Bale, Llorente, Ceballos and More: Real Madrid's Sale of the Century

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 27, 2019

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - DECEMBER 19: Gareth Bale of Real Madrid celebrates scoring their second goal with Marcos Llorente of Real Madrid during the FIFA Club World Cup semi-final match between Kashima Antlers and Real Madrid at Zayed Sports City Stadium on December 19, 2018 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)
Francois Nel/Getty Images

On June 18, Real Madrid unveiled the 18-year-old Brazilian sensation Rodrygo Goes.

The club had just shovelled more attacking ammunition into the hands of coach Zinedine Zidane. They are desperate to try to replace the goals that disappeared when Cristiano Ronaldo—a player who averaged 50 goals a season over a nine-year period—departed for Juventus last summer and to atone for their worst season this century.

Rodrygo was the third new attacking player to be presented in six days, following the blockbuster arrival of Eden Hazard—which drew a crowd of 50,000 to the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium—and Luka Jovic, a 21-year-old Serbian striker who reportedly cost €60 million.

Defenders Ferland Mendy and Eder Militao have also joined, pushing the club's summer spending to over €300 million. Rodrygo's addition to the team's roster raises the question, though: What will Real Madrid do with all this firepower?

Real Madrid now have five centre forwards in their squad—Karim Benzema, Jovic, Raul de Tomas, Mariano and Borja Mayoral—and 12 attacking players in total spread across its squad of 36 players; think Gareth Bale, Isco, Vinicius Junior, Marco Asensio, Lucas Vazquez, Hazard. The list of attacking players goes on and on.

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They have a surplus in every position, including four goalkeepers. Yet Real Madrid are only allowed to start the La Liga season in August with 25 players in their squad. Los Blancos have created the grounds for a fire sale of unprecedented proportion.

"This summer is unique," says Juanma Trueba, a Spanish football writer. "The club have never had as many players to sell because the club experienced such anxiety last season and what has happened in the league for the last couple of seasons [finishing 17 and 19 points behind Barcelona in 2018 and 2019, respectively]. It's a great opportunity for all the big clubs in Europe who want to buy good footballers for interesting prices.

"Before, Real Madrid went out and bought the big star of the day, but this time they are forcing themselves to trade so many players in an attempt to get in good players and to overhaul the squad. It's a difficult thing to do to improve on the team's quality, because the players they had—which delivered three Champions Leagues in a row for Zidane—have been excellent."

Eden Hazard
Eden HazardTF-Images/Getty Images

It was noticeable that club president Florentino Perez cited the club's disappointment that Julen Lopetegui couldn't achieve better results with his squad—which included a club-record eight players on the Ballon d'Or list—in the official statement announcing he was sacked as Real Madrid coach last October, straight after a 5-1 defeat to Barcelona in the Clasico at the Camp Nou.

"My worry is that Real Madrid will sell their best players that want to leave while other teams will reinforce themselves," says Trueba. "The market is always interested in talented players. If Real Madrid sells Bale, for example, which it seems they will eventually do at some point this summer, where are they going to find a player as good to replace him? If they sell Isco, what player will they get to compensate for him? 

"It seems a complicated situation. Maybe these older players on the squad don't generate much 'ilusion' [excitement] anymore, but is Mendy better than Marcelo when Marcelo is at his best? I have my doubts. Is Hazard better than Cristiano? Real Madrid are carrying out a revolution of their squad because the team have been poor the last two years and because experienced players are not interesting anymore for fans, but will their replacements be an improvement?

"Also, buying clubs know that Real Madrid are in a very poor negotiating position because Real Madrid are waiting to sell. They have a squad that is overstocked. It's hard to sell well in this position—to put sufficient value on your product.

"If a player doesn't have a place in the squad, he will have to go out on loan. Sergio Reguilon is a good player who needs to be in a team. Marcos Llorente was another player. He got impatient. He went to Atletico Madrid. Atletico Madrid have just made a good acquisition with Llorente, a player who is young and who I believe will triumph at Atletico Madrid because the club will give him the confidence to thrive."

Marcos Llorente
Marcos LlorenteDenis Doyle/Getty Images

The sale of 24-year-old Llorente—who won the man-of-the-match award at last year's FIFA Club World Cup final in Al-Ain, United Arab Emirates—to Atletico for €40 million is an interesting case.

It's rare clubs sell players to their main rivals, especially within the same city. (Interestingly, his father Paco Llorente went the opposite direction in 1987.) It could come back to haunt Real Madrid. There is a counter-argument, however, that Real Madrid have got a good fee for taking the risk. 

"Selling Llorente was good business for Real Madrid," says Santiago Segurola, a columnist with El Pais. "He had two years in Real Madrid's first team squad. He didn't establish himself as an undisputed starter. I believe the fee that Atletico Madrid paid for him is very high for a player who only played six games as a starter last season because of an injury to Casemiro, and for a player of his age.

"As a midfielder he's unfocused. He lacks concentration. He will do better with Diego Simeone [Atletico's manager] than with Zidane. It is no surprise that he has been discarded."

Real Madrid have done well selling players in recent times. The club offloaded Angel Di Maria to Manchester United in 2014 for a British club-transfer record. He never played as well again.

They got good money—€45 million excluding add-ons—for Mesut Ozil the previous season. In 2016, Real got Paris Saint-Germain to cough up €25 million for Jese, a squad player whose career has since gone into decline. There is a lustre to the Real Madrid brand when it comes to horse-trading.

"What Real Madrid do well is selling," says Segurola. "The sight of a Real Madrid jersey is a plus for the player. Llorente, if he had gone to Atletico from, say, Alaves, he would have cost less than €30 million.

"The same with the market value of Jesus Vallejo or Dani Ceballos. Their value increases because they play with Real Madrid. Why? Because obviously they have certain quality, but also they have potential to improve because they have yet to make that jump and establish themselves as a regular team player. Until now, they haven't had proper continuity."

Ceballos—who scored two goals on his full La Liga debut for Real Madrid against Alaves in September 2017—is another exciting young player who is on the exit ramp. He's part of a group of 13 players—including Llorente—who Marca valued at €475 million in transfer-fee potential, with a view to Real Madrid recouping €300 million from that list.

Ceballos is tearing it up again at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship, a tournament in which he was voted player of the tournament two years ago. He will be the fulcrum of Spain's team in its semi-final against France on Thursday.

"Ceballos never caught Zidane's attention. Zidane prefers other types of footballers," says Manuel Bruna, a journalist with Mundo Deportivo. "He doesn't think he's that good. He doesn't believe in his style of play. It's a trainer's imperative. Everybody says that Ceballos is very good but there are certain trainers who don't like him, and Zidane is one of them. Ceballos doesn't have a place in his team. He doesn't count on him."

Dani Ceballos in action for Spain U21s
Dani Ceballos in action for Spain U21sTF-Images/Getty Images

Part of the problem for Ceballos is that he's competing against Luka Modric, the Ballon d'Or holder, for a starting place on Real Madrid's team. His tiki-taka style of play isn't suited to Real Madrid's more cavalier, counter-attacking philosophy, either.

If he is sold—and his suitors reportedly include Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur—it will be another nail in the coffin for Real Madrid's policy of signing the best of Spain's young talent over the last several seasons. Other starlets—such as Sergio Canales and Asier Illarramendi—have come and gone over the years.  

"Real Madrid's youth transfer policy has been a failure," says Bruna. "Of all those players they've signed, none of them have become guaranteed starters. None have triumphed. Isco has only occasionally played well, but he's not a starter. Theo [Hernandez] will possibly go to Milan. Ceballos might go to Sevilla. Illarra [Illarramendi] returned to Real Socieded. Isco's future is up in the air." 

Trueba points out the fatal flaw in the plan: "Real Madrid are the club with the least patience in the world, and they go out and sign young players, which by definition need time and nurturing. It's an important paradox. Now we have Vinicius. It seems like he could be a great player, but I wonder will Real Madrid have patience with him or if they will give him the conditions to develop.

"Who knows, Rodrygo could be a super 'crack' [star player], but a player who is only 18 years old needs game time. He needs to be given time to grow, but at Madrid, he won't get that space. The club has Jovic, Hazard, Vinicius, Brahim [Diaz], who they signed from Manchester City, so it will be difficult to see where Rodrygo will get the opportunity to shine at Real Madrid." 

Bale's name looms large on Real Madrid's transfer list. He was the world's most expensive player when he signed for the club in 2013, and although he has won four UEFA Champions League medals, he cuts an isolated figure at the club.

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 21: (L-R) Isco of Real Madrid, Gareth Bale of Real Madrid, coach Zinedine Zidane of Real Madrid during the La Liga Santander  match between Real Madrid v Athletic de Bilbao at the Santiago Bernabeu on April 21, 2019 in Madrid Spain (
Soccrates Images/Getty Images

He doesn't feature in Zidane's plans for next season, but he has no plans to leave over the summer, according to Bale's agent Jonathan Barnett. Barnett joked last week that he had as much chance of winning at a famous English horse racing track as Bale had of going out on a loan deal. He knows he's in a strong bargaining position.

"Bale has reason in this stand-off," says Segurola. "He has a contract until 2022. He has a right to defend his position. There's this misguided notion that if a club want to sell him, the player will be happy to go. He knows he's on the cusp of 30 years of age. He has factors in his favour in this dispute. He has a great salary. He knows that Real Madrid have to try to sell him. They need to get a lot of money in. If not, they will have to pay him his €15 million salary this season. 

"It's obvious that Bale's transfer fee hasn't increased over the last couple of years, but it's also true that there are teams in England that have interest in getting Bale because of his football and commercial value. At the moment, the club are in selling mode, but once 'Operation Exit' nears completion, I believe that Bale's situation will be resolved."

There are a lot of business deals Real Madrid must get done in the meantime. Real Madrid have stolen a march on their major European rivals by getting so many new players in early in the summer. Trueba reckons the club—if they can sell well—might have the appetite to make one more big splash in the market by the time the Spanish market closes on September 2.

"I don't rule out the possibility that Real Madrid's big signing this summer has yet to come, whether that's Neymar or Kylian Mbappe," says Trueba. "They are the only two players in the market who carry this weight, the kind of player who could rekindle Real Madrid's reputation as the home of the Galacticos.

"Of course, it depends on the balance of income. If Real Madrid sell well, players like Isco, Bale, or a player like Raphael Varane who would command a big transfer fee, then watch out. You can bet that Real Madrid are paying attention to every possibility. Hazard was a great signing, but I have the feeling the president is preparing to deliver a bombshell." 


Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz