The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo is arguably the most interesting void left in the history of soccer. The most successful club in all of Europe must replace a five-time Ballon d’Or winner. In an age where opinions are breathed as often as air, all eyes are affixed to the Spanish capital, and many voices lend themselves to the debate–who will he be?
The Big Name “Galacticos”
In this category sits the names you’ve probably seen attached to Madrid for a year (or years) before Ronaldo left. This is because they’re recognizable and high-profile enough to fit the “return to Galacticos” agenda that fans (and Madrid president Florentino Perez) have pushed for ever since Gareth Bale made his big-money move from Tottenham in 2013 (although it could be argued that James Rodriguez was a Galactico signing, which would set the last date at 2014). Nevertheless, it has been 4-5 years since Los Blancos have imported a name of such magnitude and the clamoring to make such a splash has been noisy ever since.
The difficulty for Real is that the players in this category are already owned by some of the biggest clubs in the world. Everyone knows Perez is under pressure to replace Ronaldo, so at the negotiations table the chairman opposite the Madrid tycoon is not only operating from a position of wealth, but power as well. They don’t need to sell.
Ipso facto, this rules out the majority of possible big names. PSG’s Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are going nowhere for a trifecta of reasons, the aforementioned wealth and power, but the French club is also working under an oddly-developed pride and ambition that stems from an inferiority complex. France’s Ligue 1 is not considered among the big four domestic leagues, and PSG are historically not part of Europe’s elite. President Nasser Al-Khelaifi has been on a mission to reverse the footballing world’s perception of PSG since taking over in 2011. They have progressed to the point where they now posses two of the biggest stars in the game, and although under heat from Financial Fair Play restrictions, have resolved to sell a few lesser-profile players than to surrender either of Neymar or Mbappe. It’s with a rhetoric of pride to look an established power like Madrid in the eyes and say “we will not sell when we are your equal.” Whether they are or not is moot, you can cross off two of the biggest possible Galacticos.
Los Blancos don’t have a history of big-name transfers with PSG, but they do with another club when hearkening back to the Bale transfer. Tottenham’s Harry Kane has been on the Spanish club’s radar ever since his breakout season in 2014-15, yet there are multiple reasons why he won’t be going anywhere this summer. You can point to his new 6-year contract signed in June. You can point to the track record of British soccer players finding life on and off the pitch in Madrid difficult. Bale’s experience has been tumultuous, and the memory of Jonathan Woodgate still makes grown Madridistas cry. Although this shouldn’t be a transfer-policy deterrent moving forward, it does sway the public opinion, which can sometimes reach the ears of those making the decisions. Above all, Kane won’t be moving because of Daniel Levy. The Spurs’ chairman has a famed reputation for being a hard-nosed negotiator–getting him to budge at the table is like getting a stray cat to run through an obstacle course. To reinforce his will not to sell is the argument that Tottenham’s image has grown dangerously close to looking like a feeder club for Madrid, having already coughed up Bale in 2013 and Luka Modric in 2012. Despite years without a major move between the two clubs, allowing Kane to leave at such a high-profile time to that team would leave the London club with the unenviable distinction of a smaller team acting as a pipeline for a larger one. Again, pride plays its part.
In another rumor, history and necessity are the causes for a Madrid move derailment. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard was perhaps the player brought up most fervently to fill Ronaldo’s void after a scintillating World Cup for the Belgium. However, you only need to look at the club he plays for to understand why he won’t be going anywhere. First, Chelsea’s summer’s transfer activity, or lack thereof: Jorginho, Robert Green…that’s it. Owner Roman Abramovich knows he must keep his star attraction if he wants a prayer at competing in the Premier League. While the competition–notably Liverpool and title holder’s Manchester City–have all been busy improving their odds, Chelsea have been quiet and, as a result, lost ground. With all due respect to the talents of Jorginho, there’s nobody capable of replacing Hazard if he leaves. The ownership knows this, the fans know this; in the most competitive league in the world, losing a mercurial talent like Hazard is a death knell for title aspirations.
So that’s the contemporary side of things, but ask yourself when considering Chelsea a selling club: have they ever been receptive to it? Have they let a player go in their prime? Recent memory stretching back to beginning of Abramovich’s tenure in 2003 says it’s unlikely, but here’s a visual of the top names who have left since then:
When putting together this table, I chose to include big names and important members of Chelsea’s history. I asked what constituted a player’s prime, and came up with some values. I approximated that prime years occurred after 24 and before 30 (although plenty of players peak early or late). If a departing player fell within the determined range, their age was highlighted in green. If they left aged 30 or older, they’re highlighted in red. 24 or younger was left in black, and can be considered starlets or prospects. I then look at the club to which they departed–it should be asked, is it bigger than Chelsea or comparably-sized? Is it a step down? Often a prospect leaves for a smaller club in search of more playing time, and someone past their prime leaves for an easier level of play and/or a last paycheck. Lastly I list the transfer fee, since naturally a player in their prime fetches a higher sum than someone in their 30s (there are no Cristiano Ronaldo anomalies on this list). Outliers can always include a player not signing a new contract and leaving for free, or a team buying high on a player with unrealized potential. The latter is exemplified by young players like Arjen Robben (23) and Romelu Lukaku (21).
Ultimately, the point is to look at Abramovich’s history and ask if selling Hazard fits the mold. He’s currently 27, so he’s in his prime age-wise. Unsurprisingly, his value is through the roof: at the start of 2018, transfermarkt.co.uk had him valued at €100m; seven months later, they now have him sitting at €120m. In the latest talks between Chelsea and Real, Abramovich has been attempting to price-out Perez by setting Hazard’s cost at north of €200m. If those figures, coupled with Chelsea’s transfer history since 2003, are any indication, then ownership will not let the Belgium become Madrid-bound.
Another name that has been mentioned for years now is Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski. Ever since the Polish international poached 4 goals vs Madrid in 2013 as a Borussia Dortmund player, he has been watched closely by the Spanish club. While Real Madrid are in desperate need for a proven goalscorer, and Lewandowski is one of a few players whose production can rival Ronaldo’s in volume and consistency, interest has cooled. It seems that the switch in coaches from Zidane to Lopetegui might have some part in the player no longer vocally asking for an exit from Germany, and likewise that all recent reports from Madrid make no mention of Lewandowski as the possible replacement for CR7. Yet, of all the possible Galactico signings, he remains by far the most realistic–don’t be surprised if his name resurfaces after an absence from the rumor mills. And while his acquisition wouldn’t move mountains like that of Neymar and Hazard, his prolific talent in front of goal warrants the tag of Galactico, along with the hefty price tag that Bayern would attach to him.
The Rising Stars and Established Veterans
Players in this category don’t have the prestige, fanfare, or price tag that would consider them as a Galactico signing. At some point they have been stated as Madrid’s “Ronaldo replacement,” and it would be easier (and therefore more likely) to bring in a name of lesser magnitude than the players listed above.
Those who just missed the cut are proven stars like Bayern Munich’s James Rodriguez and PSG’s Edinson Cavani. The reasons why their arrival in Madrid would underwhelm compared to that of Kane or Mbappe are plain to see. Rodriguez, currently on a two-year loan from Real, disappointed for large stretches in the famous white shirt and struggled to find consistency as he frequently rotated from the pitch to the bench. While bringing him back would certainly bolster the attack, James is not a like-for-like replacement for Ronaldo. His return would come with the expectation that he’s been brought back to largely fill that void, and he’s simply not a score-in-spades attacker. Of all the possible transfers that Madrid could make in this window, James would arrive the most advantaged and disadvantaged. While he knows many of the players and should find developing chemistry to be of no issue, he also has to prove himself worthy of the Bernabeu faithful. If the Colombian doesn’t make an immediate impression, he might find the whistles raining down on him rather quickly.
Cavani is at a different disadvantage, one which is entirely out of his control. While the Uruguayan had a scintillating World Cup, and has been a clinical finisher in Italy and France for some time, he would arrive in Spain at the wrong side of 30. He’s the oldest of the players rumored to replace Cristiano, and as a result his transfer would be seen to be more of a band aid than a permanent solution. That would be forgotten, of course, if he started producing at Ronaldo-like levels for Los Blancos; however, if his conversion rate was closer to Karim Benzema’s, then the calls for him to be replaced in the starting XI by a younger talent would intensify.
Between Cavani and Rodriguez, the former is more likely to come to Madrid. Bayern have publicly stated on multiple occasions their desire to retain James, while PSG is alleged to have no issue letting Cavani go for the right price.
While two veterans have been mentioned, two younger names have also arisen as Madrid-bound options–Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic. Milinkovic-Savic has been a popular name to move to one of Europe’s elites, and despite a quite anonymous World Cup showing for a Serbian team that departed in the group stage, he remains a constant in this summer’s transfer talk. Understood as one of the worlds most promising talents, the Serbian is more of a playmaker than a goalscorer, and wouldn’t come close to replacing Ronaldo. His signing would, though, continue a recent trend of Perez snapping up the best young talent, with the hope that eventually he’d become a shining gem in Madrid’s crown.
In that same conversation of fantastic young talent is the name of Pulisic. The American is well known as the man to assume the mantle from Landon Donovan as the star of the US National Team, but can he do the same in Madrid? There is no argument that Ronaldo’s mantle is a far weightier one than Donovan’s–and the eyes of the Bernabeu are much more critical than those of the United States. The sentiment of signing him would be the same as that of Sergej but, being 4 years younger than the Serbian, the question must be asked if it’s too early to move to the biggest stage in the world. Certainly Perez will not think that way–young talent is young talent, and Pulisic is close to the top in that category. The likelihood is that Pulisic would come over later in his career, unburdened of the tag as “Ronaldo’s replacement” a few windows after the Portuguese has left. After all, Dortmund is a much more promising breeding ground for starlets (see Lewandowski, Ousmane Dembele, Ilkay Gundogan, etc.) than Lazio, making it less tempting to move for Pulisic (when there’s a strong chance he’ll progress rapidly in Germany) than to grab Milinkovic-Savic ahead of his many suitors.
Here’s my hot take for the article: Real Madrid will not buy a Ronaldo replacement this summer. When all the big-name targets are out of reach, it’s tempting to bring anyone in to satiate the fans and media. Los Blancos are under tremendous pressure from all fronts to spend the transfer money from Ronaldo on his heir, so much so that earlier in July Perez stated that “our great squad will be strengthened with magnificent players.” In part this could mean a goalkeeping addition to push Keylor Navas–but that’s not really why it got everyone talking. We know why those words carry weight. Yet, from that same week, I find Lopetegui’s quote that he expects the squad to be “tweaked” to be more accurate and less politically motivated. There’s no placating or appealing in that word; it’s underwhelming and doesn’t incite excitement.
Often the simpler statements carry the most truth. At the end of the transfer window, the squad will be tweaked with loan departures and role promotions. The truth here is that Lopetegui has inherited a team with a multitude of world-class attackers whose stardoms have been stunted under the long shadow of Ronaldo, which has hovered over the team for nine years and which saw many talents leave to escape it. I expect Perez, despite all his words and intentions, to let it play out in the sun and see who can ascend the highest. Players like Gareth Bale and Isco have long been touted as CR7’s successor, and more recently the youthful, electric talents of Marco Asensio and newly-arrived Vinicius Junior have laid claim to the throne. I anticipate that one of these four will rise to the regal prominence recently vacated by the Portuguese legend. One of these four will become the man of Madrid.
Scupper the rumors being murmured in Manchester, Gareth Bale will remain in Spain and become the new King.