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What are Real Madrid’s barriers to signing wing-backs?

Carvajal, 31, has broken down over time; Mendy, 27, is limited offensively. The club only has one pure back-up wing-back in the squad and he doesn’t play. What’s the plan?

Liverpool FC v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final 2021/22 Photo by Harry Langer/vi/DeFodi Images via 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.

In the past 25+ years, Real Madrid have had some of the most reliable wing-backs in world football, rocking names that would be at the top of their list in their position among their respective generations. Some of them are all-timers. In a club where wing-backs have provided steady offense, unplayable overloads, and attacking ingenuity and unpredictability, having that extra layer where opponents have to track an auxiliary offensive weapon has been key to every Champions League title the team has won.

Things are more murky now. Real Madrid’s two starting wing-backs — Dani Carvajal, Ferland Mendy — are below average in their positions in shot-creating actions, progressive passes, and dribbles. Mendy has generally been exceptional on the defensive end bar some slippage this season, but rarely ventures into the final third. Expecting Carvajal to regain his peak-form from five years ago is a tall task given his deteriorating physique. (Carvajal, currently nursing yet another muscle injury, has missed 72+ games due to 15 separate injuries since the 2017 - 2018 season.)

But Real Madrid’s full-back quandary goes beyond their starters. Despite the health concerns to Carvajal, and Mendy’s defense-heavy profile, the team only has one other pure wing-back, Alvaro Odriozola, in the squad. The rest — Lucas Vazquez, Nacho Fernandez, Eder Militao, David Alaba, Antonio Rudiger — are makeshift puzzle pieces.

Perhaps Dani Carvajal’s incredible Champions League Final performance, where he made Luis Diaz vanish into thin air, clouded some of the squad-planning. In truth, to get those Carvajal cameos when it matters, you’ll need him to rest and recover plenty in between. Real Madrid have that luxury with a big-game star in Luka Modric with the wealth of their central midfield options. Providing the same cushion at right-back has been more challenging.

Carvajal’s form this season has been worrying, and it’s not entirely his fault. In the two Super Cup games he played in January, he looked a step behind the rest. He wasn’t 100% fit in either of those two games. Odriozola, a right-back who impressed offensively at Fiorentina last season, has yet to have been trusted at Real. Vinicius Tobias, a player the club had at their disposal in Castilla, hasn’t appeared at the A-team level.

The Odriozola part of this equation is not that puzzling. You could argue a 100% Odriozola is more logical to have on the field than a hobbling Carvajal. But Odriozola last season was a disaster defensively for Fiorentina as he’s been his entire career, and the only reason he didn’t get blown away more was because the Italians played a 3-5-2 scheme which masked his defensive frailties. Odriozola, in turn, was allowed to stay up the field for long stretches with tons of coverage. Those luxuries don’t exist at Real.

But there is also the club’s perspective: Squad planning not only comes down to the players you want or need, but also the players you have (and can’t get rid of). Real Madrid have nine defenders under contract at the A-team level. In order to sign a right-back, they will have to figure out what to do with covenants made to Vazquez (contract until 2024), and Carvajal (contract until 2025). Both are long-time, respected servants of the club. Moving them in order to make room for others is complicated.

But, as the saying goes, the club has dug its own grave with prior decisions. Achraf Hakimi was sold during the pandemic to raise funds — but the long terms costs of his departure may outweigh the up-front fee collected for him. When Vazquez was renewed in 2021, he was still primarily a winger. Due to the same reasons as now (Carvajal not being able to stay on the field, and the lack of a back-up right-back), Vazquez started to play more as a defender, and eventually the club re-labelled him. (If you don’t believe me, have a look at Real Madrid’s statement on the day of his renewal, which read “The attacker will remain at our club until 30 June 2024”).

Bringing back Odriozola as a bench-rider when he had finally found a home at Fiorentina also took up a costly roster spot.

There have not been a lack of wing-back options in the market. Malo Gusto, who is not yet an established veteran star, could be on his way to Chelsea with the rest of Earth’s population — he is a name we broke down at length on the podcast as an intriguing low-risk signing. Fran Garcia is available for 5m — virtually free in today’s market. The club has until January 31st to recall him for additional help. Garcia has been one of the best left-backs in La Liga over the course of the past 15 months.

Signing a wing-back now may still yet to prove challenging given the club may have to part ways with one of their current defenders. If the idea is that you can’t bring someone in until 2024, then enduring the current state of full-backs could be a rough, temporary problem to ride out.

Real Madrid have been in this position before. When Salgado got old, declined, then departed the club in 2009, it took several years of unreliable right-back production until Alvaro Arbeloa (not a star, but at least a solid presence defensively), and then Dani Carvajal finally returned. The club had similar problems on the opposite wing once Roberto Carlos declined and left, rolling through a mish-mash of offensively-handicapped left-backs before the Marcelo and Fabio Coentrao era got underway.

Perhaps the return of the elite wing-back era is just around the corner. For now it’s a position of concern.

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