Luka Modric. Toni Kroos. Casemiro. The midfield trio defined an era at Real Madrid -- the archetypal blend of experience, skill and guile -- peaking with consecutive Champions League wins in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
But of course, nothing lasts forever. Casemiro left in the summer to join Manchester United, Kroos is reportedly contemplating retirement, and Luka Modric is belatedly showing his age. Kroos (33 years old) and Modric (37) are now having to battle the next generation of midfielders -- Aurelien Tchouameni (23), Eduardo Camavinga (20), Federico Valverde (24) and a resurgent Dani Ceballos (26) -- for a place in Madrid's starting XI.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti is talking about a "moment of transition" and asking for "the understanding of the veterans, and the patience of the youngsters" to make it work. With the business end of the season approaching, he's tasked with picking a midfield capable of chasing down LaLiga leaders Barcelona and beating Europe's best in the Champions League. (That first bit is not going well: Sunday's 1-0 defeat to Mallorca dropped them eight points behind their big rivals at the top of the table.)
Will Kroos and Modric leave this summer? Was the club right to let Casemiro go first? Can Tchouameni and Camavinga live up to their predecessors? And where would top transfer target Jude Bellingham fit in if he arrives at the Bernabeu this summer? Here's a look at the evolution of Real Madrid's midfield, the engine room to the club's decade of success.
The old guard
Time waits for no man, but it had made an exception for Modric. The 2018 Ballon d'Or winner's legs have held up longer than anyone could reasonably have expected, but the wear and tear of 18 years at the top of the sport has finally started to show. Modric remains important -- he has started 13 of Madrid's 20 LaLiga games this season, coming on as a substitute in another six -- but he's only played the full 90 minutes in two of them.
The Croatian has looked well off the pace since leading his country to the World Cup semifinals in December. He was taken off early in Madrid's Spanish Supercopa final defeat to Barcelona, and was subsequently left out of the starting XI for league matches with Athletic Club, Real Sociedad and Mallorca. In two of those games, at San Mames and Son Moix, Modric and Kroos were both benched, for the first time in almost two years.
Kroos, meanwhile, is at a crossroads. He is still uniquely gifted, leading the LaLiga charts for progressive passes and passes into the final third. He has overcome a problem which saw him play through pain throughout 2021, suffering from pubalgia (otherwise known as a sports hernia). But it was notable that the standout moments of last season -- Madrid's Champions League comebacks against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City -- came when Kroos was subbed off and replaced by a more dynamic alternative.
"Modric and Kroos are untouchable, but that doesn't mean they have to play every game," Ancelotti said last month. "They've made history at this club, they're making history and they will make history... They're professionals. We talked about it at the beginning of the season. It's a moment of transition in the squad, which everyone has to understand."
A change last summer was foreseeable, but it was a surprise that Casemiro, only 30, was the first to leave.
Madrid have a confidence-inspiring track record of knowing when to move players on -- engineering a €100 million deal with Juventus for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018 proved the right call, as did allowing Raphael Varane to join Manchester United in 2021 -- and the €70m United offered for Casemiro was too good to turn down. But of the three, he's the one you'd want in your team on current form.
The club do not regret letting him go -- above all from a financial point of view -- but there's a recognition that it weakened the team, at least in the short term.
The next generation
Madrid's preparation for a post-Casemiro, Kroos and Modric future has been years in the making. An early attempt came with the signing of Martin Odegaard, then 16, in 2015 as a potential successor to Modric. The timing should have been perfect -- Odegaard emerged as LaLiga's outstanding midfielder on loan at Real Sociedad in 2019-20 -- but Modric's decline never came, Odegaard ran out of patience, and he joined Arsenal in 2021.
The player handed the unenviable task of relieving Casemiro arrived last July, Tchouameni, was rated as the best young midfielder in Europe in his position. Madrid chief scout Juni Calafat raced to beat Liverpool to his signature, and the timing of the €80m transfer meant that when Casemiro left, Tchouameni was already settled in this squad. He has settled quickly, impressing so far, and his absence was felt in January when a calf injury kept him on the sidelines.
Camavinga's adaptation has been more erratic. He arrived a year earlier, on deadline day in August 2021, after catching the eye as a precocious teen with Rennes in Ligue 1. When the opportunity arose to sign him for a bargain fee of €31m, Madrid didn't hesitate. Camavinga's gifts, combining explosive physicality with outstanding technique, are undeniable, but Ancelotti feels his positioning and tactical understanding need work.
For now, Camavinga is best deployed off the bench, as games open up and his chaotic energy can swing a result in Madrid's favour. It was Camavinga who was introduced for Kroos against PSG and Chelsea in the Champions League, shifting the momentum each time. In LaLiga this season, 11 of his 19 appearances have come as a substitute. When he starts games, he is often withdrawn early. Intriguingly, his most convincing performances have come recently in an emergency switch to left-back.
Valverde's eventual role in this Madrid team is also yet to be defined. A nominal central midfielder, he is often deployed on the right wing by Ancelotti as an industrious alternative to Rodrygo. On Oct. 16, when Kroos tweeted "Fede Valverde top 3 in the world right now," it was hard to disagree -- Valverde had just scored a trademark outside-the-box screamer against Barcelona in El Clasico, followed by goals against Elche and Sevilla that same week. However, he's failed to score in nine straight league appearances since, seemingly stuck in a post-World Cup slump.
A player who has forced his way into the conversation through sheer personality is Ceballos. Signed in 2017, Ceballos never convinced as a Madrid player until the last few weeks. A match-winning display off the bench against Villarreal in the Copa del Rey on Jan. 19 was followed by consistent performances against Athletic Club, Atletico Madrid, Real Sociedad and Valencia, when the Bernabeu crowd chanted "Ceballos, stay!" as he made his way off the pitch. It's been a career-best run: let's see if he keeps it up.
Three midfielders -- Modric, Kroos and Ceballos -- are all out of contract this summer, and each case is different.
With Modric, Madrid have applied their customary policy for players over 30 by extending their deals on a year-by-year basis. The Croatia international has received interest from elsewhere -- most recently from Saudi Arabia -- but sources told ESPN that both player and club are keen to renew until 2024, with only the details needing to be hammered out.
For his part, Modric believes he can still contribute and welcomes the increased competition for places. "I hope I can retire at Madrid," he said last May. "Madrid is my home."
Kroos' future depends on him alone. He has spoken with refreshing honesty about the choice he is mulling over: carry on for another year or take an early retirement at 33. "Even I don't know what's going to happen," Kroos said in November. "I won't change clubs. I'll retire here. The only thing I don't know is when... We'll talk about it in January, February, or March. Don't get nervous, because I'm not!"
Sources told ESPN that the club would love Kroos to stay, and they are awaiting his decision.
The Ceballos situation has changed radically, with his stock rising as his form has improved. Madrid had no plans to offer a new deal, but sources told ESPN that while no final decision has yet been taken, a contract offer -- a relatively affordable one -- is now likely.
The suggestion that Ceballos could help replace Modric no longer seems absurd. "He has a lot of the characteristics that Modric has," Ancelotti said last week. "He likes to have the ball, he's very intelligent, very smart tactically, he has a lot of personality. Could he replace Modric? I'd say yes."
Tchouameni's position as the only specialist defensive midfielder in the squad means his future role is clear, and Madrid remain confident that Camavinga will overcome his growing pains to become an elite box-to-box midfielder. If Ceballos is now a candidate to compete for a spot, the club's preference would be to bring in Europe's most sought-after teenage midfield talent to play alongside them.
Bellingham, 19, has been identified as Madrid's priority summer signing, with the necessary qualities to complement Tchouameni and Camavinga. Madrid would view a fee of over €100 million as reasonable, and have a strong working relationship with Bellingham's club, Borussia Dortmund, in their favour. But they are aware that competition will be fierce, with Manchester City and Liverpool able to offer the kind of financial package that Madrid would be unwilling to match.
The challenge facing Carlo Ancelotti this season is considerable: managing a team in transition at a club where transitional seasons are not permitted, and trophies today -- not yesterday or tomorrow -- are the only accepted currency. There are few coaches you would back to bench players of the stature of Modric and Kroos, develop talents like Tchouameni and Camavinga and keep outsiders like Ceballos on board, all while maintaining squad morale and competing on multiple fronts. Ancelotti is one of them.
With the Club World Cup this week, the return of the Champions League and a Copa del Rey semifinal with Barcelona to come -- as well as overhauling an eight-point deficit in LaLiga -- illustrates the scale of the task at hand. In the end, Madrid's success or failure over the next three months will be determined by Ancelotti's ability to finesse the changeover from one generation to another, ahead of what could be a more seismic shift this summer.