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.
Back in May, Achraf Hakimi’s agent said that the player will return to Real Madrid at the end of the season. It was easy for fans to interpret that in a way which reads ‘Achraf will be a Real Madrid player next season’. The more important interpretation is this: All players return to their parent club after the loan is concluded. What happens next is sometimes more obscure.
In that same moment, Alejandro Camaño — Achraf’s agent — said that there were no offers from Inter Milan. One month later, Borussia Dortmund’s director of football, Michael Zorc, said they are trying to lure Achraf (and Real Madrid) into a third loan spell. Fast forward two weeks, and Dortmund signed right-back Thomas Meunier from PSG — a likely replacement for Achraf. A day later, Zorc announced that the price for Achraf was too steep, and that the club has ‘given up’ (likely pointing to another club outmatching Achraf’s salary needs). On Friday, Fabrizio Romano reported that Achraf was close to signing a deal with Inter. Things move fast.
Now here’s what Achraf, as one of the best right backs in the world, has to grapple with: Stay at your homegrown club and be a rotational pawn, or go to another big club and thrive in a scheme that suits you as a starter. If Dortmund is taken out of the equation, Hakimi is left with Inter and Real Madrid. Antonio Conte can offer the Moroccan the right wingback role in a three-man backline that could mask his defensive deficiencies with better coverage — in a team that is in the fledgling stages of an exciting young project. Real Madrid can sell Achraf the ‘team with an exciting project’ part — but not the starting role.
Zidane wants Achraf to stay. Going against that is naive. Zidane even publicly stated in December that Achraf has a “great future” at Real Madrid. Zidane was also the one that gave him opportunities at the senior level in the 2017 - 2018 season. Achraf says he is like Zidane’s ‘son’. They have a close relationship with each other.
Wanting someone to stay and accept a role not up to par is different, though. Zidane has no reason to abandon Dani Carvajal now. (Some fans will point to a decline in Carvajal, but Dani is a superior defensive player, and his offensive decline is a bit underrated. He’s having a good season, had an incredible performance against Barcelona in March, and is entering his peak. He still slings the same amount of key passes per game — 1.5 — as his peak in 16/17.) Carvajal is 28. The conundrum doesn’t go away anytime soon. Had Dortmund extended Achraf’s loan spell again — what’s the next step? Even a four-year loan spell may not solve this particular puzzle. A sale and buy-back option, a la Carvajal to Leverkusen / Morata to Juventus route would be ideal. Romano’s report — €40m plus add-ons — doesn’t indicate a buy-back. Onda Cero reported one is included after two years.
A buy-back may not solve the issue in two years time either, but as always is the case with these things, ‘buying time’ is not a bad idea. Two years is a lot of time even though it isn’t. Things may not change in two years, but they might: Injuries, decline (to either Achraf or Carvajal), coaching changes, etc. A buy-back satisfies Achraf’s desire of playing a starting role where he’s happy, while leaving the door open for the future.
Buy-back or not, €40m from Inter’s perspective is a steal. It will be obviously an even bigger coup if there is no buy-back included. Inter get someone who fits like a glove, at a good price — even for COVID-discount standards. Inter, understandably, want to avoid Real Madrid having the option on that buy-back. Romano’s report indicated Achraf “forcefully requested” to leave. That gives Inter some leverage to strike a permanent deal with Real Madrid — one that closes the Real Madrid chapter for good.
It’s worth exploring that reported €40m more. Who are Inter competing against? There are a handful of teams big enough to offer Achraf an enticing salary and a starting role. Dortmund had the latter. Inter have both. Manchester City — one of the reported suitors — just don’t have the open spot in the starting XI. A lack of suitors can drive the asking price down. Fans often get too caught up comparing transfer prices of other players to measure transfers. Alvaro Odriozola going for 30 million doesn’t dictate what Achraf goes for. Joao Felix is a classic case that people love to cling to. Market value does not necessarily get dictated by such outliers. Real Madrid have often got good money for their departures in the past: Mateo Kovacic, $49.50m; Marcos Llorente, $33m; Raul de Tomas $22m; Alvaro Morata $72.6m; Danilo $33m; Jese $27.5m; Angel di Maria $82.5m. They are not in the business of being short-changed.
But let’s make one thing clear: Achraf is one of the best right-backs in the world. In a fantasy draft, he goes in the top-five (possibly top-three) for that right-back slot. He is just 21. His ceiling is that of an offensive supernova. Wing-backs are more and more becoming key components of every team’s offensive blueprint. Achraf is a huge asset. €40m without a buy-back for someone like him is a great deal, and it’s not unreasonable to feel Real Madrid could’ve held out for better. Again, ‘for better’ could mean nothing if there are no further landing spots. Bayern, another suitor, were reportedly dissuaded by Hakimi’s price and defensive deficiencies — one that didn’t justify moving Pavard to a CB role permanently. Bayern have seen those defensive flaws firsthand playing against Dortmund in big games both this season and last. Hakimi has been a liability in big games in the Champions League and Cup over the past two seasons. (He has also been unstoppable offensively in big games.)
Here’s more from Real Madrid’s perspective: Driving the price north of €40m may not make a significant difference in the grand scheme of things. They developed Achraf, had another team pay his salary for two years, and flipped him for a profit. They have one of the best right-backs in club history — Dani Carvajal — in the squad. This is not a club that holds players against their will. They move on from players quickly, and remain, eternally, the greatest club in the world. They will survive and continue to stockpile talent, keeping the great players they can, making money on the rest, and repeating the process. They can not realistically keep every player they develop.
This points to a deeper discussion: How many times will we be revisiting a situation like this? Kovacic and Llorente were the most recent examples. Soon more crossroads will come: Kubo, Odegaard, Reguilon (and more). The current crop of young talent coming up (all at once!) is the most exciting since Quinta del Buitre, and before that, the Ye-ye era. (Obviously that is a premature claim. Those two aforementioned generations won so many titles together.) But both of those cohorts came up at a time the club desperately needed them. They did not have great players still ‘in the way’ like this current generation does.
Achraf will likely succeed wherever he goes. One thing is clear: Players are not (necessarily) fans the way we are. It is a cute assumption you often see: “He should stay and fight for his place!”. Heck, I would ride the Real Madrid bench for decades. I am also not one of the best right-backs in the world. Players have ambitions and personal interests — even those that grew up in the club they love.
Losing Achraf is not fun. It has been a pleasure tracking him at Dortmund. Antonio Conte is in for a treat if this materializes.