Much as three legs can keep a table upright, three midfielders can maintain a football team. It doesn’t take four. That is the essential principle of the 4-3-3, a formation preferred by many modern managers, among them Zinedine Zidane. And if those three midfielders happen to be good players then so much the better. Recently for Real Madrid, the excellent performances of Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric have bailed Zidane’s side out of trouble. The Frenchman alighted on this midfield after some hesitancy during his first stint at the Bernabéu helm when he decided to entrust Casemiro with the holding role, precisely after a derby defeat against Atlético Madrid. Since then, it has been his first-choice midfield and a life jacket.
Kroos, Modric and Casemiro are three players cut from the same classic cloth, who would have been great players in any era of the game. The Brazilian for his ability to win possession, his simple, risk-free follow-up pass and his support for the central defenders. He is also an aerial threat at the other end. At his side, in those positions that we used to describe as the 8 and 10 channels (when numbers defined a player’s function), two timeless interior midfielders with a scientific approach, depth, accurate passing and a decent shot from outside the area. Modric is the more exquisite of the two, an artist who isn’t reluctant to roll up his sleeves. Kroos is more restrained in style but with the added bonus of his precision from dead ball situations. The three are, crucially, constant.
Valverde Real Madrid's safety net
Someone reminded me at the weekend to what extent the Barcelona triumvirate of Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta controlled games during their pomp. Real Madrid’s current midfield exercise a similar control, Kroos, Modric and Casemiro like that Barça central line players who would have graced any period and any pitch. That said, even the greats need a rest. At the moment Real Madrid have a safety net, Fede Valverde, a player with touch and positional awareness that allows him to occupy any one of the three midfield positions but the Uruguay international is currently injured. Martin Odegaard doesn’t yet exude the same sense of assurance and has looked tight when he has played, perhaps carrying an injury that has not fully healed. Isco has disappeared, or at least Zidane has ceased to consider him a viable alternative. Modric, Kroos and Casemiro have plenty of work ahead of them still.