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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.
Since Cristiano Ronaldo left in 2018, Real Madrid began their quest in signing his replacement in a variety of ways. They pursued Eden Hazard in 2018 to no avail, brought back Mariano Diaz from Lyon (hijacking a transfer to Sevilla with their first right of refusal in a decision that was disastrous for everyone involved), entrusted Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio, and Karim Benzema, then eventually brought in Hazard one year later along with Luka Jovic.
Here’s what hindsight has told us: Hazard should’ve stayed in London the whole time; Mariano should’ve been allowed to go to Sevilla; Gareth Bale should’ve been sold right after the final whistle in Kiev; and lastly, Benzema was going to be so good that no back-up striker was ever needed.
But hindsight is easy, as always. Decisions in the moment are more difficult. The point ultimately is this: Real Madrid signed Luka Jovic for a position (back-up striker) that doesn’t exist. Much like the back-up goalkeeper, or the ‘10’, having players for those roles means they won’t see the field. In past eras, that would be different, but benching Benzema is not happening here (nor should it), and when the Frenchman can’t play, you’re asking your striker to come in cold, like some Terminator awakening from a deep freeze, to execute goals like rhythm and match fitness is some kind of mere human construct.
“Right now the most important thing for me is to reach my best form as soon as possible,” Jovic said in March of 2021. He went on to further stress how hard it is to establish match fitness without playing: “I’m still not there and I might not be strong enough to play 90 minutes, that’s right. But I’m still trying to change that as soon as possible,”
It is not uncommon for Real Madrid to sign players off of small sample sizes like they did with Jovic. They signed Eder Militao, Vinicius Jr, and Rodrygo Goes based on their own internal scouting and justified the price tags because they believed in their due-diligence. But timing also really matters. Militao eased his way in just in time for Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos to leave in one summer; Vinicius was plugged in one of the most desperate times in recent history; and Rodrygo rose when there was no reliable offensive production from the right wing. (Rodrygo may win again with Kylian Mbappe’s decision.)
Jovic did not have such luck. Benzema morphed into a top-three striker in Real Madrid history (in my list, he’s #2, and putting him #1 by the time his career ends is entirely conceivable). Having to back-up a freak like that is not easy. Opportunities will be scarce. The limited cameos will be even more challenging — like playing with weights attached to your ankles. You will be crucified if you don’t play well.
And, as we saw, the narratives wrote themselves every time Jovic played. ‘This is why Ancelotti doesn’t rotate.’
The off ball movement, the bad luck, none of that really mattered to the masses who just wanted goals and cared little for the cute tactical things. It’s always been this way. When Benzema was having a horrendous season in front of goal in 2017 - 2018, highlighting his defensive work and link-up play was regarded as a criminal act.
But labelling Jovic as a victim is too partisan. Jovic could’ve done more. In many cameos, he went missing. Say what you want about Mariano Diaz. He may have lacked footballing IQ and link-up ability, but he made his presence known — dropped to help win the ball, put his body on the line, throw defenders around, get to headers, and break his bones in order to get on the end of chances. Often, the only times you were reminded that Jovic was on the field was when you looked at the stat sheet at the end of the game, where you saw his name next to a bunch of zeroes and a game-low in touches.
But Jovic is a good player (at least I believe he is, and I know at least one other person who is on that island with me) even if it didn’t work out at Real Madrid. He has a chance at Fiorentina now to prove his worth.
What initially was to be a loan spell turned into a permanent transfer to the Italian side, and it comes with a cost to Real Madrid: They’ve lost him for free. Had you told us in 2019 that Jovic’s Real Madrid tenure would end with 36 appearances and three goals over the course of three years before the club would ‘sell’ him for free, it would’ve been a devastating bit of news to digest.
But to flip it in another perspective, Real Madrid will shed around 10m in wages, and cutting costs rather than doubling-down on something that is clearly not working is always wise, even if difficult.
Real Madrid will hold on to 50% of his rights on any future sale. That’s not a bad place to be in. If Jovic’s 2018 form is anything to go by, he can still turn into a good player for a good team somewhere. Fiorentina now owning him rather than bringing him on loan empowers them to invest playing time in the Serbian — something he desperately needs — and if he improves, the club can make some money in subsequent years off his sale.
With Jovic all-but-officially out the door, the trimming of the depth chart continues. The club will also try to offload Mariano, and there may be a scenario where they don’t bring in a back-up striker — again, a role that exists only on paper — to compensate. Instead, you may see Eden Hazard — remember him? — and Rodrygo play some false-nine minutes in rare events where Benzema can’t play.
“My priority is to be in a quality league and play,” Jovic said last summer. He may get that wish now. “At my age, if I leave I want to be in a place where I can be in the lineup, because I’ve already spent more time off the pitch than on it,”