One year ago, Real Madrid inexplicably jettisoned one of their unsung heroes of the Decima run, Fabio Coentrao, to AS Monaco in a loan deal that proved pernicious for both parties, if not entirely disastrous for the player. In theory, Real could have been punished more than they were without a proper understudy for Marcelo, but they survived any minimal health lapses of their Brazilian left back with cover from Nacho and Danilo - both of whom can act as makeshift left-flank band-aids when summoned.
After an injury-riddled spell in France, Coentrao now returns in hopes of giving Real Madrid more stability at left back, and the team as a whole goes into this season with a much more secure outlook across the back four, riding eight players for four positions - two deep in each defensive slot. Here's a closer look.
#2 - Dani Carvajal
"The essence of Real Madrid is not to surrender," Dani Carvajal said after scoring the winning goal in the UEFA Super Cup.
"We have a very good squad and continue to work to the death."
Carvajal might go down as the best right back the club has had since Michel Salgado's prime terrorized opposing flanks at the turn of the century. He has a wonderful blend of talent and heart, and his sheer resilience and love for the organization makes him a fan-favorite.
And he's grown.
Two seasons ago, he returned from a successful loan spell at Leverkusen and was handed the keys to Real Madrid's right back role - a very demanding post in Ancelotti's scheme. It was Carvajal's to lose, as the only other player in Madrid's defensive line who could play on the right at the time was Arbeloa.
It wasn't a perfect rookie season with the A-team by any means. Though he had many encouraging outings, Carvajal made some key errors against Juventus in the Champions League semi-final, most notably committing a clumsy foul on Carlos Tevez which led to a penalty. The Club knew there would be growing pains with their right back, and their signing of Danilo from Porto just two months prior to that challenge on Tevez was foreshadowing to the insurance they wanted to have at that position.
At the start of the 2015 season, Carvajal would face some adversity. Given Arbeloa's decline and Carvajal's rawness, the Club was not going to wallow around and rely on Carvajal in a big match if it had better options to play with. Danilo was a real solution - the projected starter and an answer to the Spaniard's ineptitude in do-or-die matches. But Dani rose, outplayed his new Brazilian pendant, and cemented himself as one of the elite right backs on the planet, further proving that there is no harm in healthy competition. In moments of calamity, this is how we filter the good from the great. Across the board, players who see out a successful career are the ones that rise when their backs are pinned to the wall. Carvajal is just that.
Despite naturally playing less given Danilo's arrival, Carvajal made a leap this season, and by the time the climax of 2016 arrived, Zidane made him the preferred right back. Real Madrid now have their starting right back heading in the upcoming season - though admittedly, Danilo will improve, and give Dani plenty of competition - and have much-needed stability moving forward in a position they've struggled to fill ever since Salgado left the club, and, after that, Sergio Ramos transitioned into a central defender.
It's easy to be hypnotized by Carvajal's emergence as a footballer and his drive as a genuine Madridista - but at some point it's also vital for Zidane to zoom out and thoroughly examine his trajectory as a footballer. It looks good, but most of Carvajal's upswings have come offensively, and there's still room for improvement on the defensive end, particularly in his decision-making and knowing when to gamble. Still, he looks really good, and looked fine last season without the ball 90% of the time. Zidane's scheme provides the ability to mask defensive lapses by its wing-backs, and both Gareth Bale and Lucas Vasquez are excellent at providing defensive relief on the right flank.
#3 - Pepe
Two seasons ago, Pepe was merely the overpass that linked Real Madrid's defensive scheme from one era to another. But like a fine wine, Pepe has aged gracefully, and is peaking at a point in his career few could predict. To round out the 2015 / 2016 season, he culminated his powers against Manchester City in the semi-finals of the Champions League and continued his form all the way through to the moment he lifted the European trophy with Portugal in France, in a tournament he thoroughly dominated.
Pepe deserved that trophy as much as anyone - including Cristiano Ronaldo. He'll go into the upcoming season as a deserved starter in Zidane's XI, and it would be irrational to think otherwise. There will be rotations, to be sure, especially given that Pepe is pushing north of 33, but in a frantic situation, his consistency and reliability at the highest level is something that can't go unnoticed. Ramos and Varane, on their day, will forever be regarded as players with a higher ceiling and talent level, but they have yet to show they'll ever match Pepe's constancy.
And it's a constancy that has stabilized over time. Pepe has always been Pepe - a monster on his day, and occasionally, a malfunctioning bulwark on the fritz. But lately the haywire performances have dissipated, the clouds have parted, and Pepe's true form has taken shape - he will be a massive asset for Real Madrid in the next year or two still.
Of Real Madrid's seven missing players in the SuperCopa on Tuesday, Pepe's absence may have been the most understated of all. Raphael Varane's missed-clearance attempt led to Sevilla's first goal, and Sergio Ramos' clumsy challenge led to Sevilla's 2nd from a spot-kick. On the flipside, Ramos' aerial prowess offensively was vital to Real Madrid's eventual triumph, and Varane had a tremendous game outside of his mis-clearance which was hard to deal with in the first place. But Pepe would have lent Real Madrid a hand, and he's played himself into a key role as part of the team's spine - one that also consists of Modric, Kroos, and the front three.
This year may finally be the year Pepe slows down, but we've been saying that about him for a couple years already, just like we said the same about Ronaldo this past season. For now, he's yet to show signs of regression, and his numbers per 90 metrics in the following categories saw jumps from last season to this one: pass completion, interceptions, and blocks.
#4 - Sergio Ramos
Ah, the living legend himself. Mister 93, 94 - whatever it is these days. The hype machine, the hero we need, a hybrid between Batman and Iron Man - the Hierro, Raul, and Casillas of our era. The athletic aberration. The behemoth that's so clutch he has a minute named after him. In one moment he rips our hearts and commits a rash challenge - studs in, head vacant, man down; in another, he conjures what no other player does - lifting the boulder off of Real Madrid's shoulders and leading the team to the promised land, heart beating with conviction, the Real Madrid emblem tattooed on it. In both moments, logic defies him. He's so bad it's bewildering, but he's so good it's bewildering too.
Ramos has deficiencies and lapses, but those are typically masked over the course of the season. He has too many tools to not eventually figure things out defensively and start putting attackers in his pocket - but it's an area he still needs to improve on, and it's a part of his game that still manifests itself to this day. What sets him apart is his will, he's a rare breed in that regard.
"He has always been the difference"
- Zinedine Zidane
With a player like Ramos in the squad, Real Madrid has a player to count on when things look impossible. Being cold-blooded is hard to teach, and having a player who tends to be in the right place at the right time is invaluable - Zidane knows this.
"Sergio Ramos is our captain, an important player and he's always there to earn us the trophy. There were no special instructions for him. With a player like Sergio, he's always been the difference. We've seen it before. He's grown as a player, too. In this final he was there just where he needed to be."
Ramos has never been on the same circadian rhythm as the rest of us mere mortals. He's different - exactly what Real Madrid need him to be. He's an x-factor, an unpredictable threat that opposing defenders have to cope with on set-pieces - heads already spinning with Bale and Ronaldo buzzing around them. What gifts Zidane has at his disposal in this regard! His team is a menacing threat from multiple angles on those free-kicks and corners, like a nail grenade waiting to connect with an in-swinging Toni Kroos cross.
Zidane once played with Sergio Ramos during the initial stages of a dark era the club was going through. In those days, Ramos was still an experiment of sorts. He was freakishly athletic and talented, and served mostly as right back with sporadic appearances in the middle. He made the highlights for chilena's, and for getting roasted by Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho - highlights that will be eternally looped. A decade later, Zidane is impressed with how much Ramos has grown.
In a way, Ramos' football IQ has started catching up with his body, and when a rare robust player like Ramos matures, you can throw his name into the elite. This might be the last year the Ramos-Pepe partnership sees its prime together, and given the progressive manhood of both, it could be a year this duo really establishes itself and propels Real Madrid to a long-awaited La Liga title.
#5 - Raphael Varane
It's hard to believe Varane is entering his sixth season with Real Madrid - a mark that was predicted by many to be a time where the Frenchman would have cemented himself as a starter. As discussed above though, Pepe's emergence in his 30s has made it difficult for Varane to breakthrough, as has his own inability to consistently play at a high level.
But maybe things will take a positive turn under Zidane - the man who scouted him in the first place. As Varane tells, Zidane reached out to him in a busy time in his life.
"Zidane called me and I asked him to call me back because I was studying for my baccalaureate. It's my relaxed nature that made me react like that. You have to be care-free to deal with so many things at such a young age,"
People often forget just how young Varane is. Despite this season being his sixth with the club, he's just 23, and given Zidane's investment in him - and young talent in general - you just know Varane will improve, and his trajectory will continue upward.
In his Real Madrid career - a career that's still in its early chapters - we've been able to revel many of his accomplishments already. In 2014, he started in the Champions League final and played 120 minutes - all this at the age of 21. He's also contributed to the misery of many a Cule, hounding Messi, Cesc, and Iniesta on multiple occassions, scoring in the Camp Nou, and playing well beyond his age.
Unsurprisingly, rumours of Varane leaving Real Madrid were never really taken seriously, and there was no way Zidane lets go of the invaluable depth that Varane brings to the table, or the tremendous upside that he has.
"I've spoken with Zidane and I've decided to stay," Varane said. "I feel loved by the club and the fans, they treat me as if I'd been here all my life... I want to give everything I possibly can. I feel the best is yet to come."
"Finishing the season without playing in the Champions League final and the European Championship is difficult for me, it's true," he said.
"But I want to leave it behind me, I want to move forward and I think that I can keep improving. I love being at a club like Real Madrid, I want to stay here and for a long time."
"In life you take decisions... I'm happy here and I want to stay here for a long time. I could never have imagined what I've achieved here, to have played so much and to have won so many trophies. I want to continue playing here; it's an honour to wear the shirt."
The shirt, by the way, is now #5 - the same iconic number that Zidane wore as a player with Real Madrid.
#6 - Nacho
Nacho is a certain kind of special. Detached from status or recognition, he's always been a solid and selfless player who genuinely wants to serve this team whenever he's called upon - even if it's seldom. Sure, making 60k per week - on par with Isco and Danilo, more than Carvajal - makes that sacrifice somewhat less sacrificial, but there was genuine concern when Nacho was linked to AS Roma just weeks ago. Had Real Madrid parted ways with him, they would have lost a perfect utility player.
Real Madrid has familiarity with Nacho, and vice versa. De facto, Real Madrid is all that Nacho knows - he's never played elsewhere. He's 26, extremely versatile across the backline, can cover multiple positions, and is reliable. With Nacho, you know what you're going to get - a hassle-free defender who plays within his limits and will always be around to fill in. Last season, he served as a central defender when there were injuries or suspensions to Ramos, Pepe, and Varane; and he also covered for Marcelo as left back, most notably in the group stages of the Champions League when he scored a golazo - the lone goal in a victory over PSG at the Bernabeu.
Again, Nacho is the perfect utility player. Finding a fourth-string center back and third-choice left back is no easy feat. Good players will never accept that role, which makes players like Nacho who are willing to accept it even more precious. Many proposed the idea of bringing in Jesus Vallejo as the team's fourth central defender, but Vallejo's development would be severely hampered in that scenario, and he won't be fully ready for another couple years at the very least - even then he'll be incorporated slowly like Varane currently is. Nacho is the best fit.
Gut Nacho from your roster, and complications will arise. If the club can hold onto him for next season, the depth chart throughout the defensive line looks really well barricaded.
#12 - Marcelo
Real Madrid's veteran left-back has yet to shed his stigma of being a defensive liability. By now, he is an embedded stereotype - a masterful attacking left back who gambles defensively and can't keep his man in front of him. He's a left winger inside of a defenders body, and though he did have minuscule strides this season defensively, he also had dramatic relapses, and as a whole, just is who he is - someone we have to accept. Relevant: I wrote about some of his defensive deficiencies last fall.
Marcelo had a solid season, and was crucial as always in games where Real Madrid needed a master key to unlock clogged defensive lines, but he also didn't exhibit the best version of himself as a footballer, and that might have to do with the lack of competition at that spot. Coentrao's return may reignite him.
Still, Marcelo's value to this team shouldn't be underplayed. Zidane's scheme, like his predecessor Ancelotti, relies heavily on its wing-backs, and like Sergio Ramos, Marcelo provides a huge threat from the defensive line. The weapons Zidane has at his disposal are armed all over the pitch - not just from the BBC, and as Zidane continues to implement his vision, he'll get better at concealing Marcelo's defensive glitches - something he's already been able to do in his limited time at the helm by creating a blueprint where the central midfielders shuffle to cover when the Brazilian slings forward.
Again, in many ways, Marcelo is comparable to Sergio Ramos - he provides that extra 'umpf' when the team needs it. He works hard and provides leadership - his grit and dedication to the team is a real attribute - it's not just an intangible air castle. "I don't know if he is the best but it is a joy to watch him play," Zidane said after Real Madrid lifted the Super Cup. "He is also a captain and sets an example to the others.
#15 - Fabio Coentrao
To many, Coentrao's return was met with chagrin. It's not that the Portuguese left back is a bad player, or there is bad blood towards him from fans - but he's fragile, and he hasn't been in good form since Ancelotti steered him into a key player two season ago. There is no particular indication that would lead us to believe Coentrao might ever recover that form. That form was special.
But Coentrao suffers from injuries perpetually. He was injury-riddled with Real Madrid prior to his adverse loan spell in France where he spent large chunks of time nursing injuries - the latest which saw him miss the Euros and sees him out through till November. Though, he may be on a good recovery schedule, as he's now running with the team. Assuming he isn't being rushed back or he doesn't go through another physical bottleneck, he may be back even sooner than November.
Though the concerns surrounding Coentrao's return are valid, there weren't a plethora of left back options available, and the more perplexing decision was to loan Coentrao out in the first place.
Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote last week:
The only safety net that might dumbfound fans is the one that Zidane is relying on for the left back position, wherein Fabio Coentrao returns from his La Liga hiatus - fresh off a mortifying stint in France where he was yet again decimated with injuries and struggled to find his form. De facto, his hiatus continues as he currently nurses an injury which will see him out until November. Yet, despite all this, Danilo can cover for both Carvajal on the right as well as Marcelo on the left just fine. Nacho is still with the squad too - he provides security that's ever sound and reliable. And, if Zidane can ever bring to light Coentrao's latent abilities as a footballer, the defensive look he brings to the table provides Zidane's scheme some invaluable elasticity.
Lest we forget
For the most part, Madridistas want nothing to do with Coentrao, who was unfairly and unreasonably loaned out only to regress as a footballer, but if the 28-year-old can arise from the ashes and round out into his form from two years ago, Real Madrid are laughing. It's far-fetched, but it really was just two years ago where Coentrao turned in one of the most special performances of the historic Decima run - putting Arjen Robben in his back pocket in the semi-finals while pragmatically venturing forward and giving Guardiola's men all kinds of problems on the other side of the pitch.
For those who are moping over the Coentrao signing, just remember this - his mere presence on the roster upgrades the team's depth at left back by default.
#23 - Danilo
Danilo may finally be playing himself into skeptics' hearts. Many criticized his signing, but there are multiple angles to analyze it from to avoid the tunnel vision some fans get when throwing their arms in the air to protest a view that differs from their own Playstation habits. The reality is this - Danilo had a tremendous season with Porto, like, other-worldly good. He dominated the right flank the way Bale can. Danilo at Porto was a player we've yet to see at the Bernabeu due to the mere presence of superstars who can already do what he can do in much higher roles up the pitch.
He was launching long-range cannons, cutting in, and was a terrifying box-to-box wingback. Here is an excerpt from my very first article for Managing Madrid:
Danilo lies in the tier of physical beasts. He stands just over six feet and is very good in the air - an extra asset on defensive set pieces. In reality, although a right-back, he spends a good chunk of his time cutting inside and taking shots with his left foot. In this sense, he's actually comparable to a Bale or Ronaldo moreso than a Carvajal.It's hard to find a comparable wing-back in terms of style, even if you attempt to go down history to find one. Have you ever seen a full-back cut in that way and score screamers with the opposite foot? Maybe Roberto Carlos and Marcelo, on the odd occassion.Not on this scale though.One Portista friend of mine had to think long-and-hard about who to compare him to. After some time, he came back and said "Sergio Ramos". Towering stature, good in the air, can play in the middle, good at free-kicks and penalties. Of course, Ramos' best position turned out to be CB, and as it turns out, Danilo is a better defender than Ramos was at right-back.
Those above attributes gave Real Madrid good reasoning to sign Danilo - particularly given how thin they were at the right back position.
And though it took a while for Danilo to find his feet in Madrid, at the very least, he lit a fire under Carvajal who began to find himself too - buying time for Danilo to settle. Now the Brazilian heads into his sophomore season with the club, with realistic aspirations of making a breakthrough. He ended the '15/'16 campaign in good form, and during this preseason, we even enjoyed a vintage Danilo goal.
Don't expect Danilo to start big matches this season, not until he proves himself. At times, Danilo was a black hole in high-profile outings, and Zidane opted to go the safe route with Carvajal towards the end of the season. That should carry on over to the upcoming season as well. Expect Danilo to get a lot of playing time, but less when the stakes are high.
Four positions, eight deep. This team is in a better place defensively now than it was a season ago.