What will Real Madrid’s defense look like in the future?
This is a trilogy of articles that I’m going to be writing, talking about the present and the future of each position at Real Madrid; where players are needed, where they aren’t, where the ceiling is high, where it isn’t.
Part one: The Defense
This is a position Real Madrid don’t have to worry about for at least another decade. Thibaut Courtois is in the form of his life, deservingly picking up the Zamora trophy for his stunning campaign last season, and starting off well this term with three clean sheets out of four. He is 28 and has entered his peak. No one is displacing him from the starting XI with the kind of performances he’s giving every weekend. Absolutely no one.
The best part is, when his time is up, there will already be a talented goalkeeper waiting to take over. Andriy Lunin is 21 years old and has a big future ahead of him. He has shown glimpses of his abilities at Real Oviedo and soon it will be time for him to do that consistently. He will have to accept being second fiddle to Courtois but, like it is with every talented youngster who has ever lived, patience and determination will pay dividends.
Achraf Hakimi had a great season with Dortmund. He proved to be a menace going forward and was one of the most important players for the team in the two years he was there for. Fans were positive that he would come back to Madrid and fight for a spot in the starting XI. That didn’t happen. He was sold to Inter.
The thing is, you can’t expect a player — who is one of the best in the world in his position — to simply “fight” for his place. He wants minutes, he wants to improve, he wants a system that goes with his style of play and makes him an even better footballer. Inter is that team. They play three-at-the-back and he slots in that RWB spot perfectly. Like Marcelo, he is not the best defender, and knowing that he will be covered for when he is going forward would be a relief. (It’s not like he can’t defend either; he’s just not as good defensively as he is in the attacking third).
Onto the player Real Madrid do have, Dani Carvajal, was great defensively last season and also provided some crucial assists. He has been a mainstay on the right for six years now, and there’s no reason for him not to continue there for another three or so years.
There is one problem, though: The lack of reliable back-ups for the Spanish full-back. Alvaro Odriozola, of course, is an option and is definitely talented, but he just hasn’t proved to be the player we saw at Real Sociedad. I’m hoping it’s not the case again this time. I’m hoping Odriozola gets back to his best. But if not, a young right-back would be dearly welcomed into this squad, whenever that may be.
In the 2017-18 season, Varane was one of the best performers for the team. Even during the terrible league campaign, he was one of the few players that were consistently good from start to finish. Varane, well, was better than good.
While he was easily a top-four defender at that time, even that wasn’t his ‘best’ version: The World Cup was Varane’s absolute peak. He was simply unplayable that season and no one even came close. (Maybe Samuel Umtiti was second best, but Varane had one of the best string of games I have ever seen from a central defender. That too, in the biggest tournament in football. France was truly incredible.) He gave his everything in that tournament and it showed.
After that, though, it was a season to forget.
In the 2018-19 season, Varane looked like a shadow of himself. He made mistakes in every other game, didn’t look as comfortable on the ball as you would’ve liked, and didn’t seem to be focused. Most of the people labeled it as a season-long slump. (That was the case with almost everyone, too. No one looked to be at their best, but Varane was among those who looked to be most hungover.)
Others talked about him already being on a decline. How? He was 25 at the time. 25 years old and he had already won everything there was to win. It did show that the desire to win wasn’t there anymore, at least temporarily. But even then, you can’t just fall off when it is supposed to be the prime of your career.
As you know now, a decline wasn’t the case. Varane is back to his best. Apart from a couple of bad games, The Frenchman was amazing from start to finish. He handled the defence on his own whenever Sergio Ramos decided to abandon the defense and make a run into the opposing box.
Varane didn’t put a foot wrong in almost all the big games (the games against Manchester City and PSG being the exceptions) and has once again proved himself to be one of the best in the world. The kind of speed that he has is perfect for a centre back. He is also 6”3’ which enables him to bully attackers off the ball while using his speed to outgun them. He is entering his prime and has started the season as if the Manchester City game never happened. He’s back to his best, and he’s going to be around for a significant number of years.
Onto his partner-in-crime:
Sergio Ramos is, in my opinion, the best defender in the world. He was the second-highest scorer of the best team in Spain last season. He has scored 23 consecutive penalties for club and country. That almost sounds like a made-up stat.
It is sad to say, but Ramos is also 34. The captain of this club will likely hang up his boots in a couple of years’ time. For a 34-year-old, though, the kind of performances he is giving week in, week out is astonishing. Yeah, he makes a few mistakes here and there, but he is showing no signs of slowing down, on both ends of the pitch.
Ramos scored a career-high 13 goals last season. That’s almost unheard of for a defender (Last centre-back who scored 10+ goals in a season for Real Madrid that wasn’t named Ramos? Fernando Hierro back in 1993/94.) He has scored every penalty he has taken ever since he took the responsibility after Ronaldo’s departure. He makes occasional runs into the opponent’s box which provides the crosser with an extra option to pick out.
Even if nothing happens, there is still one more man to cover inside the box for the opponents and that might result in some chaos. Defensively, he is as good as ever. The fact that he is the leader of the best defence in Europe speaks for itself. There’s not much else to it.
The downside with him, as I mentioned, is his age. The team’s defence often looks shaky when Ramos isn’t there. Maybe it’s because of the lack of development of the partnership between Varane and Eder Militao. They haven’t had many chances to play together and it shows. That will improve with time.
It better, because Militao is one of the most talented centre backs in the world. You don’t get your hands on players like him that often. If you don’t believe me, do one thing: watch his performance against Liverpool in the first leg of the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2019. He went toe-to-toe with Salah and pocketed him on multiple occasions. He was as solid as a rock.
That and tens of other great performances from Militao are illustrations of his amazing talent. That is why Real Madrid went for him. That is why I think he is going to be the one partnering Varane at the back once Ramos rides off into the sunset. The Brazilian is quick, steady, and usually composed on the ball, and last season, he was pretty good whenever he stepped on the pitch for ‘Los Blancos‘.
He isn’t “perfect”, by any means. With any talented kid comes something called inconsistency, which is not something to necessarily worry about now. Consistency will come with time and experience. Other than that, he has to work on not being too aggressive. Sometimes, his distribution is also slightly off. He will improve. He just needs to be patient and willing to work hard. His time will come.
I believe there will also be a need for another young centre back very soon. Having that guy as backup and understudy to the likes of Varane and Ramos will be very good for all parties involved, especially since Nacho Fernandez hasn’t quite been himself since the World Cup. He isn’t getting any younger, either.
I don’t know what it is with talented Brazilians; their peak is as high as a mountain when they’re very young but they come down way faster than the other footballers. Many Brazilians that I’ve seen started regressing in form when they hit 30. Some decline due to injuries. Some just declined. The latter is the case with Real Madrid’s legendary left-back, Marcelo.
Marcelo is one of the best fullbacks in football history. His contribution to this club is invaluable as he was one of the most crucial players in the three-peat era. Although he started the 2018-19 season in decent form, as the season went on, it started to show that his pace wasn’t there in his legs anymore. He became more and more of a liability in defence each passing game.
In his prime, his defensive shortcomings were ignored because of the things he did going forward — and rightly so. He would make up for his lack of defensive IQ with supreme control, press-resistance, and his offensive accord. The problem right now, though, is that his offensive contribution has also decreased significantly and the spaces he leaves behind certainly do not help.
That is why the unearthing of Sergio Reguilon from Santiago Solari two seasons ago was considered a blessing for the team.
Reguilon had a fantastic two-way presence and always played his heart out, something which was pretty nice to witness. He was given crucial roles in big games under Solari (against Barcelona and Atletico, for example) and Reguilon repaid his faith with stunning performances in all of those games. Even when the team lost, Reguilon’s performance was something to be content with every time.
Now, for those Madrid fans who didn’t want Reguilon to be loaned out at the start of last season, Zidane would’ve probably favoured Marcelo over Reguilon for at least one more year.
Anyway, as it became apparent, loaning Reguilon to Sevilla was a great decision. He was brilliant playing under Julen Loeptegui, and had a crucial role for their Europa League success, which resulted in him being sold to Tottenham a few weeks after returning to Spain’s capital: He’s one of the best young full-backs in the world and deserves to start for a club of Tottenham’s stature.
He still mentions Madrid as his home and a buy-back clause is included in the deal. So, it’s a great deal for all parties involved. It also gives a certain youngster a chance to potentially have the back-up spot in the future. (More on him later)
Back in Madrid, some of Marcelo’s performances did prove me wrong this season, as he gave us flashbacks of his former self in a few matches. He still wasn’t at his best, though. The same cannot be said for his counterpart, replacement or “understudy” — a French left-back signed from Lyon for 45 million euros in the shape of Ferland Mendy.
Mendy has been the signing of the season for Real Madrid. He took a little time finding his stride but has been a mainstay on the left ever since he did. Attackers have had a terrible time whenever they come up against him. His explosive pace and strength added to his elite-yet-underrated defending is a combination that few full-backs have. His two-footedness is key going forward as he tends to cross with his right foot more often than the left. He struggled to make that big of an impact in the attacking third at first. However, that too improved as the season went on.
As much as I adore Marcelo, it only makes sense for him to stay here for one more season at maximum. He isn’t getting any better and his minutes aren’t increasing. It would be great for him to have a “farewell season” and then go to a club where he gets more minutes. It will also give other youngsters like Miguel Gutierrez a chance to prove their point. Keep in mind: he is just 19. He has A LOT of potential.
Having Mendy and Gutierrez as the two left-backs does sound most ideal going forward. Both of them are young, hungry, talented, eager to make a mark. Mendy is already halfway there and has made the left-back position his own. While Gutierrez isn’t quite at his level, he must have impressed Zidane with great performances for Castilla, and he still is a talented defender. He has the potential to be a first-team player, and push Mendy to become a better player. Both of them at their peak — granted they stay in Madrid till then — would be a fun sight.