Three managers in one season; a distant third place in La Liga; an early come-from-ahead Champions League exit; the continued ignominy of paying Gareth Bale’s massive wages. The 2018-19 season was not a good one for Real Madrid, who saw their streak of three straight (and four out of the last five) Champions League titles end in Dutch flames, while their forever rivals, Barcelona, won their sixth league title in the last decade.
It wasn’t a particularly surprising down year, either, though the depths of the down-ness were lower than anyone expected. That’s what happens when you let your top all-time scorer skip town without adequately replacing him. But this is Real Madrid, where one year with no silverware and, even worse, with loads of embarrassing moments cannot be tolerated. And so club president Florentino Pérez has moved quickly in the transfer market to plug up the leaky holes on the S.S. Bernabeu. Though the transfer window in Spain technically hasn’t even opened yet, Madrid have already brought in five players (three signed since June 1, while two others that were agreed upon before but could not join until the window opened): Santos’s Rodrygo, Porto’s Éder Militão, Frankfurt’s Luka Jović, Lyon’s Ferland Mendy, and of course, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard.
All of these players were coveted by some of the biggest clubs in the game, and yet Madrid were able to snag them all. Hazard was probably the only signing that was preordained; you could say that Real were the first and probably only option for the Belgian superstar for years now. It’s therefore fitting that he is also the most important player that Real will buy this summer. (Unless they manage to pry Kylian Mbappé away from PSG. Which, good luck with that.) While not a like-for-like replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo, Hazard will be the engine of Real’s attack much in the same way that their old number seven was: he will likely play on the left wing and he will create and score goals, even if his goal numbers will never hit the otherworldly totals of his predecessor.
Hazard might also play as a classic No. 10 in manager Zinedine Zidane’s altered diamond formation, with both Karim Benzema and Jović ahead of him. This would allow the Belgian to play a bit more like he does for his country, where he was the best player at the World Cup last year, Golden Ball award be damned. That will allow the Merengues to start their shiny new striker toy next to Benzema, who was quietly the best Real player last season, tallying 31 goals and eight assists in 53 total appearances. Jović and Benzema aren’t a perfect fit, though both are comfortable with the ball at their feet, helping to set up the other; Jović is a bit pacier while Benzema truly is one of the best playmaking strikers in the world, a skill that served him well playing alongside Ronaldo for years.
Mendy’s arrival signals the coming end to Marcelo’s historically great tenure in Madrid in the short-to-medium-term. The Brazilian is no longer the undisputed best left back in the world, and his defensive shortcomings are more pronounced than ever, so bringing in a young, quality left back to grow with the team feels like a no-brainer. The 24-year-old from the Paris suburbs isn’t the best crosser of the ball, but has essentially every other skill you want from a modern left back.
Militão will provide some central defense depth as well as, Real will hope, a possible Sergio Ramos replacement once their captain decides to hang it up (or go to China for beaucoup bucks). And Rodrygo’s purchase feels a lot like Vinícius Junior’s last season; a young talented Brazilian attacker that isn’t quite ready for primetime, but who should get some minutes in matches with smaller stakes. It worked out well for Vinícius last season before his injury, and Madridistas will hope for more of the same from Papa Flo’s Brazilian scouting.
Madrid are also probably not done yet, despite five signings that all look to fix some glaring issues. The most likely further addition is in central midfield, as the team starts to finally phase out Luka Modrić, who will turn 34 at the start of next season. The ideal would be Manchester United’s Paul Pogba, who would slot in behind Hazard and give Madrid elite-level players in every section of the field, as well as a wrecking ball capable of both breaking up attacks and propelling forward in equal quality.
If Pogba’s price tag proves too high—likely, even for Real’s seemingly bottomless coffers—then the eye of Sauron will shift to Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen. Eriksen isn’t the athlete or defender Pogba is, but is a better creator and still puts in good shifts in breaking up attacks. He also can play as a more traditional No. 10, if Zidane wants to play some variation of a 4-2-3-1, with Hazard and Vinicius on the wings (or, pause for a long laugh here, Bale, if he stays in Spain and is somehow not crabmeat).
One season of mediocrity, following a decade of mostly domestic irrelevance, triggered something in Real Madrid, who have been what many European rivals have not in the transfer market: decisive, aggressive, and sure of their targets. That has landed them the most exciting young striker in the game (non-Mbappé division), two Brazilian youngsters, a left back with sky-high potential, and one of the very best players in the world. Those moves might not be enough on their own to, say, win a fifth Champions League in seven years, or even to dethrone Barcelona domestically, but it’s a barrage of good and correct moves that Madrid needed to make. There should be excitement in the Bernabeu this season, and that’s more than can be said for last year. Zidane has a reloaded war chest ready to go, and with the correct deployment, teams will learn to fear Real Madrid again.