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Real Madrid must unlock the midfield against Atlético

Despite a thin squad relative to recent years, Carlo Ancelotti still has to figure out which midfield lineup will do best against in this weekend's Derbi.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

Just like most, I was appalled at Xabi's sudden departure. It wouldn't be so problematic if Ancelotti had time to experiment with new lineups through the preseason, but the reality is Xabi's in Munich, and Ancelotti has a wealth of youngsters roaring to take his place.

So what should the midfield look like for this weekend's match against Atlético?

This is about as important a game can be in September, and the midfield has been a revolving door since this season's beginning. The last time Real played Atlético without Xabi Alonso was the Champion's League final and, well, we all know how that went.

Let's revisit fond memories for a second. In Lisbon, Madrid played a relatively simplistic 4-4-2, with Khedira filling in for Xabi. At times it looked like a 4-1-2-3, with Khedira defending more than anything, while Modrić and Di María moved the ball forward. Not to turn a blind eye to how attritional that match was for the better part of 90 minutes, but Real had dominated possession and chances.

If he wanted, Ancelotti could employ a similar lineup this weekend. Illarra could fill Khedira's role, and Kroos could take Di María's. Who knows if Carlo has enough faith in Illarra to send him out, but he did send Khedira into a bigger game coming off a major injury, so it wouldn't be a huge surprise.

One thing remains constant about how Atlético plays: they're excellent at slowing any midfield movement to a crawl, and they must genuinely love doing it. Simeone probably wakes up every morning and spends 35 minutes brushing his teeth, and another 25 folding socks. It's not a knock of him or their squad in the slightest, in fact it's their best option given Madrid's speed.

In the Champions League final they did an excellent job at denying Bale and Ronaldo the ball on the break, and they continued that into this year's Super Cup. How can Carlo's boys dig the ball out of the midfield?

Isco might be the answer. He very quietly had a strong showing in the final but never saw the field in this summer's Super Cup. His creativity has been helpful in unlocking Atlético's defense in the past, and even if he runs with the ball and draws fouls, he'll have done his job.

Sending out a midfield of Modrić-Isco-Kroos behind Ronaldo-Benzema-Bale would be raucous on the attack but fallible in defense, but it may be necessary as Atlético is more likely to beat you up on defense than run up the score.

I have a really hard time believing Coentrão will play in the midfield as it's been reported he might. Back in 2011 when Mourinho was plugging him practically everywhere, he did alright, but not outstanding (I actually think he deserved more praise at the time for his versatility, but I'm  a few years late to making that point). Besides, it makes more sense for him to be at left-back, where he's excelled against Atlético recently.

Luka Modrić must start in his usual role. His form is undeniable and his impact even more so.

Personally, I'd like Kroos to start alongside him. He recently turned in two great performances against Atlético in the Super Cup, and his willingness to not only do the dirty work in defense, but also ability to reverse the field will be huge. I swear sometimes he delivers his best passes after having just won the ball, like he's in autopilot and hardly thinks of what he's doing.

Kroos and Modrić ought to be their usual selves in their usual roles, and that would leave Ancelotti with four slots to fill. Assuming they're all good to go, Bale-Benzema-Cristiano should round out the forwards, leaving one final spot in the midfield, which might be the most problematic of the season.

If Illarra's given the chance, he'll have a huge opportunity to be the linchpin of the midfield he was coveted as when Real brought him in.

It's undeniable James is a ton of fun to watch, but at this point in the campaign, I think he's most effective off the bench as a catalyst at the hour mark.

These matches drive me insane. They're truly moving chess matches with more grass and less pocket protectors. Real's success is dependent on how often they can get the ball to the feet of Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo and send them off to the races. I think slotting the midfield with Modrić, Isco and Kroos gives the team the best chance at doing that.

What do you think?

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