Real Madrid vs. Liverpool: This is the best defensive lineup without Raphael Varane

A couple of weeks ago, Real Madrid thought they were going to get their full defense back for the Champions League quarterfinals against Liverpool. But the reality is that Los Blancos will go up against the defending Premier League champions without three of their four best starters.

Dani Carvajal has been injured for a while and is not yet fit to play. Meanwhile, Sergio Ramos suffered an injury over the international “break” and will miss more weeks of action. And on the literal morning of the first leg, Madridistas learned that Raphael Varane has tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss both legs against Liverpool as well as the weekend Clasico.

Not having Varane against the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Diogo Jota, and Roberto Firmino is a crushing blow for Real Madrid. It means that neither of their world-class center backs are available, leaving Real with just Nacho Fernandez and Eder Militao as true first-team center backs available to start.

However, Real’s defense can still be solid without Varane and Ramos. That may seem difficult to believe for people who have not been following Los Blancos closely this season, but Madridistas have faith in their backups and in a system tweak.

Real Madrid pretty much have to use a ‘back three’ without Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos

We have seen Zinedine Zidane utilize a “back three” on four occasions. Nacho, Ramos, Militao, Varane, and Ferland Mendy have all been used as center backs in this system, and Zidane has made use of it in both the Champions League and La Liga.

This past weekend, Zidane used a back three against Eibar without Ramos and Varane. The former was injured, while the latter received a well-earned day of rest following the international matches. And the result was a 2-0 clean sheet victory for Madrid with Mendy on the left, Militao on the right, and Nacho in the middle.

I firmly believe that back three is Real’s best hope against Liverpool. Zidane could use the traditional back four with Mendy and Lucas Vazquez at the fullback positions. But using a back three gives the talented – but somewhat mistake-prone – Militao more cover. It also enables Real Madrid to use Marcelo and Vazquez as wing backs, which suits both attacking-minded players better.

So we should see a Mendy, Militao, and Nacho back three used in the upcoming big matches. It is far from ideal to go up against two top clubs in Europe without Varane and Ramos. Zidane and Real Madrid are indeed up against it. But this is Real Madrid. There is no time for complaining. Losers complain. Teams that win championships find a way forward by having their “next men up” step up to the plate and by overcoming absences with tactical tweaks and a whole lot of heart.

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Los Blancos are still very much capable of beating Liverpool and Barcelona. The task is now significantly tougher without a top-three center back in the world in Varane, but Nacho is a tried-and-true veteran in great form and Militao and Mendy are promising players who cost a combined 100 million euros. They are capable of holding down the fort, and they are going to have to show they are capable. Especially Militao, whose future in Madrid seems to hang in the balance. This is his time to shine.