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Real Madrid Present Brazilian Vinicius Jr Photo by COOLMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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Winners and losers from the first half of the season

Time to reflect on some of the good and bad as we hit the half-way (ish) mark.

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.

Now that we’ve hit the half-way mark (more or less), here’s a reflection on winners and losers of the Real Madrid extended universe. I wanted to include a lot more stuff, particularly on the loanees, but couldn’t squeeze them in. Though, here are some recent thoughts on Brahim Diaz, and some on Borja Mayoral.

2021 was a strange one. Here’s an overview of who made strides and who regressed:

Winner: Real Madrid’s Finances; Vinicius Jr

For nearly 24 straight months, we kept hearing the same message from Florentino Perez: The pandemic has made everything more difficult (duh) for everyone. It was already becoming increasingly more difficult for Real Madrid to compete with other players (oligarchs, state-backed clubs), and with ticket sales gone for a long stretch, a further jab was given to the club’s financial muscle.

Real Madrid navigated turbulent economic waters as masterfully as they could’ve. They scrutinized the budget, offloaded salaries and raised money through transfer sales, and set themselves apart from other clubs who couldn’t do the same. Things may turn upside down again — there is a new COVID-19 variant, and the Bundesliga was the firs to close doors to its stadiums — but the club has been vocal that they are prepared for such a scenario.

They were even prepared to fork out north of 200 million for Kylian Mbappe to propel their sporting vision. Long story short: PSG said no, out of some combination of pettiness and financial flex, mixed with the hope of using the one year left on Mbappe’s contract to coax the French superstar into inking a new deal with the Parisians. So far, all they’ve done is pour gasoline on such a plan before lighting it on fire, almost daily.

That seems to be working out, for now. Real Madrid may have been rejected, but probably in the most beneficial way possible: They’ve unlocked a new version of Vinicius that may have not been manifested (at least not this early, and with this magnitude) had Mbappe soaked up minutes on the left wing. While they develop their Brazilian prodigy, they save ample cash they can use to bolster the squad in other positions around Mbappe’s potential summer arrival.

How Mbappe fits into the current squad is for a discussion down the road (though, as things stand, it’s clear you airdrop him into the right wing of the attack and let him form an interchangeable synergy with Vinicius and Benzema). Vinicius’s emergence lessens the need to put all your chips in for a second superstar signing, with more energy going into tightening defensive bolts, and ensuring your structural pillars remain in tact. PSG are a case study: Three attacking supernovas could mean little without defensive cohesiveness and tactical balance.

“I think for the three of us to be good, there has to be a modicum of freedom, that we can be free to move around to create,” Mbappe said back in October on his partnership with Messi and Neymar. “That’s what we’re going to be asked to do, to make a difference. But we must always remain within this collective framework. It’s essential if we want to win major competitions.”

I like this timeline of Real Madrid missing out on Mbappe last summer for what it got out of Vinicius alone. I’d still give Vinicius the benefit of the doubt that he’d still morph into something really good this season had Mbappe arrived — it would be disrespectful not to believe in the Brazilian in that scenario given the hard work and transcendence he’s shown. However, let me present to you an alternate and horrifying universe: Mbappe arrives and clicks with Benzema right away on the left. Real Madrid struggle to find out who the complimentary right winger should be, and flip through Vinicius as part of an ongoing rotation. They don’t think he’s a good fit as a right winger, and suddenly he becomes expendable, or gets lost in the shuffle to Rodrygo or Asensio. Is there a universe where Mbappe’s arrival a few months ago would’ve meant Vinicius never becomes a Real Madrid superstar? Grim theory.

Winner: David Alaba

Alaba is a prolific winner. He’s won 10 league titles, six domestic cups, and two Champions League titles. Long before he signed for Real Madrid, he became a Madridista cult hero with his signals of interest towards the Bernabeu and his part in waxing Barcelona in the Champions League (though, hilariously, he scored one of Barca’s two goals at Camp Nou, probably out of some sympathy).

Alaba won again by securing his money bag, and moving to a club he really wanted to go to. He also won again, in some twisted way, when Real Madrid sold Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, ensuring the Austrian’s indisputable place in the starting XI.

Alaba has been great on both ends of the field. Now is not the time to get into some nitpicking (like focusing on his ability to defend set-pieces and crosses), and moving him to center-back full-time once Ferland Mendy returned has hid some of his defensive weaknesses. Alaba is an elite ball-progressor for his position, can join the attack and do damage in the final third, and has formed symbiosis with Mendy.

The Austrain looks like he’s been a Real Madrid player for 10 years running. He’s fit perfectly, and is highly influential to everything Ancelotti wants to do. Only six players have touched the ball more in La Liga, and only two players have a higher +/-.

Loser: FC Barcelona

Fear not, Barca fans, you recently had one of your best performances of the season in an away draw at Sanchez Pizjuan vs Sevilla, Xavi is in saviour-mode, you have Pedri and Ansu returning, and you’re welcoming a very good player in Ferran Torres.

But man, what a truly horrendous year its been for Real Madrid’s arch nemesis. Losing their greatest player ever for free (!!!) would’ve been enough for them to be considered a loser regardless of what happened this season. But they went and topped that disasterclass with a Champions League group stage exit, and just seven wins from 18 games to start their league campaign. Yikes.

I do think Barcelona will get better. They have a pool of young, talented players coming up, and to use an old expression, it can’t get any worse than this.

Can it?

Winner: Eder Militao

When Ramos and Varane left, that paved the way not only for Alaba, but also Eder Militao. Thin competition doesn’t guarantee success. Some players can have little to compete with and still underwhelm. Credit to Militao. He locked down the starting RCB role as if it was his throne. He has been Real Madrid’s best defender this season.

Real Madrid yearn for their two legendary pillars that left; but in Militao, they have durability that they didn’t always have in Ramos and Varane, and certainly wouldn’t have had this season. The Brazilian has been lights out, and his recent mistake against Getafe doesn’t erase that. His reading of the game has been masterful. He has consistently gotten his step-up interventions foot perfect. Compare that to Nacho, who had so many failed gambles early on this season.

There is something about Militao that screams Pepe. I don’t know if it’s just my mind playing tricks on me given their Porto pasts, but the way they cover, intercept, bully attackers off the ball, and cover so much ground during chaotic defensive sequences — there is a certain satisfaction to seeing Militao take the mantle as next-in-line peacekeeper of hellfire (Real Madrid’s historically anarchic defensive line).

Militao is going to lift heavy weights in this backline for years to come. He looks ready to take on that burden as the cornerstone center-back.

Where I worry tremendously more this season than I did last season (apart from the clear hit the backline took defending set-pieces, plus some leadership and clutch Avengers-type voodoo from Ramos) is the withered depth. Last season when Real Madrid lost its two chief center-backs, Militao and Nacho filled in and provided us with a run for the ages. If Ancelotti loses his two starting center-backs this season, the drop off to Nacho + Jesus Vallejo is calamitous. Does Nacho have another run in him? Maybe, despite a poor start to this season. Vallejo looked out of his depth even in Copa del Rey games last season when Granada faced Segunda B teams.

Who would help the team progress the ball in a Nacho - Vallejo lineup against Chelsea? I don’t really want to think about it; then again, Real Madrid’s squad building might make us contemplate it more than we like.

That’s why I was higher on an Antonio Rudiger signing than some. I’m really high on Rudiger in general, and think we cross the bridge of ‘where is he going to play?’ later. I would’ve still started Militao and Alaba, and worried little about all three getting playing time. But the barrier with Rudiger is ultimately his salary, not his talent.

In the 2014 Champions League final, Real Madrid couldn’t field Pepe, but could still put out a Ramos - Varane partnership. That luxury is invaluable. The squad needs to have that bank to draw from if it wants to go deep into three competitions.

Still, I understand the financial position and timeline Real Madrid were in to not sign someone else this summer. Militao is only 23. You can always pad some depth next season.

A couple center-backs on expiring contracts worth keeping an eye on not named Rudiger: Niklas Sule, Matthias Ginter. Both have yet to extend with Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach respectively. Sule is currently at a stand-off with Bayern; Ginter is one of the most underrated center-backs around. Both are great ball-progressors — a trait needed if Alaba can’t play.

Or maybe someone else’s name will pop up. Juni Calafat may cook up another scouting report that strikes gold. Militao was one of them. 55 million was not necessarily a cheap price tag to lure him from Porto — especially given the risk of the small sample size at a high level the club signed him on, but it seems like a great deal now.

Losers: Reinier Jesus, and everyone affiliated with him

What a disaster, all around. Everyone involved in anything that had to do with Reinier Jesus going to Borussia Dortmund should go into a corner of a room and think about what they’ve done.

I just can’t understand loan deals that go south due to lack of playing time. What is anyone thinking? This is Mayoral to Wolfsburg level bad. Why do teams insist on taking on a player they know they won’t use? OK, I get it: Sometimes plans change. Maybe once you see the player up close, you change your mind — or the player simply loses form. I get it! But to extend that player for a second season after one year of nothing is inexcusable. Reinier has played 59 total minutes in the Bundesliga this season. What was the point? Send him somewhere — anywhere — that gives him playing time.

But wait, there’s more! More craziness! Reinier Jesus’s father, Mauro Brasília, admitted in January that they’re trying to break the loan spell but that Dortmund don’t want to do that. Brasilia also said Dortmund are not exactly creating an atmosphere that aligns with their persistence to keep him:

“When we were looking for loan options, we thought Dortmund would be a good place for a young player like Reinier,” Brasilia said. “But Borussia has not supported Reinier. In the first season, they said he was not physically or tactically at the same level of his teammates, but now there are no excuses.”

Maybe Dortmund have a long term ploy. They wanted to sign the Brazilian earlier in his career but Real Madrid won that battle. The Germans got him on loan instead. Perhaps this way they can drive Reinier’s value down and snatch him and develop him themselves. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, though; I find all of this bizarre. Thankfully there are newer reports that Dortmund are willing to part ways soon.

Get Reinier Jesus to a new team during the winter window, please.

Winner: Hunger, apetite

“It would have been difficult for me to win again next year,“ Zinedine Zidane said in May of 2018 at his exit press conference. “If I do not see clearly that we are going to continue winning, a moment comes when you say better to step aside.”

It’s not talked about enough, but a huge part of why we see dynasties occur so rarely throughout history, is not down to just teams declining and others around them improving. It’s straight up hard to keep teams together, both on paper, and in spirit.

Dynastic teams are great for a variety of reasons, but usually have a few things in common: They contain all-time greats that can take over games, have a revolutionary style of play, and contain the needed quality depth. Barrier 1: Stars can lose hunger after sustained winning (which puts freaks like Jordan in a class of their own). Barrier 2: The scouting report comes out; opponents start figuring things out about you. Barrier 3: Important players in the depth chart go, ‘hey, wait a second, I could be a star somewhere else’ and depth withers.

That’s why the three-peat UCL team (and 4 of 5) is so impressive, and probably somehow even underrated. What Zidane (and Ancelotti) did — what all of those players did — is etched in time and remarkable.

Don’t underestimate the power of losing, either. The nucleus of Real Madrid’s dynasty lost, in heart-breaking way, over, and over, and over, and over again. They became perennial losers, together. And that’s what made them better. Each season they came back more heart-broken and more hungry. What do you think was in Sergio Ramos’s belly during the 92:48 corner? It was empty, starving. He refused to go down again. He didn’t.

That’s part of the reason a Kylian Mbappe signing would be so fun. He’s come so close to tasting the European crown, and has come up short again and again. Bringing in a hungry star like that can only be good. (I hope he comes up short again this season.)

When Zidane said, “If I do not see clearly that we are going to continue winning”, that alludes to aforementioned barrier 1. It explains the 2018 dip (some of it at least, given Cristiano Ronaldo leaving clearly makes a huge impact).

All of this was a long-winded way of saying: I think that hunger is back in the team. The apetites of Modric and Kroos have been reset, and Real Madrid now have a nice blend of savvy veterans and hungry young blood coming through. Ignoring the New Year blip (Real Madrid are historically not good in the first game after New Years) I’ve enjoyed the team’s ‘find a way’ attitude this season. Long live hunger.

Losers: Anyone whose best position is the 10 and plays for Real Madrid

It’s been this way since 2018: If your best position is the 10 role, you’ll either have to reinvent yourself, or find a new team. Option 2 is essentially what Martin Odegaard did. Odegaard can play on the right wing or deeper, but not functionally the way Ancelotti would want a 10 hybrid to function. If you’re not a line-breaking pacy dribbler, you’re not a winger under Ancelotti; and if you’re not going to cover ground defensively, it’s going to be hard to displace Luka Modric. Odegaard, Isco, and Hazard (current version) strike out on both those categories. Kroos survives because he’s one of the top-2 passers in football history, and is the greatest ball-progressing engine since Xavi.

I still think Odegaard would’ve been a useful right-winger this season considering Bale is Bale, and Rodrygo has missed time. Asensio is only a marginally better dribbler. He’s also a better goalscorer; but Odegaard is a better progressive passer — a good trait to have if Modric sits for one of Camavinga or Valverde.

I don’t blame Odegaard for leaving, but I’m disappointed he didn’t try to put up a fight. But his problems are multiple, and not unique to him. There have been many martyrs before him, and many more to come so long as Real Madrid continue to primarily use a 4-3-3. There are still really good — even elite — teams who use 10s, or hybrid variations of them. Real Madrid are not one of them, for now. The last time we saw anything close to using a player of that ilk was Isco in 2018.

On the field, the banishment of Isco is the strangest one to decipher. I have always heard internal rumblings from within the club that he’s been difficult to work with — it’s the most plausible explanation. I don’t think he’d be worse than what Hazard currently brings to the table in a role where he’s expected to be an outlet and find outlets without dribbling past players. Isco has proven he can also cope as a central midfielder. I see him as a Kroos replacement, but not a Modric understudy. Isco ranks in the 98th percentile of midfielders in progressive passes received (stemming from his movement between the lines) and shot-creating actions. He is even better (99th percentile) in dribbles completed and progressive passes. He’s good at a bunch of other things too. I don’t think he’s been bad enough to dislodge and eradicate.

Playing him more would’ve likely increased the chances of showcasing him to the football world and getting some value for him before he walks away this summer. Then again, his best remaining positions if the 10 doesn’t exist either in a diamond or through a 4-2-3-1: left-winger (Vinicius), LCM (Kroos). Good luck. Ancelotti’s starting XI has been devastatingly good, and he can juggle players around without going too deep into the depth chart. It is what it is.

The point remains: Anyone whose best football has come as a 10, has been sacrificed. I hold out hope that Brahim Diaz may have an open window in the future because he is also a really good winger and dribbler.

Winner: The timekeepers, Casemiro - Kroos - Modric

It was not long ago, as recent as last season, where the KCM midfield was considered dusted. For prolonged stretches it seemed outdated, stale. It was blown away over two legs against Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea in last season’s Champions League semi-finals.

It was hard to understand why. Toni Kroos and Casemiro were still at their peaks, and Modric was still playing at a high level. Zidane’s blueprint allowed them to secure teams defensively (with exceptions, such as a the Chelsea bloodbath), but sitting deeper meant less control on the game with little offensive creation around them to explode more efficiently in transition. More dynamic, young, elite teams could press Casemiro deep in big games and make the entire build-up laborious; less talented teams could plug holes and sit deep and ask Real Madrid to rely on someone from midfield or defense to get into the box to help Benzema score goals. It wasn’t all the midfield’s fault. They were tasked with a lot. Covid hit. There were structural problems.

It never really needed an overhaul — just tweaks. Those tweaks didn’t come with any of them being displaced, rather, the surrounding cast stepping up their games and Modric and Kroos putting their foot down. Think of this overlooked variable: Vinicius’s leap this season has meant the team’s collective bounce gets raised, and even when the midfield sits deep, they can enhance their transition attacks through the Brazilian winger. It also helps that Kroos has been absolutely ridiculous and lights out this season, while Modric has tapped into some sort of secret serum.

I like where it’s going now, but still would like to see more of Valverde, Camavinga, and Isco (a gulp on that last one, given his situation and imminent departure, but he rocks the best like-for-like profile as a ball-progressor to Kroos the squad has) peppered in. Alas, Ancelotti has his XI, and ‘next man up’ only needs to happen when it needs to happen, and not for the sake of it, per Ancelotti’s rules.

To take this midfield to another level would mean that Casemiro has to become a better passer under pressure. It is one of the midfield’s weak links. Few read the game defensively like the Brazilian — he is a master at being in the right place at the right time. Lord knows: If there’s any team in the world that needs that attribute, historically, it’s Real Madrid. But Casemiro is also a brutal ball-carrier and dribbler (two of Camavinga’s best traits), and an average progressive passer. He’s in the 65th percentile of overall passing accuracy for his position.

Pick your poison. I’m not convinced Camavinga is a six, though you could slot Kroos in the anchor role and put Camavinga higher. But Kroos is not going to shield your backline from defensive onslaughts, and if you’re not controlling games in the final third and pressing relentlessly, relying on Kroos to stop counter-attacks would be problematic. Though, it could work if Camavinga (or Modric / Valverde) were constantly swapping positions with him on the fly. Also: Losing what Kroos brings in the final-third providing through-balls in and-around the box, combining with the left, and masterfully switching, would hurt.

Still, KCM looks good. Casemiro wins you games, flat out. His weaknesses get magnified only a few times per season. The problem with those few times: It happens in the UCL knockout games when it really matters having a technically gifted defensive midfielder.

Winner: Apex Benzema

Karim Benzema is on course to have one of the two best seasons of his career, and probably even his best ever, at the age of 34.

From an offensive productivity standpoint, Benzema’s best season in La Liga was 2015 - 2016, where he averaged 1.42 goals and assists per 90 minutes. This season, he’s at 1.35, and has already matched his assist tally from that season (7), and if he hits 10 more goals, he’ll have scored more than that season too. His numbers look fantastic, and the eye test visibly shows his outstanding leadership.

People keep saying we’ll need to replace him soon — that’s true. But I see no signs of his decline.

Loser: Eden Hazard

I remember sitting press row during Real Madrid’s 2 - 2 draw with PSG in 2019 at the Bernabeu, and being completely blown away with excitement watching Hazard toying with the Parisians and linking up so beautifully with Marcelo, Kroos, Isco, and Benzema. It was the closest thing I had seen to his peak since Chelsea-Hazard. It gave me hope.

Nothing has been the same since that night. People continue to point to the Thomas Meunier tackle that cleaned Hazard out, but I would gently bring up that had it not been Meunier that night, Hazard’s body would’ve been broken eventually — either by someone else, or through gradual self-infliction. He has never taken off-season seriously, and has used it as an excuse to take a vacation from physical healing every summer. You can get away with that in your 20s, but it catches up to you when you’re older — something that’s happened to Hazard now. He’s paying for previous bad habits.

Every two months or so, we hear the same quotes from Belgium national team manager Roberto Martinez: that Hazard has healed, he has no physical problems. The truth is, even when he does play, he can only fill a niche role: A roaming presence without defensive duties — essentially a 10. With Belgium, Yannick Carrasco does the dribbling, attacking, and defensive work on the left wing. Hazard roams in the middle and passes the ball without taking players on. Too many players can already do that in Real Madrid while doing other things as well at a much superior clip.

Hazard’s value spiralled, but his salary didn’t. It’s been a costly transfer, and a disastrous year for all parties involved.

Winner: Thibaut Courtois

Courtois’s Real Madrid career started with so much tension. He replaced one of the most beloved players in recent Real Madrid history, Keylor Navas, and many fans felt like it was a forced signing. Courtois wanted to move to Madrid where his children resided. He couldn’t return to Atletico because some dude named Jan Oblak was already there. He made the call to Real Madrid, they took him on. Why not? He’s nearly six years younger than Navas, and serves as a good transition piece.

After an underwhelming start to his Real Madrid career, Courtois rounded out 2021 as one of the best goalkeepers on earth. He has singlehandedly kept Real Madrid in games and has been one of the heroic pieces of the defensive line.

Poor Andriy Lunin will never get a meaningful chance. Even if he plays well in rare cameos, it doesn’t land him much leverage apart from boosting his transfer value. I don’t see much point keeping him around. When Courtois is this good, being the back-up goalkeeper at Real Madrid is a futile endeavour.

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