Real Madrid‘s big question for their clash against Valencia at Mestalla on Sunday night surrounds one player: Casemiro.
The Brazilian midfielder would be forced to miss next Wednesday’s Clasico if he were to pick up a yellow at Valencia, so it is inevitable that Zinedine Zidane will be considering whether to risk Casemiro or not.
Furthermore, having played the 90 minutes against Club Brugge in Belgium on Wednesday night, everything is pointing towards Zidane opting for alternate solutions in midfield at Mestalla.
A. A 4-3-1-2 with four midfielders
It is possible to think that this would be the most likely option, particularly as Zidane has already shown his desire to use this system against the big teams, which Valencia are.
The Frenchman likes to introduce a fourth midfielder in order to retain the ball and bring the team closer together, as was shown in the 2-2 draw at home to Paris Saint-Germain, where Casemiro, Fede Valverde, Toni Kroos and Isco formed the midfield quartet.
In that match, Los Blancos were exceptional, with Eden Hazard and Karim Benzema forming the front two, and they will have been frustrated to have allowed the Parisians to come back into the game, despite a pleasing performance from Zidane‘s point of view.
At Mestalla, Valverde could play the Casemiro role and that would allow Luka Modric to come into the team, thus placing him alongside Toni Kroos and just behind Isco.
Benzema is guaranteed to start in attack, but as his partner, it will be a battle between Gareth Bale, Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo Goes.
B. A 4-3-3 without Isco and with two wingers accompanying Benzema
This is Zidane‘s other favourite formation, where in this case he would have Valverde, Kroos and Modric as the midfielders, however Isco would be sacrificed in this system after repeatedly showing that he cannot function to his usual level as a midfielder in a 4-3-3.
Benzema would be the ‘9’ and would the two wing positions would be competed between the same players who would look to start in attack in the previous formation: Bale, Rodrygo and Vinicius.
If the Frenchman goes for this option, Bale and Rodrygo seem the most likely as Vinicius remains behind them in the pecking order, despite showing an improvement in his last two performances against Espanyol and Club Brugge.
C. An ultra-attacking 4-4-2
This seems impossible and sounds more like a video game, but it is still an option.
If Real Madrid were to play with two double pivots, thus causing one of Valverde, Kroos or Modric to drop to the bench, that would enable two wingers, such as Vinicius and Rodrygo to play as wingers in this formation.
Then, in attack, Benzema could play alongside either Isco or Bale, with Luka Jovic once again failing to show his predatory instincts in front of goal during his start in Belgium.
There are other options, though, with Bale potentially able to play as a left midfielder, Rodrygo on the right and Isco as a No.10, just behind Benzema.
In any case, the injuries to players like Eden Hazard, James Rodriguez, Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio in attack mean that Zidane‘s options are somewhat limited.
However, what is evident is that Valverde is the natural stand-in replacement for Casemiro. Although their styles of play are different, the Uruguayan should be able to adapt his tendencies to become more of a positional pivot, without charging forward in attack or leading the pressure, as he has done in recent weeks.
If Valverde understands that there will be no protection behind the midfield in the absence of Casemiro, his athletic and physical attributes mean that he has a good chance of successfully occupying the space that is usually situated by the Brazilian.
But as we have seen before, Zidane is not afraid to go against the grain. In fact, it is not entirely ruled out that Casemiro will start, despite the risk of potentially missing the Clasico at the Camp Nou three days later if he were to receive a yellow card.