Real Madrid stepping up process of generational renewal
Brahim Díaz is the latest example of a plan that Real Madrid have set in motion in recent years by signing Lunin, Vinicius, Rodrygo...
Real Madrid are pushing hard to convince Brahim Díaz, 19, not to renew his contract at Manchester City and to move to Spain on a free in the summer, when his deal at the Etihad expires. On top of that, Los Blancos are also competing with City and Barcelona to snap up Dutch 21-year-old Frenkie de Jong, have as good as sealed the signing of Exequiel Palacios, 20, and - according to reports in the UK - are weighing up bids for Marcus Rashford (21) and Christian Eriksen (26). Five names that feature in Madrid's plans for a process of generational renewal that they began by securing the signatures of the likes of Marco Asensio (22), Fede Valverde (20), Álvaro Odriozola (22), Andriy Lunin (19), Vinicius (18) and Rodrygo Goes (17).
In recent years, Madrid's transfer policy has changed. The last eye-wateringly expensive signing made by the club's president, Florentino Pérez, was the 101-million-euro purchase of Gareth Bale back in 2013. Now, Pérez's fixation with suping up the Bernabéu has brought about a determination to cut costs - one that has ultimately weakened the squad - that has led the club to move away from headline-grabbing, 'galáctico' signings and instead comb the market for young talents whose value is yet to sky-rocket. As an established Premier League star in his mid-20s, that doesn't apply to Eriksen; however, he does fit into another strategy that Madrid are following: negotiating with clubs when a player has a year left on his contract, in an attempt to take him to the Spanish capital for a more affordable price. That's how they picked up Thibaut Courtois last summer; now, they are eyeing a similar swoop for the Dane, whose Tottenham deal runs out in 2020...
With these two plans of action in place, Madrid are in the midst of a series of short and medium-term modifications to the team that has won four of the last five Champions Leagues. Almost all of the players who make up the spine of that side (Keylor Navas, Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema...) are now either close to, or over, 30 - and the club are looking to the future, with seven players aged under 23 currently in the first-team squad.
Madrid have secured the future of their goalkeeping position for the next decade. With Navas, the side's custodian in each of the past three Champions League wins, about to turn 32, the club signed Courtois, 26, last summer. The Belgian wanted to return to Spain, was going into the final year of his Chelsea contract and had decided not to renew - and Los Merengues took full advantage to snare a player who was named goalkeeper of the tournament at the World Cup in Russia for a knockdown fee of 35 million euros. Courtois appears destined to be Madrid's number one for at least the next five years. However, with the club's sights set even further into the future, they have also captured teenager Lunin for 8.5 million euros. A keeper who is 6'3" and boasts bags of potential, he impressed in pre-season with Madrid but, to ensure he continues his development, was loaned out to Leganés. He has only played twice for the Butarque outfit, however; a fringe role that has led Madrid to consider recalling him and sending him out to elsewhere.
The 2011 arrival of an 18-year-old Raphael Varane for just 10 million euros - the Frenchman joining a defensive group of players featuring Ramos, Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho and Raúl Albiol - signalled the beginning of Madrid's current process of renewal at the back. Since then, the 13-time European Cup winners have brought in a steady stream of young blood aimed at guaranteeing the future of the team's backline: Dani Carvajal (re-purchased for 6.5 million euros), Nacho Fernández (promoted from Castilla), Theo Hernández (30 million), Odriozola (30 million), Jesús Vallejo (5 million), Sergio Reguilón (Castilla)... Ramos, 32, is now the squad's only defender over 30. Varane, 25, and Nacho, 28, will be tasked with being the old heads that help ensure a smooth generational handover in central defence as his career winds down, while Vallejo's continuous injury problems mean Madrid have been persuaded to sign another centre-back, with club youth product Mario Hermoso, whose rise at Espanyol earned him a Spain debut this week, at the top of their wishlist. Madrid have a 7.5-million-euro buy-back option on the 23-year-old, but he is only open to a return to the Bernabéu if he's going to be a starter.
Real Madrid's midfield has gone from dominated (when Pérez was re-elected to the presidency in 2009, he returned to the club with one obsession: to strengthen the attack) to dominant. With more successful signings (Modric, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Isco) than flops (Nuri Sahin, Lucas Silva, Asier Illarramendi...), the team has shifted towards a greater tendency to embrace more patient build-up play, an approach that has brought excellent results - particularly in Europe: with Modric pulling the strings in the engine room, Madrid have lifted four of the last five European titles; but, at 33, the Croat is starting to show signs of struggling physically, while midfield partner Kroos, who turns 29 in January, isn't getting any younger. And having witnessed Barcelona's difficulties in replacing Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta, Madrid don't want to be caught out in the same way. Los Blancos have gone after 'pre-emptive signings', young starlets with the potential to blossom into top-class midfielders and join established operators like Casemiro (26), Isco (26) and Lucas Vázquez (27). In the last four seasons, they have bought Martin Odegaard (who at the time was 16) for 10.5 million euros, Valverde for 5 million euros (17) and Lucas Silva for 18.9 million euros (21), brought back Marcos Llorente (22), signed the best player at the last European Under-21 Championhip, Dani Ceballos, for 16.5 million euros... Some have failed to meet expectations (Silva), while others haven't made the progress that had been anticipated (Llorente) or have simply failed to take off (Odegaard). That's why Madrid remain on the lookout for further midfield youth, and are set to snap up Palacios with a view to the Argentine succeeding Kroos, have De Jong on their radar as competition for Casemiro, and want Eriksen to be the 'new Modric'...
Asensio typifies Madrid's 'pre-emptive' approach to a tee. In December 2014, the club moved astutely to sign the then-Real Mallorca youngster, who was just 18, for a fee of only 3.9 million euros. He remained at Mallorca on loan, before being lent to Espanyol for a season to cut his teeth in Primera, and then being added to Zinedine Zidane's first-team squad in summer 2016. A player blessed with daring, technique and frightening ability on the ball, 'Zizou' placed his faith in Asensio and, from the get-go, he was heralded as Cristiano Ronaldo's future replacement. In the wake of the Portuguese's departure this year, all eyes were on Asensio as a spearhead of the new Madrid, but he has so far struggled to respond to the challenge. However, it should not be forgotten that he is still just 22...
The strategy that brought Asensio to the Bernabéu has, since then, also seen Madrid sign Vinicius and Rodrygo, both for 45 million euros while still 17-year-olds. Having arrived in Spain this summer, the former has already given Madridistas plenty of cause for excitement; meanwhile, the latter is due to move to Madrid from Santos in mid-2019. Now, Los Merengues are aiming to continue the transfer policy by bringing in Brahim, who has already made the decision to leave Manchester. The Andalusian fits perfectly into the plan for generational renewal that the Bernabéu outfit have set in motion. So too does Fluminense forward Pedro, who Madrid are keeping firmly in their thoughts despite his serious injury...
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