European Football

Galácticos 2.0? : On Antonio Rüdiger’s Move to Real Madrid

The first major domino of the summer transfer window has fallen, as Chelsea’s stalwart German center back Antonio Rüdiger will be moving to Real Madrid on a free transfer. His contract saga was one of the main stories of the Premier League season, and when paired with the ownership issues at Chelsea, the departure of one of the league’s best center backs became more and more possible.

And this is where we are. Rüdiger has confirmed that he will be leaving Chelsea, and it is largely confirmed that he will be going to Madrid in the summer. What does this move mean for both parties? What are the positives and negatives for both sides? And how will he fit in Madrid and be replaced at Chelsea?

Rüdiger is a hot commodity at the moment, and his signature was sought after by almost every top club in the world, including several within the Premier League. Despite the significant domestic interest, Real Madrid were the name that never went away. They were willing and able to pay a significant salary to the German, and their incredible success both domestically and in the Champions League this season certainly made them an attractive option, ultimately one that Rüdiger could not turn down. This cements one of the legs of the rumored “new Galacticos” transfer plan at Real Madrid, with the club actively pursuing Rüdiger as one piece of a new spine of the team alongside Monaco midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni and PSG forward Kylian Mbappé. While the potential of actualizing those final two deals, especially for Mbappé, can be called into question, the signing of Rüdiger is a great start to a transfer window that Real Madrid have emphasized, viewing this summer as the key to the transition to a new era of the club.

For Chelsea, this is a brutal loss. Rüdiger has been one of the best center backs in the Premier League, if not in the whole of Europe, since Thomas Tuchel arrived at Stamford Bridge, fitting in seamlessly as the main crux of Chelsea’s three-man defensive line. His freakish athleticism and strength has blended very well with an incredible technical ability and defensive intelligence, allowing him to be a shutdown defender and threat on set pieces while also being able to score belting long-range goals on occasion. He is a phenomenal footballer who is still in the prime of his career and will leave a massive hole in performance and personality for Chelsea to fill. With the potential of also losing Andreas Christensen in the summer as well, Chelsea will need to make major moves under their new ownership to solidify their defense going into next season, otherwise they will likely see themselves fall further behind in the race to catch Liverpool and Man City.

This loss also makes the club’s decision to sell Fikayo Tomori and Marc Guehi look even more short-sighted, as both could have been immediate problem solvers here as they demonstrate their immense quality elsewhere. I would imagine Levi Colwill returns from loan at Huddersfield and gets some time in the first team, but Chelsea still need to reinforce in that position. Their long pursuit of Sevilla’s Jules Koundé will likely reach desperation point in the summer, as the new owners will likely pay significantly to add the future star Frenchman to a defense needing help. This would leave Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva, Trevoh Chalobah, Malang Sarr, Colwill, and the new signing (presumably Koundé) in defense, which is good enough to get by for one season, though I imagine they would ideally want to loan Colwill out for one more year. Azpilicueta’s soon-to-be expiring contract and the rapid aging of Thiago Silva, despite his remaining quality, means this will be a continuing issue for Tuchel and Chelsea’s new owners to address moving forward.

For Real Madrid, this is obviously a net gain. Rüdiger is immensely talented, and it is a standard-bearing signing for Los Blancos that they are able to bring in a player as highly respected throughout the football world as him. Doing so without having to pay a transfer fee is even better, and while they will likely have to pay a significant wage to the German, that should not be a big financial issue for a club like Real Madrid. This is a statement of intent from club president Florentino Pérez, who is beginning the process of building his “new Galáctico” team by adding one of the best center backs in the world.

But this is not a move that comes without issue for Real Madrid. This is still a significant amount of money going into a player who is already 29 and, if we are being honest, does not fill a direct need in this Real Madrid team. One of the main reasons for Real Madrid’s success this season has been the performances of and the chemistry formed between their center backs. David Alaba and Éder Militão have both been outstanding this season, and their performances improved gradually throughout the season as their understanding of each other improved. It is no small feat to replace Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane in one season, but Real Madrid did a pretty good job of doing so. Rüdiger’s arrival creates an issue: who moves to make room? Militão’s form this season has been great, and he is younger and has a higher ceiling than Alaba, but the Brazilian is also right footed, just like Rüdiger. If Ancelotti wanted to keep the right-footed center back on the right side and left-footed center back on the left side, then Militão would have to move to the bench to make room for the German. This would be incredibly harsh on Militão and would likely stunt his development. Moving Alaba would work if Ancelotti is fine with a right-footed center back in the left center back position, but it would create an issue where a high-earning player is stuck on the bench despite performing well. There is no easy answer here.

What about a move to a back three? Rüdiger has shone in the middle of a back three at Chelsea, so moving to this system would make sense. He also, quite frankly, was not this level of player prior to Tuchel’s arrival at Chelsea and the move to the back three, so while I do not doubt the German’s talent, it might require having the system fit his skills for this to work.

While I do not see Ancelotti wanting to make that move, it still leads to a numbers problem. If you add an extra defender, you must remove one player from another area of the pitch. Do you take out one of the three midfielders? Yes, Modrić, Kroos, and Casemiro are not as young as they used to be, but all three have been strong this season, namely the ageless Modrić, and the balance that those three provide the Real Madrid team is hard to replicate. Removing one of them (without even addressing the staggering question of who of those three gets dropped) likely leads to significant issues on the pitch. Do you take out a forward? On paper, this makes the most sense given that Real Madrid have never really been able to find someone to fit into that right wing position this season. But next season, if that third forward is Mbappé, then are you really going to relegate Vinícius to the bench after the season he has had? Obviously not.

And Real Madrid do not have the fullbacks to effectively play a three at the back system. You need athletes, players who can effectively cover the entirety of one flank, who are also very capable attacking players. Their current options do not fit. Ferland Mendy is fairly effective defensively but does not offer much going forward, while Dani Carvajal is certainly not the athlete he used to be. Lucas Vázquez could maybe pull it off, but he is certainly not as much of an athlete anymore either. There will likely be continued rumors, and possible actualization, around a return for ex-Real Madrid and current Rayo Vallecano left back Fran García, who could play a left wing back role well, and you could maybe try the galaxy brain idea of playing Federico Valverde as a right wing back, but those are not perfect ideas. Certainly Real Madrid would love to have Achraf Hakimi back in this instance, but that ship has sailed. A move to a back three would require a complete restructure of the team and likely two new signings, all to accommodate one player. Which seems a bit unnecessary.

The most likely solution will be to move Alaba to left back in a back four next season. Even with Mendy staying and the Fran García rumors, there is still no clear-cut first choice in that position. Alaba played left back for Bayern in his younger years, being one of the best left backs on the planet during his time in Bavaria, so the transition should ideally be relatively seamless. But is he able to play that position anymore? Is he athletic enough at nearly 30 years old to be able to defend that position and challenge young, athletic wingers? Can he do that while also offering something going forward? Does he even want to be a left back anymore? The Austrian has seemingly accepted his new life as a center back, having played in that role during the tail end of his time at Bayern and during his first season in Madrid. Does he want to change position?

This is largely my issue with this signing. Rüdiger is a great player, I will absolutely not disagree with that, but this leads to some awkward questions around the composition of this team. Real Madrid have been wildly successful this season largely due to the composition of their team, understanding of the tactic and style Ancelotti espoused, and the strong team spirit between them. The desired signings of Mbappé and Tchouameni made more sense when it comes to supporting that, with Mbappé locking down the third forward position that no one else did and Tchouameni acting as the eventual heir to Casemiro. Signing Rüdiger, however, only leads to overall problems. This ultimately could have a logical solution. Alaba could be successful at left back, Rüdiger could partner Militão seamlessly and improve the Madrid defense overall, and they could do all of this without changing formation. It is not fully guaranteed, however, which is the main issue I have with this signing.

But ultimately, it has happened. Real Madrid have reinforced an already good team with a great player. While there are genuine questions surrounding the fit and tactical deployment of Rüdiger, he is still a phenomenal player whose addition makes Real Madrid better. This is simply the first step in the master plan for Florentino Pérez, but what a first step it is. For Chelsea, this is a massive loss which should kick their new owners into action, but it is a loss that could be replaced in the summer.

Ah, transfer season is back. Rüdiger is the first domino to fall, but he is not the last.

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