that still lingers even amid Kovacic’s departure — one that casts him far away enough from the Bernabeu that he can’t haunt the club the way Alvarto Morata, Fernando Morientes, or even James Rodriguez have done in the past. Lopetegui’s options are still ridiculous. After the status-quo Modric-Kroos dyad, he can hedge Isco back into midfield, reel Asensio into a deep role, play Casemiro in a double pivot the way Zidane successfully did in Paris, unleash Ceballos into regaining his form from two seasons ago as a ball-dominant two-way spike, and even bring Fede Valverde into the mix by giving him Copa games or allowing him important minutes as a rotation-filler when the midfield dilutes due to injury and suspension. Heck, the club could lose Modric and Kovacic both and still roll out a Kroos-Isco duo — better than most midfield tandems on earth. If there was ever a year to send Kovacic out on loan, this is it.
For Chelsea and Real Madrid, this has been a busy hour. In amicable ways, they swap players. Chelsea does Real Madrid a favour for one year while boasting a sexy midfield trio that Madridistas have to tune in to. Going the other way permanently is Thibaut Courtois — a signing less heralded but all kinds of useful.
Courtois leaves Chelsea fans on bitter terms. He forced his way out, played the victim card of being held away from his family in Madrid who were waiting for him, sulked around as he waited for Florentino to airlift him out of London, and ultimately was left mocked by Atletico fans for dreaming of Real Madrid when he was hurling insults at Madridistas when he was younger. None of this matters. Time heals wounds. We live in an era where players start new chapters regularly and clubs flip players in whatever manner supports their business.
The consolation for losing Courtois if you’re a Chelsea fan is obtaining Kepa Arrizabala, which, if you can get past his world-record transfer fee (for a goalkeeper), you’ve instantly obtained one of the most promising young goalkeepers you possibly can — nearly half-funded by the Courtois sale. Chelsea could’ve had Kepa for a quarter of the price back in the winter transfer window, but to their defense, they weren’t banking on having to lose Courtois the way they did.
Real Madrid could’ve had Kepa for cheap in the winter too — but the consolation for them is that they get Courtois for only about 15m more — a reasonable up-sell in today’s market. They avoid splashing too heavy on a goalkeeper close to a record-fee or more only to marginally upgrade Keylor Navas, if at all. Unless you’re acquiring a top-four goalkeeper, you’re not getting an enhanced version of Keylor who is in the second tier of elite goalkeepers. Splash a high fee for someone in the Alisson mould, and you’re only marginally upgrading Keylor (again, if at all) at an astronomical cost. Courtois is in the sweet spot. He’s reasonably-priced given his contract situation — he could’ve walked for free, if Chelsea didn’t sell him for something — and still young and good enough to be among the world’s best.
And Real Madrid acquire Courtois without having to lose Keylor at all. Some fans couldn’t get why Real Madrid signed Courtois and not channeled their energies to other positional needs. But the club doesn’t sit and fiddle their thumbs — not all targets are attainable. When you can sign a goalkeeper of Courtois’s quality at the price Real Madrid signed him for — you jump. You’ve instantly put yourself into a position where there is zero drop-off if you have to go into a do-or-die Champions League match without your starting goalkeeper. The drop-off from Navas to Kiko Casilla, is, umm, infinitely more dramatic.
It’s not inconceivable Courtois sparks Keylor into another gear, and vice-versa. Both will fight. There is almost zero downside to this deal, with the worst-case scenario being Keylor outperforms Courtois and the Belgian reacts negatively. But to spin it that way is clutching unnecessarily. Going two-deep at this position is something Real Madrid eventually needed to do. Five years ago, during Iker Casillas’s slump, Diego Lopez rose in the Champions League and put in a heroic performance at Old Trafford to salvage Real’s European title hopes. The safety net is worth it.
Courtois’s acquisition, which provides a long-term benefit in addition to the immediate jolt, has fascinating plots to analyze and track. He had a poor season by his standards, making uncharacteristic mistakes throughout. (Uncharacteristic mistakes were something that even the most elite goalkeepers in the world were stained with over the past year, to be sure.) But he had a great World Cup, and thinking he can get back to his best is well within reach.
You can trust Lopetegui to make it work, one way or another, but one thing to keep in mind is Thibaut’s comfort in a juego-de-posicion scheme. Keylor has looked great in pre-season distributing the ball and allowing the team an escape route facing a high press. Courtois’s comfort-level drops when he’s asked to play with his feet. Gerard Pique has vocally expressed frustration in the past with De Gea not hedging off his line to pass the ball alongside his central defenders. How Lopetegui manages this will be interesting.
Things are shifting in Real Madrid amid a new era. There is something fascinating about the unknown that lies ahead.