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What do Real Madrid need in the transfer market?

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Looking at Real Madrid's squad and which transfer moves will be key.

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The summer transfer period is a prime opportunity for clubs to structurally improve their squads. The cornerstone of a successful season is a high quality balanced team that aligns with the tactical vision of the manager. Furthermore, there needs to be sufficient supplementary player depth to provide coverage for injuries and fatigue. The losses of Luka Modrić and James Rodríguez for significant stretches during last season proved devastating in many regards. The lack of suitable replacements exposed a critical over reliance on certain individuals. Understanding the weaknesses in the current composition of the squad provides a good reference guide for transfer activity.

The conspiracy is a red herring

The man tasked with guarding the net for La Liga and the Champions League remained, as has been for the last three seasons especially, the center of a sensitive debate over the course of campaigns in both competitions. The general fear among the skeptics is that Iker Casillas' power in the club has risen to a dangerous level -- which has a negative impact as his performances do not merit such a status. It is difficult to evaluate the condition of the goalkeeping position without addressing the ‘political factor.' As much conspiracy theory as poignant observation.

In fairness, Casillas was not unforgivingly poor as the starting keeper but persistent issues with aerial and positional play coupled with inconsistency made it clear this was an area that could be bettered. Keylor Navas, exhibiting signs of nervousness, wasn't noticeably superior in his limited playing time. Upgrading this position would be a significant, albeit not season defining, move. Although the team could do with an elite goalkeeper, they will still be able to compete and win with either of Casillas or Navas as starters. Pacheco is a suitable third substitute. In the long-term (almost certainly beyond 2015-16), a new goalkeeper will be an utmost priority.

Defense is not a problem

If the status quo is maintained and the present defensive unit continued, Real Madrid would be heading into the upcoming season with a sound competent backline. The trio of Ramos, Pepe, and Varane while not immune to errors are three astounding options who can cover the center back position excellently. There are nuances in accounting for each of their unique traits such as Varane's struggle with physical play (particularly defensive aerial contests), Ramos' extreme risk-taking and positional lack of discipline, and Pepe's marking in loose (chaotic) plays (counter-attacking, recovery from set pieces etc.). These shortcomings however do not diminish the overall capability of the players. Ramos is a dominant force whose anticipatory reading of play is excellent. Pepe is also similarly physically imposing and an assured one-on-one defender. Varane, apart from the noted incidental miscues with heading clearances, is an all-around player with all the tools of a world class defender.

The full back pairings of Marcelo-Coentrão and Carvajal-Danilo offer coaching versatility. The former pair are well known as being polar opposites with the Brazilian's offensive fruitfulness at its best contrasting with Coentrão's resilience and protective cover. Marcelo's explosiveness is unparalleled when in peak form and can be crucial for creating chances in closed games. On the other hand, troubling severe performance lapses in key periods of the past two seasons emphasize the importance of having a quality alternative available. Carvajal has yet to fully mature as a player and it shows with glaring susceptibility against skilled attackers. Danilo's acquisition should serve to relieve some of the pressure on the young right back's shoulders whilst bringing in other important qualities. Nacho is a solid third/fourth option for all back four positions but prolonged dependence on the Castilla graduate would decrease the team's competitiveness. Arbeloa's role is expected to be limited even further.

The midfield quandary

The midfield has undergone several changes in recent times: from a pure 4-2-3-1 with a Khedira-Alonso base supported by a Ronaldo-Ozil-di Maria offensive trident to a 4-3-3 centered around Modrić-Alonso-Khedira/di Maria to last season's de jure 4-3-3 helmed by Kroos, James, and Modrić. The loss of a pure defensive midfielder, with Kroos emerging as Alonso's replacement, is seen in some quarters as a hindrance. The lack of diversity in the qualities possessed by the primary midfielders -- those who've been relied on most -- is also a slight concern. Modrić, Kroos, James, and Isco are far from identical profiles but athletically, they seem similar. Their strengths on the ball and preference for a slow progressive style creates slight redundancies. These all considered, their positive attributes far outweigh the stated issues. Their individual competencies and cohesive synergy allow them to adjust as necessary to deal with the in-game challenges they face.

The biggest issue in this department is the lack of a viable alternative for Modrić and Kroos. James and Isco are sufficient cover for one of the side midfield roles (or a newly defined role were the setup to change under Rafael Benítez). Modrić and Kroos are irreplaceable because the system suffers without them. The dynamic of the midfield is based on an interlinked base sharing responsibilities seamlessly. Kroos is far from a lone holder in the traditional 4-3-3 context, Modrić (when necessary as allowed by his expert judgement) provides territorial shielding -- at times, it appears his movements purposely coordinate collective zonal shifting. In addition, Modrić's technicality and ability to optimize verticality without sacrificing control is an incredible asset. Kroos is indispensable, plainly, because he is the team's best distributor. The utility of a multi-function passing anchor is vital as he can participate in all playing modes.

Illarramendi and Silva have failed to demonstrate that they can compensate for the above duo. The ex-Real Sociedad midfielder's visibly low-intensity and reduced involvement in creating chances holds the team back. The Brazilian, who did not have enough time for appropriate judgement, also appeared to have similar problems. Mostly, failure to match the dynamism displayed by Kroos and Modrić wasn't offset by gains in defensive stability. Casemiro's return may provide a solution in this regard but it's uncertain. To truly elevate Real Madrid into a fully leveraged side, the addition of another central midfielder whose characteristics can substitute for Kroos' and/or Modrić's, or offer enough in other aspects to allow the team to adapt in the absence of one of the two core players is necessary.

Stars need a supporting cast

Real Madrid's famed BBC offense consisting of Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo was not the unstoppable force many hoped it would be after an explosive first season together. However, there are very little questions about the value of all three players. Ronaldo completed another spectacular season as the focal point of the offense. Benzema and Bale's seasons weren't as strong with the latter experiencing a testing sophomore year. Benzema fared better but injuries hampered his production rates while continuous issues with finishing undermined his striking proficiency. All three had major dips in productivity at the turn of the year. While there were systematic root causes for their problems, those were only a partial factor for their underperformance. They weren't passing as well, moving as well, shooting as well -- they were playing worse at an individual level.

When in form, BBC's stardust sparkled brightly and it was evident that they are a fantastic outlet for the team. Their well-rounded skillsets is a fundamental strength of the team. Compact low blocks and similar tactics can handcuff them but overall they are, as 2013-14 and parts of last season proved, able to navigate most situations. However, competent backups are needed to increase competition for playing time and create more variety in selection options. James (with stylistic changes) and Jesé are adequate fill-ins for one of the three spots. The biggest current hole is the lack of a top-notch alternate striker.  As good as Chicharito's stint was, he was not a long-term proposition as a potential starter and did not offer the same confidence that a Benzema-calibre striker does.

Outlook based on current squad

The core needs of the squad are the additions of high quality players in the central midfield and striker positions. A new goalkeeper would be a great transfer as well although one that the team doesn't need to be competitive next season. In light of confirmed in-transfers to date, the following is a squad table showing players by position broken down into a 3-tier hierarchy while identifying potential out-transfers.

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Hierarchy

Goalkeeper

Defense

Midfield

Attack

Tier 1

Casillas (sell), New player

Ramos, Pepe, Varane, Marcelo

Kroos, Modric, James

Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema

Tier 2

Navas

Coentrão, Danilo, Carvajal

Isco, New player

Jesé (loan), New player

Tier 3

Pacheco

Nacho, Arbeloa (sell)

Casemiro, Illarramendi (sell), Silva (loan)

Vázquez

Asensio and  Cheryshev are excluded from the table as their situation is uncertain. They would be otherwise classified as Tier 3 players with the latter being on the fringe of Tier 2.

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Tier 1 includes players that have been prominent in their time with the team, are assured in their position, and likely to have the new coach's trust. Tier 2 are players within their respective position categories who are the first rotational options and good enough in many respects to push for a starting spot. Tier 3 are the second, third, and fourth rotational options who, for the most part, do not have any starting prospects and essentially purely serve depth purposes.