Dani Ceballos or James Rodriguez: Do Real Madrid Fans Think This Is an Upgrade?

Karl MatchettFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2017

Dani Ceballos during the UEFA European Under-21 match between Spain and FYR Macedonia on June 17, 2017 in Gdynia, Poland. (Photo by MB Media)
MB Media/Getty Images

Real Madrid have already been involved in more transfer business this summer than they deigned to partake in one year ago, and the early signs are that manager Zinedine Zidane is happy to entrust the continued success of Los Blancos to younger stars-in-waiting.

Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos have joined the squad, while James Rodriguez is the big-name departure, heading to Bayern Munich on a long-term loan deal.

Ceballos, a €16 million signing from Real Betis, is one of Spain's latest prospects hoping to make the jump from exciting youth star to full-fledged elite—though as the man he replaces found out, first-team football at the Santiago Bernabeu is not easy to come by for midfielders.

But do the fans think Ceballos will triumph where James ultimately failed?

        

James

Colombian playmaker James Rodriguez was a massive hit in 2014; he impressed with Monaco, starred at the World Cup for his nation and then made a megamoney move to Real Madrid. His debut season, under Carlo Ancelotti, was incredibly successful and seemed to pave the way for him to become a Madrid regular for seasons to come.

It didn't happen.

After two years largely spent on the bench under Rafa Benitez and Zidane, James is off to Bayern Munich to reunite with his old Italian mentor.

Colombian midfielder James Rodriguez, new recruit of German first division Bundesliga football club Bayern Munich, smiles as he poses with Bayern Munich's Italian headcoach Carlo Ancelotti (L) after the official presentation during a press conference for
CHRISTOF STACHE/Getty Images

Capable of playing as a No. 10, an attacking central midfielder or in from the sides in either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, James' versatility and stunning goal return still weren't enough to make him an influential part of what has been the world's best club side across 2016 and 2017.

So if an international superstar, with goal threat and flexibility to his game, couldn't find a regular spot, does it mean automatically that a prospect is a wasted signing or a free gamble that doesn't matter if it doesn't pay off?

Speaking to four Real Madrid supporters, it's clear they don't see it that way.

       

Differentiation

While Ceballos may be the incoming name to the midfield as James departs, it's clear they're not identical in terms of style or role.

Our first fan, Sully, acknowledged James must be considered the superior individual—but that means little in an overall team ethos:

Betis' forward Dani Ceballos (L) controls the ball past Villarreal's midfielder Samuel Castillejo during the Spanish league football match Real Betis vs Villarreal CF at the Benito Villamarin stadium in Sevilla on April 4, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / CRISTINA QUI
CRISTINA QUICLER/Getty Images

"I think Ceballos is a better fit in Zidane's Madrid, but that doesn't mean he's a better playerCeballos can be compared to Angel Di Maria—lots of energy, unorthodox style, breaks through teams—while James is a 10 in the purest sense.

"For teams sitting deep to defend, Ceballos can be a crucial substitute for sure. It's also worth noting that James' situation at Real wasn't purely about him not fitting; it goes deeper."

Mohammed is keen to note that the loss of James isn't one to get a quick fix, regardless of whether he was a starting name or not:

"James can't be replaced so easily. His goals [and] assists per minute are second to no one in Madrid not named Ronaldo. Yes, with more minutes these normalise, but very few players are as productive in creating goals.

"If Ceballos is happy to barely play—as even with James leaving, he isn't better than Isco or Mateo Kovacic—this is as good as Madrid can do to manage the situation.

"Does it make team better? No, and James joins a direct competitor in the Champions League, but it's making the best of [the] situation."

LEGANES, MADRID - APRIL 05: James Rodriguez (L) of Real Madrid CF leaves the pitch behind his coach Zinedine Zidane (R) during the La Liga match between CD Leganes and Real Madrid CF at Estadio Municipal de Butarque on April 5, 2017 in Leganes, Spain.  (P
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

For sure, Zidane will have to offer Ceballos game time on some level—the former Betis prodigy hasn't exactly been known for his patience or level-headedness so far in his short career—but there's also an element of adjusting to go through, of finding his place in the dressing room.

James was a top dog because of his wages, his reputation and his achievements, and sitting as a sub never looked a comfortable fit.

       

Long term

Along with Ceballos, left-back Theo goes to Madrid representing quality coming through to the first XI for years to come.

Those two are in addition to the likes of Marco Asensio, Jesus Vallejo and Marcos Llorente as young hopefuls, aged 19 to 22, who can keep Madrid fighting for titles even as Pepe has departed, Cristiano Ronaldo becomes the squad's oldest player, and the likes of Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric ease beyond age 30.

CARDIFF, WALES - JUNE 03:  Cristiano Ronaldo (R) of Real Madrid CF celebrates with his team mate Luka Modric after scoring his team's third goal during the UEFA Champions League Final between Juventus and Real Madrid at National Stadium of Wales on June 3
David Ramos/Getty Images

It's a clear plan for succession that Los Blancos have opted for, and Ceballos can play a part in that, not just for 2017/18 but well beyond.

Our third fan, Ondra, is happy that—given time and tolerance—Ceballos can reach the levels that James has already proven capable of:

"He is one of the brightest young Spanish midfielders and he certainly can reach James' level. His individual quality is excellent, but there is still a lot of room for improvement, especially on his mental strength and decision making. Right now, he isn't on James' level, but if we consider his price and age, it was a steal.

Zidane really liked playing with four midfielders last season and it's not inconceivable that he will continue to do so.

In that case, James would be redundant because his spot is already occupied by Isco and Asensio. Dani Ceballos fits better than James to this new Real Madrid side."

The expectation has to be, in tactical terms, that Zidane utilises both the 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 diamond seen in the first and second halves of last season, respectively.

Ceballos fits in either, but he can hardly be expected to be a fulcrum of La Liga's, Europe's and indeed the world's best XI—even if Zidane did happen to want him thrown straight in, an unlikely outcome.

"Madrid have done well with bringing young players and not expecting them to carry load early, with Isco a great example," Mohammed reminded us.

EIBAR, SPAIN - MARCH 04: Isco of Real Madrid controls the ball during the La Liga match between SD Eibar and Real Madrid at Ipurua Municipal Stadium on March 4, 2017 in Eibar, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

"Ceballos looks like Isco three years ago. I think he impacts Isco and Mateo Kovacic's minutes most. I wouldn't want to lose Isco (who hasn't renewed) or Kovacic (who is better than Ceballos clearly and only 23) to appease Ceballos this year.

"I would rather risk losing Modric now than Kovacic, who could be a key player long term!"

Another year, another juggling act for Zidane—but he has so far proved admirably capable of doing exactly that, with minimal casualties.

        

Ability

Bottom line, if James played between 1,500 and 2,000 minutes for Real Madrid, offloading him means someone else has to step up and take over that game time—and his output in the final third.

It's not as easy as slotting someone in for James (who played 1,498 minutes last season) and getting the exact same numbers, but one in and one out should (in theory) help Real Madrid make the squad better overall. Does the addition of Ceballos do that?

KRAKOW, POLAND - JUNE 30: Dani Ceballos of Spain is awarded the Player of the Tournament by Aleksander Ceferin, UEFA president during the UEFA European Under-21 Championship Final between Germany and Spain at Krakow Stadium on June 30, 2017 in Krakow, Pol
Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images

Our fourth and final fan, Kiyan, pleads caution:

"Dani Ceballos is crazy exciting. His upside knows no bounds, and the chip on his shoulder is real. He's someone you want to go to war with on the pitch, and you'll have a guaranteed maximum effort alongside him in a do-or-die match.

But let's zoom out for a second.

James was shuffled to the deep depths of Real Madrid's squad last season, and some of that recency bias has trickled into pockets of the fanbase. James set the world on fire in 2014 and was great in 2015—not all that long ago.

That shouldn't get lost.

Is Ceballos currently an upgrade? In Zidane's eyes, it's possible. But we don't have a large enough sample size to have a definitive answer yet."

There's pressure on Ceballos to perform, just as there is on every single signing that Real Madrid make.

That comes with the territory of joining one of the world's biggest clubs and especially at a time when they have been so successful once again. Ceballos will back himself to join the elite and prove he's worthy of standing alongside them.

But making the squad better, being an upgrade?

For 17/18, perhaps not—but this was always a long-term game. Ceballos could go on to play a key part in the future of the team, a future that James so clearly didn't have. The supporters are happy to wait it out and see just how much their newest addition improves and contributes.

      

All quotes obtained firsthand.

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