In 2013-2014, Real Madrid had what many considered to be the world's best midfield. Xabi Alonso, despite his age, was still a strong defensive anchor while Angel Di Maria and Luka Modric were the most potent 1-2 box-to-box punch in the business. In 2014-2015, the style of play shifted but the quality was still unmatched as Toni Kroos provided a sense of unparalleled control while James Rodriguez showed that he was more than just a one-hit wonder. However, injuries took their toll and questions about the lack of a traditional destroyer arose. With the acquisition of Casemiro, is the steel that so many wanted finally back to Madrid?
The pass master: Toni Kroos
Key passes: 2
Pass accuracy: 92.2 percent
2014-2015 wasn't a breakout year for Kroos as many already viewed him as a world class player, but it was a year in which he was asked to do something new and, for the most part, he did it quite well. Carlo Ancelotti took a risk in attempting to turn Kroos into an Alonso-type, perhaps not in the defensive machine Alonso was in his prime but rather as a deep pass master looking to dictate play from the back. Kroos, to his credit, was a passing metronome no matter how tired he was and, despite his unfamiliarity to the role, gave it his best to serve as a defensive anchor. His lack of pace did him no favors and there were times when his positioning caused him to be torched by attackers, but his tenacity never waned and his ability to cover Madrid's venturing fullbacks grew as the season went along.
For the coming season, it's almost unfair to expect more but given how many of his Bayern highlights included wondergoals from distance and how few times he actually even took a shot on goal last season, perhaps it's not unreasonable to want to see more offense from Kroos. Of course, he was limited in how much he could partake in when it came to the final third given his defensive responsibilities but with Benitez seemingly demanding more from his wingers on defense and with the return of Casemiro, Kroos might have a chance to show off his cannon shot and could add yet another scoring element to this team.
The dynamic wizard: Luka Modric
Key passes: 1.2
Pass accuracy: 91.6 percent
Pound for pound, there likely isn't a better all-around midfielder in the world than little Luka Modric. Capable of serving as a 10 or as a deeper B2B winning the ball back deep before launching the attack, Modric is the engine which makes this team run. He's not just an excellent ball-carrier, his penetrative passes and cuts into the defense simply cannot be matched by anyone on the team, and when this team boasts talents such as James Rodriguez and Isco Alarcon that's saying something.
Unfortunately for everyone, Modric's 2014-2015 season was cut short as he missed 32 games and the team suffered greatly for it. From placing a massive amount of pressure on Kroos to control the game while defending the back line, to robbing the team of the one player unfazed by tight, disciplined defenses, Modric's absence was felt immediately. When he was healthy though, he was on another level from everyone else. Ronaldo gets the bulk of the credit for his absurd goal haul but it's Modric putting his imprint on every facet of the game.
It's not uncommon to see the little Croatian among the back line fighting on the ball only to see him in the final third seconds later slicing through the defense. What will be interesting to see is who'll serve as his backup given that no one on the team is quite like him. Kroos was overplayed last season but at least now Illarramendi might serve as his replacement given the latter's passing skills, but Modric might now take the mantle of most minutes played given his unique skillset. That being said, he's possibly the player most in need of protection until the big moments in order to keep his as fresh as possible for crunch time, so look for the spotlight to shine bright on Benitez' management of his minutes.
The bulldozer: Casemiro
Key passes: --
Pass accuracy: --
(Liga Sagres stats are very difficult to find. Apologies.)
For two summers Real Madrid fans have been begging for a big-name defensive midfielder to come in and shore up the center. From non-DMs like Paul Pogba and Marco Verratti, to destroyers like Grzegorz Krychowiak, the fanbase has been restless for an assertive force to come in and wreck s*** up. Though it wasn't a big name buy, the club did concede its position of buying nothing but attacking midfielder by bringing back Casemiro after a strong loan at Porto.
Casemiro is the type of midfielder who doesn't shy away from contact. Unlike someone like Illarramendi who prefers to use his positioning nous to break up attacks, Casemiro will use his physical nature to body up the opposition in order to defend his back four. This is a double edged sword. While he's more than capable of winning the ball back, having your midfielders rack up big tackle numbers means they were beat in the first place and are taking a big risk in trying to win the ball back in that manner. Casemiro, for all his boundless energy and willingness to put in a hard shift, is someone who is much more reactive than proactive. Additionally, once he wins the ball back he's someone who needs to hand the ball off to a more technically-skilled teammate as his passing and ball-carrying is nothing to write home about.
He's not the polished final product the way Nemanja Matic or Sergio Busquets is, but he's definitely on the team to serve a purpose. From being a late-game defensive closer, to a starter versus average sides, this club finally has someone athletic enough to put in the dirty work needed to give Kroos and Modric license to venture forward in the attacks. Just keep your fingers closed that he doesn't pick up one yellow card after another.
The enigma: Asier Illarramendi
Key passes: .2
Pass accuracy: 91.4 percent
What to make of Illaramendi at this point? At his best, he's a tenacious controller of the game with a strong sense of defensive positioning. At his worst, he's easily overrun by the opposition and has a minimal, if any, impact on the game. Many thought his days were numbered at Madrid but here he is, days away from making the opening roster. Last season he served as a late-game closer but with Casemiro's more aggressive and eye-catching style of play, it's safe to say that Illarramendi is the second choice when it comes to a defensive option off the bench.
Illarramendi has the best defensive positioning of the bunch. He's safe venturing forward and doesn't leave himself as vulnerable as someone like Kroos, plus he's a decent tackler to boot having won 2/3 of his attempts. His offensive performances, however, were middling due to being played out of his preferred role. Perhaps he should've adapted to this challenge, but perhaps Benitez will opt to field him deeper where he's more comfortable shielding the back line.
Despite his shortcomings, he can still serve as a decent option versus midtable and lower sides but he'll likely need someone like Modric next to him to run the offense from the back.
The wildcard: Isco Alarcon
Key passes: 1.6
Pass accuracy: 88 percent