After the joy of Real Madrid’s 2-1 win in El Clasico, head coach Carlo Ancelotti was met with unexpected news: Aurelien Tchouameni, the cornerstone of his midfield, had picked up a foot injury and would be out for at least six weeks.
With 1,020 minutes played, the 23-year-old France midfielder is the fourth-most used outfield player in Madrid’s squad this season. Ancelotti has yet to lose a game this campaign in which he has started.
Tchouameni will be a big miss for Madrid. He has been one of their most important players, seamlessly adapting to the 4-4-2 diamond system introduced by Ancelotti. He has been the team’s anchor in defensive midfield, giving Toni Kroos, Federico Valverde and Jude Bellingham more freedom. That has finally allowed him to establish himself at the Santiago Bernabeu after signing from Monaco in the summer of 2022.
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“It’s an evolution,” said his agent and one of the people who knows him best, Jonathan Kebe. “Last season was his first in Madrid, so it was a discovery, like for anyone else. He was adapting to Madrid, to the club, to the team, to the team-mates, to what he wanted from the club… he didn’t come here to be on the bench.”
His growing importance to Madrid is reflected in the stats. His turnover rate of 8.8 per cent is the best of La Liga midfielders who have made more than 50 tackles since the start of last season, highlighting his ability to keep the ball alongside his defensive prowess. According to FBRef, Tchouameni ranks in the 97th percentile for passes received at Madrid, behind only Toni Kroos, who ranks 99th.
He has become more daring in attack, already doubling his figure of long passes per game from last season from 1.7 to 3.5. As the below graphic shows, that has not impacted the quality of his distribution. His first goal in a Madrid shirt, a header to settle their 2-0 win against Girona last month, suggests he could become an aerial threat, too.
“He is one of the phenomena in the squad,” a senior Real Madrid voice — who, like other sources cited in this piece spoke anonymously as they did not have permission to comment — told The Athletic. “We have not considered selling him despite Premier League interest this summer.”
Tchouameni will not be easy to replace. Kebe said that “normally he will be out for six weeks”. That means he is likely to miss Madrid’s next two Champions League group games — against Braga on November 8 and Napoli on November 29 — as well as key La Liga matches against Valencia on November 11 and potentially Real Betis on December 10.
But according to coaching staff sources, Madrid have two players who are ready to step into Tchouameni’s role at the base of midfield: Eduardo Camavinga and Kroos. The same sources said Ancelotti will decide whether to play one or the other depending on the opponent, but added: “Kroos will play more than many thought.”
Despite starting only seven games of a possible 14, Kroos has been in the starting line-up for games against Atletico Madrid, Napoli, Girona, Sevilla and Barcelona at the weekend. And while he left the pitch disgruntled after being substituted in the 63rd minute in the Clasico, the coaching staff believe he still has plenty to give.
Camavinga’s entourage, meanwhile, expect his main role to be as a defensive pivot, even more so with Tchouameni out injured and Ferland Mendy and Fran Garcia available at left-back — where Camavinga has deputised so well over the past two seasons.
Despite filling in all over the pitch, Camavinga has said he prefers to play as a defensive midfielder and Ancelotti has reinforced that idea. “Camavinga’s ideal position is as a pivot, it’s where he best expresses his quality,” the Italian said before the Barca game.
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Madrid will not veer from their preferred formation this season and Ancelotti will stick to his diamond in midfield.
“He felt something (in the first half) but it wasn’t a big deal and then, during the game, it got worse,” Kebe said of Tchouameni’s injury. “It wasn’t because of Gavi. He didn’t say anything (at half-time) because, as the team was losing, he wanted to win. But he didn’t know. When you are playing you don’t feel it, it’s when you stop and take off your shoes.”
Tchouameni’s response on social media spoke to his cool personality. After the injury was confirmed on Sunday, he posted a picture from the Japanese cartoon Dragon Ball with the caption “Pit stop”. Then, a day later, he responded to a video from broadcaster DAZN that claimed to show the Madrid midfielder being injured in a clash with Gavi.
Pit Stop 🛑 Thanks for the support🙏🏾
Hala Madrid !🤍 YK👑 pic.twitter.com/2C8lUAasQg
— Tchouameni Aurélien (@atchouameni) October 29, 2023
“It’s not Gavi’s fault, I got injured at the end of the first half,” he wrote.
Far from being divisive, that gesture appeared to unite Barcelona and Madrid fans. Madridistas are getting to know him more and more and the same is true of his team-mates. According to Kebe, Tchouameni is learning from the more experienced members of the squad.
“The young players have a lot of respect for the older ones: you have Antonio Rudiger as a big brother, Luka Modric and Kroos as mentors and examples to follow because they have been very successful, like Dani Carvajal. They know they have to be together to be good,” he says.
As for Tchouameni, he will take the injury and recovery process in his stride after finding his place in Madrid’s starting XI.
“He is very curious, he wants to know about everything, he asks a lot of questions,” adds Kebe. “His ambition has always been to be the best midfielder in the world and to achieve that you have to be at the best club in the world, which is Madrid.”
(Top photo: Eric Alonso/Getty Images)