Girona’s decisive La Liga trip to Real Madrid on Saturday will be no ordinary game for Miguel Gutierrez.
The 22-year-old left-back visits his boyhood club with his current one in a situation nobody would have predicted at the start of the season — fighting with Carlo Ancelotti’s trophy-laden side of world-famous names for the Spanish title.
But Gutierrez’s excellent form this season has surprised few at Madrid. Indeed, many expected him to reach the levels he has been showing — because the locally-born defender was always valued during his 11 years at the club after joining Madrid at age 10.
Gutierrez’s latest Bernabeu return, having made 10 first-team appearances before a summer 2022 move to Girona, comes at an interesting time in terms of Madrid’s 2024-25 transfer planning.
The left-back spot is one they have begun to look at strengthening — with Bayern Munich’s Canada international Alphonso Davies another of their targets (talks have already taken place) and the futures of current options Ferland Mendy and Fran Garcia somewhat under question.
Ancelotti is a big fan of Mendy’s defensive qualities, and has made that well known both in press conferences and privately. But the Italian and his coaching staff do think his attacking contribution can be improved, and have also been frustrated by the number of injuries he has suffered. Mendy made only four first-team appearances from January 26 until the end of last season due to thigh and calf problems which also kept him out of the first five league games in the current one.
Madrid’s idea is to explore a way out for the 28-year-old Frenchman, who joined for an initial €48million (£41m/$51.6m at current exchange rates) from Lyon in summer 2019. His contract expires after next season, and he has not been offered a renewal yet. But Mendy would like to continue with Madrid, and therefore it is not clear whether he would play ball on the idea of a sale in the next window.
As for Garcia, the 24-year-old academy graduate returned to the club last summer after two years across the Spanish capital with Rayo Vallecano. Bayer Leverkusen were prepared to meet his €10million release clause last January, but instead Madrid exercised a clause agreed when they sold him to Rayo to sign him for just €5m.
Garcia was re-signed to be a backup to Mendy, and the injury issues mentioned above meant he started the first six matches of the season. Since then he has seen his opportunities limited, however, with midfielder Eduardo Camavinga at times preferred ahead of him as a makeshift full-back. Garcia’s professionalism has been exemplary, but his performances have not been convincing. The two-cap international, who made his Spain debut in October, has a contract until the summer of 2027.
Gutierrez’s situation at Girona is similar to the one Garcia was in at Rayo. Madrid have an option to re-sign him at a reduced price — while his release clause is €35million for everyone else, they would only have to pay €8m this summer. His outstanding role helping Madrid Under-19s win the UEFA Youth League in 2020 has not been forgotten — that remains the club’s only success in the competition to date.
It was decided Gutierrez had to leave in summer 2022, when he was 21, after he had completed a cycle with Real Madrid Castilla, the club’s reserve team who play in Spain’s third tier. He had played 641 minutes for the first team and started seven times in La Liga and the Champions League following a senior debut in April 2021 but no consistent place could be found for him, neither under Zinedine Zidane nor when Ancelotti returned at the end of that season.
That did not mean that Madrid would forget about him, nor he them. It was decided that he should continue to develop and have the option of returning, so his ‘Goodbye’ was planned in a way that might end up being better thought of as a ‘See you soon’.
As The Athletic has covered previously, this is a common pattern at Madrid — and is actually the most usual way for academy graduates to gain a regular spot in the first team. It is commonly known as the ‘Via Carvajal’ (Carvajal route), reflecting the way Dani Carvajal left for Leverkusen at age 20 in summer 2012, played a year there, then returned through the use of a buy-back clause and became a key member of the Madrid first team.
Gutierrez is the player with the most minutes’ action (2,293) in manager Michel’s Girona team this season, contributing one goal and five assists in 27 all-competitions appearances and really impressing with his versatility.
As shown in the graphic below, in some matches he has been getting forward frequently and having plenty of touches in the attacking third; in some, he has played an important role in Girona’s build-up by drifting inside and receiving passes from the base of midfield; and in others he has operated as a more traditional full-back.
Madrid always had high hopes for Gutierrez and, after a season and a half at Girona, his name is on their list of targets building up to the summer window. When Madrid sold him, they agreed three exclusive buy-back clauses with Girona: €8million if he returned in the summer of 2024, €9m for a deal in 2025 and €10m if it happens in 2026.
As Madrid usually do, they also kept a right of first refusal. This means that, if there is a formal offer for the player from another club, Madrid have to be notified within 48 hours. They then have a further 48 hours to say whether they want to exercise their option, and five days from there to make the payment. Also, if Gutierrez ends up being sold to someone else, they would receive a 50 per cent sell-on fee.
This scenario came close to happening last month, when Brentford expressed concrete interest in bringing him to the Premier League and were willing to offer €25million.
The move did not progress because Gutierrez did not consider it seriously, despite being grateful for the interest. His priority was to finish the season with Girona (in fact, if he had reached an agreement with Brentford, he would have made it a condition to leave only in June) and wait for Madrid, especially, or a bigger English club to come in.
From the Madrid end, there is no fully established plan at this point.
Ancelotti admires Gutierrez and will be happy if the club decide to bring him back. He and his coaching team see the spaces he occupies in attack as his greatest virtue. But they are also aware that current Madrid players Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo and Jude Bellingham all like to operate in those same areas.
The Madrid manager also thinks that the tactical situation at Girona, where Gutierrez effectively plays on the wing with three centre-backs, favours him, whereas being a more conventional left-back for Madrid would bring another level of difficulty.
As for Davies, he is very much liked at Madrid, and there have been multiple conversations with his entourage to inform him of the project designed for him. Vinicius Jr, with whom Davies has a very good relationship, has given him his positive opinion of the club and the city.
Davies has a contract with Bayern until the end of next season and Madrid have asked him not to renew, which would make it possible for them to sign him either at a reduced fee this summer (similar to how they landed Toni Kroos from the same club a decade ago) or as a free agent 12 months later (in the way David Alaba left Bayern for the Bernabeu after the 2020-21 season).
Bayern do want Davies to sign a new contract and meetings are planned in the coming weeks between the club and his agents, which will allow the player to settle his ideas with more information. The serial German champions have been offered but not considered several potential replacements, as they are still confident of convincing the 23-year-old Canadian to stay.
“I feel very comfortable here, I play in an incredible team, one of the best in Europe. I stay focused and give my all for the team and for our fans,” Davies, who has been at Bayern for four years, recently told German football magazine Kicker.
Bayern will push hard to get an answer either way from him this spring, because losing him for nothing would be very damaging financially.
Whatever happens with this puzzle, Saturday evening brings a wonderful opportunity for Gutierrez to remind Madrid what he can do, with the Bernabeu full to capacity for what might well be the most important match of this La Liga season.
He and Girona are fully focused on their sensational tilt at the title — but the idea of playing next year’s fixture against Girona in the home side’s famous white kit definitely appeals.
Additional reporting: Thom Harris and Raphael Honigstein
(Top photos: Getty Images)
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