Real Madrid: Why Antonio Blanco is the future of the midfield

Real Madrid, Antonio Blanco (Photo by Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Real Madrid, Antonio Blanco (Photo by Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images) /

With a troubled midfield depth and an already aging core, it comes as no surprise that Real Madrid have been looking for a backup, to Casemiro, for the holding midfield position for some time now.

Rennes’ Eduardo Camavinga has been closely linked to Real Madrid to be the Brazilian’s replacement in the future, but I’m pretty sure Rennes won’t be letting go of their hottest prospect for a small sum of money and there is talk that they apparently want 80 million euros for the highly-rated 17-year-old.

It is still unsure if Camavinga has decided to move and even if he does, Real will have to fight off a lot of big sharks that will be interested in this deal. The deal won’t be easy, especially with President Florentino Perez repeatedly announcing that the club is operating in a tight situation due to the losses incurred by the pandemic, and might not come to fruition at all.

However, the replacement for Casemiro can be free of cost for Real Madrid. Real have looked all around the world for a backup to Carlos Henrique Casemiro, but it seems as though that the alternative was already at home, in Real Madrid Castilla.

How Antonio Blanco began his Real Madrid career

Antonio Blanco has been playing for Real Madrid ever since he was 13 and was promoted to the Castilla squad in 2019. Despite his relatively recent fame, after he rose to prominence when Real Madrid won the UEFA Youth League in 19/20, you could say that he has enjoyed a successful career so far.

Blanco has been a regular member of the Spanish youth teams, since making his debut for the Under-17s in 2016, as well. He made 20 appearances for the Under-17s and was part of the Spanish side that won the Under-17  European Championship in 2017. In 2018 he moved up to the Under-19 squad and enjoyed further success as Spain were crowned as the European Under-19 Championship winners in 2019.

Raul’s Kroos from Cordoba, 20-year-old Antonio Blanco’s stock has been rising rapidly over the past few years and it was only a matter of time until he made the eventual jump to the first team.

Blanco had already trained with the seniors in pre-season and Zidane has been shaping Blanco since last August in the interests of the first team. It has been a slow process, but Blanco, much to the delight of the fans, finally made his La Liga debut as he came on for Rodrygo in the 65th minute against Getafe.

Antonio Blanco impressed for Real Madrid against Cadiz

It was another big day for Antonio Blanco, just 3 days later, as Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, and Federico Valverde were all left out of the Matchday squad due to injuries. Zidane handed the youngster his first start as he was thrown into the mix in a makeshift midfield against Cadiz and the 20-year-old, who started alongside Casemiro, contributed to the controlled team performance that earned the Whites all three points (0-3 win) at the Estadio Ramon de Carranza on Matchday 31 of LaLiga Santander.

Zidane’s team selection and inclusion of Blanco was completely justified by the youngster’s performance as he put in a top display for the entirety of ninety minutes.

Even if he had nerves, it didn’t seem like it. Blanco played like he’s been doing it at the top level for years; Good on the ball, crisp passing technique, composure on the ball, good game awareness, good positioning, and for someone who is just 20 years old, you could say that he’s got the physique as well. You could easily see why he’s so highly rated by Zidane and the club.

On Matchday 32, Blanco came on in the 77th minute as he replaced Luka Modric in the 0-0 stalemate vs Real Betis. He had a fairly decent game in the 13 minutes he played: 13 touches of the ball, 100% passing accuracy (13/13), 6 passes in the opposition half (6/6), one long ball completed (1/1) and 2 ball recoveries made, according to fotmob.

Antonio Blanco turned heads again vs. Osasuna

A week later, Blanco got his second start for the first team as he was slotted in a double pivot alongside Casemiro and starred in midfield as Los Merengues won 2-0 against Osasuna at the Alfredo DI Stefano Stadium on Matchday 33 of La Liga Santander.

As usual, Raul’s crown jewel did not disappoint. In just his second start of the season, the 20-year old played a crucial role in keeping the ball circulating for Real Madrid in the center of the pitch, dominating possession and helping to maintain control over the game. He put in a wonderful shift, had 97 touches, made 10 ball recoveries, had a passing accuracy of 94% (77/82), 2 key passes, created one big chance, and was dispossessed only once.

With the Merengues ravaged by injuries, you’d think Blanco was just called into the first team to fill the holes in midfield. But he wasn’t, he’s been called into the first team because Zidane thinks he’s ready and the minutes accumulated on the pitch over the past two-to-three weeks completely justifies that argument. Antonio Blanco has played his 4th game in a row (two 90s) for Real Madrid in La Liga and has been included in the Matchday squad for 5 consecutive times since the fourth week of April.

For those who watched Blanco in the UEFA Youth League, there could’ve been an argument that his defensive game was frail and was in need of improvement. Fast forward a year and Antonio Blanco has made 22 ball recoveries in his last 2 games for the Real Madrid first team (more than any other player), which clearly shows the work that he’s put in and his development over the past 12 months or so. At this point, it appears that he is already ready to make the jump to the first team.

Blanco has been raising many eyebrows for three years among the scouts of different professional teams. Between last summer and the winter transfer market, there were apparently eleven offers for him — From Spain and from abroad. Real Madrid did not want him to leave because, as ‘AS’ notes, Zidane saw the utility in him and prevented the player from leaving in the past winter market.

I think it’s fair to say that’s worked out well.

Integrating Antonio Blanco into the Real Madrid first team

The jewel of the Real Madrid academy, Blanco’s presence brings the much-needed balance to the midfield that has craved for fresh legs and midfield depth; and Casemiro might finally have a backup after Marcos Llorente’s departure to Atletico Madrid.

Even though Casemiro and Blanco play in the same position, Blanco’s gameplay or approach is completely different from Casemiro’s, and both their roles differ on the pitch. The youngster, who has been described as a mix of Xabi Alonso and Toni Kroos, likes to sit at the base of the midfield i.e. A deep-lying playmaker, spraying passes left and right, helping the team maintain control and momentum in the second phase of the pitch.

Blanco is used to playing in a double pivot (in a 4-2-3-1) for Raul in Castilla. Even though Zidane uses the 4-4-2 or the double pivot, his primary formation revolves around a single pivot in his preferred 4-3-3 formation.

With Blanco’s inclusion, a variety of different roles could be born in the Real Madrid midfield. If Zidane chooses to only utilize him in a double pivot, we could see the return of the 4-2-3-1 with Hazard or Luka Modric operating in the #10 role. We could also see a pairing of Blanco – Valverde and Blanco – Modric as well in the foreseeable future — to be honest, the possibilities are just too many.

It’s hard to exactly picture how tossing Blanco into the lone defensive pivot would work out, but I’m sure Zidane will accommodate him in a single pivot only when he feels he’s ready for it and will let him continue in his favorite role for the time being. The likes of Kroos and Modric will have a chance to get their much-deserved rest, which in turn will improve the performances of the team over a larger period of time due to fresher legs and availability.

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It’s still too early to call it, but Antonio Blanco has displayed signs to be a very promising midfielder — positional awareness, game awareness, composure, technical ability, defensive ability, work rate etc. Working under Zinedine Zidane and by playing alongside the best technicians in the world, he is bound to get better with each passing day.

Real Madrid might just have found themselves a future star, for free of cost.