It's never easy being a young player at Real Madrid. This season, however, it looked as if coach Carlo Ancelotti would blend experience with youth in a two-tiered strategy aimed at both short-term success and long-term development. So far, however, it hasn't happened.
Dani Carvajal, Asier Illarramendi and Isco were all brought in as summer signings and expected to make a big impact. All young and all Spanish, they were seen as men to lead a new Madrid brand alongside homegrown talents Alvaro Morata and Jese, plus last season's revelation Raphael Varane.
But as the season reaches its climax with key dates in La Liga and the Champions League, plus the final of the Copa del Rey in the middle of next month, only one of those players has lived up to his potential: Jese. So impressive was the young winger in the first two months of this year, in fact, that he was being tipped and touted by many for a place in Spain's World Cup squad. Sadly, though, that dream died as the 21-year-old ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament against Schalke on March 18. It was a cruel blow for player and club.
"Jese was unlucky," Ancelotti said. "The whole of Real Madrid was unlucky. We are losing a very important player - a young man who has done very well this season and surprised everyone."
Jese was a man for the big occasion and scored in his Clasico cameo back in October, as well as netting against Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal. He was badly missed as Madrid lost back-to-back games versus Barcelona and Sevilla this week - especially as both Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale failed to shine in those two games. In his absence, Madrid's options on the bench look limited.
Isco almost refused to sign for Madrid in the summer for fear of being reduced to a bench role but was given assurances he would have an important part to play. However, the attacking midfielder was the big victim as Ancelotti tweaked the formation earlier in the season and switched to 4-3-3. Not a forward or a classic midfielder, Isco made way and hasn't looked comfortable since.
"We have spoken for a month about how he can adapt," Ancelotti said recently. "We haven't been able to play with him in his usual position." And the Italian added: "I had a similar case. [Clarence] Seedorf was an attacking central midfielder who, with sacrifice, played in a different position. Isco can do what Seedorf did." So far, however, he hasn't been able to.
Likewise Illarramendi. Signed for a fee which amounted to almost 40 million euros after taxes were added on, the former Real Sociedad midfielder struggled to deal with the sheer scale of his summer move from a small Basque town to the magnitude and media attention of Madrid. Stress fatigue restricted his appearances earlier on in the season and he has been seen less and less since the return of Xabi Alonso in October - even in the absence of long-term injury victim Sami Khedira. And earlier this month, he was forced to apologize for a breach of club rules after being caught on video dressed as Batman and darting in front of a charging young bull at a festival in his native Basque Country.
"We have an internal rule designed to prevent players going skiing and other dangerous things but I have never known it applied to bull fighting," Ancelotti said. But it's far from the sort of action the Italian will have had in mind for his summer signing.
Carvajal has also struggled. After a year in the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen, the right-back returned to Real amid much fanfare, but has been shown up against rivals of real quality and was pulled out of position on numerous occasions against both Barcelona and Sevilla. Alvaro Arbeloa has his detractors and is probably not good enough for a club like Madrid, but recent evidence suggests the injured Spain fullback remains the better option at the moment - at least until Carvajal can improve his positional sense and defensive discipline. "We miss Arbeloa," Ancelotti said recently. "We miss his attitude, personality and professionalism on the pitch and in training."
Madrid has also missed Varane - or at least the player from last season described by Jose Mourinho as "the best defender in the world" earlier this month. Under the Portuguese in 2012-13, that may have been accurate, but the young Frenchman has failed to hit the heights since a long spell out with a knee injury. "We need to remember that Varane has just come back from injury," Ancelotti said in February. "He needs time to get back to his best." But four weeks on, Madrid is still waiting.
Morata, meanwhile, was given extra responsibility in the summer following the departure of Gonzalo Higuain to Napoli. That left Karim Benzema as the only senior striker at the club, but Madrid placed faith in the youngster. However, he has been used sparingly and failed to impress on a consistent basis, scoring just four times in 24 appearances so far this term. A dressing-room row with Ancelotti in January over a lack of opportunities didn't help the youngster's cause and the Italian coach remains unconvinced by the striker, who could be set to leave the club this summer.
So having lost Jese and needing to make do with an already thin squad, Ancelotti could do with the help of his struggling starlets as Madrid looks to arrest a slide after back-to-back defeats in La Liga. But with a potential crisis to negotiate and trophies at stake, the Italian is unlikely to decide that now's the time to give youth a chance.
Follow Ben Hayward on
- Sports & Recreation
- Real Madrid
- Carlo Ancelotti
- Dani Carvajal
- Raphael Varane
- Alvaro Morata