Real Madrid’s new-look midfield remains a puzzle worth monitoring

MADRID —

By the 80th minute of Real Madrid’s opening match of the Liga season, on Monday against Cordoba, some whistling and jeering was audible at the Santiago Bernabeu. There are always a few impatient souls in that arena. Madrid were leading, 1-0 against the newcomers to Spain’s top division, but the performance had been flawed, brittle, the Madrid team dull and struggling to find its natural balance.

With ten minutes left, Marcelo, the Brazilian left back, took it upon himself to galvanize the contest. He made one of his trademark surges down his flank, but the move took him in-field, where he then lingered in what appeared a vacant slot just behind the forward line, like a No. 10. Nobody else had much impression there. 

That was surprising, given the number of candidates to claim ownership of that position. Madrid have so many No. 10s — creative playmaker types — on their staff that the fans there are entitled to anticipate a bit more whizz than they witnessed against Cordoba. The aspect of Monday’s game, in which Cristiano Ronaldo added a late second goal to Karim Benzema’s headed effort for a 2-0 final score, that most vexed the jeerers was the shortage of creativity in attacking midfield. Marcelo saw it, when he thrust himself forward into the space that a number of Madrid players ought to be electrifying in the next nine months; players like James Rodriguez, latest wearer of the No. 10 jersey and bearer of a very large price tag — more than $104 million — or Isco, who replaced Rodriguez after 73 minutes; or Toni Kroos, another scoop from the post-World Cup market; or for that matter Luka Modric, who suffered a rather disjointed 90 minutes on Monday.

Modric, who Madrid bought in 2012, and Isco, who arrived in 2013, could give some useful advice to Rodriguez and Kroos about the challenges of eking out a space in Madrid’s midfield, and how quickly creative types become surplus. Here’s a random checklist of the headliners in attacking midfield who have come and gone — often to greater achievements elsewhere — from the Bernabeu in the last seven years; Kaka, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Robinho, Guti, Rafael van der Vaart. Remember the last post World Cup buzz, Madrid signed Mesut Ozil and the club’s then director of sport, Jorge Valdano, described Ozil him as "a player who will define Madrid for the next 10 years." After three of those years, Ozil had gone, to Arsenal.

Madrid players who have been around for longer than Kroos and Rodriguez were reminded last week of the circumstances around Ozil’s departure, very late in the summer 2013 transfer window, for a hefty $65 million. The decision of Angel Di Maria, the Argentinian midfielder, to exchange the European champions for Manchester United has similar traits; a large fee, likely to be well over $91 million, and a genuinely appreciative and regretful adios from his Madrid teammates. Di Maria, influential in the UEFA Champions League final triumph over Atletico Madrid in May, provided more assists for goals than any other Liga player last season: 17, three ahead of the next best, Atletico’s Koke. Madrid’s most productive passer the previous year? Ozil.

BREAKING THE BANK

Di Maria felt ready to leave, sensing his first-team opportunities would likely be limited by the arrivals of Rodriguez and Kroos. The kind of salary rise he thought his contributions deserved was not on offer, either. But Madrid have said goodbye to a high-class player, one whose versatility was admired and encouraged by head coach Carlo Ancelotti. Twelve months ago, Di Maria effectively lost the position he had mastered under Ancelotti’s predecessor, Jose Mourinho, the right wing role, when Gareth Bale was bought. So Ancelotti encouraged him to use his precise left foot from a deeper position, on the left of midfield. Di Maria bought into the idea, applied the defensive disciplines, and still made those feathery runs at opponents that make him such a dazzling, feared dueler for fullbacks. "Angel gave a lot to this team," said Pepe, the Madrid central defender, on Monday, "and we are all thankful for that."

Ancelotti would, ideally, have kept Di Maria. The functioning of his new midfield is a now a puzzle. Kroos’ accurate distribution will be an asset, Rodriguez should be an extra source of goals, while Isco and Modric are challenged to find a meaningful role for themselves. Modric, like Di Maria, defined for himself a deeper midfield role last season and gained the respect of supporters and of Ancelotti. But he was the starting XI against Cordoba at the expense of Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira, chief metronome and principal enforcer of Madrid’s midfield for most of the last four seasons.

"We have lost an important player," said Ancelotti of Di Maria and sounded as if he was presenting a gentle challenge to his several creative midfielders to adapt their game the way Di Maria learned to. "We have midfielders who are capable of playing a variety of positions."

Rodriguez must be among them, given that the three front players, Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema are regarded as first choice. "We are trying James a bit deeper," explained Ancelotti, "he will need to get used to that, but he has the quality to do so."