When Kylian Mbappe shocked Real Madrid in May by deciding to sign a new contract at Paris Saint-Germain, it seemed quite possible that the La Liga giants would be plunged into drama and crisis.
Not completing the widely-anticipated free-agent signing of the France striker was a huge public embarrassment for club president Florentino Perez, who had so personally pursued Mbappe for years, and has historically not always reacted rationally to such setbacks.
Even usually restrained and responsible publications such as The Athletic predicted Perez would impulsively and hugely spend to try to hide his shame, with names in the mix potentially including Harry Kane, Neymar or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Viewed now, deep into the summer transfer window, it was the journalists involved who reacted wildly and irresponsibly to Mbappe’s decision, not the Madrid hierarchy.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side winning the club’s 14th Champions League title just a week after Mbappe re-signed with PSG allowed everyone at the Bernabeu to move quickly on.
They serenely completed the free-agent signing of Chelsea and Germany central defender Antonio Rudiger, and invested €80million (£67m, $82m) in emerging French midfield star Aurelien Tchoaumeni. Meanwhile, space was freed on the wage bill by saying goodbye to veterans Gareth Bale, Isco and Marcelo when their contracts ended on June 30.
Madrid’s directors and fans even reacted calmly to losing 1-0 to Barcelona in their showpiece friendly in Las Vegas on July 23 during their United States pre-season tour. Being defeated by their Catalan arch-rivals in any situation usually provokes drama in the Spanish capital, but this was just accepted as a warm-up game where the result was not such a big deal.
For Perez and those around him, what happened in Vegas was less important anyway than the game being played there at all.
It was not a coincidence that Madrid and Barcelona agreed to meet in the US this summer for the first game of the new Soccer Champions Tour — a showcase in which the only other European team is Juventus, the other Super League “rebel”.
The week before that Barcelona game, the European Court of Justice heard arguments in the case brought against UEFA by the three remaining Super League clubs.
The rebels have told The Athletic they remain confident they can persuade the judges, who are drawn from all EU member states, that UEFA acted as a monopoly by unfairly restricting them from setting up a rival competition, which they have the right to do under EU law. In the hearings, UEFA countered that sport must be treated differently from other business activities due to its cultural and social importance. A decision in the case is not expected until late this year or early 2023.
During their time in the US, Perez met his counterparts Joan Laporta (Barcelona) and Andrea Agnelli (Juventus) to discuss that project, which they insist has only stalled, not failed.
It was not a coincidence that the three “rebel” clubs did not meet any of Europe’s other top clubs during their respective trips to the US, or in any other friendlies this summer, amid their general ostracisation by the other elite clubs.
Meanwhile, Ancelotti and his players were just getting on with preparing for 2022-23, improving across further outings against Mexican side Club America in San Francisco (a helter-skelter 2-2 draw) and Juventus in Dallas (a smooth 2-0 win ).
Some expected the arrival of the towering Rudiger to push the more versatile David Alaba to left-back, but Ancelotti says he plans to keep Alaba together with Eder Militao in the middle of the back four. It was Rudiger who played on the left of the back line in his “debut” against Barcelona, and he will have to bide his time and make his case for a regular place in the starting XI.
Those three summer games have also suggested that the long-serving midfield of Luka Modric (37 next month), Toni Kroos (32) and Casemiro (30) are not done yet. “I call them the Bermuda Triangle, because the ball disappears in there,” Ancelotti said, with his customary twinkle, after the trio showed their usual cohesion while helping Madrid dominate Juventus on Saturday.
The younger trio of Tchouameni (22), Federico Valverde (24) and Eduardo Camavinga (19) started together against Barcelona a week earlier, but found things difficult. Their time will come, but the veterans will all start next Wednesday’s UEFA Super Cup meeting with Germany’s Europa League champions Eintracht Frankfurt in Helsinki, Finland.
Last year, Ancelotti showed his skill at adapting to circumstances and moments of form — so time will tell which XI will start when the big European games roll around (we assume) in the spring.
The only moment when Mbappe returned to mind came in the Barcelona game, which Karim Benzema missed with a minor knock. Without him, Madrid lacked a focal point up top. He was back for the second friendly against Club America three days later, sweeping in a stylish 20-yard goal with frightening ease. Then, against Juventus, Benzema helped construct the penalty won by Vinicius Junior, and converted it to set the team on their way.
The lack of a backup to Benzema is now the clear problem in this squad.
After making barely any impact in three years at the club, Luka Jovic has been offloaded to Fiorentina of Italy this summer, in exchange for 50 percent of any future transfer. Homegrown forward Borja Mayoral, now 25, was sold domestically to Getafe for €10 million after a string of loans in recent years. Mariano Diaz refuses to leave but is not part of Ancelotti’s plans. Another No. 9 would be very useful to have.
The money was there to sign Mbappe this summer, and plenty is left even after the outlay on Tchouameni.
Bale’s departure, in particular, has opened up more space on a wage bill, which, at €400 million last season, was about €160 million less than Barcelona’s. But there is still no clamor among the fans and pundits for a big-money signing to rival or eventually replace Benzema, who turns 35 in December, up front.
Another sign of just how relaxed everyone is was Bale, now with LAFC in MLS, visiting his ex-team-mates when the tour got to Los Angeles — it was smiles all round, with none of the rancour that marked the Welshman’s long divorce from the club.
— Real Madrid CF 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@realmadriden) July 29, 2022
Ancelotti says he does not expect more new signings before the window closes on September 1.
He has been working on reinventing Eden Hazard as a false nine, from where the 31-year-old’s neat dribble and link-up play created a goal for Marco Asensio against Juventus. The latter’s own future is unclear amid a contract stand-off with the club hierarchy, but his future is not causing any wider problems. There is a huge contrast with the summer over at Barcelona, where each day brings new noise as signings arrive in a dressing room full of players their directors are trying to sell.
Madrid could do more business before the summer window closes.
Should a suitable buyer be found for Asensio, the club’s transfer decision makers will aim for another younger attacker. They could also tidy up around the edges in defense, maybe selling the unwanted duo of Alvaro Odriozola and Jesus Vallejo, and completing a deal with Shakhtar Donetsk for 18-year-old Brazilian right-back Vinicius Tobias.
In his second spell as Madrid coach, Ancelotti has integrated young players who have brought energy and physicality to the squad, so Rudiger and Tchouameni fit the mold. Veteran fitness coach Antonio Pintus has been preparing the team for this unique club season. On top of the World Cup in November and December, there will be the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia in January and at some point a Club World Cup whose format, date and even location are still up in the air.
It all fits with Madrid’s current situation of no drama and little real excitement but lots of confidence and good vibes.
Ancelotti also said last week that “the effect of (European Cup) No 14 remains alive”. The positive atmosphere is evident among the fans and the squad.
An upbeat, summery outlook is, of course, easier to maintain before the real games begin away to promoted Almeria a week on Sunday. Ancelotti will remember that, 12 months after he guided Madrid to their long-awaited 10th European Cup in 2014, Perez sacked him for finishing 2014-15 without a major trophy.
The Bernabeu big cheese may be less impulsive these days, and the team’s transfer policy may be more restrained and rational, but this is still Real Madrid we’re talking about and Perez, even at 75, is still in charge.
For the moment, though, even without Mbappe, Madrid are in a very good place.
A summer that, at one point, promised fire and brimstone has instead been all smiles and hugs.
(Top photo: James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)