Real Madrid were rocked with disastrous news today, as reports flooded in about an injury to crucial midfielder Toni Kroos. This adds to the already large list of players out of commission (Benzema, Casemiro, Pepe, and Ramos), though all of them are rumored to be returning at around the date of the Madrileño Derbi.
Real Madrid medical staff have set November 19 as the return date for Ramos, Pepe, Casemiro and Benzema. [MARCA] pic.twitter.com/HmEXo307vN— Galactico Edition (@LosGaIacticos) November 8, 2016
What makes this injury crisis so dangerous is its timing. Real Madrid have their most grueling run of fixtures right after the international break: away matches at the Calderon, the Estádio José Alvalade, and the Camp Nou, and a home-match vs. Borussia Dortmund.
It’s obvious why Madrid will miss Toni Kroos; the German brings unparalleled control, distribution, calmness, and most importantly press resistance. I emphasize that last quality because it could prove to be the defining trait of Real Madrid’s performance. All four of the aforementioned opponents employ pressing systems (three of them consistently - Sporting CP is the exception), something that has troubled Madrid’s build-up under both Rafa Benitez and Zinedine Zidane.
Kroos is Madrid’s best option to prevent the oppositions presses’ intended effect of pushing play out wide, as he possesses the poise, first touch, sense of timing, and execution, to play vertical passes through the middle of a team’s defensive structure.
Modric also possesses great press resistance (though this has more to do with his ball control and dribbling), which should help Madrid cope against high pressure, but it’s a tough ask to leave the majority of such a difficult task to one player. Nevertheless, it’s not as big of a potential problem as defensive solidity, something that Madrid will definitely lose out on without Kroos’ ability to play in a single-pivot.
That’s not to say Kroos is a defensive beast - he’s not. Kroos is weak in fifty-fifty challenges, struggles aerially, and lacks the mobility to defend large swathes of the pitch, but his keen sense of defensive positioning and timing of the tackle does make him more than adept at the defensive midfield position.
Without him, there is no one who can play the same role. Isco and James as a DM would be a disaster, Modric would be used incredibly better elsewhere, Danilo hasn’t played there in ages let alone in a rigorous match against Europe’s best, and the Ramos experiment failed against Juventus.
So what about Kovacic? Many fans will site his interview upon signing for Madrid (where the Croatian revealed his preferred position) as evidence that he can play as Madrid's DM...
I'm most comfortable as a defensive midfielder, but it's up to the coach to decide.
...but it’s worth noting that in the context of his time at Inter Milan, he was talking about his familiarity as a DM in a double-pivot, something that absolutely suits his profile.
But playing as a single-pivot is a different task entirely and is something that requires good positional discipline and non-negotiably good defensive abilities, qualities Kovacic lacks in bundles. His strength lies in box-to-box style defending (sliding tackles, 40 yard ‘track-backs’), not in making interceptions, winning aerial duels, and keeping vertical compactness with his midfield and defensive line.
But wait, isn’t Casemiro predicted to be fit by November 19th?
He is, but it’s pretty obvious that such a return will be rushed. We’ve seen the same type returns made by Cristiano Ronaldo, who inevitably struggled through end-of-the-year fixtures due to a lack of match fitness and sharpness. Based on the way that Casemiro’s return was suddenly predicted after the news of Kroos’ injury, it’s highly probable that Casemiro could go through a Ronaldo-esque accelerated path to recovery, something that will not only make it difficult for Casemiro to perform to his full capacity, but also enlarge the risk of re-injury.
As crucial as big as these fixtures are, Madrid desperately need the Brazilian in tip-top shape for the entirety of the season.
How Should Real Madrid’s Midfield Shape Up if Casemiro Plays?
In the likely event that Casemiro is forced through a slip-shod recovery, there’s no doubt that he should take the single-pivot DM role in Zinedine Zidane’s 4-3-3. Modric will slot in next to him, with Isco and Kovacic fighting for the last spot, something that the latter should receive due to his impressive 2016/17 form. Other than that, nothing will or should really change.
How Should Real Madrid’s Midfield Shape Up if Casemiro Doesn't Play?
Modric & Kovacic Should be Deployed in a Double-pivot
However, if Madrid’s staff do indeed take the gutsy decision to save Casemiro for the long-term, they would probably be be better off employing some type of double-pivot formation.
While Modric likely won’t shine to his full potential when strapped to the positional limits of such a role, he won’t have to share the defensive burden alone, as Kovacic could and should be paired next to him (remember, this is a position Kovacic is comfortable in).
The 4-2-3-1 vs. the 4-4-2
The next problem to solve is whether Madrid should employ a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2.
The first option has it’s benefits, since it would allow one of Isco or James to take up their preferred role in the "hole." Not only would this allow the two creative maestros to express themselves, but it would create an obvious outlet between the lines that can be used to bypass presses.
However, several problems exist in this framework. Firstly, a 4-2-3-1 requires an immense amount of ball carrying from the wingers in order to transition play from the middle to the final third, something that Cristiano Ronaldo can no longer execute. This could be solved by playing Morata/Isco/Lucas/Asensio/Bale (James/Lucas on the right) on the left-wing and Ronaldo as a striker, but it still leaves one more problem - defensive solidity.
While the 4-2-3-1 doesn't necessarily mean that Madrid will be cut apart easily, it does require that the No. 10 take on a very lax defensive role so that he can exact maximum damage in the final third (think Ozil). This could be compensated for with hard work from the wingers, but such an effort can only do so much. Without a true defensive midfielder in the line-up, the middle remains vulnerable (Madrid have no natural defensive midfield with Casemiro and Kroos out), meaning that the accommodation of a No. 10 might be a luxury that Real Madrid cannot afford.
Instead, the 4-4-2 provides a natural framework for collective defending that could make up for the loss of Casemiro and Kroos. Instead of playing wingers, you could employ wide midfielders who are less focused on ball carrying and more focused more on the positional discipline necessary to keep proper defensive compactness. Isco and James are solid picks to start, but Lucas also has to get a shout due to his immense work-rate and defensive prolificacy.
The problem with this is the front two. Both Ronaldo and Bale are not natural strikers and it showed as much when they paired up against Juventus in 2014/15. The duo made the same movements off-the-ball and looked to run in behind the defense all too often, creating a void where the connection between midfield and attack was supposed to be.
They also failed to get together to combine and instead moved to their respective flanks due to their natural inclinations as wingers to move wide. With Benzema out, the obvious solution is to drop one of Bale and Ronaldo for Alvaro Morata, but that is politically impossible.
If Morata were to play, Ronaldo and Bale would most definitely flank the striker, something that would require a formational transition from offense to defense.
As can be seen in the line-ups above, Bale would need to consistently shift from a forward to a right midfield position to ensure Madrid's defensive solidity. This was something that he somewhat struggled doing under Ancelotti's reign, but Bale has grown enough tactically over the past two seasons to be comfortable in this role. The real concern is the emphasized point of defensive transition this will create. The entire midfield line needs to be working in unison to shift from side to side in order to provide defensive and offensive balance, a tactical responsibility that will lie entirely on the head of manager Zinedine Zidane.
With little time to prepare his side tactically and with Zidane's obvious tactical weaknesses regarding defensive compactness, it's a long shot to believe that the Frenchman could achieve sufficient competency in this formation in time for the Madrileño Derbi.
You could try and stick Bale into a limited right midfield role in order to keep the 4-4-2 shape in attack, but you would seriously be damaging Bale's greatest strength - his offensive potency.
Thus, the best option would be to drop one of Ronaldo or Bale for Morata and play a 4-4-2 in attack and defense. This is not only practically achievable (in terms of the time needed to make tactical adjustments) due to the simplistic nature of this approach, but would also provide Real Madrid with the best equilibrio in all phases of the game.
However, since it is impossible to drop one of Bale or Ronaldo, the best tactical choice given the political situation would be the 4-2-3-1, with one of Morata/Isco/Lucas/Asensio/Bale (James/Lucas on the right) on the left. Morata is the preferable choice given his ability to share the center forward load with Ronaldo, as well as providing great ball carrying ability on the wing.
The No. 10 would probably have to sacrifice some of his creative freedom in order to help his midfield out in defense, which could create problems in build-up, but given the situation, it's the most pragmatic option Real Madrid have in the absence of Toni Kroos.
This is why we should have pursued a defensive midfielder over the summer.