After a summer which saw Cristiano Ronaldo stun world football with his shock exit for Juventus, Real Madrid have spent much of the summer reeling. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was the only signing confirmed in the Julen Lopetegui era until Thursday evening when the club announced a deal to bring Mariano Diaz back to the Bernabeu following months of speculation about who may arrive to bolster the front-line.
Having spent time at the club in the past, being prolific right through the ranks but not quite making the grade and leaving the club for Lyon for 8 million euros last summer. The deal disappointed few, but since then, he has gone on to show just what talent he has got with regular game-time under his belt.
The deal to bring him back to Spain is believed to be worth 21 million euros, with a further 3.5 million euros in add-ons, representing a real bargain. Sevilla were ready to pay a club record 40 million euros before Los Blancos hijacked the deal, using their right of first refusal and sell-on fees to get an even better price for the 25-year-old.
A look at the market reflects just why Mariano has been signed. Nobody at any level has ever suggested that Mariano is anywhere near a like for like replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo, but that was never the aim. It became clear early on in the summer that a deal for a similar superstar, such as Neymar, Kylian Mbappe or Harry Kane, would be impossible.
An inflated market has meant that bringing in back-up options would be a costly move and one which Florentino Perez was reluctant to make. Upon reflection, the signing of a player who scored 21 goals in 45 games last season at such a low price is a wise investment.
It’s likely that in the coming season, Mariano will play little more than a reserve role. Currently occupied by Borja Mayoral and with Raul de Tomas having left the club on loan to return to Rayo de Vallecano, it’s a substantial upgrade.
Mayoral didn’t disappoint when given the chance under Zinedine Zidane, scoring in five of his eight starts in 2017/18, yet question marks remain, despite his European Super Cup appearance. Just two goals in 34 substitute appearances for the club and loan club Wolfsburg since he made the breakthrough in 2015 suggest that he is not the threat from the bench that Lopetegui is demanding.
In his quick and powerful attacking style, Mariano is more suited to such a role. Much more of a natural poacher than either of the two other options in attack, he can take up the kind of role that Ronaldo benefited from so much by relying on Benzema to create opportunities for him to prod into the net with simplicity.
Of the current squad, no-one at Real Madrid averaged more shots per game than Mariano at Lyon last season, with 3.03, whilst Gareth Bale managed 2.77, Karim Benzema averaged 2.04 and Borja Mayoral registered 0.91. What’s more, with the quality of players that Mariano will have around him in Madrid, that figure is likely to increase too.
Beyond the end of the 2018/19 campaign, Mariano’s future may well depend on Lopetegui and Real Madrid’s decision on transfer activity. If the call is made to splash the cash and go for a ‘Galactico’ as many expect, with Neymar looking the most likely option, then Mariano may make way. If he does so, it looks likely that the club would be able to at least cut their losses, if not make a profit even if he does not set the world alight.
If no club wishes to take him off their hands in such scenario, it is far from disastrous for Perez and co. anyway. At 25 years of age now, he still has time to reach his peak, whilst the club’s preferred attacking duo of Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema are significantly older, with the Welshman having turned 29-years-old in July and Benzema set to celebrate his 31st birthday in December.
Investing in Mariano may not have been Real Madrid’s plan in June or early July, but now it looks a wise decision. A clear upgrade on Borja Mayoral, who may now leave on loan with Leganes linked, he could do well to learn from Mariano’s example.
With expectations not particularly high, Mariano finds himself in a position which is very rare at Real Madrid in that he is signing as a player reaching the peak of his career whilst not likely to earn a spot in the team straight away. It’s an opportunity to show what he’s got whilst the pressure is off which he has to take.