By Brian Fonseca
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Real Madrid completed its preseason tour of North America with a 1-0 victory over Bayern Munich at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Wednesday night, but the final result was the least important detail of the night.
Three players who participated in the two international tournaments this summer — Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and James Rodriguez — played their first minutes with their club since the Champions League final in May, taking the first steps towards gaining competitive rhythm as the 2016-17 season quickly approaches.
Each played 45 minutes in the first half and the rust was evident — they’ve been off a month for vacation — but one had more eyes watching him than the others.
Rodriguez’ name had been floating around with Paul Pogba’s as a potential transfer target from Manchester United during the summer, but the Colombian denied any interest of leaving the Spanish capital. He revealed the club rejected a bid of €85 million.
“I will fight to earn my place. That’s my dream,” he told Spanish sports daily MARCA. “I will stay at Real Madrid, I will succeed here. I know that the club received an €85m bid for me, but I’m not leaving.”
Madrid manager, Zinedine Zidane, was adamant in his desire to keep the former FC Porto and AS Monaco man in his squad.
“James is a Real Madrid player. I don’t want him to leave. What he has to do is to continue what he’s doing — working,” the Frenchman said in a press conference prior to training at Red Bull Arena Tuesday. “He played last year and I hope he’ll play more this year and he shows what he could do because he’s talented.”
Zidane, however, didn’t concede the fact that James could expect consistent playing time. After all, he’s playing in Madrid’s most competitive area of the pitch, and with the small sample size of three matches with a limited squad this preseason, the second-year manager doesn’t have enough to make any final decisions yet.
“There are many players in that position and that’s why today, nothing is concrete,” he said. “We’ll discuss this when we return to Madrid, but … there are a lot of players in this position and it’s difficult playing all the players, even more so because they’re all so good.”
So this begs the question: in an ideal situation, what would Madrid’s midfield look like?
Based on his preferences, last season, one can tell Zidane doesn’t have his ideal pieces in place with the UEFA Super Cup against Sevilla in Norway on already next Tuesday.
Zidane has religiously used a traditional 4x3x3 formation in La Liga, a shape which transitions multiple times throughout a game but almost always returns to the original form shortly after.
German international Toni Kroos, who will return from vacation and join the team in Madrid on Saturday, was a mainstay in Zidane’s starting line-ups in La Liga. Kroos started 16 of the 20 matches Zidane managed in the league, missing two of them due to illness and not starting the other two as a result of tactical decisions, and was used both as a deep-lying pivot and an attacking midfielder (when paired with Casemiro), alongside Luka Modric.
Modric doesn’t fall far behind in Zidane’s preferences, having earned 14 starts at the center of the park in as many games. While Zidane experimented other players on odd occasions, he always returned to the reliable Croatian.
The two made a steady pair with Isco at the beginning of Zidane’s tenure, starting the first five matches together as Madrid won four times and drew once.
Zidane then began experimenting, placing Mateo Kovacic in the Spaniard’s place for the next two matches with mixed results — an emphatic 4-2 win over Athletic Bilbao before drawing 1-1 at Malaga. The Frenchman returned to the original trio in the next match against cross-town rivals Atletico, but it came back to bite him as Los Merengues lost 1-0 to Los Calchoneros.
Throughout this period, Rodriguez was playing on the right wing in Gareth Bale’s absence as the Welshman suffered a right calf injury that took two months rather than the expected two weeks to heal.
The Colombian was given a chance in his natural position in the next match against Levante. He would play 80 minutes before making way for Isco, who would score an insurance goal in stoppage time to guarantee Madrid’s 3-1 win.
The win also marked the first time Zidane gave Casemiro a chance to start a match.
While he didn’t start the first eight matches of the Zidane era, Casemiro made a late surge as one of the managers’ most trusted, starting 10 of the last 12 matches and playing a key role in Real’s 13-match winning streak to end its league campaign.
By the end of the campaign, Zidane had three players who he relied on as dependable players to man the middle of the field from the opening kickoff — Kroos, Modric and Casemiro. James began to gain some trust, starting 4 of the last 7 matches in La Liga, but Kovacic didn’t get the same treatment, making just four starts in 20 matches.
The pecking order holds true for Champions League — Kroos started all 7 matches Zidane managed in the competition; Modric, six; Casemiro, five; James, two; Isco, one; and Kovacic, none.
Once all players regain their match fitness and ease into this season, history tells us Zidane will go with Casemiro, Kroos and Modric as his starting midfield, while James and Isco anticipate a chance to sub on.
But with the Super Cup just five days away, Zidane won’t be able to count on either Modric or Kroos to be fully fit considering how late they’ve arrived.
The former Real Madrid player will also be without a fully-fit James, leaving Casemiro and the less-than-optimally fit pair of Isco and Kovacic as the only first-team midfielders from last season at his disposal.
They aren’t his only options, though.
With all six players featuring for their national teams at Euro 2016 and Copa America Centenario over the summer and returning midway through the club’s preseason, young players returning from loans and brought up from the B team, Real Madrid Castilla, had a chance to show their worth to the technical staff.
The player who has impressed both Zidane and the Spanish media the most has been Marco Asensio.
The 20-year old midfielder has built on his loan spell at Espanyol, where he scored four goals in 34 appearances in La Liga, last season. In Real’s North American preseason tour, he provided two assists in a 3-2 win over Chelsea in 63 minutes in his only start of the tour.
Though talented, Asensio remains raw and could benefit from another loan spell to gain more experience, something he likely won’t gain in Madrid’s already packed midfield.
Zidane hasn’t shut the door yet, however, saying he expects him to stay.
“We have few time, but we’ll return to Madrid and calmly make a decision,” Zidane said. “I’ve said before Marco is a Real Madrid player and the idea that I have is that he remains. It’s also what he wants, but we’ll see. Like I’ve said, until the 31st (of August, the final day of the transfer window), anything could happen.”
Asensio adds to the congestion in the middle of the park, and unless Kovacic gets sold after just one season in Madrid as rumors have suggested, the fight for minutes will become a headache for Zidane throughout the season if he remains in the squad.
Before he causes headaches, he’ll relieve one as he provides an option for Tuesday. His performances against PSG and Chelsea should give anyone who watched some confidence that he’s prepared to put in a quality shift.
No one is sure what Zidane will go with in Rosenborg, but a midfield of Casemiro, Isco and Asensio wouldn’t be too far from the quality Sevilla puts on the pitch, if it’s worse at all.
Even if Asensio lights up the Super Cup with a performance of a lifetime and earns a spot in the squad, it wouldn’t be without consequences, as it would likely be the end of either James’ or Isco’s stays in Madrid.
There will still be 22 days between the Super Cup and the transfer deadline, giving the club plenty of time to find Asensio or Kovacic or Isco or James a new home as it seeks a midfielder of more defensive characteristics to provide depth behind Casemiro and Kroos.
Until then, nothing is final.
“There are many players in (midfield) and that’s why today, nothing is concrete,” Zidane said. “We’ll discuss this when we return to Madrid, but … there are a lot of players in this position and it’s difficult playing all the players, even more so because they’re all so good. We’re going to have to make some decisions.”
Follow Brian Fonseca on Twitter @briannnnf