If the widely successful Galácticos 2.0 era ended the moment Cristiano Ronaldo departed in 2018 post Champions League win in Kiev, what will Real Madrid fans remember this current team for?
Of course, the majority of players still remain from that victorious side, and some will continue to play a major role for Los Blancos going forward.
Raphaël Varane is remarkably just 27 years old and will likely play out the next five to seven years at the Santiago Bernabéu. Similarly, Thibaut Courtois should be in Madrid for the long-term, and club officials would be silly to let the recently signed Eden Hazard go in a hurry.
And there’s plenty of younger players who could establish themselves as regulars in the famous white colours for a long time. Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo have shown flashes of the attacking stars they could become, while loaned-out duo Achraf Hakimi and Martin Ødegaard have been sensational at Borussia Dortmund and Real Sociedad respectively this season. You’ve also got the injured Marco Asensio to return, who looked primed for a bigger role before he tore his ACL in July 2019.
Yet the issue that remains is the looming decline of their world-class midfield duo, who may be headed for a major drop off in their physical abilities on the pitch. A few seconds slower in their sprint perhaps, or becoming less able to withstand an aggressive press from the opposition.
Make no mistake, Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić have both been fantastic servants for Real Madrid. They have run the engine room together for so long and have been excellent in continuing to create the openings for their attacking teammates to feast off. But there have been times this season where they have not looked up to speed against younger and more athletic opposing midfielders.
There’s certainly no need to part ways with them now, but the club will need to plan on how to implement the necessary changes needed to keep up with the best teams in the world. You only need to look at Liverpool, Bayern Munich and even rivals Barcelona – all three have put together midfield combinations designed to transition from defence to attack quickly, while also being able to sustain a high energy pressing game throughout the 90 minutes.
Granted, the club do have young players waiting in the wings. Federico Valverde has certainly been a revelation for Zinedine Zidane’s side, and his physicality gives him a great platform to improve his game on a technical level. Loaned-out youngster Ødegaard has also shown exactly why Los Blancos were keen to acquire him all those years ago with his impressive performances this season.
There’s also the rumoured arrival of 17-year-old whizzkid Eduardo Camavinga from Stade Rennes that could happen this summer, and of course you can expect Zidane to lavish praise on his countrymen Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté in the off-season, as a way of wooing them over to Spain.
The transition in midfield seems inevitable. But there’s one man who won’t be going anywhere – Casemiro.
Leading all other La Liga players in the number of tackles and interceptions made, the 28-year-old remains indispensable for his side in stopping any other attacking midfielder from pulling the strings and affecting the game.
His ability to win back the ball is huge for the capital club in spearheading any counter-attacks. But he won’t stop and admire the defensive work he’s done – the Brazilian has the capacity to charge up the field and drive forward his team from his deep position, pining the opposition back into their own half and effectively breaking the press that had previously nullified his team.
Being able to play in that withdrawn role means he’s also developed his ability to read the game even further, and the midfielder’s intelligence in positioning himself just where he needs to be to halt any pacey attacking threats has got better with every season that he’s played.
And as his brace against Sevilla earlier in the season showed, he’s capable of getting a crucial goal or two, at times when his team need him the most.
In the current era where intense pressing and high-octane counter-attacking football is seen as the most successful style of football, Casemiro’s presence is essential for Los Blancos’ chances of continuing to reign supreme over the best teams in the world.
Casemiro is the most important player in the team, and while Marcos Llorente’s departure opened up playing time for Federico Valverde, it also took away the only like-for-like alternative in the squad. Madrid need to make it a priority to sign a holding midfielder this summer.
— Zach Lowy (@ZachLowy) February 6, 2020
Whichever direction Real take next season, the Brazilian shapes up as an crucial figure for Zidane. With Kroos and Modrić, he’ll likely be asked to evolve his game and like Kanté, take on a more advanced role in linking defence and attack.
But if it’s decided for him to play with his younger teammates in Valverde and Ødegaard, then he’ll likely continue the ball-winning role he’s excelled at. The interesting thing here is what role would he play if he’s paired with Camavinga – does he take on a hybrid role and become a more complete midfielder? Who knows if we’ll see it happen.
Nevertheless, in whatever Real Madrid team that ends up being formed next season – Casemiro will remain the key. A defensive midfielder leading the post-Galácticos era? Who would have thought that.