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Making sense of the Varane departure and what it means for Mbappe

Kiyan Sobhani breaks down Real Madrid’s continuing exodus, and the ultimate plan for obtaining a superstar

Real Madrid v Paris Saint-Germain: Group A - UEFA Champions League Photo by Quality Sport Images/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.

Last week, another layer of paint was taken off the dynastic three-peat team. Raphael Varane, at the peak of his powers, left Real Madrid less than a month after the greatest defender in club history, Sergio Ramos, signed a contract with PSG. Real Madrid received €41m from Manchester United, with a further €8.2m in add-ons. Varane’s former club, Lens, will get a small cut. The two pillars of defense evaporate from the Bernabeu, and a transition period ensues.

Varane goes down as a top-seven all time Real Madrid center-back. Where you have him from four-to-seven will change based on several variables. He has been surfing a rough patch over the past year, but at 28, he’s still at his apex, and possibly has even more to give — with more levels to go to just like Ramos did with age and wisdom. But Varane’s legacy is only half of this over-arching story. In most cases when losing two absolute behemoths at the back, a replacement would be signed. I don’t think Real Madrid will go that route, which almost guarantees a turbulent transition phase for the club.

This felt preventable, and it was. Varane’s departure stems from dominoes further back. As discussed to death, Alaba being signed and immediately making more than what Varane had deserved for years, stung. Varane is the natural heir to Ramos — the type of defender you’d sign right away to replace the Spaniard if given the opportunity. He did not feel valued that way, per source. It may not have been as simple as choosing between Alaba or Varane, but allocating resources towards Alaba (a year older and worse defensively) over offering Varane what he wanted will be a tough pill to swallow.

But as always, these matters are more complex than how the media analyzes it. Real Madrid hoped to have both Alaba and Varane for the next five years. Step one was signing Alaba for free, and paying him an exuberant wage to lock him in. They could have offered Varane that too in 2022, when the salaries of Isco, Marcelo, and Gareth Bale come off the books. But leaving it until then meant they had no guarantee they’d still have Varane next summer, or that they could coax him to stay beyond that timeframe. Maybe for some clubs, taking that gamble would be worth it. In most cases like this, when the player has strong inclination to walk at the end of the contract, it’s better to flip the asset for value, even if not at an ideal number, rather than lose him for absolutely nothing later.

Now comes the aftermath, loaded with questions, two of which are most pertinent: 1) Does this get you one step closer to a superstar (Erling Haaland / Kylian Mbappe); and 2) What’s the cost-benefit analysis, long-term, of losing Varane?

If Real Madrid get Mbappe or Haaland this summer, the math of adding one of them — and Alaba — while losing both of your central defenders, it can be argued, is a net-positive. If healthy, the current backline (and that’s naively assuming everyone stays healthy) of Dani Carvajal - Eder Militao - David Alaba - Ferland Mendy allows you defensive solidity; while adding one of the aforementioned gunslingers (Mbappe / Haaland) gives you desperately needed offensive ammunition. That should add up, and is not that far from reality. The Varane sale gives Real Madrid close to 200m total to play with in August, and a sale of another player (and by all accounts, there are more departures ready for take-off), takes you north of that figure. Mbappe wants to leave PSG. There are enough stars aligning that gives this discussion some juice — and that’s not something we had back in June.

But that scenario is an optimistic outlook, still. Don’t bank on it — even with the large contingent of Spanish media reporting it. PSG are in charge, with enough leverage to crush hopes. It will take a colossal amount of money for them to part ways with their French star, even with just a year left on the contract. It’s unlikely Real Madrid will part with every cent of their transfer budget. PSG will hardball, not because they have to, but because they can.

But let’s not pretend that Real Madrid have no leverage here. They can bite their tongue, be patient, and say ‘look, no problem at all if you want that much money, but we’ll actually wait and sign him for free next summer because we’re sure of his verbal commitment to us. Enjoy him this season!’ To be clear, I don’t think PSG will budge much either, but there is another important element in this deal: The Parisians will care about future assets to replace their French stars, maybe even more than a straight cash swap. I would not be surprised to see Vinicius included in the deal. Vinicius is promising, but not untouchable, and certainly an asset worth divorcing with if it lands you Mbappe. PSG may value Vinicius + money over just cash if they’re considering letting Mbappe go this summer. From Real Madrid’s perspective, I’d be cautious going overboard for a star you could have for free one year down the road. But I get that they don’t want to entirely bank on that. We’ve seen enough players change their minds over time that you never know what could happen from now until next June. If PSG fly this season and Mbappe leads the flight, maybe that is enough for a 180-turn.

For Real Madrid, that scenario is enough incentive to strike now, even at a higher price. This has been an off-season of disappointment. Real Madrid are masters at distracting bad moments by following them up with more pleasing ones almost immediately after. Falling behind the rest of Europe from a talent perspective while fans continue to groan puts pressure on them, and the club’s frugality during the pandemic to turn in a relatively healthy financial report during a global crisis, in part, leads them to this juncture.

What Mbappe would bring is obvious. He is immediately a superstar you can build around to win titles. He raises the offensive ceiling three-fold. In Real Madrid’s history, every Champions League triumph has required a player of his ilk.

But that is only the beginning. Real Madrid have to build the team around Mbappe that PSG tried to build.

(Ironically, if he leaves now, it will be during the summer that the Parisians have their best chance at a European title after a terrific transfer window.)

None of this is easy. PSG, even with Neymar and Mbappe, have come up short over the years for a variety of reasons (injuries to Neymar at key moments, tactical shortcomings, midfield frailty). Real Madrid have been gutted since 2018. Mbappe would come to the Bernabeu on a promise that more talent will join him, another center-back eventually arrives, and certain players take a leap. Real Madrid will also be relying on Mbappe himself to keep leaping and improving, the same way Cristiano Ronaldo did. They would be signing, after all, someone for the next 5 - 10 years. La Liga’s general defensive structure, especially over the past two seasons, make it a more difficult league to score in. A projection of Mbappe coming to a more difficult league has to be matched by an increase in offensive output. If not, more talent around him to disperse the workload is vital.

Again, the future projection with several big players coming off the books in 2022, along with the projected revenue the new stadium renovations will bring gives a promising outlook. But none of that is going to happen overnight.

Baby steps. Those who dismiss the idea of signing Mbappe because La Liga is more difficult to score in and Mbappe ‘isn’t as good against low blocks’ miss the general idea: No one is better against low blocks than they are in transition. Mbappe improves your chances. He’s a good off-ball mover, line-breaker, and elite goalscorer. He is a step in the right direction.

Real Madrid v Paris Saint-Germain: Group A - UEFA Champions League Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Looking at this from a long-term viewpoint, Real Madrid could put their Mbappe money back in their pocket if they had one of two guarantees: 1) Haaland is available for a cheaper price; and / or 2) Mbappe will arrive for free next season. The second one has variables and risks, but it’s worth the calculus if you can get Haaland this summer. Mbappe is the more versatile player, but Haaland is probably the next best signing you could possibly make in football right now. He is a walking bucket of goals, meshes well with a roaming Benzema, and judging by his run with Dortmund in the Champions League last season, is an underrated ball-carrier. If you get only Mbappe now, or both by June 2022, it’s a no-brainer.

No matter how this summer unfolds (and by all accounts, Real Madrid will try to land Mbappe or Haaland, even if it ends in failure), the summer of 2022 will be the big one. Think of the fireworks: The official unveiling of the stadium, an exodus of old guards and salaries, and the return of superstars. That’s the show Florentino Perez will ultimately be looking forward to. That’s the year. That’s the hope.

This upcoming season will be a transition year. If neither star arrives, the club likely doesn’t spend any further money. That’s ultimately wise. The center-back market right now isn’t great (count me out on 70m+ for Jules Kounde or whatever Villarreal will be asking for Pau Torres. Both are good, both are shaky. Neither are sure-things for the price you’d be paying, nor are they a talent like Dayot Upamecano who is already out of the conversation). There aren’t attackers on the market that would be worth the upgrade either. The midfield is stacked.

If I had to put my money on where Real Madrid will be from a contention standpoint next season with no further signings (and assuming Martin Odegaard stays), I’d say they’re about the same as least season. I understand anyone who thinks this is a worse team, though. There are plenty of reasons of why that’s true, not least being that both Ramos and Varane are gone.

I think it balances out in some ways: Ancelotti will likely try to generate more offensive waves and higher quality shots by pressing higher up the pitch rather than relying on u-shaped possession in-and-out of the wings. By nature, he’ll allow more transition opportunities than Zidane did in the last two seasons, and Real Madrid will leak more goals. More goals scored, more conceded, more entertainment for neutrals.

Real Madrid are not favourites to win La Liga or Champions League, but that doesn’t mean they can’t nab either of them. Long story short: They probably fall somewhere similar to last season and I’d expect some painful matches along with some fun ones. If 2022 is the banger, Ancelotti should get some leash if there are no trophies this upcoming season. But patience is a hilarious concept here.

There is also the matter that Real Madrid will lose even more players before the season starts — something that aligns with both the vision of Ancelotti and the club. Ancelotti likes a tighter rotation, and the club wants to cash in on players that won’t be used.

I don’t see that as a net-negative, necessarily. Too much depth is not the ‘good problem’ it’s hyped up to be. There is an excess on the wings, and too many players who won’t hit the 1, 000 minute mark. I like the rhythm and synergy that a tighter rotation brings. Fringe players are still, obviously, important. But I’d be more concerned about it if Castilla weren’t as good as they are. I’d be intrigued to see Sergio Arribas or Antonio Blanco called up in a pickle. Being forced to bring them into the mix for the odd game here and there would be fine. I’d even wager those players are trusted to play more minutes now, and they would if there weren’t so many contracts in their way.

Real Madrid can get a really solid six-man rotation going for three attacking positions. Currently that number (not including Castilla players, the ones that will go back out on loan, and the hybrid players like Isco and Odegaard) stands at nine.

That has to be gutted. It will be gutted. It’s impossible to juggle otherwise.

In some ways, it’s easy to make it work once you have your six. Most of Real Madrid’s midfielders and attackers are malleable. Modric, Fede, Odegaard, and Isco can play across two-to-three positions. Benzema is a shape-shifter. Most of Real Madrid’s wingers can play on either flank, and a few of them even as a false 9. The ones that can give you more will be prioritized, but will also be of higher value to sell. Mariano, the least mobile of any of Real Madrid’s attackers, is the most expandable, but is also the least valuable (though there are plenty of mid-table La Liga clubs who’d love to have him). The Odegaard / Isco situations also fall in that category. Odegaard is better and fits a certain timeline, but also nets you far more in return.

Where it gets tricky for Real Madrid when narrowing it down, and this is part of the reason where there is good argument that this upcoming season has even lower expectations, is that two of those spots will be occupied by Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale. Believe in them at your own peril. For what it’s worth, I think Bale can provide valuable minutes, but don’t expect him to hit the same goal production he had last season, where a lot of his stats were padded against defensive black holes. He does, at the very least, provide an improved aerial threat.

This is the last year for Bale. In most contract years, the player in question raises his game knowing he needs to ink himself to a big deal. Bale may call it a career, or go overseas where he can fetch money regardless of what he does this season. Even if Ancelotti gives his best Any Given Sunday speech, Bale won’t be the same defensive beast he once was. He shies away from hard challenges and 50/50 balls. He is a good distributor when given time and space — but Real Madrid have plenty of players who can do that. That all points to Bale being used further up the pitch — possibly even as a striker — or coming off the bench.

It’s hard to see either him or Hazard pouring it in like it’s 2016. It’s hard to see anyone doing that, to be fair, outside of Benzema. Even if Vinicius makes a leap, it’s not going to carry the offense. My biggest bet is on Rodrygo, who had the best offensive metrics outside of Benzema on a per 90 basis. Give him more time and let him cook. There is a star there gradually making his mark. He will be a big winner once the roster gets trimmed.

Real Madrid lost a lot when Ramos walked, and even more when the sous-chef, Varane, ready to take his place, also got away. Think about how good and young Varane still is: He could give Manchester United seven or so years of titles. At that point, he may even become a bigger legend at Old Trafford than he was the Bernabeu. That’s hard to digest. He is a big loss. With what the club got in return, it’s vital they get it right now. The next 12 months are pivotal to how the next five years shape up.

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