Kroos, Modric, Casemiro.
Or Casemiro, Kroos, Modric.
Or Modric, Casemiro, Kroos.
It didn’t really matter in which order you put them, although “Kroos, Modric” in that sequence always seemed to make more sense, while Case could go first or last. The fact is that this three-man midfield sounded like the stuff of dreams to most Madridistas, and given their years of birth – it’s how football scouts discuss players’ ages, by the way – it felt as though they were going to keep us dreaming for a decade.
Born in 1985, Modric was the oldest of the pack, but the way he took care of himself made many think he’d stick around for a while. Kroos (90) and Case (92) were considerably younger, and also looked durable and dependable. After listening until exhaustion how fantastic Barcelona midfielders were – and they were good indeed – for almost a decade, Real Madrid had a memorable trio themselves. They dominated Europe under Zinedine Zidane, and were able to win Champions League titles with three forwards who gave them negligible help on defence – the famous BBC, as talented in offense as lazy tracking back – or with the slightly better defensive attitude of a fourth, free roaming midfielder such as Isco.
Casemiro provided the last gasp tackle whenever required, although he wasn’t good enough for Xavi (then again, who is, outside of Barcelona-raised midfielders?). Modric supplied the calm under pressure, the unexpected pass, the move forward carrying the ball nonchalantly. In Kross case, you could count on his 95% pass completion percentage in every top match, almost perfection in both short and long range passing. I remember a match at the end of the 2017 season, in which he misplaced a four-metre lateral ball to Marcelo. My neighbour said: “Kroos looks erratic today”. After the final whistle I checked the stats, and that was his only mistake in the whole match…
At this point you may be wondering: why on Earth is Eduardo speaking about this trio in the past tense? Well, after watching them play this season under three different coaches, I’d be shocked if Real Madrid / Zinedine Zidane keep this trio intact. In fact, I’d be amazed if two of its members stay after the summer.
Let’s start with Toni. If this season finishes the way it’s expected, it’ll be the first year in which he won’t have scored a single goal in LaLiga, he’ll have played the least minutes since he arrived in 2014 and he’ll also have his lowest number of assists ever with Real Madrid (sequentially, 7 – 10 – 12 – 7 and 4 this season). But we don’t need a bunch of numbers to explain that this has been a terrible Toni Kroos season, even with his almost customary 93.5% pass completion. We haven’t seen the Kroos of the grand occasions at all, and that has been a reason for this failed season, especially in key matches I’d rather not go back to, in which his fitness was openly questioned by anyone with a couple of eyes.
Regarding Modric, it feels like a cheap shot to discuss his season today, right after a mistake that cost Real Madrid dear in Vallecas. But the fact is that, at age 33, the successful World Cup killed him for a large spell of the season, and the concerns about how much more he can play at the top level in 70-match seasons if perfectly valid. Ironically, the numbers tell us that this could be his top season in terms of matches and minutes played in LaLiga, and with record numbers in goals and assists – 3 and 6 respectively so far. But all of us remember quite well his first three months, and his physical struggles to get in decent shape during most of the season. To be honest, he’s been one of the few standing up tall in the biggest matches this year, but it hasn’t been enough.
And finally, Case. Again, he’s not been the Case of the previous two seasons, especially in LaLiga. Similarly to Kroos, he’s looked out of shape more often than not, and he didn’t even have the World Cup excuse. At some point of the season, Marcos Llorente started to look like a feasible replacement for the upcoming season, as he not only played the defensive midfielder role as well as anybody, but also ventured forward with impressive self-confidence.
It’s obvious that having Cristiano’s 50 goals every year made a huge difference and covered for plenty of subpar performances, but a dominating midfield makes any team’s life easier, and during the summer Real Madrid not only lost Ronaldo, but also the consistency of this trio for most of the season. If Lopetegui / Solari / Zidane had enjoyed the privilege of Case – Kroos – Modric in their top form, it’s very likely that the club would still have missed a scorer, but their goal difference would be a lot better than +20 (Barcelona’s is +54 and Atletico’s +29). The team has suffered to create chances and to control matches, and that comes down to its midfield in a very high degree.
What will Zidane do now? One of his statements in the press conference after the defeat in Vallecas was quite telling: “I’m glad to have come back and see the state of things from the inside”. That statement smells of disappointment and almost of some bitterness regarding the lack of intensity and almost boredom shown by certain members of the squad. At the beginning of the season, Real Madrid’s midfield was a motive of pride, right after Modric flirted with Inter and ended up extending his contract. Now many think it demands a serious revamp, and the magic trio may be in trouble.