Modric out, Ceballos in?! What's going wrong with Real Madrid's misfiring midfield?

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Real Madrid have struggled for midfield consistency since the World Cup, with injuries and unexpected standouts suggesting they need to evolve.

On January 22nd, Eduardo Camavinga turned in a Man of the Match performance against Athletic Bilbao.

His showing was a wonderful thing. The young Frenchman was everywhere defensively, flying into tackles, cutting passing lanes, and progressing the ball forward. It was perhaps his biggest performance in a Madrid shirt so far, proof that the young midfielder — who'd spent nearly a month at left-back for France at the World Cup — could indeed be a world-class no.6.

And for Madrid, that's a good thing. Midfield depth, especially at the no.6, is absolutely crucial for any successful team; especially those that play some sort of 4-3-3.

But that game also featured an unfamiliar sight. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric started the game on the bench, with Dani Ceballos and Fede Valverde lining up either side of Camavinga. It was, admittedly, a trio forced together by need, with Madrid dealing with a litany of injuries. Still, Real were poor that day, relying on Camavinga and a rejuvenated Dani Ceballos to grab three vital La Liga points.

In years past, Kroos and Modric have played nearly every game, providing control when Madrid struggle. In recent weeks, though, the duo has taken a step back, and the Blancos have started to evolve. It's inevitable, of course. Madrid are getting older, and turnover is necessary, regardless of the quality of the aging players. But the drop off in performance since the World Cup has been alarming.

So, why, exactly has it all happened? And, more importantly, where do Madrid go from here? GOAL takes a look...

  1. Ceballos shows his quality

    Ceballos shows his quality

    Dani Ceballos is out of contract at the end of the season, and the assumption was, for quite some time, that the Spanish midfielder would be in search of a new club come June.

    Back in 2021, Ancelotti seemed to make it clear Ceballos wasn't part of his plans, twice loaning the Spanish international to Arsenal. But something strange has happened in recent weeks: Ceballos is back. And right now, he's keeping Modric out of the side.

    He deserves to retain his place, too. Ceballos changed the game in Madrid's Copa del Rey tie with Villarreal, coming on at half time and having a hand in all three goals as they overturned a 2-0 deficit. He scored a wonderful goal to cap off the comeback, celebrating wildly to mark his best performance for Madrid yet.

    Such has been the story of Ceballos' career. His quality is undeniable, but consistency has often elluded the Spaniard.

    However, something is different this year. Ceballos has managed to string together a series of solid performances, and, for now, is set to retain his spot in the side. He's still only 26 and is reportedly close to penning a new deal, one that will likely see him outlast Modric at Madrid.

  2. The Casemiro Issue

    The Casemiro Issue

    The perception of Casemiro is admittedly skewed by the quality of his performances for Manchester United. He has been the driving force behind Erik Ten Hang's rejuvenation of the Red Devils, showing exactly how impactful he can be when playing out of the shadow of Kroos and Modric. Casemiro is also sort of proving what most already knew, though.

    He perhaps never got the plaudits in the Madrid midfield because he was slotted in alongside a Ballon d'Or and World Cup winner; but his quality was always undeniable. And although he wanted a new challenge, and appeared to have left Real on good terms, Madrid certainly miss the presence of their defensive midfielder.

    Aurelien Tchouameni, although excellent, still has a lot of learning to do. The French international will perhaps someday be as good as, if not better, than Casemiro. But with Madrid struggling with injuries, how Ancelotti must wish he had his reliable Brazilian back.

  3. Injuries, injuries, and more injuries
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    Injuries, injuries, and more injuries

    A list of Madrid players who have been sidelined with either injuries or fatigue at some point in the last 6 weeks: Kroos, Modric, Tchouameni, Dani Carvajal, Eder Militao, David Alaba, Lucas Vasquez.

    Los Blancos haven't had a full-strength squad since the World Cup, with Ancelotti having to manage his midfield amidst injuries and fatigue after a taxing six weeks in Qatar.

    Madrid isn't the only team dealing with knocks, but an aging squad in the middle of significant turnover, if nothing else, needs continuity. Modric, ideally, should be on the pitch at the same time as Camavinga. Kroos should be around to help Tchouameni. Valverde, as promising as he is, shouldn't be the most experienced midfielder in the Madrid XI.

    Everything is, of course, linked. Madrid are crippled at right-back at the moment, with the aging Nacho forced to play there. Versatile as he is, the Spaniard simply hasn't spent that long on the pitch with the rest of the squad, and has often looked an awkward fit alongside the Madrid midfield.

    This poses a problem for Ancelotti. If nothing else, the Italian is a vibe manager. He doesn't employ intricate systems or rely on sweeping moves. So, when there's a drop-off in quality anywhere on the pitch, the cracks emerge. And that's what's happening right now.

  4. The Valverde that was promised
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    The Valverde that was promised

    Fede Valverde was magnificent for the first three months of the season. He bagged 12 goal contributions in 23 appearances and developed a knack for shooting from distance. And although the natural centre-midfielder played in a modified right-wing role, everything about his performances suggested that he would soon be ready for a switch to the middle of the park.

    Ancelotti handed him two starts at the position over the last three weeks, and the Uruguayan has been mostly underwhelming. He looked defensively lost at times and seldom made any of the signature driving runs he embarked on for Uruguay at the World Cup.

    That posed a problem for Madrid, who were hoping to get their 24-year-old talent bedded in at the position, with a view to working him into a more central role long term. It is, admittedly a lot to ask of a relatively young player. But his poor performances simply cannot be overlooked.

  5. Kroos' defensive issues
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    Kroos' defensive issues

    In truth, Toni Kroos has been fine since the World Cup. He still passes with the usual zip and efficiency. The occasional runs into the final third are still there. And he proved with a terrific finish against Athletic Bilbao that he can still bang them in from distance — although he did so after coming off the bench with six minutes remaining.

    Still, it's his struggles at the other end that have plagued Madrid. The German has been a defensive liability at times, especially in the absence of Tchoaumeni. He no longer has the pace or legs to cover the ground as a box-to-box midfielder. When Madrid are caught in transition, Kroos is lost, often leaving his team outnumbered in the middle.

    That poses a problem for Ancelotti, who has few options to replace him. Modric is seldom fit, Ceballos certainly isn't defensively sound enough, and Nacho, who has slotted in as a more solid option before, is stuck at right-back. It all amounts to a Madrid midfield largely exposed and perhaps accounts for Kroos' omission from the starting lineup against Bilbao.

    It appears his days as a guaranteed starter are numbered.

  6. How to fix it all?
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    How to fix it all?

    There is hope for Madrid.

    After all, they are Real Madrid. Ancelotti can likely stick with what he has, await his team's return to full strength, and hope that his attacking options do just enough to keep them in the title race.

    But there have been some indications that the manager might be willing to tweak things. It started in the Copa del Rey quarter-final, when Ancelotti introduced Rodrygo off the bench. He slotted in at the No. 10, playing in behind Benzema, with Vinicius Jr and Marco Asensio either side of him. In that system, Modric and Camavinga stayed deep, settling into defensive midfield roles.

    And it worked, Madrid scored twice after Rodygo's introduction, the Brazilian orchestrating both goals while the midfield pivot behind him offered cover. There was a real balance to that system. And although it was only in place for extra time, it's something Ancelotti admitted he might return to if his other options run out of legs.

    There are a few flaws. The 4-2-3-1 leaves little room for the attack-minded Ceballos, and it might also be an issue for Tchouameni, who is used to playing as a lone no.6.

    But a system change might be needed to get the Blancos going again. Madrid have been so good for the past 18 months because everyone has stayed fit in the same formation. And even though they miss something with Casemiro gone, the continuity of Kroos and Modric kept everything together.

    But now those two are absent, and Madrid have suffered a dip in form, meaning a new-look system could be the answer. It won't be easy, but perhaps the evolution has to begin.