Why it's time for Mateo Kovacic to replace Casemiro in Madrid's starting line-up
Over the last two years, Casemiro has become a very crucial part of the Real Madrid line-up. After coming back to the capital club from Porto, he has provided a much needed defensive balance to the team.
He became a regular in the team under Zinedine Zidane and has since justified his selection with solid defensive performances in the middle of the field for the 12-time UEFA Champions League winners. Apart from his defensive contributions, he has also scored some crucial goals, most notably in the 2017 Champions League final and the UEFA Super Cup.
However, the recent slump in Real Madrid's form has surprised everyone and the team seems short of ideas. Real Madrid have been struggling both offensively and defensively, which no one saw coming at the start of the season. The reasons are many and one of them is the midfield.
Casemiro in the middle of the field has not really helped in keeping the defensive organisation, with him regularly moving into advanced positions leaving the defence vulnerable. His defensive positioning was never great but his regular advances in attacking areas this season has further exacerbated the problem.
Casemiro's faults expose Real Madrid
He relies heavily on his tackling which at times can be reckless to break up attacking play of the opposition, and he was probably the best at that last season, but this season, he hasn't helped Real Madrid in the same way, and oppositions catching Real Madrid on counters is a common thing these days.
Real Madrid have often been caught out defensively by a single vertical pass and that puts a lens of scrutiny on the defensive midfielder.
Moreover, the fact that Casemiro isn't the best around with the ball at his feet further affects Real Madrid's buildup play. Real Madrid play with a very flat midfield three of Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric.
The majority of which is due to the reason that Casemiro's passing and on-the-ball capabilities leave a lot to be desired. Casemiro isn't the best in dealing with the opposition's press, which forces Kroos and Modric to go deep and help Real Madrid in overcoming the press.
Kroos and Modric are great players with brilliant capabilities on the ball and that has masked Casemiro's weakness with the ball for large parts, but it effectively puts a lot of pressure on Kroos and Modric to deliver, which they might not be able to achieve every time.
The duo, over the last 2 seasons, have been inconsistent at times. Last season it was Isco's inclusion in the playing 11 that helped them improve immensely, as Isco shared the burden along with them.
With Casemiro in a 3 men midfield, Kroos and Modric have to do the majority of the work when Madrid are in possession as Casemiro's passing is below par, to say the least. This can affect their ability to create chances for the forwards as they are not only looking to start the buildup play, but are also expected to create in the final third.
This heavy workload to do both things game-in and game-out affects their ability to perform consistently and hurts the team as well.
This flat midfield also leads to forwards dropping deeper to connect with the midfield which effectively affects the whole build up structure and also puts a further pressure on the forwards to do an additional job.
Real Madrid did played with Isco in a 4-4-2 formation last season after Gareth Bale's injury and at the start of this season (why it didn't work this season can be discussed separately) which provided that link, but now with BBC back, they are back to the 4-3-3 formation, and with Casemiro in that role, their build-up play is bound to remain hindered.
That is where Kovacic can be and should be used.
Kovacic is one of the most press-resistant players around unlike Casemiro. He is brilliant in getting out of opposition's pressing which Casemiro often finds hard to do. He will take the pressure off of Kroos and Modric to start build up, and will allow them to operate in more advanced positions.
Kovacic possesses great dribbling skills, coupled with his intelligence to pick up the right passes and his ability to break the opposition's line of defence will be great assets.
The Croatian has superior on-the-ball skills and has had a pass accuracy of over 92% this season as compared to Casemiro's 88%. Kovacic also has a 100% take-on completion which is far better than Casemiro's 74%. Further, Kovacic completes 1.28 take-ons per 90 minutes as compared to Casemiro's 0.29.
Kovacic is also positionally disciplined which Casemiro has been missing this season. This will allow Real Madrid to get back into shape quickly when they lose possession. Kovacic might not be a hard tackler like Casemiro but is good enough at tackling to help Madrid defensively.
Kovacic completes 2.56 tackles per 90 minutes which is only marginally lesser than Casemiro's 3 tackles per 90 minutes. Kovacic can help Madrid stop counters and is very pacy to track down the runs too.
He isn't a destroyer in the midfield like Casemiro, but a lack of destroyer can be made up for by controlling the midfield and properly counter-pressing. Kovacic will help Madrid in achieving both.
Although both, Casemiro and Kovacic are different players, without a shadow of doubt, Kovacic is much more talented, and can do most the things Casemiro can, but Casemiro can't do everything Kovacic can.
What Real Madrid will lose by taking Casemiro out of the playing 11, Kovacic will more than make up for, and will also add an extra dimension to Real Madrid's midfield.
Kovacic has done well in that role without Casemiro in the team against the likes of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. He has definitely done more than enough to merit a place in Real Madrid starting 11, especially considering the rut Real Madrid find themselves in, presently.
Zidane this season has shied away from rotating his side like last season. But Kovacic provides a very serious case to surpass Casemiro. Kovacic is a great talent and should be used in the best possible way.
He will walk into the midfield of any other teams in the world, and considering that Casemiro hasn't performed up to the required standard till now, Zidane should give Kovacic a chance, especially in La Liga, as it is now already seemingly lost and they should be able to finish within the UEFA Champions League spots with ease.
This will give him Zidane a chance to weigh up this alternative and reach a decision as to what suits the team best.
He might need to tweak his system a bit to make the best use of Kovacic but it will do no harm if it harnesses the best out of him, as Kovacic, today, is one of the most exciting young midfielders around.