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.
Throughout Real Madrid’s history, silly season is an event that perpetually spins 365 days of the year, only to ramp up in June, July, and August where the transfer activity hits its apex of chaos. Since 2018, we’ve focused mostly on departures, goodbyes, and tributes; with rare signings scattered throughout.
This summer could prove to be the same. We’ve already sifted through departures of Zinedine Zidane (2.0) and Sergio Ramos. The pantheon of figures responsible for flipping Europe on its head through a dynastic reign are one-by-one soaring out of the Bernabeu and putting a close to an unforgettable chapter.
The exodus will likely continue. Carlo Ancelotti wants to trim down the squad, for better or worse. Some are critical of that initiative, but it’s necessary. The roster is not abundant with superstars, but it’s heavy on players who won’t see the field, and may drag the team’s morale with their lack of playing time and rumblings. Superfluous players could also turn a penny and shed the team of salary — a welcome sight. Six players last season, not including the youth team players and players who were sent out on loan mid-way through the campaign, played less than 1000 minutes total. One of those players, Isco, had no major injuries (he missed just two games due to injury) to report. It’s hard to see his situation improving with Martin Odegaard returning to the club.
Knowing Ancelotti’s love for creative midfield cogs, he may field Odegaard and Isco together through stretches, but he’ll also have the task of juggling a long list of central midfielders and attackers to wing Karim Benzema up top. Ancelotti’s rotations are typically tight to begin with. It would be unlikely if at least two players in that depth chart weren’t ejected out of Madrid by August.
Buyers will emerge, even amid this less-than-ideal financial landscape. Privately-owned clubs are still spending money, others will go into further debt. Real Madrid’s biggest issue will be losing stars at less than market value. In hindsight, selling players like Gareth Bale, Isco, and Marcelo in the summer of 2018 would’ve been a better financial decision than holding on to them and losing them for practically nothing now or next summer. Alas, it’s hard to foresee everything.
Here’s a primer on everyone and everything as we gear up for some fireworks.
- Kylian Mbappe is the most prized asset available. His situation at PSG hasn’t improved, and multiple reputable sources have reported that Mbappe is ready to sign for Real Madrid. Though him expressing that desire to his parent club only goes so far when he’s under contract. Even if PSG agreed to let him go, the financial gymnastics involved in signing the French star are numerous, and would likely be contingent on player sales and player swaps to lower the value.
PSG are the type of club that would risk losing Mbappe for free, but doing so — even if they care little about the financial dent it would cost them — could prove to be an unforgivable sporting decision. Dealing him now is their only chance of extracting leverage. Could they pull Vinicius Jr or Raphael Varane into the deal? A young asset like Vinicius, or one of the best center-backs in the world in Varane, would give them something to build with moving forward. But the Parisians are in a tough spot if Mbappe is only interested in going to Real Madrid. They can’t drag other buyers into a bidding war.
(Bringing Varane into the mix now makes less sense after signing Sergio Ramos. But if PSG can swing it, they can push Marquinhos into midfield, and bank on Ramos missing time due to injuries and suspension, while having the security once Ramos moves on in two years.)
Real Madrid also have to be careful not to overextend themselves trying to capture Mbappe, a player they could potentially have for free next summer. Not waiting on Eden Hazard proved to be costly. Delaying the inevitable one extra year might be tough to sell to fans, but it could be worth it. But they’d risk a 180 mindset change from Mbappe. I wouldn’t bank on it, but I wouldn’t guarantee the fruition of any assumption. A lot can happen in one year.
From PSG’s point of view, there’s a perspective few, if any, talk about: Losing Mbappe for free next summer would be worth it if the Frenchman helps them lift the Champions League. Isn’t that the whole point of this game? To win it all? Most clubs would scoff at the idea of letting someone like Mbappe walk, but that one year of winning Europe’s biggest haul, especially to a financially-backed giant, would be worth it. They may even talk themselves into the idea of using this year to coax Mbappe in staying, relying on the calculus that all their new signings will lift the team, and Mbappe, to new heights.
If I had to guess, this one drags out until next summer, when Mbappe will walk to Real Madrid for free (minus signing and agent fees).
- I don’t think Erling Haaland is attainable this summer given Borussia Dortmund’s asking price. But Haaland has also reportedly reached a verbal agreement with the club, which helps move things along for 2022. We can bring forward the discussion to next June, where we entertain a timeline where Real Madrid sign Haaland and Mbappe in the same window (Haaland when the club has a stronger cash flow; Mbappe for free) so that we can witness the combustion of Managing Madrid.
- Raphael Varane is in a similar situation to Mbappe (respectful of his contract, but ready to walk at the end of the season), but his decision is not irreversible, per source. The club can offer him a higher salary on a renewal by the end of the season; but Varane feels he should’ve gotten that sooner, and it’s not all down to money. There is a sense that he feels undervalued by the club. As I’ve written about multiple times in the past, Alaba walking in and getting the salary Varane feels he deserved years ago has not sat well.
- There is an above 50% chance Jesus Vallejo will be part of the Real Madrid squad next season. That number increases if Varane doesn’t return, as I don’t see the club using money earned from the Frenchman’s potential transfer towards buying a new defender like Pau Torres and Jules Konude, even if those two will be on the preliminary transfer radar. It breaks down to Florentino Perez wanting to stack back up on superstars like Mbappe and Haaland. They’re the priority. Kounde and Torres are floor raisers; Mbappe and Haaland are ceiling raisers. Real Madrid has always gravitated towards the latter players, even if both sets are important.
Vallejo is not that exciting. He’s been on the verge of average to unplayable with Granada. In the past, his issues, particularly at Eintracht Frankfurt, were that he was a good defender who was riddled with injuries. But he’s been relatively healthy for two years now, but hasn’t been able to find his form consistently nor find a place as a lockdown starter at both Wolves and Granada.
Some team would take a chance on Vallejo, but Real Madrid don’t see much value in selling him now given the thinning of the defensive line. Vallejo returns for free, and the club are hoping to unearth the dormant talent that hasn’t surfaced since his loan stint in the Bundesliga. Vallejo is already 24, and by all accounts, he’s driven to succeed. Off the pitch, he’s been nothing but professional, and he’s a good locker-room guy to have around. If he can morph into anything close to what Nacho has become, Vallejo would be a wild success given his current state.
Vallejo skipped vacation this summer, and is already returning to the Real Madrid squad. A full pre-season working with Carlo Ancelotti will give both him a chance to gain confidence and for Carlo to see what’s left of him up close.
I don’t imagine Vallejo will be relied upon much, even if Varane leaves. He’d hover between 4th and 5th choice behind Eder Militao, David Alaba, Nacho, and maybe even one of the Castilla defenders (Mario Gila, Pablo Ramon, Victor Chust).
- Martin Odegaard is back. Monday morning he took his medical, and he is among the early returnees to the Real Madrid squad. Some of the names who returned Monday won’t be here next season. Martin will. He is exactly the type of player Carlo Ancelotti loves: Dynamic, press-resistant, a good presser, elite vision, technically gifted, and can float in and out of multiple positions in midfield and attack.
That leaves Isco’s place in limbo. Isco, a key cog in Ancelotti’s scheme once upon a time, is in a different place now, and his career has spiralled ever since Julen Lopetegui left the club. There’s a part of me that would be intrigued to see Isco and Odegaard together. Both are experts moving between the lines and helping the team progress the ball. Both can dribble and do unpredictable things — vital traits to break down low blocks. James and Isco co-existed synergistically in 2015 in such way.
But things are different now. There is more competition, and Isco has lost some bounce. In 2015, Isco’s main threat was an often injured Gareth Bale. A spot opened in midfield also that season when Xabi Alonso left the club and Toni Kroos had to be shifted deeper. Now Casemiro (a player prototypically that Ancelotti hasn’t relied on in his coaching career, which is intriguing in itself) takes up the anchor role, which leaves Kroos, Modric, Valverde, and Odegaard (and possibly Antonio Blanco) for those positions. Maybe Ancelotti will find room for Isco by sacrificing a winger — something tough to see with the amount of wingers that the club has.
The club will try to move Isco, but their challenge will be facing a cold market. Selling Isco two years ago would’ve been like milking a cash cow. Now it’s hard to see any big team taking him on. A quick glance around Europe, and the best teams could either take a gamble on Isco, or just stay clear entirely and rely on more nimble young players. There are plenty of talented world class midfielders and wingers in Europe right now. Isco’s profile is not as enticing for those teams as it once was.
That’s why a club like AC Milan makes sense. They’re in that tier of clubs just below the elite levels that could find some room for someone like Isco, especially with Hakan Çalhanoğlu moving to Inter. Stefano Pioli often plays in a 4-2-3-1, with the three advanced midfielders playing across all positions over the course of the season. Isco could thrive as the 10 or the left-winger in that scheme.
Still, Real Madrid will have to accept selling Isco at less than market value. They might begrudgingly welcome that if it helps trim the roster, shed some salary, and get them incrementally closer to a tighter rotation and a big star down the road.
Milan is a good fit, but they can also look at other options like Philipe Coutinho (heavily discounted by Barca), James Rodriguez (ironic), Dusan Tadic, or Marcel Sabitzer.
There is no scenario where Real Madrid go into next season with every midfielder that’s currently in the squad. Isco is one of the players that will be deemed expendable. But if no team puts in a good offer, Ancelotti will have to make it work. That’s what he’s always been good at: Getting a squad he didn’t ask for, never complaining, and finding a way to re-tool the system around what he has. If I had to guess, the club will make an extra push to sell Isco before the deadline, and get something — anything — for a player they’ll lose for free next summer if he’s deemed superfluous to the club’s plans.
- Speaking of Milan, they will likely get at least one more year of Brahim Diaz, who fits all three of the attacking midfield slots in Pioli’s scheme like a glove. Brahim is currently in Valdebebas with Ancelotti and the rest of the team, but according to reputable reports in Italy, he’ll go back on loan to Milan, where the Italians will have an option to buy him for around €25 at the end of next season; while Real Madrid have a buy-back for around €30m.
Brahim is good enough to be a Real Madrid player now, but his situation is complicated with the amount of clutter that the club has in his position. One more year at Milan buys some time for the club to move on from Gareth Bale’s contract.
- Here we are again, one month removed from Gareth Bale finally finding a home outside of Real Madrid, the Welshman is back. We spoke about this at length last year: Not much changes from summer 2020 to summer 2021. That rang true for multiple players under contract. It was always going to be hard to gut the roster as currently constructed, in the current climate, and with the plummeting value of the players the club is trying to offload.
Bale had a good season at Tottenham, and had a good Euro 2020 showing. Will that be enough to entice Spurs to take on all or some of his salary for the 2021 - 2022 season? Bale said publicly, at the end of the season, that he’s already made his decision but yet to announce it officially. I think that leans towards a Real Madrid return, but have no sources or reports on that — just a hunch.
Bale was second in the Premier League last season in goals / shot (.29). He was great against Turkey at the Euros playing in a deeper role where he could sling through balls from midfield. Call me skeptical. A lot of his goals last season came against teams that were defensive black holes, and once a team like Italy came around to take his space away at the Euros, he vanished. He’s not as cold-blooded as he once was, is frail under pressure, and needs ample time and space to thrive. He won’t have the same kind of efficiency next season.
- Borja Mayoral has one more loan stint at AS Roma left, and only by the end of next season, according to reports in Italy, will the Italians decide to pick up their option to buy (that is if they do at all). Had Paulo Fonseca stayed at Roma for the upcoming season, they would have likely exercised their option to buy the Spanish striker this summer, but the club do want to see how new manager Jose Mourinho evaluates him this season before committing.
There’s a good chance that if Zinedine Zidane stayed as Real Madrid coach, the club would have already recalled Mayoral (though Mayoral himself may have vetoed the idea in order to play more in Roma). Now Ancelotti will see what he has in Luka Jovic, who’s already joined the camp, and though has drawn criticisms for his fitness levels this week, has looked good in training.
Jovic is better than Mariano Diaz, but also has more value. I’d be floored if both strikers are Real Madrid players next season. Holding on to Jovic for at least one more season seems the most pragmatic route. He’s too good to be sold for the value you’d get for him now, and assuming Ancelotti will give Benzema slightly less playing time than Zidane did (by default, especially considering Benzema will now be travelling during international breaks), Jovic should get plenty of opportunities to boost his value.
As an aside, look out for the outside shot that Ancelotti deploys Bale as Benzema’s back-up up top, or Marco Asensio / Rodrygo Goes in a false nine role.
- Barring a dramatic turn of events, the club has already moved on from the idea of exercising their buy-back on Sergio Reguilon. (That dramatic turn of events would be that Reguilon turns into Alphonso Davies next season, and Miguel Gutierrez spontaneously combusts.)
- I don’t buy the report that Ferland Mendy has already asked for a salary raise, one year into his Real Madrid career, especially given the COVID-19 circumstances. Separate from that, I’m less sure if Ancelotti values him the same way Zidane did. My bold prediction, that I hope I’m wrong about which I mentioned on the Tuesday podcast: Marcelo will eat into Mendy’s minutes more this season than he did last season.
- Dani Ceballos is another one of the expendable midfielders the club will look to trim off the roster. It was reported in Spain two weeks ago that Real Madrid are looking to fetch 30m for him. Good luck. I understand their public position in starting high with leverage talks, but I’d expect that number to fall to somewhere around the 15m mark, and I’d wager he either goes back to the Premier League, or gets picked up by someone like Real Betis or AC Milan.
Ceballos should find a home. The market is not burning for him, but it’s there. There are plenty of smaller Premier League clubs who’d take him on.
Ceballos also has two years left on his contract, which will add a few more dollar bills to his value. He’s still a good player, and the totality of his two-year loan spell at Arsenal was fine, despite rough patches. (The main rough patch, which impacts his value, was the second half of last season.)
I still think a really fun electric player exists in there. The way Mikel Arteta deployed him in a double-pivot, and often as the deepest player, turned him into a passenger on offense. Ceballos’s best asset is his vision in the final third. In a better scheme, he’ll return to being an important player for a good team.
- Takefusa Kubo’s last 12 months have been a buzzkill to his hype train. His relationship with Villarreal deteriorated, and his name and affiliation with Real Madrid meant he also became a burden on Unai Emery. That seems silly, but it’s real. Kubo is a massive brand in Japan which has only gotten bigger since Real Madrid signed him. Emery was questioned every time he didn’t play Kubo, and Kubo’s agent started to make rumblings. The two parties, club and player, separated mid-season. It would’ve been interesting to see how things would’ve unfolded if everyone kept patient and rode it out. Would Kubo have improved the way Samu Chukweze did? Would he have learned to pick up his defensive assignments? Would he have had a role in the Europa League final? Given how his Getafe stint went, there’s room to think the Villarreal stretch could’ve been better if Kubo kept fighting for a spot in the team the way he did at Mallorca.
Getafe was a weird destination. They were below average this season, but also had players good enough in Kubo’s position to disqualify him guaranteed minutes. They play a defensive scheme, so any minutes Kubo was going to get, would’ve been heavy in defensive duties and limited in space. Still, that’s not something to complain about. Players go through multiple schemes and playing styles throughout their careers, and will have to adapt. Nothing is handed.
There isn’t much indication of where Kubo will end up next season. This summer, he’ll be with the Japanese Olympic team. Beyond that, I’m not sure. He may return to the pre-season squad until the club sorts out a (hopefully more successful) loan spell.
- I don’t make decisions at Real Madrid, contrary to popular belief, despite the paycheques I receive from Florentino Perez. But if I did, I’d send Andriy Lunin back out on loan. I mean, what really is the back-up goalkeeper position at Real Madrid? It’s a ghost with a name. He will never see the field. Unless you’re lucky enough as a player (Diego Lopez, Keylor Navas) to coincide with post-peak Iker Casillas who was extremely droppable, you’re better off getting minutes somewhere else. Lunin will probably stay, play once in the Copa del Rey, be less than stellar, and unfairly judged by the fanbase.
- Reinier Jesus has played 253 minutes since leaving Real Madrid on a loan spell to Borussia Dortmund. He’s another one I have no real gauge on. We need to see him more, and the priority will be to find him a destination that can offer him a bigger role next season.
- Sergio Arribas is the best player I’ve seen come out of Castilla for a long time. He already has defensive awareness, and provides two-way oxygen on the wings. He’s a line-breaker with vision and passing ability. He also plays in the position that’s hardest to succeed at Real Madrid given how much the club has spent historically to sign superstars in the attacking slots. On one hand, I want to see what he can do in La Liga on loan to a mid-table club. On the other hand, this awesome generation of Castilla players, if you can hold them together for one more year, might finally get them to Segunda, and if they stick around under Raul, are just a stone’s throw away from a call-up if needed.