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How Eder Militao Fits At Real Madrid

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Kiyan Sobhani’s latest column, on how Militao fits, his strengths and weaknesses, and his (perhaps) overstated versatility

FC Porto v FC Schalke 04 - UEFA Champions League Group D Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.


In August of 2018, Eder Militao played his last game for Sao Paulo in a 2 - 1 win over Vasco de Gama. Militao, taken off for Bruno Peres (the man Sao Paulo signed to replace Eder, knowing they had to plan for a future without him), had the most touches of anyone on his team and the most tackles of anyone on the field despite being taken off with 20 minutes left on the clock. After the match ended, his teammates threw him in the air in celebration of his success — he was one of their own, a club-player since the age of 13, leaving them as one of Brazil’s most promising defenders at the age of 20.

Militao played as Sao Paulo’s right-back that night — a position where he spent a lot of his time in. He used that right wing as his own, bombing up the field to create danger, and using his explosiveness and intelligent defending to put his stamp on the entire right side of the field.

He was on his way to Porto, and was prophesied by some Brazilians to be the answer to the national team’s right-back problems in the post Dani Alves / Maicon era. But Militao sees himself as more than a right-back, if that at all. He wants to be versatile and be called upon to help in multiple positions, including midfield, with his most preferred role being a center-back, where he truly broke out with Porto. “I think it’s important to have this variation, being in the rear or middle of the field,” Militao said in an interview with his agency. “I like both positions, I alternated a lot in the base during my passage through the CFA and I learned a lot from this experience “

Eder’s natural feel for the game at the wing-back position may have stemmed from his family roots. His father was Valdo, a right-back who passed through the Commercial-sp and Corinthians ranks without much notice nor playing time. Both Eder and his brother inherited the position. “My brother was also a player,” says Militao. “He was left-back of Marília, so I always had contact with football.“

Militao’s versatility and talent has seen him ‘survive’ the Pepe arrival at Porto, as head coach Sergio Conceicao has opted to move the Brazilian to the right back position while fielding Pepe and Felipe in the middle. Real Madrid may use Militao as a right-back in certain scenarios; but it’s not the most likely slot for Eder, whose best position — according to him, his father, and Brazilian national team coach Tite — is center-back.

Militao was a big loss for Sao Paulo, and will be tough to replace for Porto. But both clubs have a history of grooming young talent and turning them into profits before repeating the cycle. Sao Paulo has groomed (and flipped) players like Kaka, Julio Baptista, Serginho, Edmilson, Denilson (at the time at a world-record fee to Real Betis), and Leonardo. They sold Casemiro and Cicinho to Real Madrid directly. Porto’s famed business model needs no introduction.

Real Madrid’s vision of acquiring Militao is one of a long-term investment — a signing that helps immediately with depth, but is also a grooming-project that sees the Brazilian as a potential heir to Sergio Ramos. (That’s a bar if I’ve ever seen one).

Many in Portugal felt like Militao was “too good” to be playing in Primeira Liga. Portugal is a place superstars either kickstart or end their career — but rarely spend the years of their prime in. Real Madrid hope Militao’s peak will span a long time, and that it will be in the Bernabeu. He’d then follow the Varane and Ramos model: Brought in at a young age, groomed, and morphed into future commanders of one of the most demanding center-back jobs on earth. At the Bernabeu, that position is even more taxing than at other clubs — it’s faced with relentless tests and exposed-lines against counter-attacking teams. For that reason alone, what Varane and Ramos have done as last-ditch stalwarts is so impressive. Militao has the tools (physically, and, with defensive instincts) to play that kamikaze role.

Militao is equipped to play those difficult roles where central defenders dance on high, thin lines. But he’ll be tested more often with Real Madrid, and will be given a challenge to keep an eye on. He’s helped Porto dominate defensively this season. Conceicao’s men have conceded just 15 goals in Portugal after 25 games. Their xGA is among the league’s best. He and Felipe (and now Pepe) have helped form a nice shield in front of Iker Casillas. Real Madrid have ranked 11th in xGA this season — by far their worst mark in years. That should normalize next year into something more impregnable; but Porto generally don’t get tested as much as Real do domestically.

“He is fast, strong, tall, and he adds to the team aerially as well. He is a good player,” Militao’s head coach at Sao Paulo, Diego Aguirre said back in August. “as they say, he is a beast. This physical power allows him to disguise mistakes that, all players, especially the young ones, commit. He often solves problems through his physical presence, so he’s very effective. But of course he can evolve.”

Those mistakes that Aguirre alludes to are few and far between (until now); but Militao does have a knack for being a hyper-aggressive gambler on defense. He reads passing lanes early and sprints his step-ups when the defensive line is high just to intercept a pass. Usually he gets it right.

Militao brings more to the table than just defense. He’s silky on the ball. Today’s football is riddled with intelligent teams who know how to press and breathe down your neck. Dealing with these schemes was arguably Real Madrid’s weakest trait this season apart from scoring goals. Eder is press-resistant, but is also a capable ball-carrier and distributor when opposing teams opt to sit back into medium and low blocks.

That’s where Militao’s emphasis on the importance of versatility comes in. He believes every defender should be able to play in midfield if needed. He’s not wrong. There are examples of ball-playing center-backs like David Luiz who make defensive mistakes; or defensive-minded players who are shaky on the ball. Militao has a nice blend of both positive traits, and he can hit line-breaking long-balls on occasion, or diagonal switches to escape a press the same way Varane and Ramos do.

“I always like playing with the ball at my feet,” Militao says. “I’m calm when I go out to play, maybe I got it from my time as a midfielder.”

Grading Militao essentially has to come through the eye-test. He is not a statistical giant, and does not rank in the top-10 in any major category among defenders in Primeira. His passing stats are not as good as top ball-playing defenders. Some have questioned his mentality. Aguirre has stated that “sometimes it’s not easy to ‘get’ into his head, to make him realize that he has to improve in this aspect or that.” In February, Militao was suspended for a string of games because he “partied” until late the day before a match.

But Aguirre also went on to say that he appreciated how, even though everyone knew he was leaving Sao Paulo, Militao kept his integrity and played at the highest level possible. Eder was also remorseful about his partying (where he was essentially seen at a night club at a late time) the day before a match. Either way, neither sign is an indicator that Militao will be a trouble-maker; nor is there any real reason to believe he won’t buy in to what Zidane asks of him.

Militao won’t play much as wing-back; but it’s not inconceivable he finds himself there from time to time. The “I got this, across the back” role was reserved for Nacho before; but Militao makes a solid right-back, and can even join the attack while putting in accurate crosses. In the unlikely event that both Dani Carvajal and Alvaro Odriozola aren’t available next season, Militao would be a better option than Lucas Vazquez, and arguably even Nacho, who had yet to resurrect his top from last season.

Real Madrid’s signing of Militao — one that sees him ink a contract that lasts six years — will ease some concerns about center-back depth. He is the first official domino to fall in the Zinedine Zidane 2.0 era, and is a welcome addition to a team that continually wants to rest Sergio Ramos but can’t given Jesus Vallejo’s continual injuries.