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RCD Espanyol v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

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On the books, Real Madrid’s depth chart in central midfield is ridiculous

And it’s all happening during the Modric - Kroos era — an undroppable duo. Kiyan Sobhani’s latest column takes a look at all of Real Madrid’s options now and moving forward.

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

There is one position in this Real Madrid era — the central midfield pivot — that’s been impossibly deep. It shouldn’t be difficult for players as talented as Dani Ceballos, Mateo Kovacic, Isco Alarcon, James Rodriguez, and Federico Valverde (not every player on this list is a pure-bred CM, yet, modern football’s classification of positions has become less and less rigid, meaning former playmakers are asked to reside deeper, press, and, therefore, will be lumped into that position by default) to find playing time. Yet, when they find themselves all owned by the same club, healthy competition will eventually sacrifice some of them for a profit, allowing for the natural bubbling of the best of those players to rise and form the team’s future nucleus.

All that competition and still no mention of Real Madrid’s greatest central midfield pairing of all time: the Toni Kroos - Luka Modric dyad which has suffocated opponents during the team’s European three-peat.

That’s tight — you just can’t break that if you’re on the fringes, even if you’re really good. Kroos and Modric have grappled that position and pinned it into submission. They are not just great players that help you win — they are generational players that are indispensable.

Just how indispensable? Modric is the greatest central midfielder the club has ever had. Toni Kroos cracks the all-time squad now. (I squeezed him in on our famous Real Madrid all-time squad podcast back in 2018 — but now I’d do more than just squeeze him in.) They currently overlap. Two of the best ever, together. It just doesn’t happen. This is about as unique a situation as you can come across — with the only other example in modern football being the legendary Xavi - Iniesta tandem.

Modric is 33. He played year 32 of his life like he was 26 — lifting the weights defensively on the right side of Real Madrid’s frail transition defense en route to decimotercera, and carrying Croatia to the World Cup final. He then hibernated for five-and-a-half months before waking up in January of 2019. Someone like Ceballos, Isco, and Kovacic has to look at that and say: “Hey, it’s got to be my turn soon!

It’s tempting for Real Madrid fans to get frustrated with fizzling depth when players just run out of patience and leave. Here’s why they shouldn’t (from a column I wrote back in 2016 about Modric’s childhood and development as a footballer, when Real Madrid extended both him and Kroos):

So here we are, celebrating. Not one, but two contract renewals to two of the top 3-5 central midfielders on earth. That’s not something that happens too often at Real Madrid. In fact, has it ever? You’d be hard-pressed to find the club ever rocking two top-five generals at once.

In 2014, Real Madrid boasted a reinvented Di Maria who performed at a top-5 level alongside Luka Modric and a deep-lying Xabi Alonso. Before that? The thinking becomes onerous. In Galactico project 1.0, Ivan Helguera at his peak was performing at a top-5 level, but he often played as a sweeper, and his partner in crime, Claude Makelele, was a destroyer, not a central midfielder.

Keep rolling back time, and it still doesn’t work. The club came close in 1998 when Clarence Seedorf and Fernando Redondo lifted the European title in Amsterdam. That was before the pinnacle of Seedorf’s career though, amid a late-90s era that was spoiled with midfield maestros. Besides, Fernando Redondo was a defensive midfielder, and neither that instance, nor his overlap with Michael Laudrup three seasons earlier fits the bill entirely.

And therein lies the significance of the contract extensions given to Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. Having two players at such an elite level controlling the middle of the park is a rare occurrence at a club that tends to be top-heavy. What’s even more significant is that Real Madrid has rolled out a longterm blueprint with their renewals, and have even begun the grooming process of Modric’s heir, Mateo Kovacic.

The club has always been thin at this position. Suddenly, the problem has gone from having no elite players in midfield to control games, to having the two best — plus a plethora of great talent behind them. A better problem to have than not having the greatest central midfielders in the world (the norm, historically, even at a club like this), is to have the best, and too many to choose from.

To be sure, having too many great players in a single position is still a problem you have to sort — it’s a delicate rope to walk across where you have to juggle player emotions, contracts, loan spells, and ultimately picking and selling the right players. Every club has the players that got away. You don’t want to be on the wrong end of misreading a player’s trajectory.

Real Madrid v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final
What a time to be alive
Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

There is a cost associated to all of this. Ceballos went from being one of the league’s fiercest and best midfielders with Betis to getting cast aside into the shadows the next. He knew his playing time would regress upon signing (maybe not to the extent it did), but he had youth on his side. Now he’s important again — a rare bright spot in Lopetegui’s tenure and paramount rotational engine under Solari. He’s just 22, and that £14.85m price tag is a gamble Real Madrid would take over and over again on a player as talented as Ceballos.

For the sake of analyzing everything thoroughly, let’s start going through all of Real Madrid’s central midfield options (on the books) bar the two clear starters, now, and moving forward:

Mateo Kovacic

There is a clear path you could present Kovacic: Stick around and you’ll be Modric’s heir. Only that roadmap existed last season too. At some point Kovacic will have looked at Modric as a God-curse — a legend that mentored him and led his nation to an unprecedented World Cup final; but someone who was always in his way.

It’s not been easy on Kovacic, who’s just trying to fit in as a key cog and fixed starter — it has been far from an earth-shattering season for him at Chelsea as a regular name in Maurizio Sarri’s XI.

Real Madrid would’ve liked to have kept Kovacic around, but what happened in the end probably worked best for both parties: Kovacic wants to start — something not possible with Kroos and Modric here — and Real Madrid don’t have to sell him in order to offer him that. Even better: they send him to the School of Sarri-ball and welcome him back as a graduate who theoretically should have a more polished game after playing at a very high level for an entire season.

Kovacic now has another problem — it’s not been great for him at Chelsea, and there are enough up-and-coming midfielders at Real Madrid that the club could reasonably sell the Croat to Chelsea without losing too much sleep. That sounds wild, given Kovacic’s talent, but there are internal rumblings that the club wasn’t too happy about his public statements regarding leaving Real Madrid and joining Chelsea, and they have some leverage now with other talent within the ranks.

Those public statements won’t be the nail in anyone’s coffin. What he said was relatively routine, and those things get forgiven and swept under the rug quickly (see: Bale’s post-game comments against Liverpool) if a deal benefits both parties.

And maybe this is all melodramatic anyway — Kovacic is a high enough a talent to succeed, and he would probably be happy staying at Chelsea beyond this season.

But Kovacic looked in place almost every time he stepped on the field with Real Madrid. He could slide into a double pivot in either a Champions League knockout game or a heated Derbi (or Clasico) and help the midfield completely dominate their opponent. His best trait — being an elite ball-carrier — has vanished at Stamford Bridge. He shyly slows the tempo even when he has the opportunity to send Chelsea on a rip-roaring counter with 20+ yards of space in front of him. He continually gets taken off for Ross Barkley anywhere between the 60th - 70th minute mark, and his offense has regressed. He was never a good shooter, and hasn’t improved slinging them now either. With a more offensively-incisive Ruben Loftus-Cheek looking over his shoulder, he has to at least think about returning to the Bernabeu in what is still a complicated situation for him even a summer later.

Chelsea v Sheffield Wednesday - FA Cup Fourth Round
What changes this summer for Kovacic? There isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room unless Real Madrid sell Modric.
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

James Rodriguez

James is a player who left Real Madrid physically, but left his heart at the Bernabeu. From a talent and character standpoint, there’s no real reason the club shouldn’t welcome him back with open arms — he’s had nothing but good things to say about Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane upon leaving despite not playing much, and his future at Bayern remains tilted away from it.

And things have turned since Real Madrid initially loaned him to Bayern. The two-year loan spell was always a bizarre deal, given that James’s talent merited more than a simple, easy, and straightforward buyout of £45m for Bayern after two seasons (plus an additional £11.5m in loan fees). That all seemed cheap for a player like James, and it’s conceivable the club would’ve netted more if they dangled him around at Premier League clubs. But they’d have to sell him outright at that point, rather than hold on to him for a couple years and have someone else pay his wages.

Still, they effectively lost (a lot) of control when they gave Bayern the first option on the player at the end of the loan spell.

It may be time to pull the trigger and bring him back. The ball that is in Bayern’s court is ultimately in James’s court — he’s the one who can twist and turn it back in Real Madrid’s favour if he pushes for a return. The situation at Bayern hasn’t improved, and his playing time (and relationship with Niko Kovac) has taken a turn for the worst. In what started off as an ideal situation for him — playing under his beloved Carlo Ancelotti, and then important minutes under Jupp Heynckes — the Colombian is now left frustrated coming off the bench.

Where would he fit? The central midfield depth doesn’t magically go away. But James is also really versatile. Some of the best football of his career came at Monaco from the right wing. He can play in midfield, but is also capable of playing a high-octane pressing game as part of the front three. He’s one of the best decision-makers in the final third on earth. He’d be a talent upgrade over Lucas Vazquez, and could rotate on the flanks between Bale, Vinicius Jr, and Asensio. Last season he was incredible against Real Madrid over two legs playing from a deeper position. He’s versatile. He’d be worth welcoming back.

Dani Ceballos

Ceballos’s situation, like Marcos Llorente’s, has improved dramatically. His reemergence into Spanish football after taking a good one-year hiatus has made Kovacic more expendable, whether fans like it or not. Ceballos has already played 516 minutes more than he did in last season’s league and European campaign — matching his goal tally along the way and experiencing an uptick in tackles, key passes, and interceptions per game. (His best numbers across the board remain his breakout 16/17 season with Betis.)

All this comes back to last season, when Real Madrid signed Ceballos as a complete luxury in an already stacked midfield. When it happened, I wrote about his fit and a potential scheme involving both him and Kovacic in a midfield together. In reality, Zidane saw him as a player who could appear sporadically — but never on the level of Kovacic. The club saw Ceballos’s price tag as enough reason to pull the trigger anyway (with added bonus that Barcelona struggled to bring in a central midfielder not named Paulinho).

Zidane’s call on Ceballos wasn’t necessarily a bad one — he rightfully trusted Kovacic more as the Croatian was just a more proven player (Champions League games, Clasicos, and all). Kovacic still is the better overall player — but Ceballos is more incisive offensively and is a defensive hound who brings energy. It’s not inconceivable the club hedges towards Dani if they had to choose just one.

Isco Alarcon

Real Madrid are gambling with Isco’s happiness and future for the will of (possibly) a short-term manager.

But that’s a very simplified way of looking at it — and there’s a case for what Solari is doing (with plenty of caveats). For that, I wrote a very detailed article about the Isco - Solari situation (tactics, relationship, etc) over at Statsbomb, here.

Fede Valverde

There is no real rush with Fede at this point. He’s a player who almost finds himself in the same situation as Kovacic back in 2015 — a young, promising kid who’s not going to demand much playing time. Fede will be fine with it, for now. He was terrific alongside Aleix Febas two seasons ago at Castilla, but struggled in his La Liga debut season with Deportivo la Coruña. When he played early on, he played well. He then disappeared out of the lineup, played sporadically out of position — almost as an out-and-out left-winger at times — then, just as Clarence Seedorf took over and gave him a chance, suffered a knee injury which saw him sidelined nearly two months.

He’s just happy to recover from last season, now playing solid minutes here-and-there under a coach who’s always believed in him, stemming from their Castilla days. He probably takes on another season of this — training with the world’s best players and playing when called upon. Beyond that, you might need to loan him out or give him a more prominent role.

Real Betis Balompie v Real Madrid CF - La Liga
Fede Valverde’s been really impressive as a two-way midfielder when called upon this season
Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

Martin Odegaard

This is really stretching it here — but including Odegaard in this list is only to bring some context to what kind of player he is. (Spoiler: He is not a CM despite certain fans wanting him to be.)

Odegaard is not a central midfielder, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be in a pickle, or if his game develops over time. He plays on the right, but will never give you what Modric brings from a CM position defensively. He won’t give you the same two-way coverage that Valverde, Ceballos, or Kovacic give you neither. He can, however, play in the front three and do it at a high level. He’s been a revelation in the Eredivisie this season and, wait for it, is still only 20 (young enough not be a failed galactio, as he was labelled by a certain media outlet last season!).

Odegaard hasn’t yet polished his defensive game the way Vinicius Jr has — but he’s a good presser and hounder, and is absolutely deadly in transition. He’ll dribble past multiple defenders from the right or central channels before slinging a key pass, or he’ll just murder you in open water when given space. He’s best used as an attacking midfielder — not a central midfielder.

There’s just so much security at this position, which will make really talented players frustrated. But the reality of the Modric - Kroos era is that it’s so good, that it’s almost a complete outlier historically, and you may never see a central midfield tandem this good again in your life time.

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