What is Real Madrid’s ideal midfield setup after Fede Valverde’s return?

Real Madrid, Fede Valverde (Photo by Alejandro Rios/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
Real Madrid, Fede Valverde (Photo by Alejandro Rios/DeFodi Images via Getty Images) /

Real Madrid center midfielder Fede Valverde made his return over the weekend as a substitute, but what’s the ideal starting group now?

On paper, Real Madrid have the best midfield in European football. Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, and Casemiro are proven Champions League winners and are arguably the absolute best players in the world in their respective roles. Against Atletico Madrid and Borussia Monchengladbach, they led the way, showing the class with which they are capable of leading the team.

But they aren’t the only midfielders worth praising highly. Young stars Fede Valverde and Martin Odegaard were among La Liga’s best last season as true breakout stars. Odegaard hasn’t been elite in 2020-2021, but he’s been quite good in an attacking midfield role when given a significant run of minutes. And Valverde has been Real’s best overall player this season after Modric.

Valverde made his return to the starting XI after a multi-week injury, getting a couple of minutes at the end of El Derbi as Modric’s substitute.

So in Modric, Kroos, Casemiro, Valverde, and Odegaard, Zinedine Zidane has five excellent midfielders to work with. Three of them are proven world-class talents, while the other two are pretty damn close to the “world-class” bracket, judging by what we saw from them in the full 2019-2020 campaign.

Before Valverde’s injury, it looked like Kroos, Casemiro, and Valverde as the starting trio with Modric as something of a “super sub” was the way to go. That was actually Real’s optimal midfield lineup in 2019-2020.

But Modric has played so well that you can’t really bench him, right? Against Inter Milan, Zidane went with a double-pivot of Modric and Kroos, but it ended up being more like Kroos dropping deep to spray passes and protect the defense with Modric and Odegaard wreaking havoc as twin attacking midfielders. That’s a compelling midfield lineup for Zidane to work with, but it means benching Valverde. And can you really bench him? Or Casemiro?

The keyword is “rest”. Modric is still one of the best midfielders in the world. Forget a career resurgence or “look, he’s old but still good”. No, no, this man is legitimately playing better than any other midfielder in La Liga right now. He can withstand starting in consecutive matches, as we have seen this season.

That doesn’t mean Real Madrid should run him into the ground. The same goes for Kroos or Casemiro, and we have worried about fatigue holding over from his outrageous 2019-2020 season causing an early 2020-2021 slump. Even the seemingly tireless Valverde could use breathers.

Real Madrid have so many options now. As they have in the last two matches, they can roll with the “old guard” of Kroos, Casemiro, and Modric. They can put in Valverde or Odegaard for Modric in that midfield three. Or take out Kroos for Modric or Valverde. And, of course, they can go with the attacking-minded midfield trio of Kroos, Modric, and Odegaard when they need extra juice.

There is no “ideal” or “optimal”. The notion of Kroos, Casemiro, and Valverde being the best three, as was the case last year, is no longer true with Modric outplaying everyone. All five midfielders are great in their own right and bring something different to the table, so rotation and analyzing the upcoming matchups is key.

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Still, I think the Kroos/Modric, Casemiro, Valverde/Modric and Modric, Kroos, and Odegaard midfield options are the two main ones Zidane should switch between. There are proven results in both setups so far this season, and if done properly, using both these alignments can help keep players fresh while ensuring Real Madrid’s midfield is still elite and optimized for matchups.