Player Preview, 2012-2013 Season Part I: Keepers, Defense And The Defensive Midfield

Aug 8, 2012; Bronx, NY, USA; Real Madrid players pose for a photo during the first half against AC Milan at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-US PRESSWIRE

This post will be in two parts and provides a preview of the 2012-2013 season. Every player on the squad will be reviewed in turn, and a prospective line-up for the season opener (at home) against Valencia will be proposed.

Many of the players had very successful stints with their international teams this summer, played in tournaments, and gave us plenty to think about during the preseason games in Portugal and the United States.

We begin with the Goalkeepers, the defense, and the defensive midfield.

Goal Keepers

Iker Casillas arrives back to the league having won, along with his Spanish international teammates, a third international title in a row. This feat has never been managed by any other national team and Casillas was the best keeper at the tournament. He has looked sharp and well rested during his outings at preseason games and everything suggests he’ll have another splendid season.

He’s the world’s number one #1 and really, that’s all one can say about him.

Antonio Adán, while certainly not talented enough to be our number one, has shown improvement in the preseason. When he was unexpectedly sent on against Espanyol in 2011 for his league debut when Casillas was red carded, Marcelo and Ramos took it in turns to take his goal kicks for him. On the one hand they were trying to keep him calm. On the other, they knew perfectly well that Adán’s distribution was very poor. He has shown the most improvement on that aspect of his game. He continues to deal badly with crosses, however.

The Defence

Sergio Ramos was part of the winning Spanish team and played at centre back for his country for the first time for this tournament with teammate Carles Puyol out with injury. He was, as Madrid fans would expect based on our observations last season, quite brilliant. He scored in the preseason against AC Milan, and could be the greatest scoring threat Madrid has from corners and set-pieces. He also had solid games with a series of defensive partners.

His one great strength as a centre-back – his ability to get back at speed while covering for a roving left-back (with Spain: Jordi Alba. With Madrid: Marcelo) - requires a great deal of energy and concentration. On that note: it was interesting how often Ramos objected to the officiating during preseason matches, how determined his tackles were, and how seriously he took the games. This is a player who is ready to go and doesn’t look the least bit fatigued by his summer adventure.

Raphaël Varane has continued to be solid at the back, tackling well, positioning well and with the pace and speed to play quite far forward and help join the attack. His passing is excellent. While still nowhere near Pepe or Ramos’s level, his tackling is better than theirs and he continues to play whole games while conceding no free kicks of any kind. He remains an exciting prospect for at least the next ten years.

Varane has received his first call-up to the French squad. This should boost his confidence. He’s certainly talented enough to be part of any re-building project.

Pepe made the semifinals with Portugal without being cautioned and was extremely good, covering huge amounts of ground in his games. Against Spain, in particular, he played a very good, disciplined, thoughtful game. He also scored in Portugal's ill-fated semi-final.

In the preseason he has been, like Ramos, a determined tackler who takes all games (friendly or not) extremely seriously. This is another player who does not look as though he is suffering from any kind of burn-out or fatigue.

Fábio Coentrão was a stand-out player at the Euros: inventive, tireless and lightening fast. He takes few corners for Madrid, but should certainly be considered for the job because his delivery is excellent. He completely neutralized Thomas Mueller of Germany (which is no mean feat) in the opening game of the tournament and played very well against Spain in the semi-final.

The match against Germany in the group of death was especially instructive. It was a nervy, hesitant game that the Portuguese struggled to get into until the final 15 minutes, and he was the only Portuguese player who looked comfortable in the match. His preseason has been very good, with most of Madrid’s attacks in many games coming down the left. He earned an excess of 10 corners against Milan, every single one on the left side.

He is unpopular with the Santiago Bernabéu faithful, in spite of his talent, so will have a great deal to prove this season.

Alvaro Arbeloa has been relentlessly consistent. It could be his middle-name. He was good, not brilliant, during the tournament. He was all right during the preseason. His defending has one fault: his over-reliance on the offside rule to get him out of trouble. When he’s not able to keep a tricky winger offside there is usually loads of space behind him for an attacker to exploit. On the other hand, one always knows what to expect from him, so consistency can be a virtue.

It also seems he will have limited competition for his spot this year since no appropriate right back has been signed and there seems no prospect of getting one. Lass Diarra (more on him below) will be covering for him when he is unable to play. Arbeloa has also signed a new contract with Madrid.

Marcelo is returning to Madrid with a disappointing silver medal from the Olympics and fending off a challenge for a regular starting place from Coentrão – who did so well in the preseason, started very important games at the end of last season, and had a brilliant tournament. With no preseason of any kind with Madrid because of the Olympic Games, he may find it hard to get his rhythm at the beginning of the season.

He has one advantage: the length of time he’s been at Madrid, and how well he always plays at home. Also, the rest of the regular defence have suffered no injuries and have played well in their preseason. Stable defensive partners will help his game.

Raúl Albiol also signed a new contract this summer. He was Florentino Perez’s first new signing and has never lived up to expectations. He is a contented squad player who makes little fuss on the bench, trains hard and can be relied on, to a point. He is extremely risky in big games however, since his biggest fault seems to be a tendency to nod off at key moments. He also has little anticipation or an ability to read the game (a seriously underrated quality in defensive players).

Madrid invariably concede when he is on the pitch. A good player when still at Valencia, this suggests an incompatibility with the others in defence and perhaps a lack of match practice. He’s an experienced squad player who can be used in a pinch, but Mourinho should avoid starting him.

Ricardo Carvalho did not play for Portugal and did not play in the preseason. His shirt number has been awarded to Varane in the preseason. It seems unlikely he will feature for Madrid again, and that he will either retire or move to another club.

The Defensive Midfield

Sami Khedira is in the interesting position of coming back to Madrid as with a considerably enhanced reputation. Since arriving in Madrid the technically minded among the fans have loved his tactical astuteness, discipline, caution, defensive rate, work-rate and unbelievable consistency (does he have bad games?). Other fans, and most of the Spanish press, have condemned him for being boring, lacking flash or brilliance, and staying back to screen the defence rather than barrelling forward. Spanish fans unfamiliar with his German game were seemingly under the impression that Khedira did not have the skill to go forward.

After the Euros however, his ability to cover for a visibly injured Bastian Schweinsteiger, his determination, and his now famous ability to get from penalty box to penalty box in seconds to try to score or to help defend got him a great deal of attention. We have a player returning to us who is finally being recognized as important to the Madrid line-up and who is now considered the unofficial captain of Germany’s team. He has had a consistent pre-season; good on the ball, and willing to try to score. It would seem Mourinho has also given him more license to get forward.

Xabi Alonso returns from the Euros having had a brilliant tournament. He’s been well rested during the preseason. As with Casillas, there doesn’t seem to be much to say about our midfield engine. He was brilliant last year, he was brilliant over the course of the tournament and was a goal threat too

Lass Diarra was eager to leave Madrid last season, since the arrival of Nuri Şahin seemed to suggest there would be even fewer opportunities for him to play than in 2010/11. But while many clubs were interested, no one could afford him. As it turned out this was fortunate, since injuries to Hamit Altintop, Sami Khedira and Nuri Şahin at various points in the season meant he had many opportunities to play.

Diarra did not play for France, but his preseason suggests he will continue to play fairly regularly. He is obviously in Mourinho's good graces, plays well enough and with great energy, and always gives a good effort. Not as compatible with Alonso or as talented as Sami Khedira, he has still had a very good preseason with a variety of partners in midfield.

Esteban Granero is another player who has had a prominent role in the preseason. Like Diarra he had no tournament, which meant he played more minutes than he might have had Khedira and Alonso been available. While still not a regular starter, he has shown improvement with a different series of midfield partners. He is average at nearly everything he does. He is creative, but not as good on the ball as Xabi Alonso. He can screen the defence and cover ground, but not as effectively as Sami Khedira.

An excellent back-up and a player who is happy with his role as a squad player.

Nuri Şahin could well be on his way out to Arsenal. The difficulty is that Madrid seems determined, for reasons passing understanding, to hang on to him by refusing Arsenal an option to purchase at the end of a possible loan period at the Emirates. On the one hand this makes perfect sense: he's a player of incredible talent. On the other it is strange, because a main story-line of the preseason has been Mourinho's refusal to play him in midfield, relegating him instead as a back-up to Coentrão at left-back with Marcelo away at the Olympics. While Coentrão certainly needs a back up for the moment he won't during the season. He may not even start, since Madrid have arguably the two best left-backs in the world competing for one spot.

Coupled with Mourinho and Karanka's comments over the past few weeks about how Şahin is welcome to leave and how they understand his predicament, it seems likely that if he stays, it will be as a squad player or as a starter in far less important matches.

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