Real Madrid Transfers: Why free agents are riskier than you think

Real Madrid, Florentino, Perez (Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Real Madrid, Florentino, Perez (Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) /

Real Madrid seem to be pursuing a strategy that involves signing established veteran players on free transfers as a means of supplementing the splashier signings they make, which will mostly be young, exciting (attacking) talent.

This summer, Real’s dream target is both a high-profile young forward and, thanks to PSG’s stubbornness, a free agent. Kylian Mbappe. In addition to Mbappe, Los Blancos have been linked to Chelsea center back Antonio Rudiger and Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba. Both players could stay with their Premier League clubs, but they are expected to hit free agency. On the surface, Real would be the favorites for both.

Any free agent could be signed on a pre-contract agreement this January, so the time to start thinking about signings is now. Pogba and Rudiger are established players, with Pogba being world-class on his day. They are top players to be signed without a transfer fee, which is why Real Madrid are so interested.

Neither is going to be as consistent or as easy to slot in as the versatile David Alaba, who has been LaLiga’s best signing to this point of the 2021-2022 campaign. And there is this conflation of “no cost” and “no risk” with free agents that needs to be deconstructed.

Free agents earn high wages and can become impossible to move later

Free agents may not cost a transfer fee, but they are not free. A team still has to pay bonuses to the player, agents, and maybe another party to get the deal over the line. Since the player and his representation know there is no transfer fee, they can demand more money in wages and bonuses. Look no further than how much Alaba cost Madrid.

There is another key aspect here. Free agents command high wages, and they are usually older players. Someone like Mbappe hitting free agency is extremely rare. It only happened because PSG are bankrolled by an entire country, and therefore can afford to turn down upwards of 150 million euros. Even Alaba was a rare case; Bayern Munich have quietly started a strict policy of not matching other clubs and disturbing their wage structure.

Pogba and Rudiger are good players, no doubt, but they have their questions. There are injury issues with Pogba, and, with those, come consistency issues. As for Rudiger, he was amazing in 2020-2021 for Chelsea in winning the Champions League, but he has never played at that high of a level before. How much of it was playing in the back three and Thomas Tuchel’s system?

Signing veteran free agents is a risk. Even with Alaba, there is risk, despite how safe he seems to be. You are paying serious cash in wages for a player either nearing or above the age of 30. That means this player has high wages and already very little re-sale value. When you factor in the wages, teams won’t want to take on that player. Real Madrid already know how tough it is to offload players on high wages. And you only have to look at Juventus with signings like Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey to see how this approach can easily backfire.

The key with signing free agents is risk mitigation. You need to go after players who are great, consistent, have a low injury history (so, not Ramsey, for example), and are either relatively young or at positions where a physical decline is not anticipated or not a deal-breaker. Alaba fits the bill in the latter case.

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Real Madrid must carefully study the options in the coming summer transfer window. Rudiger and Pogba can help this team as a third center back and playmaking midfielder, respectfully. But Real must do a careful risk assessment with both. They don’t want to end up saddled with a contract they can’t get rid of and a player who will become an unfair target of the demanding Madridistas, as so many have in recent years.