Examining Sergio Ramos’ importance to Real Madrid’s build-up play

Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid (Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid (Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images) /

Sergio Ramos has always been crucial for Real Madrid. But, let’s leave his defense out of the picture; How important is Sergio Ramos in the buildup play?

Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos is arguably the best defender in the world and is one of the most important players at Real Madrid. But, for this article, I’m going to leave his defending aside. You already know how good he is at defending. I’m going to talk about how good his passing and ball-playing has become, and how much Zinedine Zidane changes in his team’s tactical setup when he’s not there.

It’s weird sometimes how one player can improve on something so gradually and slowly that it’s not even a surprise when you notice how good they’ve become at it at the end. You know they’re good, but you never really realize just how good and for how long they have been working on their craft. They continue to reinvent part of themselves and it almost feels like the new stuff has been there forever, but in reality, it hasn’t. Such is the case with Sergio Ramos and his astonishing passing numbers.

Sergio Ramos has been at the club for over 16 years now. He started off playing as a right-back for the club, while slowly transitioning into a great centre-back, who had his flaws but was immensely talented, and was bound to be the leader of the club when it’s the right time.

Fast forward to 2021 and Sergio Ramos is among the best in the business, in terms of defending, leadership, and his ability to play out from the back. The whole package. It’s crazy how important he has become and how the team is forced to try out a lot of other stuff when he’s not there. Because when you lose Sergio Ramos, you don’t lose him for his defending alone, you know? You lose his ball-playing ability, his supreme cross-field switches to an overload from the right-back or a run from the winger. You lose the sense of calm that he brings with him in defense. You lose a little bit of balance, and your option of playing out from the back just becomes more complex. You also lose his occasional runs into the box and his dangerous heading in corners.

Let me give you an example:

Sergio Ramos is so important that when he wasn’t there, his role was taken up by two players, not one. There were multiple changes in the team’s tactical setup to fill in for the captain’s absence. The two players were Toni Kroos and Nacho Fernandez.

Toni Kroos, instead of doing his usual stuff, had to drop deep in between Nacho Fernandez and Raphael Varane in an attempt to lessen the impact that the absence of Ramos would have on distribution and press resistance from the back. He used to pick out either overloads from full-backs or from wingers or pass it to an advanced creator (Modric or Odegaard/Valverde) through the press from the opposition.

Nacho Fernandez was considered in place of Eder Militao because of better passing, more experience, better chemistry with Varane, and arguably better ball-playing. Also, he made a couple of those occasional runs into the box, himself! With the vast attributes that were gone with Ramos, the team needed Nacho more than Militao. Militao has a few things to work on, and I’m certain he will, but it seemed like Nacho was really the better choice, again, in hindsight.

So, back to the original question: When did Ramos get this good at passing? Well, he was always ‘good’. His passing accuracy rarely ever went south of 90% in the last six years or so. This season, it is 92%. On paper, there’s not a lot of difference. But, if you do a deep dive into those numbers, you’ll get to know what has changed: This season, he has averaged more passes per 90 than he ever has in his entire career. He’s completing more passes per 90 than he ever has. He has more passes per game in the attacking third this season than in any season prior. He used to attempt 15 long balls per game in 2017/18, completing 11.1 of them (74.3%). Now, he attempts 20.1 per 90 and completes 17.6 of them (87.6%). That’s a 13.6% jump from three seasons ago, the season where this data had started to become available.

Next. Real Madrid's 5 Most Valuable Players Of The Last Decade. dark

You can only judge by eye tests for the numbers prior to that season. They must’ve been even lower, especially since we’ve seen an upward curve for these four seasons, too. So it’s natural to assume that. In terms of ball-playing ability, that has also improved a lot since his early, almost ‘reckless’ days. Especially in the last three or four seasons. He slowly improved his ball-playing every season and continues to do so. But, there hasn’t been a lot of improvement in these last four seasons simply because there has not been a lot to improve on. He’s losing the ball only 0.08 times per game this season. He’s just too good. He’s a 34-year-old who is performing like a man in his prime.

Give him that contract, Flo. He deserves it.

All stats used are courtesy of FBRef.com.