From 2010 to 2019, Real Madrid completed the most successful decade in the club’s history by far. They won 19 honours in those ten years, including the historic threepeat in the Champions League (three out of four that decade), three UEFA SuperCups (the club has five in total), four Club World Cups (the club has five in total), and three league titles. Much of this success can be attributed to the substantial shift in the club’s approach to squad building, that brought an end to the ‘Galacticos’ era of spending colossal amounts of money on big name athletes for marketing’s sake above all else – to finding the perfect balance of seasoned professional’s and young and hungry talent brought up with Real Madrid DNA. Previous squad players such as Jonathon Woodgate were replaced by the likes of Lucas Vázquez, a dedicated homegrown player capable of stepping up and producing historic moments if required. This tactic would appear to both emulate and eclipse the joint second most successful decade in Real Madrid history, the 1980s – in which ‘La Quinta del Buitre’ (the famous five homegrown talents) went on to dominate Spanish football and win 12 trophies. We are now almost half way into this decade, and despite peak interest and levels of coverage, the production levels and hype at La Fábrica appear to have stalled. This article will examine the reasons behind this slump, and establish whether the constant developments in Real Madrid’s approach and determination to strive for excellence has rendered the academy redundant, or just temporarily shelved.

41 academy players made their first team debuts during the 2010’s, a club record (excluding friendly appearances, which would include many more) – and this comes before adding countless Castilla graduates such as Martin Ødegaard or Joselu Mato into the equation. Castilla may have triggered the initial transition for the club, after a ‘golden generation’ broke through right at the start of the decade. The 2011/12 Castilla team, with the help of one of the best talents in the world in Jesé Rodríguez, won the title – a near impossible achievement for most B teams. Many of the players in that squad progressed straight into the first team. Four of them even remain today, including current club captain Nacho Fernández. Castilla spent the following two seasons in the second tier of Spanish football, attracting a higher calibre of talent such as Casemiro and Fabinho. It became impossible for the club not to take notice of the immense pool of talent available to them at little to no cost. Even previously resistant managers such as José Mourinho became partial to incorporating up and coming talents due to their competence. The remaining years of the decade saw the club develop prospects including Achraf Hakimi and Sergio Reguilón using the best facilities in world football, and bring in scouted excellence like Fede Valverde. All of this success pushed Real Madrid to become arguably the best academy set up in the world at the time. Almost half the first team squad consisted of Castilla graduates, and La Fábrica topped the statistical charts for multiple categories, most notably most players actively playing in the top five leagues in Europe.

The 2011/12 Real Madrid Castilla Segunda División B league title winners. How many faces do you recognise?

Real Madrid decided to place their trust in young talent despite traditionally lacking in that department because of one thing: the academy’s philosophy. Every player, and every coach, in every age group are indoctrinated into playing, and most importantly behaving in line with the Real Madrid way. The club themselves attribute their winning spirit and record to their core values which include “determination, effort, sacrifice, commitment, perseverance and self-improvement”. It becomes clear that these are more than just empty words when watching any youth team or player on the field. The amount of comebacks completed each season is staggering, and the work ethic instilled into each individual despite their knowledge of the ruthless nature of academy football is impressive to say the least. During a recent ManagingMadrid podcast with Mink Peeters, one of the biggest talents in the world in his time, I was amazed at his determination to succeed in the professional game despite several surgeries before the age of 23 ruining his chances at Real Madrid. His attitude perfectly epitomized everything that the academy continues to do so well; develop the person in advance of the player. During the 2010s, this radiated into the first team, providing a production line able to constantly churn out quality, and most importantly passionate young players who understood everything it took to be a Real Madrid player. So how has all of this been interrupted?

Real Madrid City, Valdebebas, the best training facility in the world.

Initially, the success of La Fábrica looked set to continue, if not improve. The academy kicked off the decade by lifting their first ever UEFA Youth League title in 2020, something the club had been chasing for a long time. Sergio Arribas became one of the best Castilla players of all time before moving on to La Liga. The Real Madrid first team continued to win trophies, and battle to be the best team in the world. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Whilst the world stood still because of all of the devastation, when football resumed – it was never a better time to be a young player at Real Madrid. As all the games had been pushed back, the first team schedule became ridiculous in order to complete all of the fixtures. Never before had so many Castilla graduates had so much involvement. Each squad had several Castilla players involved, with players such as Marvin Park and Víctor Chust gaining playing time that previous talents could only dream of. However, throughout this period I could only think about one thing: I wish these opportunities could have fallen in better circumstances, and for former Castilla sides. It was becoming obvious that despite continuing to develop strong talent, the average standard of player coming through the academy had declined. This season Castilla look an average side in the third tier, and despite still possessing great talent in players like Nico Paz (an inferior talent to those around before him), the lack of quality – and most importantly interest from the club is clear to see. This would only form a segment of the issue.

Miguel Gutiérrez and Marvin Park warm up before the La Liga match against Granada.
Marvin Olawale

The perfect balance that Real Madrid discovered consisted of passionate academy starlets (e.g. Fran García), supremely talented external purchases (such as Vinícius Júnior) and experienced players at the top of their game (who better to name than Cristiano Ronaldo?). This mix worked tremendously at the time, but the approach has further transitioned since. To this day, most of the club’s signings remain under the age of 23, and the success of risky signings such as Rodrygo Goes and Brahim Díaz has become a threat to homegrown talent at the club. At the time, €46m for Vinícius, €45m for Rodrygo and even €17m for Brahim – all of whom had little to no senior experience was considered absurd. In hindsight, they were a bargain, and that’s even taking failed projects such as the €30m Reinier Jesus fee into account. Some of these talents even briefly featured for Castilla, bringing record viewing figures and media attention with them. Currently, it is more likely, and viable for young players like Eduardo Camavinga to take up the squad place that a Castilla graduate would have occupied ten years ago. The window for academy graduates to make a significant impact or contribution to the first team is rapidly shrinking.

What are these two worth in the current day?

The slump in talent levels, and the success of external talents has all but put a halt to the immense success of the last decade for La Fábrica. It has allowed clubs like Barcelona (who have had often had to over-depend on their academy for financial reasons), and Benfica to leapfrog Real Madrid as the best academies in world football. Perhaps the biggest contributing factor to the lack of current interest shown towards Castilla is the failure to gain promotion to the second division. As mentioned earlier, winning the third division title is nigh on impossible for most reserve sides in Spain. Promotion via the play-offs however is entirely possible, and Castilla have come very close five times in recent seasons, each time triggering a wave of frustration and departures. Competing in the second division could have seen players lost out on loan like Andriy Lunin or Takefusa Kubo find a stable, internal home and help to increase the standard of Castilla and the overall academy once again. As it stands, former world class players such as Juan Mata are leaving the European game, with long serving club legends like Nacho Fernández (352 games, 24 trophies) and Lucas Vázquez (339 games, 16 trophies) soon to follow, not to mention former prospects Marcos Llorente and Álvaro Morata plying their trade for arch rivals Atlético Madrid – the current state of affairs at La Fábrica are looking particularly bleak. Real Madrid do continue to develop talent, and have an extremely profitable, academy however, with most of the success at the moment coming from players sold to other clubs. Two of the top three La Liga top scorers are products of La Fábrica (Borja Mayoral and Álvaro Morata), and almost half of the goals that Real Madrid have conceded have derived from Castilla graduates, with fans now dubbing it the ‘Castilla Curse’ (which has been going on for years).

To conclude, a combination of a current slump in talent, the failure for Castilla to gain promotion, the success of young players signed from elsewhere and the ever evolving shift in approach from from Real Madrid has resulted in La Fábrica and Castilla being shelved by the club. Whether or not the club is riding the wave of the last decade with their early 2020’s success remains to be seen, but they are course to make it another successful decade (just falling short of the 2010s). It will be interesting to see how the approach taken by the club continues to develop. Currently, around a quarter of the first team are Castilla graduates, a figure lower than the average of last decade. This, and the whopping €103m transfer fee paid for 19 year old Jude Bellingham to become their talisman suggests that the focus solely lies on external talent at any price. However, the current shortcomings, Real Madrid’s ability to develop not only great players, but great coaches – and most importantly great, well-rounded individual’s with invaluable traits could be the silver lining for the academy. Nothing is forever in football, not even close, leaving one question pending. Is La Fábrica simply temporarily dormant, or is it really doomed?


Hope remains.
Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP via Getty Images

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