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A Detailed Look At Real Madrid’s Potential Reinforcements For Next Season

Kiyan Sobhani writes about the potential tactical fits for: Achraf, Mbappe, Haaland, Camavinga, Ceballos, and Reguilon.

Borussia Dortmund v Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by PressFocus/MB Media/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.

Real Madrid have an incredible pool of talented loanees on the books. These players have stiff competition that serve as barriers to their return. Where do they stand? How would Mbappe, Haaland, and Camavinga fit? Below is a breakdown:

Achraf Hakimi

Achraf’s second season at Dortmund has been a strange one to cover. He’s shown flashes of his mile-high ceiling offensively while becoming a defensive sieve that teams exploit over and over again. Lucien Favre has mostly played him as a right winger, just ahead of Lucasz Piszczek in a 3-4-3. He is rarely in position to cover the weak side, jogs in transition defensively, and even when he’s there, opposing wingers can tower over him for a header at the far post.

Favre posting Achraf on the right wing, in a higher position combining with Thorgan Hazard and Jadon Sancho, is a way of masking his defensive deficiencies. But when you’re playing as the team’s full-back like Pisczcek does, having Achraf as a safety net doesn’t give you much confidence defensively.

It doesn’t add up. Achraf is too quick in transition to not be better than he is at covering the flanks. You can see the mental gears turning in his brain at times. He sees the run being made behind him — he’s staring right at him — and has time to get there, and just chooses not to. Under Zinedine Zidane, he was better defensively than he was offensively. (Under Zidane, you could see his offensive potential, but he didn’t have the confidence to take his marker on and put a proper cross in like he did at Castilla. On the flip-side, his defensive IQ was good, and he’d sprint back when needed. All of that is encouraging — his defense is probably going to improve in the future if he comes back to Real Madrid.)

Offensively, Achraf has been a juggernaut. His assist numbers (10 in total, fourth in the league) are probably skewed, as his xA ranks low and he doesn’t sling many key passes or rank high in crosses completed. His teammates have taken the chances he’s set up. Most of Achraf’s damage will come from crosses. Only one player in the Champions League this season — Kostas Tsimikas — has put in more crosses into the penalty box this season.

But his overloads both as a full-back and a winger are devastating. He’s turned into a goalscoring threat from his position. He can either arrive at the tail-end of crosses, or cut in and shoot with either foot. His arrivals into the final third are hard to defend.

Achraf is 21. His rawness still shows offensively (though not as much as it shows defensively). No one in the Bundesliga has his passes intercepted as much as Achraf (40 in total). He lags behind in progressive passes as a result. His dribbling, movement, and crosses break lines — his vertical passing does not.

But some of those numbers are skewed. Part of the problem with passing accuracy is that your position will dictate it. Achraf gets his passes picked off, but he also attempts a lot of direct passes. The ones he pulls off are conducive to the team’s attacking flow. The ones he doesn’t have purpose:

Achraf has had a good enough two years at Dortmund that doors have opened up for him. He can stay there and call it home for years to come. If Zidane brings him back to Real Madrid, Achraf has no guarantee he’ll have the same individual success.

But even Zidane may not be able to make a strong enough pitch to the Moroccan. He is not going to tell Achraf he’s coming back to be a starter. The message will be clear: Come back, become an important rotational player, be patient, and the future is eventually yours (provided you step up). That scenario could be taken either way for a young kid who just wants to play. Carvajal dipped since the 2016 - 2017 season; but he rounded back into form this season, and is in his peak window. That’s a tough place for both Real Madrid and Achraf to be in.

Kylian Mbappe

Mbappe has no concerns of playing time as any other player in this list would have. He walks right in and is a perfect fit in multiple ways: He’s versatile, can play anywhere in the front three, and Zidane loves his forwards linking up with the midfielders without sacrificing their surgical ability to make runs off the shoulder of the defensive line in a counter attack. Mbappe can play as a roaming striker, or on the right as a non-traditional winger who can constantly cut inside into the half-space and use his wingback as an outlet or decoy while the defense back-pedals. He’ll score buckets of goals from either position. That last point alone makes him an urgent signing if (and when) he’s attainable.

There is a certain aura of inevitability that Kylian Mbappe is a Real Madrid player who is merely on loan at Paris. He flirts with Zidane and Real Madrid in almost the same manner that Eden Hazard did before joining. Most recently, in February, Mbappe recalled a story about getting a surprise visit from Zidane when he was 14. Zidane, Real Madrid’s sporting director at the time, asked to see Kylian and drive him to training:

“Zidane met us in the parking lot by his car, and it was a really nice car, of course. We said hello, and then he offered to drive me over to the field for training. He was pointing at the front seat, like, ‘Go on, get in.’”

“But I just froze and I asked, ‘Should I take off my shoes?’

“Hahaha! I don’t know why I said that. But it was Zizou’s car!

“He thought that was really funny. He said, ‘Of course not, come on, get in.’

“He drove me to the training pitch, and I was just thinking to myself, I am in Zizou’s car. I am Kylian from Bondy. This is not real. I must still be sleeping on the airplane.

“Sometimes, even when you are really living something, it feels like a dream.”

Mbappe has had his ups and downs with PSG management. He loves Zidane. Yet, it’s naive to think anything is sealed. PSG will not make it easy. Their sporting director, Leonardo, has publicly frowned at Zidane for talking openly about his French striker. He will aggressively try to ink Mbappe to a new deal, and if he can’t, he will hold on to him until the last possible second.

Don’t be so sure that PSG will sell him as his contract runs out. They will likely survive FFP regulations if they don’t cash in on him. If they win the Champions League in Mbappe’s final year before he walks for free — that in itself is worth more than the price they’ll get for him. Isn’t the reason ‘we’ sign these players to lift trophies? PSG are not a feeder club.

One thing to think about: If Mbappe and Achraf play on the right together, that’s not a ton of defensive coverage. Mbappe is not an aggressive presser by nature, and his defensive pressure numbers are virtually zero. He will probably make more sense with Carvajal if he plays on the right — or Casemiro and Valverde will have a lot of ground to cover.

Martin Odegaard

Martin Odegaard generates chances in the final third for a living. His expected assists, 5.4, are second in the league only to Lionel Messi’s freakish 10+. Odegaard has generated the third most key passes in La Liga (45), the third most passes into the final third (66), and the fifth most progressive passes (220). He is one of the best players in Spain. You have to make room for someone like that, right?

Something in the roster will have to budge in order for that to happen. Even if Real Madrid don’t sign another midfielder, Fede has emerged as an indispensable cog to Zidane’s scheme. If Luka Modric stays another year, Odegaard’s return is less likely.

Real Madrid have had key veterans for every position a loanee patiently resides in. They have bought time with two-year spells for Achraf, Odegaard, and Reguilon. But even after two years, little has opened up. Marcelo, Modric, and Carvajal are still around. Is the club ready to part ways with at least two of those in order to salvage a future cornerstone? One possible solution: Just extend the loan spells for another year. That could go either way. Kovacic, one of the best midfielders in the Premier League this season, got tired of waiting.

Modric’s contract expires in 2021. Can Real Madrid resist the urge to sign another star (Pogba) in midfield until then? If they can’t, they may have to extend this to a seven-year loan.

Eduardo Camavinga

Eduardo Camavinga has been playing professional football for a grand total of (nearly) two seasons. He played just seven times as a 16-year-old in his first season in the Rennes A-team — becoming the youngest player to ever suit up for the club. A year later, he’s churned himself into one of the most promising midfielders of not only his country, but the entire continent, full stop. He is good. He is linked with big clubs, including Real Madrid, for good reason.

Camavinga’s second season at the top flight has been a revelation. He has made himself an indispensable cog in the team’s build-up — dropping deep between central defenders to open space and drag hopeful pressers before evading them and breaking their line. He is press-resistant, moves into good outlet positions for his defenders, and can dribble out of a tight spot to find open players in transition. He is a good distributor — with still room to improve his passing.

Some have concerns over his ability to actually be Casemiro’s back-up. Some of that hysteria was fuelled by Alvaro Benito’s comments in AS, where Benito stated that Camavinga is not a defensive a specialist, nor does he have the positional understanding of a defensive midfielder. Benito argued that Real Madrid play with too many players ahead of the ball, and require someone at that anchor position who can provide more balance to the midfield.

There is some truth to that. Camavinga is an attack-minded player. He reads the game like a central midfielder. Only six players in Ligue 1 were dribbled past more this season, and playing in Real Madrid only magnifies your defensive deficiencies. But there is also a harshness to that critique. Camavinga leads the league in tackles attempted, winning 58 of his 98 duels. 39 of those tackles came in his own defensive third. He is disciplined and covers ground. And again: He is 17. Casemiro didn’t become truly positionally disciplined until this season. Growing pains will be there.

Camavinga’s biggest obstacle is one that virtually every young player who arrives at Real Madrid faces: heavy competition. The anchor role at Real Madrid is not deep, but it is cemented with one Casemiro, who will rarely take a breather. Zidane often opts to change the scheme into a double pivot when Casemiro can’t play, rather than replacing the Brazilian with a like-minded player. (Ironically, that might just suite Camavinga.) People expecting Camavinga to slot in next season as the team’s de facto back-up defensive midfielder will have to re-think their expectations. This could even be a sign-and-loan scenario if it happens. That may have to happen anyway if Rennes qualify for the Champions League.

Sergio Reguilon

Sergio Reguilon has already surpassed his playing time from last season, and has put the uptick in his minutes to good use. He is probably Spain’s most in-form left-back (although both Marc Cucurella and Jose Gaya both have a case).

The marriage with Sevilla this season has been great for his development. Julen Lopetegui uses his full-backs like no one else in Spain. (Jesus Navas, Sevilla’s right-back, has the highest usage of anyone in the country. He leads the league in: attempted passes, passes into the penalty box, crosses into the penalty box, and touches.)

Reguilon doesn’t funnel as much possession as Navas does, but he’s still instrumental to so much of Sevilla’s two-way play. He plays as the team’s left-back, and pops up in nearly every position in the final third — making relentless underlaps, overlaps, and sometimes even popping up centrally to shoot outside the box. He gets back into position quickly when needed.

Only three full-backs in La Liga (Cucurella, Carvajal, Navas), sling more key passes than Reguilon, who has improved offensively this season under Lopetegui.

“I have much to thank the boss for. Not only now, but for my whole life,” Reguilon said back in January.

“He gave me confidence last season, but especially this season, he’s giving me the confidence to demonstrate what I can do.

Reguilon has the same conundrum as Odegaard. They are both waiting for Modric and Marcelo to move on from the club respectively. Will something budge? Mendy is not going anywhere — nor should he. A Reguilon / Mendy tandem on the left side sounds juicy — but both Zidane and Reguilon would have to come to terms with such a role. If Real Madrid don’t see the urgent value in him, someone will.

Erling Haaland

Haaland continues to be a freak of nature, with no clear signs of morphing back from an offensive hulk to a mere human. He has nine goals in the Bundesliga in eight appearances from an xG of 4.8. He’s been lethal. The case for him to slow down involves some naivety that things will normalize and regress to the mean. He has nine goals from 19 shots — a slightly cooler figure from his previous eight from 12.

Haaland is this year’s Luka Jovic. (He is better than last year’s Jovic, but the parallel lies in how efficient Jovic was scoring in the Bundesliga and Europa League. Haaland is doing it at higher level, and was doing it in the Champions League before Dortmund bounced.) But at what cost would Haaland arrive? Would Haaland even accept? He chose Dortmund because he knew he’d get playing time. He has been pragmatic with his development, and likely wouldn’t accept a reserve role. In order for him to arrive, Jovic would likely have to leave, or be loaned out. It would be crazy to give up on Jovic this early. Young players have shown they can eventually work their way into Zidane’s plans — and Jovic was a Zidane signing.

Haaland is not a Zidane-type striker. (In clearer terms, he is not Karim Benzema.) Jovic has suffered this year with regards to finding minutes because he’s too traditional a striker. Haaland is not like Benzema. He is constantly the highest player up the pitch, and when Dortmund defend, he spearheads a 4-5-1 block. He will go large stretches of the game uninvolved before he pops up to score. Benzema constantly looks to connect the dots. What Haaland lacks in link-up play he makes up for it by, you know — scoring.

Zidane could try to pair Haaland and Benzema together, and let Haaland’s elite off-ball movement feed off of Benzema’s playmaking ability — but then one of the many creative players in Real Madrid’s roster would be sacrificed. It would be hard to see this move materialize until one of Benzema or Jovic leave.

(I would be surprised if Haaland is a Real Madrid player soon, but did want to make a point about how great he’s been.)

Dani Ceballos

It’s been a rollercoaster of a loan-spell at Arsenal for Ceballos. His energy off the bench early this season was contagious. When Emery would bring him off the bench early fall, The Emirates would receive a jolt of energy. His touches were eye-candy. He’d eel his way out of tight spaces and provide frenetic shots from outside the box. He tailed off, got injured, and never really got his bounce back. Fans groaned with his, at times, superfluous dribbling.

Since Mikel Arteta took over at Arsenal, Ceballos eventually found his way back into the team and rediscovered his verve. Arteta channels everything through the Spanish midfielder. Per 90, Ceballos is the target of passes 65.6 times — the most of any player on the team. The only player who has more touches per 90 on the team is Callum Chambers.

Arteta has Ceballos playing as a defensive midfielder — albeit in mostly a double-pivot. This is a low-key development happening over in London: Ceballos is deployed as the team’s anchor. He drops in between center backs, is the chief distributor, and is ultra press-resistant. One caveat: Teams in the Premier League have yet to consistently press him and put him to the sword. Ceballos has done well in that role, but we’re still waiting for a large sample size where teams will put more pressure on him. His defensive coverage is not great — although he works hard to press and hound.

“I saw Zidane in Valdebebas a few months ago when I was recovering from my injury and he told me that he watched my games with Arsenal,” Ceballos said last week.

“I have a good relationship with him and he always told me that we are similar players in the sense that I need to play very often in order to be in good condition. He always told me that my future is in Real Madrid and that I needed to be patient because I will likely have a chance,”

The kind of patience that Zidane preached to Ceballos may not be something that appeals to a player who could have more minutes elsewhere.

(Two fringe players who did not make the list: Andriy Lunin and Jesus Vallejo. Lunin’s future could lie as the team’s back-up goalkeeper next season. He has been bombarded with shots in Segunda as Real Oviedo are a black hole defensively. Lunin has generally dealt well, bar a few errors. Vallejo has a long way to go to get back to his Frankfurt level.)

Geremi, on UCL celebrations

When asked about celebration stories after the UCL final win over Valencia in Paris, former Real Madrid player Geremi tells Kiyan Sobhani "what happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room" Full episode:

Posted by Managing Madrid on Tuesday, April 28, 2020

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