The year was 2003. Real Madrid had just sold Claude Makélélé to Chelsea for £16.5m and bought David Beckham from Man United for £25m. A nice piece of business was what Florentino Perez called it, and on the commercial side, it was an excellent idea as it made the club a huge draw in the Asian market. However, on the sporting aspect, it was a bad idea and the players knew it.
Zidane’s love-story with CDMs
In the words of then-playing star Zinedine Zidane: “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” He knew it. He knew how influential Makelélé was on the way to winning the Champions League in 2002 and how influential he was to winning the league in 2003. He watched as Real Madrid went trophyless for three consecutive seasons while Makelélé was winning league titles in England. Zidane knew it.
Zidane’s affixation with defensive midfielders is one that has not reduced with the passing of time. It is something that has increased even more since he became a manager. He does not put out teams without defensive midfielders, and he values their presence more than anything. Yet, even for a man who loves his defensive midfielders, three is a crowd.
Real Madrid currently have Casemiro, Mateo Kovacic and Marcos Llorente on their books as defensive midfielders. To most people, Kovacic is not seen as a defensive player but, since his performance in the Clásico and with the number of players vying for the few slots in the team, that has effectively become his new position.
Llorente’s breakthrough season
This development means that Llorente has been pushed further down the pecking order, which was not what he expected when he was leaving Alaves after his loan deal expired.
He was a revelation at the Basque side last season, playing a key role as the unheralded minnows finished a highly respectable ninth, fresh off the back of promotion. They also enjoyed a run to the Copa del Rey final, where they lost to Barcelona. The season was very impressive by all accounts, not least with the pundits who had predicted a swift return to the Segunda Division.
Llorente’s contribution was huge. He had the most tackles and interceptions in the league, leading the likes of Casemiro and Sergio Busquets in that respect, and his pass completion rate and pass length showed immense numbers, comparing favourably with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.
His barnstorming performances at the Nou Camp in a shock 2-1 win for Alaves was the highlight of his campaign for most Madridistas. He had the most tackles, an assist, and stopped the Catalans from imposing themselves on the game by breaking up play at every opportunity.
He was seen as the ready-made squad option for Casemiro, whose absence in the XI – either due to injury or suspension – made the team unbalanced as he is the only one in the squad who didn’t have a natural replacement in his position. Llorente was even touted as the one who would dislodge the Brazilian from the first team, as he had more on-the-ball abilities, was more resistant to opposition press and always made himself available as a passing outlet.
That’s where Zizou came in.
The Zizou effect
He worked on Casemiro’s flaws in training, turning him into a two-way machine, stopping opposition attacks at one end and popping up to score key goals at the other end. His positional skills allied with the timing of his tackles has turned him into a more cultured midfielder far removed from the midfield destroyer he was in his early days, and his improvements have been so obvious, that he was named on the three-man shortlist for UEFA’s Midfielder of the Year.
Kovacic has had to fight for minutes since he signed. The jostle for positions has become even more tedious since the signing strategy at the club changed to favour midfield signings. The formation change – to accommodate four midfielders – has not changed his position in the squad, as he’s still seen as a squad player.
His role has changed to become a defensive midfielder, making him more likely to break into the XI – as reported here by Marca – and, as Kroos and Modric are immovable names on the team-sheets, Casemiro’s spot is looking more vulnerable. This justifies his willingness to adapt his role to a more defensive one.
Llorente is the sentimental choice
This leaves Marcos Llorente. He’s undoubtedly talented, all Real Madrid players are, and he has been the player that most Madridistas were waiting to see run out regularly at the Bernabeu this season. It’s no secret that the white blood runs through his veins, from his great uncle, Paco Gento, to his father, Francisco Gento, who were both fan favourites at the club.
This brings a tinge of nostalgia to the older fans when they see him play, but a spot for him in the team would dispossess players at a higher level than he is at, and the best option, therefore, is for him to go out on loan to avoid stunting his growth.
Rumours have been swirling about a possible loan move to Sevilla, and if he goes there, it will be great for his development. His place is at the Bernabeu, no doubt about that, but if he’s to continue to grow and become the player he’s capable of becoming, that will have to be away from the place he calls home.
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