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Nearly Three Months Later, the Brahim Diaz Signing is Still Puzzling

Brahim was signed mid-season, without a long-term manager or clear vision in place, and for a position Real Madrid are stacked in. Yet, he’s an exciting prospect — so what does the club do with him?

Real Madrid Unveil New Signing Brahim Diaz 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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.

Barely any time had passed after Real Madrid’s 0 - 2 loss at the Bernabeu to Real Sociedad on January 6th (their fourth consecutive underwhelming league performance) when Real Madrid unleashed a (rather tame) ‘Comunicado Oficial’ — announcing the signing of one young and unproven Brahim Diaz.

Real Madrid’s announcements are generally strategically disclosed. They do things to distract fans and media from embarrassing moments. This goes back. It’s nothing new. Certain Spanish media outlets are used as a siphon for the club to pour their desired image into. Those funnels are sometimes blurry. If you’re around long enough, you get desensitized to how it works.

It’s not the media’s fault. It’s not really anyone’s fault. The journalism world works in such a way that it pushes what people want: Drama. It can be difficult deciphering what is driven by clubs, agents, and players; what is fabricated; what is real. Sometimes it’s clear.

In 2009, Real Madrid were knocked out of the Champions League round-of-16 for the fifth consecutive season. It was arguably the worst of the knockouts — a 5 - 0 aggregate loss to Liverpool where the team looked lifeless and stripped of its pride and values. Barcelona won the treble, and beat Real 2 - 6 at the Bernabeu. The night Barcelona sealed their treble on one of the most historic moments in their history, Marca was already in the process of printing their front cover: a picture of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, and Karim Benzema (before all three were officially signed). There was to be no one celebrating Barcelona’s season (not that it mattered what Marca said). There’s always been a desire to divert attention.

The timing of Brahim Diaz’s signing, and it’s official announcement, wasn’t a fluke. There is almost nothing that can ‘buy you time’ with fans who thirst for a big signing when there hasn’t been one in years — amid a season that is akin to falling down a steep cliff — than announcing a promising young player from one of the best teams in the world.

It’s easy to boast about the Brahim signing now, after his first start for Real Madrid where the teenager played with a certain swagger with the ball at his feet, had a positive attacking attitude, zipped without the ball behind the lines, and cut back an assist to Isco. He’s clearly a talented player. But we may not have seen him again in a significant manner had Zidane not returned, and there are still big question marks around his signing. As I wrote in a mailbag last week, the position Brahim plays in is the one most stacked under the club’s books. And it’s not that there are a few players there (you can always talk yourself into more depth and young talent while worrying about the rest later); it’s that there are eight (nine if you include Isco as a left AMC, which is justifiable) players that are competing for two spots next season. All of them are good. At some point there has to be a reflection to come up with some kind of threshold that allows you to focus on grooming the current crop of young stars while focusing energy, money, and time on other positions.

Brahim’s signing remains puzzling nearly three months later. Fans will bring up the fact that the club could’ve just signed him for free at the end of the season, but there’s always more nuance to these things, and getting him for free is something that works in theory more than it does within the swing of transfer windows. If Zidane wanted Kepa last season, he could’ve waited until the offseason, in theory. Chelsea could’ve done the same. But once Kepa’s new, unexpected contract kicked in, big money was splashed. Brahim is a good player even if Real Madrid didn’t need him. Real wouldn’t have been the only club interested in signing him in the summer time for free. Nothing in the window is a guarantee.

Yet, it’s not entirely clear why Real Madrid needed Brahim at all; or why Brahim wanted to join Real Madrid under the conditions set out for him.

Diaz left in search of playing time — something he wasn’t going to get for Manchester City’s senior side. Pep Guardiola wanted to keep him, but understood the player’s desire to leave. “Hopefully other players won’t decide to move on,” Guardiola said after the transfer was made official. “I don’t want people who don’t want to stay here, to be with us and try to achieve what we want to achieve.

”If players want to stay, the door is always open for them.”

Diaz closed one door to open a new one, but it’s unclear why he felt he’d find a room at the Bernabeu that would rejuvenate him. Manchester City are as deep as anyone. Diaz didn’t want to get lost in the shuffle — but he arrived in Madrid and got lost anyway.

As Guardiola put it, Diaz could’ve waited it out to see where his own talent gets him within the squad.

“Players win opportunities on the field,” Guardiola said. “You have to take a look at all big clubs in Europe at how many young players there are in their first teams.

”Young players need time - David Silva for example, he went on loan to big clubs to become what he is right now.

”Some players have patience, some don’t. The players, their family, their agent; they decide what is best for them.”

Diaz was in a similar position that Manchester City teenager Jadon Sancho was in. Sancho had the same mindset — he had a desire to leave in order to play more. But Sancho went to a team that doesn’t have deep firepower in his position. Eventually he found a home at Dortmund and Pep couldn’t keep him — but if Diaz was serious about wanting to play more, he couldn’t have possibly looked at the Real Madrid roster (one that, at the time, was managed by Santiago Solari, and both Isco and Asensio had lost their place in already) and said to himself “Yep, that’s where I’m going to break through.

This could all be simplified. Sometimes we question the decision of a player that thinks with his heart. Manchester City didn’t want to lose Sancho or Diaz. Guardiola feels more City youth will follow their footsteps (and thus has been vocal about creating a ‘second league’ where players play at a high level — equivalent to something like the NBA G-League). Both youngsters could’ve bit their tongue and stayed. Brahim could’ve gone to a team that could actually really use his services. For him, while all the noise surrounding his transfer was about lack of playing time, everything could’ve been abridged like this: Diaz is a Real Madrid fan, and his idol is Isco.

Take that last sentence for what you will. It doesn’t mean much. There is a famous picture of Brahim Diaz as a ball boy in Malaga — he’s in the background as Isco and Santi Cazorla celebrate a goal. He’s later said his idol is Isco. There is also a video of him as a youngster where he says Barcelona are his favourite team and Lionel Messi is his idol. Either his heart was swooned during Malaga’s great run in 2012 - 2013; or he’s just like many footballers who can spread their love to different places, and wherever their career takes them. No judgement. Thibaut Courtois has a plaque outside the Wanda Metropolitano. This summer, he kissed the Real Madrid badge and proclaimed his childhood love for Iker Casillas.

“I had three options after deciding to leave Manchester City,” Diaz said at his Bernabeu presentation. “One, play at Real Madrid, two, play at Real Madrid and three, play at Real Madrid. It was impossible to go anywhere else.”

Still, even with the flirting from the player, it’s unclear why Real Madrid felt the need to bring in Brahim Diaz — a player who has zero experience at the top flight (bar a few minutes), and is behind Vinicius and Odegaard in terms of development. And there are more players in his position coming. The player exodus this summer will only make room for more signings.

Yet, you can always twist signings like this into a (very) positive light. Financially speaking, this is hardly a gamble. Brahim is a long-term project, just like Odegaard, Vinicius, and Rodrygo. The most likely outcome is that Diaz will be loaned for a year or two, after which he’s either brought back (at which point, if the club welcome him, it means it’s because he can help the team); or he’s flipped. The chances of his value decreasing over the next year or two are slim. From a developmental point of view, he shouldn’t get in the way of Odegaard and others (and vice versa), if he’s playing abroad.

It’s interesting to discuss what a ‘worst-case’ scenario actually looks like here: a bunch of talent, crazy-depth, and, in turn, disgruntled stars leaving. We already saw this unfold when James and Morata packed their bags for more playing time. And so what? Real Madrid won the double that season with their deep roster helping out in so many La Liga clashes. Isn’t that a price worth paying? Isn’t silverware worth the price of irritated stars? Doesn’t virtually every sports dynasty at some point fizzle because it’s nearly impossible to keep everyone happy, once players realize they could be the alpha on another team; or key bench players realize they could start elsewhere?

The list of great players Real Madrid have lost over the past few years (and we could take this back to 2009) that have gone on to succeed elsewhere is long. That’s mental baggage you take with you when you sign and lose stars — you’re not going to make the right deal every time, and even if you lose players like Ozil, Di Maria, and others, you can still lift silverware if your remaining pieces are at an elite level.

Restocking legends and replacing departing talent is really difficult, as Real Madrid learned the hard way this season. Getting it wrong, or picking the wrong players, is something that could hurt the team, and that’s ultimately where the worst-case scenario leads you to. It’s not just Brahim’s position Real Madrid have to choose talented players from. The Achraf Hakimi situation is just as dicey. Marcelo could opt to leave this summer. (Whether he stays or leaves is 50/50, and neither situation is inconceivable, from that I’ve heard. Zidane wants to keep him.) If he does, Achraf (the better choice between him and Theo Hernandez) still has another loan season at Dortmund to finish next campaign (unless Real renegotiate the terms of the deal), and if Zidane decides it’s just easier to bring Theo Hernandez back, that could haunt the club. As Matt Wiltse and I discussed on Tuesday’s loan-tracker podcast, a left-back tandem of Theo and Sergio Reguilon next season doesn’t sound very reassuring (although there is a unanimous trust with Reguilon).

Stockpiling this much talent may seem unnecessary. This is the club’s perspective: No longer can the team buy the most sure-fire superstars every season to pump the team into European domination. That era is behind them. It doesn’t mean Real won’t sign the best players in the world anymore, but there has to be a contingency plan — and that is to never miss out on a Neymar again. Vinicius’s price tag now seems like a drop in the bucket. There is an alternate reality where he becomes a complete bust (though, that seems unlikely now given his fast development, work ethic, character, defensive IQ, etc), but that’s why Real Madrid have Rodrygo, Odegaard, Brahim, and others. One of them, they hope, will be that superstar that they didn’t have to sign for a world record fee. You figure out what to do with the rest.

Real Betis Balompie v Real Madrid CF - La Liga
Brahim will likely go out on loan next season
Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

There was some sense of imperativeness within the Real Madrid camp that Brahim Diaz wasn’t going to be a guaranteed signing in free-agency. When a player like that becomes free, bidding wars over his salary start. Manchester City felt they wouldn’t be able to re-sign him and decided to sell, even for a modest fee. The urgency to sign him made him a Real Madrid player. If he walks in the summer, you may sign him, you may not.

Yet, you can’t help but shake the feeling that Brahim’s signing was made by a club without a clear sporting vision or identity.

Real Madrid went through three extremes in the span of a few months. Julen Lopetegui was vastly different from Santiago Solari. The only long-term managers in the modern era have been Jose Mourinho and Zinedine Zidane. Apart from those two stints, the club blew up its philosophy and started from scratch over and over again. When you don’t have a long-term manager (or a sporting director to tie it all together) having a say in the signings, squad depth, culture, etc — you risk signing players you won’t use or need. Maybe Brahim is lucky Zidane came along. There’s a chance he gets lost in the shuffle completely if Solari had remained. Even with Zidane, it’s unclear. People point to his decision of playing Isco, Marcelo, and Bale in two consecutive matches as premonitions of their future. That’s not entirely true. Zidane will deny it, but the rest of this season is about players in the squad showing the French manager they deserve to play (or not).

Diaz is just 19. It’s reasonable to be confused by his signing, but there’s no denying he has some exciting upside. His first start again Huesca was encouraging. He has some offensive tools and an exciting off-ball energy about him.

Now Real Madrid have a summer to sort his loan stint out, rather than focusing on signing him.

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