Let's face it, it's a tough time to be a supporter for Los Blancos. With that said, there's a number of things the club needs to work on; stability and consistency on and off the field, attitude adjustments, change within the political hierarchy, and more. Again, a number of things. But one thing that remains mostly ignored, or dare I say, unnoticed, is the lack of a center defensive midfielder (CDM). I would like to add that the inclusion of a CDM will not magically or radically improve Real Madrid's play, but it will definitely give the Spanish club some mid-field balance if Madrid continue to play Toni Kroos as a deep-lying play maker (DLP).
Current Mid-field Trio: Too Attack-Oriented
A clear difference between the Decima-winning side and the team Madrid has at the moment is the disappearance of Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria (no duh). I wrote an article about how, in my opinion (not the community), Xabi Alonso was the most-missed player between the two. Alonso was a mid-field general of the highest caliber. Tactically sound, able to spray long-balls to the feet of Ronaldo and company, and an organizer of the team, his brilliant football mind made up for his lack of speed. He was the important anchor and metronome of the team, similar to what players like Sergio Busquets and Andrea Pirlo bring to the table. His positional awareness allowed the genius of both Modric and Di Maria to shine bright; that equilibrium was found between the three. Even at Bayern Munich, though many Madrid fans considered The Red Beard post-peak, old, he's still commanding his troops.
James Rodriguez was purchased with the expense of Angel Di Maria, despite the Argentine earning the title of man of the match in his Champions League winning display against Atletico. To be brutally honest, it made sense. Di Maria wanted a pay raise after his spike in form, but James was the talk of the town for his performances in the World Cup and would cost less than Di Maria in terms of wages. Marketable, young, and talented, the Colombian screamed 'cha-Ching' (Galactico) to Florentino Perez, but also had the ability to justify the club president's interest. I still maintain that I do not miss Di Maria as much as I miss Alonso. El Fideo's career is overshadowed by inconsistent displays with the Royal Whites, while James' debut season showed he can score, assist, defend, and overall, become a decisive player for Madrid for years to come. His under performing current season however is highlighting Madrid's lack of defensive discipline in the mid-field with Isco-Kroos-and Modric. Xabi's effective positioning and the engine that seemingly never stopped working with James (of last year) and Di Maria is not there anymore.
Zidane now has to find the happy median between attack and defense. The common trait between his current trio is that none are defensive-minded by nature. This poses a huge issue when one takes into consideration the fact that Madrid plays with three forwards who rarely track back, two surging wing-backs who are up the pitch like it's nobody's business, while also having Modric and Isco hovering in advanced positions. Simply put, when Real Madrid are in full attack-mode, defensive shape is not a priority. I was very optimistic after watching Zizou's first game in charge. The team played an expansive 4-3-3 going forward but a compact 4-4-2 when the ball was turned over. It was refreshing to see the B-B-C contribute by pressing defenders and also tucking in to keep the team's shape. More recently however, Madrid has been slumping back into old ways. When exposed on the counter, Los Blancos appear to have a soft underbelly. Teams that play with intensity overrun the mid-field quite easily, mostly because Kroos and Modric find themselves numerically outnumbered, out of position during transitions, and lack pace.
The fact is that even though a trio of forwards nearly guarantees goals, it must come with a VERY hard-working midfield. Kroos' pass accuracy and completion rate was never doubted, but his role as an attacking-midfielder turned DLP was questioned without the support of a CDM. Isco, though gushing with raw talent, doesn't always deliver the end product. Modric is a mid-field general but the Croatian must be exhausted going forward to aid his attackers, while also making sure he does not leave Kroos or the space behind him exposed. The reality is that Madrid are top-heavy and unbalanced at the moment, and Zidane has serious decisions to make if he intends on competing with the likes of Bayern Munich and Barcelona. If he continues to opt for an open 4-3-3, his trifecta of Isco-Kroos-Modric must have the legs of a horse and defensive discipline to battle with teams who may outman or expose them with speed.
DLPs Need Defensive Coverage
I'm not against Kroos' conversion into a DLP. It can be done and I also believe he can be a huge success if he is properly equipped. But history has proven that every DLP has a defensive player supporting him. Cesc Fabregas has Nemanja Matic or John Obi-Mikel, Pirlo had Gennaro Gattuso, Alonso had Sami Khedira, so on and so forth. With the current set up, Kroos does not have the essential protective reinforcement he needs to excel.
Elephant in the room: Casemiro. Real Madrid have a CDM who was Porto's outstanding mid-fielder while on-loan last year. Before I'm crucified, I would like to write that Casemiro is not the solution to all of Madrid's problems. He can be caught out of position, gives away too many free-kicks for comfort, and does not address the bulk issues in the beginning of this piece. But the Brazilian can be guided to use his intensity, physicality, and grit.
Many have been quick to rule out Casemiro because he lacks a 'football brain.' But can't that be improved upon? All of a sudden, is decent coaching and proper education out the window? I dismiss talk that Casemiro is nothing more than a squad player because he has the all tools needed to be a great CDM, not to mention his ability for long-ball distribution. If he receives more playing time and his mentored, his assets can be honed. Not a big game player? His commanding performances against PSG and Atleti exhibit why ex-coach Rafa Benitez chose to call upon Case in such massive games.
CDM will facilitate magic from Isco, Kroos, and Modric
Inserting a CDM sounds negative on the surface, I can see that. On the contrary. With Casemiro, or someone effectively playing CDM in the mid-field, Kroos, Modric, and Isco can focus more on what they do best; creating. Of course the three will aid Casemiro with the defensive load, but the point is that Casemiro will be in charge of the grunt work that the aforementioned triplet are not well suited for.
When Isco-Kroos-Modric are rid of their defensive duties, the creativity and contributions they provide offensively are extraordinary, bar none. Kroos' success from Bayern Munich and Germany stems from him being deployed in an advanced position. Isco thrives under a lack of defensive accountability, bringing the ball forward and provoking defenses to take the ball from him. Finally Modric's innate ability to create is expedited with support from the likes of a defensive presence.
Why not give the mid-field trio a go with an added CDM. Really, what does Madrid have to lose? If anything they could discover a better way to play and maximize all the resources they have. It's true that Casemiro or a CDM will not be needed in all games. Especially in games where Madrid is expected to thrash the opposition at home for example. But games where Madrid need that extra-bite and steel in the mid-field is the perfect place for the Brazilian enforcer to leave his calling card.