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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Carlo Ancelotti must break apart Real Madrid’s midfield unit to rebuild it again

Real Madrid transfers
Luka Modric has had an illustrious 9-year run with Real Madrid. Stephanie Lecocque/EPA.

Few midfield units have achieved as much as the trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric have for Real Madrid. While the likes of Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo have been more obvious leaders for the Spanish club, these three have been the engine that has driven Los Blancos forward for the best part of a decade.

Even last season, with Casemiro the junior of the trio at 29 and Kroos and Modric both into their 30s, it was Real Madrid’s midfield (and Karim Benzema) that kept them competitive and in the La Liga title race until the final weekend of the season. Without this, Zinedine Zidane’s side would have faltered well before they ultimately did.

Yet it’s this midfield unit that Carlo Ancelotti must break up and rebuild to point Real Madrid in the right direction again. The Italian must modernise Los Blancos.. While Casemiro, Kroos and Modric can still prove valuable, they must now be phased out of the first team in order to secure the club’s long-term future.

First and foremost, Ancelotti must find a way to fit Martin Odegaard into his side. Zidane tried to use the Norwegian as part of a midfield diamond last season, but quickly abandoned this plan after just a handful of games, reverting back to the default setting of using Casemiro, Kroos and Modric in a 4-3-3 shape.

Odegaard underlined his quality by shining for Arsenal on loan during the second half of last season and will now be given another chance to finally find a role for himself at the Santiago Bernabeu this season. The 22-year-old is simply too talented to be pushed to the side by his parent club any longer.

In theory, Odegaard should ease the burden on Modric to drive Real Madrid forward from midfield. This will give Ancelotti the opportunity to rest the Croatian in more games, but could also open up the possibility of deploying Modric in a deeper position, where he could still dictate the tempo of play while preserving his legs.

Real Madrid are not expected to make many signings this summer such is the financial stress on the club right now. Their willingness to save funds is likely geared toward a move for Kylian Mbappe – who will become a free agent next year – but they could still enter the market to find the right central midfielder to compliment what they already have.

The addition of Mikel Merino, for instance, could help Ancelotti’s team get their foot on the ball more often in the centre of the pitch. The 25-year-old has been linked with Real Madrid, and while Real Sociedad might ideally want a cash offer for one of their prize assets, the capital club could still have a number of surplus players to offer their Basque rivals in exchange (see Isco, Alvaro Odriozola and Dani Ceballos, to name a few).

It’s possible David Alaba, signed from Bayern Munich as a free agent this summer, could be deployed at the base of the Real Madrid midfield to provide more control on the ball. This is a role the Austrian frequently performs at international level and while he is more effective at left back or in central defence, Alaba gives Ancelotti some much-needed tactical flexibility.

Of course, Ancelotti already has Fede Valverde to bring more dynamism and energy to his midfield unit. After a highly impressive 2019/20 campaign, the Uruguayan allowed his performance levels to drop, although the player himself would surely contest this was due to Zidane’s insistence on using him out of position on the right side.

Ancelotti mustn’t be too attack-minded in his midfield approach. The exit of Ramos and the imminent departure of Raphael Varane means Real Madrid could be defensively vulnerable this season, which could in turn lead to a more protective central unit. Ancelotti could have his hand forced by the weakness of his defence.

At this point, Real Madrid find themselves in the midst of a generational transition. Ramos and Ronaldo might be gone, but Los Blancos have yet to settle on a core of replacements that can carry them into the future. This is what Ancelotti must do this season. This time next year, the Real Madrid’s future must be much clearer and Ancelotti can accelerate this process by focusing on his midfield.

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