Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane clearly knew something needed to change in midfield.
The Frenchman’s No.1 target last summer was his compatriot Paul Pogba, but after failing to secure the wantaway Manchester United ace, he was left with Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric – the trio upon which the Blancos’ run of three consecutive Champions League triumphs had been founded.
High status, but low performance if the club’s 2018-19 season collapse was anything to go by.
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Madrid limped on for a few weeks with their old formula but then Zidane tried something new, and bold, handing the relatively unknown Uruguayan Fede Valverde a starting spot ahead of club legend Modric.
The team has never looked back.
After a topsy-turvy start to both their domestic and European campaigns, Madrid sit level on points with Barcelona at the top of the Liga table and have sealed qualification to the knockout stage of the Champions League with a game to spare.
Valverde has now started 10 matches for Real and not once tasted defeat. Indeed, only twice have the Blancos failed to win with the 21-year-old in the first 11.
By stark contrast, they have drawn or lost six of the 10 games Valverde has not started.
The former Penarol prodigy has been involved in Madrid’s most impressive performances of the campaign so far: the 5-0 drubbing of Leganes, the 6-0 demolition of Galatasaray and the 4-0 rout of Eibar.
He also helped them overcome in-form Real Sociedad 3-1 in November and left the field with Madrid 2-0 up against Paris Saint-Germain with 14 minutes to go in what had been the team’s best performance of the season.
They ended up drawing 2-2 with PSG, leaving nobody in any doubt as to Valverde’s importance to Zidane’s side.
It is testament to how impressive Valverde has performed that few questions are being asked when he slots into the team ahead of Modric, who won the Ballon d’Or last year for his role in Madrid’s third successive Champions League success and Croatia’s subsequent run to the World Cup final.
Some are now even convinced Valverde will himself one day be crowned the best player on the planet.
“Fede is going to win the Ballon d’Or,” Rodolfo Catino, Penarol’s vice-president, told AS. “He’s one of the great players this land has produced, along with Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan.
“I don’t know if it will be this year or in the next two years, but he will win it because he has an elegance that nobody else has. He understands football and all that that means.”
Valverde adds hustle to Madrid’s midfield, ensuring the onus is not only on Casemiro to win balls back, make interceptions and stop attacks.
However, he is comfortable operating in higher areas of the pitch too, with tidy passing and good thrust, which helps him drive past opponents and break lines.
It was Valverde’s cut-back which Karim Benzema dispatched to kill off Espanyol on Saturday in a match Madrid struggled to dominate.
Indeed, with two goals and two assists in his last four league games, Valverde looks capable of making decisive contributions at both ends of the pitch.
Known as ‘El Pajarito’, the little bird, Valverde flies from box to box, giving Madrid the energy they desperately lacked last season.
“I expected Fede Valverde’s explosion,” said former Uruguay international Diego Lugano, speaking to Marca. “We knew he was a player with a lot of talent since he was a little boy.
“He has a very specific style of play, he’s a fine player, and it was only a matter of time before he exploded at a big European team.”
Modric has been the ‘victim’ of Valverde’s breakthrough, struggling at the start of the season with a red card and injury concerns before being benched by the Uruguayan.
It may be Modric who starts against Club Brugge in the Champions League on Wednesday, a dead rubber, while Valverde is rested for the trip to Valencia at the weekend, showing the veteran’s fall and the youngster’s rise.
The Croatian, 34, presented his autobiography in November, called ‘My Game’, and a cynic might say he is cashing in on his Ballon d’Or win, knowing his best days are behind him.
However, Modric has enjoyed a bounce back in form over recent weeks, perhaps benefitting from the increased rest time Valverde’s emergence has afforded him.
“I’m very happy in Madrid,” said Modric last week. “It’s true that my season started slowly because of the red card and my two injuries. I lacked consistency and form.
“Now, I’m feeling well and I’m enjoying football and Madrid more than ever. What I need is to play, improve my form and show what I’ve always shown.”
Undoubtedly, Modric still has quality to offer Madrid and Valverde may be giving him a platform to do that from – even if they do not often line up together.
Kroos has been in far better form, too, helped by the spritely Valverde.
“I really love this player,” said the German. “To come here is not easy and to play like he is at this age means he has a lot of quality.”
He isn’t the only one who loves Valverde and with every impressive performance the Little Bird’s flock of admirers grows ever larger.
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