The storied history of Madrid’s greatest football club often leaves little room for the tales of defenders. Los Blancos’ supporters prefer to experience the spectacle of grand goal scoring exploits or moments of offensive magic, which in turn, has shaped the way Real’s squad has been designed. The priority has always been on the attackers, often leaving little cover for the men that sit behind them. But make no mistake, Real’s defenders are just as crucial to their side’s conquests as the offensive stars that capture the headlines. Without Sergio Ramos’ last minute heroics, Varane’s last ditch tackles, and the barnstorming runs of Marcelo and Carvajal, Real’s last three Champions League titles would be but a myth. While the fans may skim over some of these contributions, Zidane will surely be looking to these stalwarts to once again be the base of conquest in 2017/18.
#4 Sergio Ramos - A.K.A: Mr. Clutch
If 2013/14 was the season where Ramos established his clutch credentials, 2016/17 was the season where Ramos established himself as the world’s greatest goal scoring threat from the center back position. He netted an outstanding 10 goals in La Liga, the UEFA Champions League (UCL), the Copa del Rey, and the UEFA Super Cup, with nearly all of them arriving as key equalizing or winning goals. As would be expected from a center back, most of those goals were created from set-pieces, which makes his tally all the more remarkable. Despite facing a set defense that had time to prepare for his threat, he managed to display a level of intelligence and physical supremacy that made him unstoppable.
However, there is an argument to be made that Ramos’ offensive potency has caused people to paper over the issues with his defending and all-round focus. Without his goals, Sergio comes off has a brilliant, but inconsistent, defensive force, who is prone to making preventable mistakes. This was especially prevalent in patches from the beginning to the middle of the season, with his biggest mistake coming in a match which perfectly sums up his legacy.
In a home game vs. Deportivo La Coruña, Ramos moved all the way up the pitch, only to play a horrific pass straight to an opposition player. As Deportivo worked their way towards Real’s goal, Ramos sprinted back to a defensive position, but failed to keep track of the defender on his blind-side who ran onto what could’ve been an easily intercepted cross. The result was a goal conceded that put Real 2-1 down in the match.
But that’s not the Sergio Ramos moment people remember from the game, because he rectified his mistake in the 92nd minute, scoring a brilliant header that won the match.
But to only look at his moments of misfortune doesn’t do justice to Ramos, for on his day, he is the best defender in world football. One need only look at his near complete lockdown of Atlético Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals to see what a potent mix of anticipation, speed, aggressiveness, tackling technique, composure, and aerial prowess Ramos can be.
At age 31, Ramos probably isn’t going to be changing drastically in terms of his temperament and level of consistency. Assuming he doesn’t decline severely from an ability standpoint, Ramos’ 17/18 season should be pretty similar to the one preceding it. You should expect to see some foolhardy mistakes along with some defensive performances that would have Maldini’s jaw gaping. The biggest difference will probably be in his goal scoring. While we should still expect Ramos to continue to come clutch, it would be a tad unrealistic to expect him to maintain his 16/17 scoring frequency. There’s a reason defenders don’t often score more than 3-4 goals from set-pieces alone and the way his goals were all bunched together in the middle of the season suggests that his feat is not sustainable (in other words, it was a hot streak).
Though if there’s anyone to prove that theory wrong it’s Ramos.
#5 Raphael Varane - A.K.A: The Elegant One
2016/17 was a big leap in Varane’s development. After seasons hindered by stagnation and injury, the young Frenchman finally established himself as Zinedine Zidane’s second choice center back. Pepe had fended off his younger foe for a long time, thanks to a renewed sense of discipline and fine-tuned defensive skills. This renaissance was ineffectively challenged by Varane, who failed to make tangible improvements to his game following a blistering 2012/13 season. For a stretch of time, Raphael was too reliant on his recovery pace when defending. Not only did this sometimes see him caught out of position, but it didn’t help him win many aerial duels - a portion of defending he long neglected.
This all dissipated in 2016/17, as Varane overcame a tough start to the season to display immense maturity and tangible improvements in his game. Not only did he achieve his highest aerial duel win percentage in his career, at 73.5% (a La Liga stat), but he displayed improved anticipation and positioning skills. His highlight was his dominant performance in the aforementioned match against Atlético Madrid, where Ramos also played superbly.
If Varane stays fit (*fingers crossed*), there’s no reason not to expect him to build on his impressive sixth season with the club. Not only does he possess incredible physical abilities and impressive technique when fighting for and handling the ball, but he has finally seemed to have grasped his weaknesses and figured out how to correct them. That has been the main obstacle in Varane’s path for a while, meaning that overcoming it fully could cause him to finally break into the “world class” bracket of defenders this season.
#6 Nacho Fernández - A.K.A: The Jack-of-all-Trades
If 2016/17 was a big leap for Varane, last season was a quantum jump toward the stars for Nacho Fernández. Though he has been long beloved by all Madridistas, many remained unconvinced of his ability to hack it in the big games. This was mainly fueled by the part he played in the 0-4 debacle against Atlético Madrid in 2014/15, which he failed to live down.
That all changed in 2017/18, as Nacho exceeded expectations in nearly every game he played, whether he was deployed as a center back or as a fullback. Not only did he more than hold his own against the likes of Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid, but he also demonstrated an underrated level of passing ability and offensive intelligence. From a central defensive position, he often cut opposition presses to pieces with accurate vertical passes, and from a wide position, he provided more than adequate overloads down the flanks coupled with quality crosses.
While concerns with his aerial game due to his height remained, his improved composure and defensive intelligence allowed him to tango with the best and come out on top.
Age 27 and in his prime, more of the same should be expected from Real’s ultimate back-up defender. It wouldn’t be unusual for him to be slightly less consistent than last season, due to the unreliable number of minutes he receives, but anything less than that would be a surprise.
Those minutes mostly came to him in the CB position last season, which could change thanks to the departure of Danilo. But that shouldn’t be a cause for concern, since the right back slot is arguably Nacho’s best position, meaning he could end the season with a surprisingly high number of assists and solid all-round offensive numbers.
#3 Jesús Vallejo - A.K.A: The Prodigy
Amid the hysteria over Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembélé, and Marco Asensio, people have glossed over a talent that is just as good - Jesús Vallejo. Playing on the left-side of a back three for Eintracht Frankfurt, Vallejo displayed scary levels of maturity and potential in 2016/17.
The first thing you notice when watching him, is his incredible passing ability. Not content with accurate long balls and switches of play, Vallejo often looks to break defensive lines with his excellent vertical passing. When combined with his propensity to push up the field in search of the perfect pass (a la Bonucci), you could be forgiven for thinking that he is a defensive midfielder.
But he’s not all offensive flash, as his brilliant defensive positioning and interceptive capabilities are out of this world. Time after time he stopped dangerous through balls that looked to exploit the space behind Frankfurt’s left wing-back, a skill that will be invaluable at a club like Madrid. While such a skill-set paints him as a sweeper-type defender, he also possesses the willingness, aggressiveness, physical strength, and intelligence to step up the pitch to cut out play.
His only true weakness lies in his ability to deal with aerial deliveries. He won only 2.5/5.4 aerial duels p90 last season (less than 50%) and his inability to stay with his man and outmuscle his attacker in the air resulted in Frankfurt conceding some key goals on a couple of occasions.
Jesús Vallejo has the potential to establish himself in the way Raphael Varane did in 2012/13. Not only does he look like Varane stylistically (with his immense recovery pace, passing skill, and composure on the ball), but it can be argued that Vallejo is more mature and farther ahead in his development than the Frenchman was at the same age. Furthermore, his current skill-set matches Zidane’s Real Madrid rather well. He’s comfortable passing out from the back, he’s excellent at covering for his fullback, and he possesses sufficient leadership skills to communicate with his midfield to ensure team-wide compactness.
As mentioned before, the main thing holding him back is his weakness in aerial situations. Real Madrid are a team that defend against a lot of crosses, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if Vallejo lets in some cheap goals over the course of the season. But his ability to deal with those situations should improve with time, and we shouldn’t let it blind us to the remarkable future that he has ahead of him.
If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll listen to the man who coached Vallejo in 2016/17:
I've never seen a player like Vallejo, as a player or as a coach. This kid is scandalously good [source].
If not him, maybe Eintracht Frankfurt’s goalkeeper:
He is our best player at the moment. Vallejo makes my work a lot easier [source].
#12 Marcelo - A.K.A: The Maverick
2016/17 was the season where Marcelo cemented himself as the best fullback in Real Madrid’s history, if not for his brilliant campaign, but for his sustained excellence over the course of his career. Few players have ever been as important as the Brazilian jokester and with Ronaldo’s decline on the wing becoming more apparent every season, that importance only grows. Not only did he do the work of two men on the left-wing, but he did it with panache and flair. He picked up a stunning 12 assists across La Liga (10) and the UCL (2) and averaged close to 2 dribbles p90. Forget Ronaldo, Benzema, or Bale, Marcelo is the poster boy of Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid; thanks to the manager’s cross-heavy tactics and insistence on width in the final third.
But such offensive production comes with a price, and that price was sustained defensive stability on the left flank. As is becoming the case in the modern game, teams are becoming more susceptible to counter-attacks aimed at the wings, thanks to the necessity of the modern offensive fullback. Real Madrid certainly fell victim to this at times, but it must be said that Marcelo handled himself rather well all things said and done. It’s hard to pinpoint an important match where Marcelo went completely AWOL like he did in the two legs vs. AS Roma in 2015/16, demonstrating some improvement in that department over the course of a year.
With Marcelo edging ever closer to turning 30, it’s reasonable to feel a little unsure about what to expect from the Brazilian in 2017/18. Is this the season where we see Marcelo’s supremely tasking duties get the better of him, or will he adapt and continue to be a dominant influence on games like his buddy Dani Alves? Based on Marcelo’s track record and understated professionalism, it feels likely that Marcelo will continue to be a force well past his prime. He might not manage 10+ assists next season or the season after, but he’ll likely still be the best left back in the game even as he slinks past the apex of his career.
#15 Theo Hernández - A.K.A: The Raw Talent
Questions over Marcelo’s age probably played a role in Madrid’s decision to go after Theo Hernández, a young left back who showed sparks of brilliance at Deportivo Alavés. In many ways, he’s the perfect Marcelo replacement. He’s an excellent dribbler (completes 2.1/3.5 dribbles p90) and a capable crosser (completes 0.8/2 crosses p90), with a flair for the unexpected.
Those qualities made him one of Alavés’ better and more important players, as he was a key contributor when it came to creating things for a side that was typified by stagnant offensive play and inadequate runs off-the-ball.
Nevertheless, as dependent as Alavés were on Theo, there’s no mistaking that he’s quite raw. His maturity is a question mark (see the various off-the-field rumors on his behavior) and he has a long way to go when it comes to displaying adequate defensive positioning and balance between his offensive and defensive runs. But those traits are common for most young fullbacks and footballers, meaning that it would be logical to bank on him making notable improvements as time passes on.
Due to Theo’s rawness and Marcelo’s status as an established star, one shouldn’t expect Theo to play a starring role in Real’s successes or failures next season. The most likely scenario is one where Zidane fields Hernández against weaker La Liga teams and in the Copa del Rey and leaves him out of games of significance. 2017/18 will most probably be a time for Theo to slowly grow into his role at Real Madrid C.F. and learn from one of the best in history in his position. While it would be reasonable to hope for flashes of brilliance, it would be a stretch to hope for fireworks, as Theo is very much one for the future.
#2 Dani Carvajal - A.K.A: The Balancer
Dani Carvajal is rather unique among his peers in that he has experienced steady and uninterrupted improvement since his beginnings as a professional footballer. While he has had his difficult moments, his overall developmental trend has always been upwards, which is a testament to not only his potential, but his focus and work ethic as well. That trend continued in 2016/17, as he established himself as the most balanced fullback in world football since Philipp Lahm. Carvajal was rarely caught high up the pitch (relative to others in his position) thanks to his excellent anticipation and constant awareness of his defensive responsibilities. If he lost possession, he either moved to counterpress or moved to close down passing lanes to put himself in a position to intercept the ball. If he wasn’t in a position to do either, he would scurry back towards goal with the same intensity with which he attacked.
Unlike his defensive numbers, which are vague and rather uninformative thanks to the nature of the stats themselves, Carvajal’s offensive numbers speak for themselves: 1.6 key passes p90 in the league and 9 assists across La Liga and the UCL.
If that doesn’t paint a good enough picture of Carvajal’s offensive brilliance in your mind, then this should:
Without the presence of Danilo, Carvajal will be relied on more than ever, which will probably cause a rise in his offensive numbers as he plays more minutes. On the negative side, that could lead to a burnout before the season ends, meaning that how Zidane manages Carvajal’s fitness and minutes will be key to any success Real Madrid want to achieve. While it’s uncertain if Nacho or Achraf will provide the Spaniard with moments of respite, it is clear that Carvajal is set to get even better than before.
Who will make the biggest developmental strides in 2017/18: Jesús Vallejo or Theo Hernández?
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(All statistics taken from whoscored.com)