Real Madrid Play an Unfamiliar Game: What to do Post-Ronaldo

Real Madrid have put together an incredible run in the Champions League the past three years, vanquishing every opponent they’ve faced in the knockout rounds. However, so much of Madrid’s identity hinges on Cristiano Ronaldo, the world-class winger who has ostensibly been challenging Lionel Messi for the moniker of best player in the world over the past ten years. Ronaldo, at the age of 33, has just traded Madrid for Turin for 100 million euros. Ronaldo will undoubtedly have great success at Juventus. They have championship pedigree, and the league as a whole fits Ronaldo’s playing style well — plenty of time on the ball, lots of counter attacks, et cetera. However, Real Madrid now have a gaping hole to fill, both tactically and from a marketing perspective. What can Florentino Perez do to fill those holes?

So much of Real Madrid’s identity revolves around its transfer spending that it would not surprise me to see Real first look to splash the cash. Starting in 2000, Real began their Galactico era by signing Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo Fenomeno, and David Beckham for a combined 220 million euros. That generation of Galacticos didn’t live up to expectations, so naturally Madrid tried the same experiment again with the signings of Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso, Luka Modrić, Isco, Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos, and James Rodriguez for a combined total of upwards of 500 million euros over a six year span.

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates his unveiling in Turin. Image: Sports Fan Journal

However, from a marketing and goal-scoring perspective, there are two players in the world who can fill Ronaldo’s void: Kylian Mbappe, who just completed a 160 million euro transfer after his loan-to-buy from Monaco to Paris Saint-Germain was made official, and Neymar, arguably the player with the largest media profile in the world.

Given Mbappe’s price tag and Neymar’s recent transfer of 222 million euros, both of them should be off the table. That is only temporary, of course: I don’t see Neymar ending up at any team other than Real Madrid as his next destination, and eventually Mbappe will outgrow Ligue 1, but for now they will likely stay put. PSG have no incentive to sell at this point either. This means the next best players that are likely available for transfer are Eden Hazard, Robert Lewandowski, and Mauro Icardi. All three of those players are world-class, but there are issues with all three of them: Hazard is not a very marketable star, and his productivity doesn’t come close to Ronaldo, Lewandowski is soon to be 30, and Mauro Icardi is a toxic locker room presence.

What should Madrid do in that case? Chelsea are asking for above 200 million for Hazard, which almost certainly takes him off the table. Lewandowski would make sense given his asking price; by purchasing him and offloading Karim Benzema, Madrid would at least temporarily fix their striker dilemma. Icardi would fill the same void.

However, when it comes to Ronaldo’s heir, Madrid have a player in Gareth Bale, who, in theory, is ready to take over the helm, assuming he can stay healthy, which is no guarantee. Bale scored two goals in the Champions League Final, including my presumptive favorite for the Puskas award. He has the marketability, if he can stay fit: he scores golazos, he has a unique appearance, and he cost the world record transfer fee when he was signed. Bale should start at left wing this season, and he should come close to replicating Ronaldo’s productivity. Madrid should put their faith in Bale rather than wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on a new winger this summer. By waiting, they can also start to stockpile funds for their eventual Neymar bid.

Julian Lopetegui is an apt choice to fill their managerial position. He has plenty of experience with the Spain setup, both at the youth levels and at the helm of the senior side. With young Spaniards like Marco Asensio, Alvaro Odriozola, Jesus Vallejo, Borja Mayoral, and the oft-misused Dani Ceballos, Real’s squad can look to build their next title-winning side from within. Isco as well has finally carved out a role after years of tumult and can look forward to further growth under Lopetegui. Perhaps most importantly, Real Madrid have not one, but two players ready to break onto the European scene in Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo. The two young Brazilian wunderkinds are set to join the senior squad this year. Vinicius Junior was signed two years ago, but due to Brazilian law he was only allowed to move after turning 18. I don’t think Madrid should expect him to start, but this year is vital for his development.

Vinicius will look to hit the ground running in Madrid. Image: NBC sports

This is not to say that Madrid should stray away from any and all transfers. They are reportedly close to wrapping up a deal for Chelsea stopper Thibaut Courtois for around 40 million euros. This is a signing that should be made, as he is both world class and, importantly, young enough to merit a long term commitment. Even signing Lewandowski or Icardi would not be a bad decision. Both players can score goals and would offer a good transition from Benzema to whichever young striker Real decide to prioritize next. Indeed, Icardi is young enough to be that striker, if his off-field antics can be tamed.

Madrid, its board, and its fans should recognize the scant chances they have at silverware this year. Barcelona should run away with La Liga barring a catastrophe, and the Champions League will be difficult to retain without Real’s talisman. No one player, save Mbappe or Neymar, can replicate everything Ronaldo brought to Real Madrid, and the sooner Perez recognizes this the better. Rather than panic-buy now, Madrid should prioritize growth from within coupled with smart, realistic signings that don’t empty the bank vault. Real Madrid might have to go against their last 18 years of transfer policy, but it will be worth it in the end.


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