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The Dangers of Stockpiling

Could the house of cards come tumbling down?

Real Madrid Unveil Their New Third Kit for the 2018/19 Season Photo by Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images

I can never put my finger on the exact period that Real Madrid as a club chose to undergo a colossal shift from being serial Galactico consumers to enduring youth development investors. An easy assumption would be when adding a base of Castilla youth graduates to the squad transformed a crop of established stars from occasional victors to mass trophy collectors. Since the increase in homegrown squad places formed a perfect balance between expertise and youth, Real Madrid proceeded to win fourteen trophies in the past six seasons. When put into context, that’s as much as the club managed to win over the previous fourteen years, basically the entire ‘Galactico era’, in the less then half the time. After relishing the success, club president Florentio Pérez observed this change, and altered the clubs priorities. Now, every summer; players earn direct promotion from the reserve side, buy-back clauses are activated, loanees return to the squad, and even mangers hired often originate from Castilla. La Fabrica has become one of the biggest top level production lines in world football, much to the resentment of sporting dinosaurs that had become accustomed to the ‘Real Madrid destroys talent’ stereotype. The majority of Real Madrid’s first team signings are now young prospects from around the world, with costs ranging from bargains to substantial fees. The plan seemed completely full proof not long ago. However, having already constructed the best talent pool in the world, the club are showing no signs of stopping. Now, after every unveiling of a new fresh prodigy, my feelings of excitement are marred with scepticism and increasing befuddlement. Could hosting too many young players create a dangerous precedent?

Real Madrid Pre-Season Training Camp Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

I have been contemplating writing this piece for some time now, but continuously postponed it after reassuring myself that the project of each player could still successfully coincide with one another. However, the signing of Alberto Soro last month really raised a red flag, and triggered me to finally get the keyboard working. For those that may not know, twenty year old attacking midfielder Alberto Soro arrived at Madrid from Real Zaragoza in July. At one point the fee was rumoured to be up to €8,000,000, but the total cost was around €2,500,000. The club chose to allow him to return to Zaragoza in LaLiga123 rather than join up with Castilla for the 2019/20 season. I don’t think it would be a particularly bold statement to predictively suggest that Alberto Soro will never put the Real Madrid jersey on as a player. Aleix Febas, an academy graduate loaned out to Albacete last year, made the LaLiga123 2018/19 team of the season, and was one of the best players in that entire division. Although he is now plying his trade in La Liga for Mallorca, he was no way near Real Madrid’s plans this summer. Realistically, there is nothing Soro is going to be able to do this coming season in the second division to turn Real Madrid’s head, making the fact that Real Madrid chose to sign him simply because he was a young highly rated Spaniard bewildering to me. This was the first signing that made me truly think that a new player coming in has next to no chance of catching any opportunities with the club.

Takefusa Kubo is another very relevant case. The eighteen year old senior international for Japan has undeniable excellence, but when Madrid unexpectedly beat Barcelona to his signature, the main narrative being pushed from around the club implied that this was a valuable business deal that could potentially unlock the Japanese market above all else. He cost the club no money in transfer obligations, but did take a reported wage of €1,000,000 per year. Even that figure could be considered typical for such talents. Of course, his performances for the first team during pre-season have quickly shifted this idea and have had many calling for his immediate promotion into the senior team. Whilst fans enjoy his indescribable talent and exciting performances, the main thought on people’s minds should really be: was he necessary? When does the relentless signings of young players become mere stockpiling? And what are the dangers of stockpiling?

In 2017 I ran an article introducing the Real Madrid under-23s XI. Two years later, even though many of the players in that original XI are now too old to meet the criteria, the club can almost field three separate starting line-ups full of top level talent. The picture below showcases some of the depth that Real Madrid possesses in young talent alone. It is made up of young players aged twenty-three and under either presently playing for the club, out on loan, or playing externally with a buy-back clause inserted into their contract. This chart does not take into account any future young signings, future academy graduates, or future surprising overachievers - and it excludes numerous other talented young players currently with the club or playing for another team with a buy-back clause active. Many of these players can also play in multiple positions within multiple systems. This can relieve some pressure in areas, but can also increase the competition in others.

Stockpiling players has the potential to create a domino effect of negativity. After every signing, specific developmental plans for each individual player become more indistinct. At Real Madrid, the decision making skills demonstrated by various higher ups at the club can often be questionable on a good day as it is. Having to deal with a plethora of young players has prompted some very poorly thought out expeditions. The loans of Borja Mayoral at Wolfsburg and Andriy Lunin with Leganés were a disaster, and further down the pecking order the decisions around players like the once sought after prodigy Mink Peeters have completely killed his relationship with, and aspirations for Real Madrid. Elsewhere Fede Valverde, Martin Ødegaard and Sergio Díaz amongst others have been sent to unsatisfactory destinations after rushed decisions. The few incompetent coaches that the club has allowed to damage the development of certain players is an entirely different article meant for another time. Football is not always so black and white, and it is not easy to find the optimal developmental haven for every young player. However, the time and attention that each player receives is disrupted when there are so many others to take care of. If many of this current crop of talent do not flourish, then that could disincline young players from trusting the process in the future. Empty promises go a long way, and the reputation that Real Madrid have worked so hard to build up would be rapidly dismantled.

Real Madrid v Legia Warsaw - UEFA Youth Champions League
Sergio Díaz. A name that if you haven’t forgotten, then you will soon.
Photo by Foto Olimpik/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It also has to be considered that relentlessly bringing in more and more young talents can lead to pre-existing players becoming disillusioned and demotivated. These days, it feels like Los Blancos are simply buying young players for the sake of it, just to show that they can. The promises that the club must relay to each player to provide added incentive to join the project must be pretty seducing. In reality though, it has gotten to a point where young players are arriving, hopeful to succeed but finding themselves competing with up to five players just as talented as them for a roster space that in many cases doesn’t even exist yet. This could cause obvious problems and make players unhappy with the club, their situation, and their decisions. Take Martin Ødegaard for example. At fifteen he was the biggest talent in world football, and Real Madrid signed him at the perfect time. The wheels were really starting to turn on their youth policy, and this signing was a massive statement and compliment to the project that the club was establishing. Although it was never expected that he would become a starter in the first team at sixteen years of age, and that Castilla was a perfect platform for him at the time - I highly doubt that when he joined he’d expect to earn just two opportunities in four years for all of his good work, and be loaned out to the Netherlands for over two years. Regardless of his top quality team of the season performances, he had probably been ready for the step up to La Liga since the age of around eighteen. As previously stated, it isn’t always possible to find a loan move in the desired league, but at the same time, the club even managed to find a La Liga move for Castilla reserve Álex Martín. I’m sure if they put the necessary effort into the procedure, they’d have been able to find a suitor for one of the best young players in the world.

Ajax v Vitesse - Dutch Eredivisie
An absolute star at Vitesse. But was Vitesse the right destination in the first place?
Photo by Soccrates/Getty Images

This is a peculiar and almost surreal stage in Real Madrid’s history. They are coming out of the back end of a highly successful period, and it seems that everything that can go wrong for them, is going wrong. The abominable performances from experienced seniors have created one surprising positive: openings for opportunities. Vinícius Júnior catapulted straight from Castilla to the first team and never looked back, being one of the teams stand out players over the course of the 2018/19 season. Whilst his brilliance was not up for dispute, uncertainty arose forcing many to query whether an eighteen year old rookie being one of the best players at one of the biggest clubs in the world was something to cheer about. There have been a lot of calls for the direct promotion of players like Rodrygo Goes and Takefusa Kubo, both eighteen. Whilst these competitors already possess serious quality, I could not see Real Madrid competing for major trophies with these players in the team regularly. Whilst I am a strong advocate for endless chances in the first team for the best young players at the club, promoting and handing them such monumental responsibility so prematurely would just create a weaker and inexperienced first team squad. A perfect balance of young academy graduates and established stars unlocked success for Real Madrid, but now at times it feels like they may have strayed too far one way.

Of course, there are some positives to stockpiling depending on where you stand with the topic. Many Real Madrid fans are infamously ruthless, and in their opinion recruiting young players is a matter of fractions. The more young players recruited; the higher chance that someone will reach their full potential and be a star for the team in the future. And they wouldn’t be wrong. In an attacking sense, if the club can’t rely on Martin Ødegaard then they have Vinícius Júnior. If Vinícius Júnior doesn’t work out then perhaps Rodrygo Goes will reach his potential. If not, then Takefusa Kubo might. And so on, and so forth. The problem that comes with this is a moral one. Should these extremely talented human beings be treated like numbers on a page? Should their future be jeopardised for the good of club? It also has to be asked that if they are to ultimately fail at the club, but still manage play to a high standard, are they better of than they would have been if they had not joined Real Madrid? A youth academies’ success is often measured in the form of top level players created, and there are few better than Real Madrid in this category. This summer Castilla alone have flogged five squad players to La Liga and Serie A, and they are not done yet. If a player joins Real Madrid hoping to thrive with them in La Liga, but they end up thriving in same the league on a different scale, is that really a bad thing? Alberto Soro may never play for the club, but if he has Real Madrid on his resume and that helps him to progress with his career then where is the wrong doing? If worse comes to worst for some of these players, then they are still more than likely to have successful careers.

One photo, four big talents. Not all of them will make it at Real Madrid.

The money side of football continues to expand way beyond measurable belief. Transfer fees are through the roof, and this could be a factor in Madrid’s modern approach. Florentino has become more reserved when it comes to spending big bucks, and the temptation of incomprehensible amounts of financial gain elsewhere has made the allure of Real Madrid far less effective. Turning to young players not only guarantee's that the club stay a step ahead of the competition for the foreseeable future, but it also means that the team can add some much needed quality for a minor fee. Many of the young signings come in at a low cost, bringing a low risk with them. It’s a win, win situation most of the time. Takefusa Kubo arrived for free, and offers Madrid two realistic sequence of events. He could either not make it at the club, but turn a very healthy profit - or Madrid could have a world class player on their hands. Fede Valverde, Martin Ødegaard and Marco Asensio were all purchased for fees below €5,000,000, with many of the academy kids progressing free of charge. Bargain.

The inflation of transfer fees has also effected young players, though - and Real Madrid have begun to spend some major cash on potential diamonds in the rubble. €40,000,000 and €45,000,000 for Vinícius and Rodrygo respectively was unheard of for players of their stature at the time, and €18,000,000 for the barely used Brahim Díaz mere months before the end of his contract at Manchester City just seemed reckless. Figures like these increase the risk significantly. Whilst it technically forces the club to give these players opportunities which could be considered a good thing, the pressure to succeed is enormous, and there is almost no room to fail. It also means that these players are going to jump the queue ahead of players that could actually be further along the developmental line, but did not cost as much. Money talks, and this could only produce more hostility. For Vinícius, it appears to have worked out nicely so far, but as implied before; could this be because he was fortunate enough to arrive at such an atrocious time for the club performance wise?

At one point in time, Real Madrid’s shiny new vision was considered genius, but more importantly flawless. The switch from buying every big marketable name available to investing in youth and developing quality players had, and still has the possibility of prolonging the clubs status at the top of world football. However, there is a fine line between investing in a quality young talent pool to replenish from in the future, and stockpiling young players for the sake of it. The club is now treading on that line, and care and consideration needs to be taken in order to not overstep the mark. I highly doubt that Madrid see their register as complete, and that more young players will come flooding in towards the near future. Whilst there are positives that come from employing large amounts of young players, the moral consequences appear to overrule any potential benefits. All it may take is a few missteps for the whole house of cards to come tumbling down.

What are your thoughts? Are Real Madrid over-recruiting? Or is stockpiling talents only a good thing? Let me know in the comments section below!

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