Zinedine Zidane was so confident that Paul Pogba would ultimately make the move to Real Madrid that he felt comfortable enough in heaping praise on the French midfielder. He was, after all, widely listed as the Spanish side’s No. 1 target last summer. The one player Zidane wanted above any other.
“I really like Pogba and you know that – I know him very well,” Zidane said towards the end of the 2018/19 season, hinting at the Real Madrid manager’s belief that his countryman would eventually join him at the Santiago Bernabeu. But Pogba stayed at Manchester United for another season and now the moment has seemingly passed for him to make the move to the Spanish capital.
Of course, Pogba would likely walk to Madrid to make a move happen, but Real Madrid no longer have a need for him. The emergence of Fede Valverde has satisfied Zidane’s desire for a new central midfielder with the young Uruguayan becoming one of the first names on the team sheet this season.
Against Barcelona last weekend, for instance, Valverde was selected alongside Casemiro and Toni Kroos, with Luka Modric left on the bench. It’s been this way for a number of months, with Zidane viewing Casemiro and Valverde as his first choice midfield duo and supplementing the pair with one of either Kroos or Modric depending on the task at hand.
Quantifying Valverde’s contribution can sometimes be difficult. The Uruguayan averages fewer touches of the ball per 90 minutes (64.5) than all of his midfield teammates - Casemiro (78.8), Toni Kroos (94.7), Luka Modric (83.1). He also ranks nowhere near Real Madrid’s most prolific passers, averaging just 50.1 passes per 90 minutes. For some context, Nacho Fernandez, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal are all averaging more passes per 90 minutes than Valverde this season.
Valverde has predominantly been used on the right side of Real Madrid’s midfield three, often in the place of Modric. The Uruguayan covers a lot of the pitch with Zidane affording him the freedom to drive forward into the space between the centre circle and the opposition penalty area. Valverde is a box-to-box operator and has proved himself to be the player Zidane wanted Pogba to be.
With Kroos and Modric fading physically as they enter the twilight of their respective careers, Valverde now does a lot of the leg work that the duo once did. The 21-year-old has also been used at the base of the midfield, slotting in alongside Casemiro to provide some additional protection. This versatility gives Zidane the option of a double pivot.
Pogba? I live quietly. I try to enjoy it when I put on this shirtFede Valverde
Of Real Madrid’s regular starters this season Valverde is statistically one of the most creative players Zidane has at his disposal, averaging 0.4 big chances per 90 minutes. Valverde also carries a goal threat that often comes as something of a surprise, averaging 1.4 shots on goal per 90 minutes. This is the same as Modric’s shots on goal average despite the Croatian’s status as a supposedly creative figure.
The argument could be made that Valverde is in fact a more rounded player than Pogba. The defensive side of his game gives the Uruguayan a skill set that the Manchester United midfielder does not possess. Against high calibre attacks, Valverde can be used as a barrier in front of the back four. This was demonstrated in his performance against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League earlier this season, ensuring that the French champions didn’t enjoy too much time on the ball.
It’s possible that Valverde and Pogba would fit together in the same team. “Pogba? I live quietly. I try to enjoy it when I put on this shirt” the young Uruguayan responded when asked whether he held any concern over the prospect of the Frenchman pitching up at the Santiago Bernabeu. “If in the future he has to come obviously I'm going to learn a lot from him as a player.”
It could be the case that Florentino Perez, a footballing magpie always attracted to the sport’s biggest stars, could still push for the signing of Pogba. The Frenchman remains one of the most marketable, most recognisable players in the European game right now and so there is more than just footballing logic behind the argument that Real Madrid should approach Man Utd for the midfielder.
But while Real Madrid saw the signing of Pogba as a necessity last summer, that is no longer the case. Valverde has become the perfect midfielder for Zidane in the way he can perform more than just one role. Modern midfielders are often categorised further as creators, disrupters or box-to-box drivers, but Valverde is an exception to this rule. He is many things all at once. He’s not Pogba, but for Real Madrid that is a good thing.