Let’s play a game of hypotheticals. Kylian Mbappe, depending on who you believe, and how much you subscribe to the reliability of the Spanish press, will likely be a Real Madrid player next year. Him moving to Santiago Bernabeu will end over three years of torment and speculation, with one of the world’s best finally getting his dream move.
It will perhaps suit all parties, too. Paris Saint-Germain won’t exactly be elated to lose perhaps their greatest-ever playe, but the French champions are building a new team with a focus on long-term success — a squad that looks increasingly like an outfit assembled to thrive in a post-Mbappe world.
Madrid, meanwhile, get their white whale. Mbappe, it has been known for some time, is a boyhood Madridista who idolised Cristiano Ronaldo, and has done little to hide his desire for a future move to the Spanish capital.
But at some point, the fantasy ends and the reality begins. The truth is, Madrid are already loaded when it comes to their forward line, and finding the best role for Mbappe within the current ecosystem is a problem Carlo Ancelotti will have to solve.
Having Mbappe is never a bad thing, but fitting it all together while ensuring current Ballon d’Or favourite Jude Bellingham isn’t negatively impacted won’t be easy.
Mbappe’s previous Galactico issues
It is not so simple to throw Mbappe into a team and expect him, and others, to thrive. Recent history, in fact, has shown that it is not a very good idea at all.
The Lionel Messi-Neymar-Mbappe trident figured to be the next great European attacking trio in Paris; instead, it was a disaster. The three never really gelled in attack, and a mixture of injuries, egos, and defensive shortcomings saw one of Europe’s most talented sides become a Champions League punchline.
Mbappe wasn’t the only problem there. Messi never wanted to be in Paris, while Neymar’s notoriously chaotic manner — and failing ankles — didn’t help. But Mbappe was supposed to be the centre of the project, PSG’s vice-captain who held everything together. Perhaps that was always going to be too much to ask of a player who was still only approaching his mid-20s. Either way, Mbappe never really managed to be the centre-piece, and was instead mired in a power struggle that saw the Parisians’ period of promise end in disappointment.
It all makes things a bit ominous for Madrid. Although this is a different side with a far more effective man-manager, the same issues can arise. Bellingham, Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo are, by most accounts, good team-mates, but when big names are involved, toxicity can come into play. And whether by his own fault or otherwise, controversy has always followed Mbappe.
Madrid’s current system
The first thing that needs to be established here is Madrid’s current way of playing and how it gets the best out of Bellingham. The Englishman is not being used as a striker, nor is he really an attacking midfielder. Ancelotti has described Bellingham as a false nine, but even that is inaccurate. For the most part, Bellingham starts from deeper positions, and runs at defences with the ball at his feet.
There are the necessary caveats here. Bellingham’s role is warped by the fact that Madrid often face low blocks in La Liga. He also has the freedom to roam — and often wanders further forward. Still, Bellingham is not a striker; he just scores lots of goals. Maintaining that while potentially integrating Mbappe is far from straightforward.
Can Bellingham become a No.9?
Pushing Bellingham higher up the pitch is perhaps the simplest way to configure a new-look Madrid team with Mbappe in it. The Frenchman is most comfortable playing off the left-hand side, Bellingham is an excellent goalscorer who has proved adept at finding space in the penalty area, and Vinicius should have few problems adapting to the other wing.
Yes, there are some flaws here that would need ironing out, with Vinicius inexperienced at playing off the right, while it remains to be seen whether Bellingham could truly thrive as an out-and-out striker. Rodrygo, meanwhile, would potentially be frozen out despite him enjoying an excellent season at present. But if Ancelotti wants to subscribe to the idea of getting his best 11 players on the pitch, then this is the ideal way to implement it.
Or should Mbappe move to the middle?
Given Bellingham’s versatility, though, there is an argument to alter his position for the good of the team. He famously wore the No.22 shirt for boyhood club Birmingham City as he could play as a No.4, No.8 and No.10, and he has shown in his short career that he can adapt quickly.
Both in his final months at Borussia Dortmund and recently for England, Bellingham has played in a hybrid No.8/No.10 role behind a front three. There, he is relied upon to be the team’s creator-in-chief, while also using his boundless energy to get back and help out defensively when required.
Putting him into a similar role as part of a midfield trio at Madrid is certainly not off the table, and is likely the role most envisaged him playing when he joined. That would allow Rodrygo a reprieve in terms of a starting role, and would potentially allow Vinicius the chance to play in his favoured position on the left. But would moving Mbappe inside be the best move?
The France superstar infamously aimed a dig at former PSG boss Christophe Galtier in October 2022 when he was started as a No.9, using the term “PivotGang” in a barbed social media post. While Mbappe could certainly replicate Karim Benzema’s goalscoring feats at the Bernabeu, he clearly doesn’t want to play the same role as his compatriot, with the 25-year-old much more comfortable cutting in from wide areas.
Where does Endrick fit in?
While doubts remains over whether Mbappe will actually arrive at Madrid in 2024, there is at least one new forward who is definitely on his way. After firing Palmeiras to the Brazilian title, Endrick will finally complete his move to the Spanish capital when he turns 18 this summer, and Ancelotti will have to find a role for the Brazilian wonderkid in his squad.
Endrick’s best position remains up for debate, with him having played as a central striker, wide forward and even as a No.10 during different stages of his development. Such is the hype around him, it’s easy to forget that he’s still 17, but if he impresses enough during his first European pre-season, he could be in line for an immediate starting spot.
Should that be the case, the safest bet would be have Endrick play as the No.9, with Mbappe and Vinicius either side of him. There could even be space for both Rodrygo and Bellingham in such a line-up, too, with the Brazilian favouring a No.10 role while Bellingham could drop into a deeper midfield position. That might limit the Englishman’s impact in the final third, but this would be a line-up that has enough goals in it to make up for any potential Bellingham regression. Quite whether it’s balanced enough to take on Europe’s best, however, would certainly be up for debate.
The ideal resolution
Perhaps this whole thing isn’t that complicated, though. Madrid’s current system is working just fine as they remain well in the hunt for four trophies in 2023-24, as Bellingham’s role behind the split strikers of Vinicius and Rodrygo is proving to be a masterstroke by Ancelotti. Yes, both Brazilians have had runs of poor form in their slightly altered positions, but both seem to have now found ways to thrive.
Dropping Mbappe into the team in place of Rodrygo would seem the best way to get the best out of the two most important players in Madrid’s potential new forward line. Vinicius might have to adapt again while Rodrygo’s nose could be put out of joint, but at the end of the day, it is Bellingham and Mbappe who would be the priorities given how much the pair would be costing.
Ancelotti the perfect man for the job
Perhaps the most important piece of business Madrid will do ahead of the 2024-25 season, however, has already been completed. Agreeing a contract extension with Ancelotti when it seemed for all the world like he was heading for the Brazil job means Mbappe will arrive into a stable situation with a coach who has been here before when it comes to moulding superstars into a winning team.
Ancelotti is the coach who pieced together an AC Milan super-team that included Kaka, Andriy Shevchenko, Hernan Crespo and Andrea Pirlo. He took on the egos of late 2000s Chelsea and made them title-winners. Even his successes at modern-day Madrid have been built on him managing strong personalities and turning them into a winning machine. One does not simply fail upwards into become the only manager in history to win every single one of Europe’s big five leagues.
So, yes, finding a way for Bellingham, Mbappe and the rest to all shine is an issue that is potentially coming down the road for Madrid. But the Blancos have the perfect man at the helm to give them the best chance of solving any such problems.