There’s a transitional feel to Real Madrid’s squad building this summer. The entire club is in limbo. In fact, the entire landscape of European football could look very different if Florentino Pérez finally gets his man this summer after a failed raid for Kylian Mbappé last year.
The 24-year-old has a year left on his contract and PSG president, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, says it is impossible that the best player in the world leaves the club for free. That sounds like an invitation for an offer if Pérez ever heard one. But it also sounds like PSG and Mbappé have painted themselves into a corner. Can Pérez be tempted to make a bid?
For now, we don’t know the answer to that. All we have is a stand-off and a transfer story that has turned into a saga.
Regardless, the Real Madrid machine doesn’t stop. Even if it can sometimes resemble a clown car that somehow manages to keep chugging along despite losing parts as it moves. The whole world watches in a bemused state of awe as to how it keeps going. They routinely win the biggest competition in Europe without having the best team (or squad) in Europe.
Real Madrid will be expected to win every competition they enter next season with or without Mbappé. They are one of the few teams in the world where that is a realistic annual objective.
A long-term solution to the Mbappé saga will inform them of what era they are in and how realistic a trophy-laden season is next year. Are they at the doorstep of a hope-filled new dawn or will they try to squeeze a few more drops out of the orange?
Maybe they’ll eventually sign Mbappé, or he’ll renew at PSG or perhaps another team might gazump them. Until it is resolved, the spectre of Mbappé haunts the Bernabéu.
So, how do Real Madrid say it’s a rebuilding year without explicitly saying it’s a rebuilding year? You can sign Joselu to replace Karim Benzema for a start. You can cling on to Carlo Ancelotti, who has a verbal agreement to join Brazil next summer, like a couple who don’t want to be together but neither knows how to end it.
Are they happy together? Well, they’re not sufficiently unhappy enough to make a change just yet.
How does their squad look going into a year filled with intrigue and unanswered questions?
Thibaut Courtois recently made headlines for walking out on Belgium after a fall-out with the new manager Domenico Tedesco. Some of his own international teammates even criticised him for leaving the squad during international duty. There has never been any doubts about his status at Real Madrid. He is the certified number one and Andriy Lunin will have to suffice with playing back-up to his teammate for now.
Lunin played in 12 games in all competitions last season, clocking up just north of 1,000 minutes. He’s 24 and might turn into a fine goalkeeper one day but he won’t be doing that at Real Madrid while he shares a dressing room with Courtois. The Belgian remains the premium shot-stopper in Europe and prevented 5.4 goals last season in the league and Champions League. He couldn’t keep Erling Haaland and Manchester City out in the Champions League despite his best efforts but Real Madrid have one of the very best goalkeepers in the world under contract until 2026.
Real Madrid’s defence is in a solid if unspectacular state. They have lots of options in central defence with Éder Militão, Antonio Rüdiger and David Alaba all capable of anchoring a backline if needed. Cult hero, Nacho, has re-signed for another year and remains a one-club man along with being a versatile option across Ancelotti’s back line. He can essentially play anywhere in defence although at 33, Madrid would prefer if they didn’t need him to. He will be plugged in where necessary and his experience, availability and versatility means Real Madrid will never find themselves in a hopeless situation as long as Nacho can be called to the rescue.
At full-back, things get a little murkier. Ancelotti has options on the left with Fran García arriving from Rayo Vallecano after a scintillating campaign in Vallecas. Ferland Mendy has a contract until 2025 but has struggled to take advantage of opportunities. The French defender could be third choice next season. Eduardo Camavinga is also an option. In fact, he played in more games than any Real Madrid player last season and most of them were at left-back.
Madrid have several left-backs capable of winning the starting job, which is another way of saying they don’t have a starting left-back that convinces them. García should get the lion’s share of minutes in the position to start the season but maybe Camavinga went from ‘filling in’ at left-back to being an important part of Ancelotti’s tactics last season.
Competition in Madrid’s midfield is fierce and Camavinga at left-back is a neat way of fitting another midfielder into the team. He provides solid defensive cover for Vinícius Jr., who is not known for his desire to defend. There are no doubts over the danger García provides as an overlapping full-back but if he stumbles going the other way, expect Camavinga to be jettisoned in before long.
Right-back is an area Pérez has to target this summer. The current starter is Dani Carvajal, who can still be excellent at times and in big moments, but less so across an entire season. He is 31 and has been prone to injury for a number of years, although he was relatively injury-free last year.
Carvajal’s back-ups are Lucas Vázquez, a right-back who isn’t a right-back and then Nacho. They are one injury away from being thrown into mini-crisis in that position. Álvaro Odriozola is another squad player but barring something drastic happening, he is not seen as an option under Ancelotti.
Meanwhile, Madrid have collected potentially the greatest arsenal of midfielders we have ever seen. As you make your way down their list of midfielders, you’re excused for spontaneous cooing. In fact, it’s expected:
Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Aurélien Tchouaméni, Eduardo Camavinga, Jude Bellingham, Dani Ceballos, Fede Valverde, Brahim Díaz.
It has taken some time but Pérez has finally exacted revenge on all those who criticised him for selling Claude Makélélé. “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” is a quote credited to Zinedine Zidane but captures the sentiment of many who were baffled by that decision two decades ago.
They have youth, experience, technical excellence, pace and power in their midfield. The only real problem they have now is squeezing them into the starting XI and making sure everyone is happy. It’s Ancelotti’s job to make sure the group is functional rather than an expensive and very talented assortment of tchotchkes collected by Pérez.
We have come to expect excellence from Real Madrid’s midfielders. The new signings will just be a continuation of that. You can count on one hand the number of Champions League nights when people weren’t waxing lyrical, almost nostalgic, about how good Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were and to some extent still are.
Madrid’s midfield is still a portal to the same excellence we have seen for the last decade. That is, of course, unless Carlo is planning something new. A box midfield? A diamond? Three at the back? What might he have up his sleeve as his swan song?
If Real Madrid’s squad does look like a clown car, the engine at least is in perfect nick and it will not fail.
Ancelotti will likely have to borrow from the embarrassment of riches in midfield to balance a defence and attack that doesn’t quite make sense. Help is needed elsewhere.
The ‘elsewhere’ that needs most help is their attack.
The summer Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid, Julen Lopetegui bemoaned that they had taken 50 goals away from the team. Lopetegui insisted that the sword of Damacles would not fall on any one person to fill that void. As it turned out, Karim Benzema came quite close to doing it on his own. He scored 44 two seasons ago on his way an unlikely Ballon d’Or and while he slowed down this season with only 31 goals in 43 games, he was still the focal point around which Madrid’s attack orbited.
Joselu has been brought in to hold down the fort. He’s not Mbappé but he knows he’s not Mbappé. The 33-year-old arrives on a one-year deal from relegated Espanyol after he scored 16 goals last season. After unsuccessful spells at Newcastle and Stoke City, he could be ready to start the season as Madrid’s number nine. A lot of his work will be facilitating the Brazilian duo either side of him.
Vinícius remains a one-man shot-creating machine and doesn’t necessarily need much help but an overlapping Fran García and a bruiser like Joselu might. There are some games and situations where García, the speedy left-back, will come in handy but this might look more like a team undergoing some kind of positional revolution this season. If you add Camavinga into the defence and Valverde into the attack, you can play five of your eight midfielders with plenty of talent on the bench left to influence games as substitutes. And you cover the glaring issue at number nine.
Vinícius played 4,755 minutes last season. Only David de Gea and Bruno Fernandes played more among Europe’s top five leagues in all competitions. He turns 23 this month and can handle the workload – in fact he enjoys it – but those numbers are not sustainable. The problem is that he doesn’t have a replacement in the squad and he will be needed even more next season in the absence of Benzema.
Rodrygo had a quietly brilliant season. He underachieved his expected goals but his movement in the box, the nuances he adds on the right with his dribbling and close control is something that can improve everyone around him. He’s just 22 and is still improving so if he can sustain his peaks from last season for longer, it will help Madrid’s overall efficiency in attack. Maybe Brahim Díaz can chip in if he ends up staying but for now, it looks like Madrid are content with waiting for things to shake out in the market before anyone else arrives or leaves.
Five of the stalwarts of the last decade, Kroos, Modric, Carvajal, Nacho and Vázquez all have expiring contracts next season and they’re all at varying stages of their 30s. Madrid are transitioning into a new era and it’s natural that they are afraid to let go just yet of what has been described as their Golden Era. They have plenty of young talent in their squad to usher in a new dawn but development is never linear. Madrid have a talented squad, overflowing with potential but they have some deficiencies too. At the same time, if they do manage to bring Mbappé to the Bernabéu a year ahead of schedule, all of those deficiencies would be forgotten.