Having looked high should Real Madrid look low to replace Ronaldo?
Background photo: M Peneido, CC BY 2.0
Ask anyone what’s wrong with Real Madrid. Read an opinion. Watch pundits discuss it on television or the internet. Inevitably, everyone acknowledges Los Blancos didn’t replace Cristiano Ronaldo. The two-part response is also inevitable. You can’t replace Cristiano Ronaldo. Real Madrid must find a new way to win games.
To which I say yes you can and no they don’t.
Before you click on something else because you think I’m crazy, understand one fact. The Merengues signed Ronaldo from Manchester United in 2009 because he suited their playing style perfectly, just as Lionel Messi suits Barcelona.
Real Madrid plays a similar game to United, featuring wing play, counterattacks and service into the box. In fact, I probably should have said United plays like Madrid. Whoscored.com reports the Bernabeu mob send an average of 21 crosses into the box per 90. United, back to their old ways, deliver 18.
A decade ago, Real wasn’t looking to build a new team and system around a young star. They were searching for the ideal forward to plug and play into their scheme. Remember, Raul and the original Ronaldo were getting on the end of crosses and long balls from the likes of Steve McManaman and David Beckham long before Ronaldo signed.
Plug and play is what the erstwhile United winger did. Real haven’t changed following his departure because they didn’t change upon his arrival. Wide play, quick strikes and service into the box is written into the club’s DNA.
Early in his La Liga career Ronaldo could cut in from the wings and link up with Gonzalo Higuain or Karim Benzema in the middle. Later, he transformed into a perfect target man himself. He can deliver crosses, poach on the back door and head the ball with the best while still shifting out onto the wing to keep opponents off balance.
Mauro Icardi has been high on the list of Ronaldo replacements because he is a prototypical target man with far more games in his 26-year-old body than 30-year-old Robert Lewandowski. Inter are even more cross-happy than Madrid and United, pumping in 30 per match. Until he and wife/agent Wanda Nara became a bit too greedy, he made his living within 18 yards of goal.
Their antics stripped him of the Inter arm band and sidelined him with what Transfermarkt cleverly terms “inflammation”. The Argentine inflamed the Giuseppe Meazza clubhouse. Unfortunately, the controversy might have cooled Real Madrid’s interest in his services, especially with a six-figure price tag attached.
Club president Florentino Perez would love for this problem to go away. There are few options available for value.
Eden Hazard simply isn’t the finisher the club needs. He’s an older, more expensive Vinicius Junior.
Romelu Lukaku is overpriced. The Belgian has a tremendous left foot but his first touch is heavier than James Corden after Christmas dinner. Then there is his reputation for disappearing in big games. He put a dent in that in Paris midweek but that was largely down to PSG's generosity more than Rom's ability to make things happen.
Meanwhile, signing Harry Kane means tangling with Tottenham CEO Daniel Levy a third time. It’s not clear Perez has recovered from wrangling over Luka Modric and paying too much for Gareth Bale. If anything, Kane will cost more than Icardi.
Normally, the RM head honcho would eventually bite the bullet and wire the cash. These days, he has a €550 million stadium renovation to consider. Financing is secured but the debt must be serviced. United, Arsenal and Tottenham fans can tell you the myriad ways that effects transfer policy, none of them good.
So, here’s the crazy part. What if a young, prolific target man was available for not just value but potentially at a discount? What if that discount had to do with his current club’s travails rather than injury, character or form issues on the player’s part? What if, in fact, that player was a natural finisher who could hold the ball for wingers to overlap, finish with his head and feet, recover possession with tenacity and possessed sufficient leadership qualities to be handed the captain’s armband at a Premier League club even though he’s not yet 25?
What’s the catch? Hold your dainty noses, Madrilenos. He’s only put two strong seasons together and has never played for an elite side.
Aleksandar Mitrovic is the lone bright spot in Fulham’s dismal Premier League season. He’s posted ten goals and two assists in 29 games for the Cottagers. Half the goals came in his first six matches but that’s more a product of the team crumbling around him than any fault of his. Fulham are on their third manager and still casting about for a system that will work to their benefit.
Last season in the Championship, Mitrovic scored 12 goals in 17 appearances with left-back Ryan Sessegnon feeding him regularly. While the Serbian adjusted to the Premier League, the English teenager wilted.
Twenty-nine goals in 46 appearances may not impress an elitist club chairman like Perez but two El Clasico defeats in three days without a goal scored should come with a large slice of humble pie.
Real Madrid needs a scorer. Mitrovic’s performance in a top-flight competition with an inferior squad surrounding him suggests adaptability.
Ronaldo’s more-than-a-goal-per-game record at the Bernabeu sets a ridiculous standard. He scored 450 goals in 438 games but it must be acknowledged that speaks to Real Madrid’s quality as much as his. With Manchester United, CR7 managed just 118 strikes in 292 games. At Juventus, he has 21 in 35. Those are slightly more human numbers that can be reversed engineered to conclude Mitrovic should raise his game if Madrid procures his services.
He won’t be Ronaldo v.2. Whereas the Portuguese built his reputation on speed and technique, the Serbian’s stock in trade is physicality. He can muscle his way onto a cross like nobody’s business, bully defenders and hound opponents into making mistakes when attempting to transition to attack. He’s Karim Benzema at 150% with 25-30 goals per season in him. And he’s only 24.
Fulham are going down. Their Premier League quality players will be looking for new clubs. Aleksandar Mitrovic is tops when it comes to quality at Craven Cottage. With a stadium to rebuild, Real Madrid can’t afford to look down their nose at good players. Mitrovic suits their need. They won’t find better value. He represents low risk with a potentially huge reward and they already know he looks good in white. The youth-committed Merengues should sign him.