When it comes to midfield connections, there are few better than that of Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos and Casemiro. Yet, before their era has even come to an end, Real Madrid are already looking to the future with Fede Valverde, Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelién Tchouaméni. The arrival of 22-year-old Tchouaméni is the final piece of the puzzle as Los Blancos look to the next generation.
Valverde is no stranger to Madridistas, who know just what to expect from the Uruguayan as he becomes an increasingly ever-present face in the Real Madrid team. What has excited Real Madrid fans over the past 12 months has been the French duo of Camavinga and Tchouaméni.
The connection between the two was crucial to seeing the move through. “I was lucky enough to speak to Camavinga before coming here, and in his case, we have seen how he has improved in his first year,” Tchouaméni said as he was presented as a Real Madrid player. Three years his senior, he clearly feels that he is looking to make up for lost ground in his development to build a partnership with his compatriot.
With a combined age of only five years more than Luka Modrić alone, the two Frenchmen have huge potential to establish themselves as the future of the Real Madrid midfield. But, how could they team up and combine to build upon the legacy of the incumbents?
Only shared a pitch for 36 minutes to date
You could easily be forgiven for thinking that two players with senior international appearances under their belt and only a 35-month age gap may well have coincided in the French team at some point, but such occasions have been few and far between.
In fact, the duo have only been on the field together for a total of 36 minutes. They all came in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship in 2021, 15 minutes in France’s 1-0 defeat to Denmark in the group stages, and a further 21 minutes in the 2-0 win over Russia at the same phase of the competition. The French would later be knocked out by the Netherlands in the last 16, following an injury to Tchouaméni and with Camavinga coming on as a late substitute.
Intriguingly, in neither case did either act as a lone pivot. Against Denmark, Tchouaméni was introduced as one of several changes to switch from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 shape, with the current Real Madrid midfielders acting as the central pairing. 15 minutes gave them time to exchange possession only twice.
Against Russia, despite there being slightly longer at 21 minutes, there was only one pass between the two. What was more interesting for Madridistas was that they did operate in a 4-1-4-1 shape more like the 4-3-3 that Real Madrid are famous for. In this case, Camavinga was the man coming on and he actually helped Tchouaméni to shore up the right of the midfield. In the 70 minutes before the change, Tchouaméni had made 33% of his recoveries on the right, while Camavinga’s introduction reduced that to a lower 18% in the remaining 20 minutes of action.
By signing Tchouaméni, Real Madrid have secured a man who will replace Casemiro in the long-term. Capable of playing in a more advanced role in central midfield, he is at his best when operating in a holding role.
A quick look at the stats shows just how comparable the two players are. Tchouaméni averaged 7.83 defensive duels per 90, with a 64.3% success rate, and 12.21 recoveries per 90 in the past season. In comparison, Casemiro recorded 7.94 defensive duels per 90, with a lower 59.6% success rate, and 11.49 recoveries per 90.
The Frenchman is in the top one percent for interceptions across Europe’s top five leagues with 3.56 interceptions per 90. His excellent reading of the game means that he is less of a destroyer than Casemiro, as shown in his tackling distribution. 48.2% of his tackles come in the middle third of the field, compared to 37.1% for Casemiro, while Tchouaméni’s defensive third tackles are much lower at 43.9%, compared to 56.5% for Casemiro.
Tchouaméni’s role at Monaco has evolved since the days of former Spain coach Robert Moreno, but under the Spaniard he would press higher to intercept play and recover the ball in more advanced positions. Niko Kovać and Philippe Clement have played him in a more conservative role, sitting deeper and primarily in a single or double pivot.
It is in this double pivot where we have also seen that Tchouaméni’s game is perhaps more rounded than Casemiro, with a stronger offensive presence. Whereas Casemiro limits himself more and tends to drop back to cover in defence when his team launches attacks, Tchouaméni doesn’t hold back. In 2021/22, he recorded six goals from 5.1 xG, compared to just one goal from Casemiro.
With 1.61 shots per 90, he is in the 88th percentile for midfielders across Europe’s top five leagues, and two of his three goals scored from open play came from outside the box. However, it again goes to show his athletic ability to burst into the box and break forward with play as his average shot distance is 21.3 metres, which is closer to Luka Modrić in comparison than Casemiro or Camavinga last season.
What’s evident is that while Tchouaméni may seem the most natural Casemiro alternative available, his role at Monaco has not prepared him to be a like-for-like replacement for any of Real Madrid’s current midfield three, even if he has all the characteristics to become that.
In 2021/22, we regularly saw Eduardo Camavinga step in to replace Casemiro. At others, we saw Camavinga in a more advanced role with Toni Kroos dropping into the holding role. 45% of the teenager’s minutes came in the deeper pivot role of the midfield three, 38% of his total minutes coming as a sole pivot. It was a new experience for Camavinga, who in the past had played in a double pivot or in a more advanced role.
Tchouameni’s arrival allows Carlo Ancelotti greater freedom to deploy him in that way, providing a natural alternative to Casemiro, and use Camavinga elsewhere. If we take a look at Camavinga’s performances in a more advanced role last season, that was where he was more promising. In an even more extreme case than Tchouaméni, when Camavinga joined from Rennes he had very rarely taken up a single pivot role. Rather, he would play more often as a kind of left winger, more akin to Fede Valverde’s role on the right under Ancelotti, than as a single holding midfielder.
What Ancelotti must look to do now is to unleash Camavinga. Early on in the season as he settled in, we saw Camavinga take more risks in possession. That calmed as Camavinga settled, and we actually saw him end the season with the lowest number of passes intercepted from any Real Madrid midfielder with only 0.8 of his passes intercepted on average in any given game.
Giving Camavinga the opportunity and security of another midfield player in behind to cover him could allow him to move into more advanced positions. In 2021/22, he averaged 6.68 passes into the final third with an impressive 82.7% accuracy, much lower than the 7.82 he averaged in his final season at Rennes. Giving him that attacking licence to break forwards could encourage Camavinga to come out of his shell and develop that area of his game.
A change in shape?
If Ancelotti looks to learn from how France under 21 coach Sylvain Ripoll combined the two, it may lead to a temptation to try the duo in a midfield pairing. With Fede Valverde clearly the long-term complement to the partnership, that would allow Ancelotti to continue to give the tireless Uruguayan a similar role to the one which he has deployed this season, effectively a free role tactically in a more advanced position.
Under Didier Deschamps in the current France set-up, Tchouaméni plays in a similar role in a double pivot. Camavinga has lost his place in the national team in the past two years and is still waiting to make his breakthrough, but it seems logical that Deschamps would deploy him in the same tactical shape.
It’s not dissimilar to a system that Ancelotti began to experiment with towards the end of the 2021/22 season either. Against Espanyol in the LaLiga tie to win the league, Camavinga lined up alongside Dani Ceballos in a double pivot with Modrić taking up a more advanced role. The struggle for Ancelotti when looking to use this system has been that Casemiro is more adept to playing as a single pivot, breaking up play single-handedly, and there are few other midfield options with experience in a double pivot. Tchouaméni brings just that.
The future of the Real Madrid midfield three clearly consists of a midfield three, but what set-up they have will likely hinge upon how Tchouaméni and Camavinga click together in the middle. If Tchouaméni settles into a single pivot role in place of Casemiro, he will give Ancelotti a tactical flexibility that is somewhat lacking at present.
What is clear is that Tchouaméni and Camavinga have the potential to build a real connection. Camavinga’s ability to progress the ball and Tchouaméni’s stronger defensive characteristics mean that their skill sets can complement each other perfectly. In Ancelotti’s 4-3-3, Tchouaméni could be the new Casemiro and Camavinga could be a new Toni Kroos of sorts, with more of a direct offensive contribution, but perhaps the beauty of this partnership could come in a different shape entirely.