Matt’s Monday Musings: A series with no rhyme or reason — just consistent thoughts on all things Real Madrid released every Monday. Some weeks may be long form, others just short anecdotal thoughts. Either way, I’ll be posting reflective content on the current, past, and future on-goings of the club:
Dani Ceballos had his best season as a Real Madrid player last year. It was his fourth season under contract with the Spanish club and he only amassed 338 minutes. The previous sentence suggests that Ceballos has had one of the most underwhelming Real Madrid careers in recent memory for that to be considered his best. Yet, the final month and half of Real Madrid’s triumphant run to the Champions League and La Liga double in 2022 felt like a rebirth for the Spaniard. Of his total minutes played, 70% came at the end of the season, in April and May. In fact, as a testament to his revived role, Ceballos played in every important Champions League tie from the quarter-final onwards. His minutes were sparse, but his impact profound. The same line could be said to describe the 20 minutes Ceballos received on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
The kid from Utrera is now a man, soon to be 26 years old, and Dani’s performances have exuded a maturity level and confidence that was once missing in a Real Madrid shirt. The future generation of the Real Madrid midfield will include Valverde, Camavinga, and Tchouameni but all three of those names are similar in profile, while Dani Ceballos brings something different. Dani is a street footballer. A player with a chip on his shoulder. A midfield three of Camavinga, Tchouameni, and Valverde leaves some doubts, as the team lacks a progressive passer, a creative eye-in-the-needle type, a player who can slow down play outside the opposition’s box.
Even in a deeper right defensive midfield role at Arsenal, Ceballos numbers were impressive: 92nd percentile for expected assists, 88th percentile for key passes, 91st percentile for passes into the final third, 88th percentile for progressive passes, and 97th percentile for through balls per 90 minutes. In other words, Ceballos slings vertical passes across large distances into the most dangerous parts of the pitch at a high frequency. Real Madrid’s aforementioned young trio of midfielders rank in the 50th-70th percentile for those same passing metrics.
Put bluntly, Ceballos is a player profile that Real Madrid need as Toni Kroos and Luka Modric come to the end of their glittering careers. There are not many players of his skillset and quality on the market. His performances to end the season, and his performance against Barcelona on Saturday night, have been an example of a player too good for a bit-part role. Ancelotti admitted after the Osasuna match in April that Ceballos deserved better, “It’s true, Ceballos deserves a lot more minutes. I want to highlight his performance.”
Ceballos fits the playing profile and age profile needed in this current Real Madrid squad. After years of development both in Madrid and away at Arsenal, it seems he has finally found his stride. Ancelotti should reflect on his comments from last season and look to find an important role for the Spanish midfielder even with the arrival of Tchouameni.
Same Old Eden Hazard
In an interview with ESPN, Eden Hazard once again talked about his desire to prove to Real Madrid fans and to the world that he has the quality to be an important player for the Spanish club. The Belgian has been vocal all summer about his return to form and the dissipation of pain after the removal of the plate in his ankle. It seemed, with the season coming to an end, that he had the perfect opportunity this summer to prepare for his comeback season. Yet, his words in that same ESPN interview seemed to insinuate that no real change was made to his preseason preparations:
ESPN: What changes did you make personally with your routine during the offseason, once the Champions League finished? Do you do anything different to get into the very good shape that you’re on right now?
Hazard: Not that much. You know, I spent two weeks with Belgium at the end of the season. I was able to play four games, not 90 minutes. And then in my mind I was like: “OK, I can play, I don’t feel it. I don’t feel any pain anymore. So let’s go forward, you know, and then I just enjoyed my holiday.” I work a bit between seasons — we only had one month just to be ready for the preseason. (Full interview: ESPN)
Some may call it a laissez-faire attitude, but Eden has always been nonchalant in his demeanor. One of his former coaches argued it was what made him great – part of his creative genius. Though that may be true, it is likely also part of his early demise. It is a cardinal sin to try and draw conclusions from a preseason game, let alone 45 minutes, but I simply cannot help myself. The truth is Hazard was once again disappointing vs Barcelona on Saturday night. There is no sign of the burst, the change of speed, that made the once mercurial winger one of the best in the world. Those 45 minutes, when grouped with the larger sample size of the last three years, were no different than what Madrid fans have grown accustomed to seeing from Eden Hazard.
Ancelotti pointed to building up fitness levels post-match, but Hazard will need to do a lot more to convince the skeptics. The argument can be made that Hazard, after a season where he played less than 1,000 minutes, should have been one of the first to arrive to training. Instead, the Belgian took his full holiday and arrived a week later with the other internationals like Modric and Vinicius, who also took part in the end of the season international break, but each also played over 4,000 minutes last season.
On last week’s “Tuesday Tapas” episode of the Managing Madrid podcast, I proposed the following scenario to Kiyan Sobhani: an offer arrives for Hazard on the last day of the market with no time to invest in a replacement. The offer is a €0 transfer fee, but wipes Hazard’s wages off the books — do you take it?
My answer was a resounding yes. Hazard elicits hope in many, but his performances up to this point have simply not warranted the hype. Getting his wages off the books would be a big win for the club.
Paying players to leave?
Arsenal’s sporting director, Edu, recently gave an interview to The Athletic. In the interview, the Brazilian comes across as eloquent, passionate, and intelligent. His plans for Arsenal are structured, ambitious, but also realistic. The interview eventually gets to the topic of player departures and Edu speaks frankly on the subject. In his opinion, there may come a time where it is worth it to pay a player to leave. Edu likes to zoom out and look at the holistic picture. If what is best for the dressing room, the manager, and the club overall is for a player to leave, then sometimes paying player to leave has to be viewed as an investment with a non-financial return.
Edu specifically talks of players in the age range of 26-32 with hefty salaries that are not performing. Those are the players that have to leave the club in order for a club to thrive. Madrid have finally managed to offload some of those players this summer, but many still remain. If Mariano and Hazard have to be paid to leave, then maybe the paradigm has to shift and both clubs and fans have to see the payment as an investment with a positive sporting rate of return, rather than focusing on the negative financial impact. Sometimes in business, it is best to cut your losses.