Social media essentially exists for hot-takes and ridiculous opinions but sometimes it gets so out of hand that you can scarcely believe what you’re reading. The last couple of days have been like that, meaning that we’ve all been blessed with some real scorchers:
Sergio Ramos is an average defender who is merely hyped because he can score a goal. He’s playing at a club that’s financially doped for his whole career in a league that’s laden with below par sides.— Jez (@YourMateJez) September 9, 2019
Virgil has bullied every single team he’s come up against in the last 2 years. https://t.co/XeLO7KO0Fu
Remove the goals he's scored and ignore the trophies he's won as part of a team. Is he a world class *defender*? No, he isn't. Is he one of the all-time greats? Not defensively, no.— Sam McGuire (@SamMcGuire90) September 12, 2019
A couple of tweets, alone, aren’t worth responding to — especially when considering the suspect motives behind Liverpool fans’ criticisms of Real Madrid and its players — but when they appear to be indicative of a wider narrative around Sergio Ramos’ game, it becomes our prerogative as Madridistas to set the record straight.
Simply put, Sergio Ramos is a brilliant defender, and that is obvious to anyone who has regularly followed Real Madrid over the past few seasons or so.
Take his performance vs. Atlético Madrid in the semifinals of the 2016/17 edition of the Champions League. It is a perfect example of Ramos’ particular style of defending and his mastery of defensive fundamentals.
Ramos covers depth in standard situations with ease, constantly manipulating his defensive positioning in slight ways to the tune of his surroundings. His ability to do this comes from reaction speeds that make his deliberate movements look more like reflexive actions.
Ramos’ keen eye and quick executions make him an excellent disruptor of combination play in zone 14 — the dangerous central area outside of the box.
An average defender simply doesn’t possess such timing in the tackle or the finesse to poke the ball away from behind an attacker without fouling.
Of course, Ramos is also strong in one-versus-one situations, too, something he displayed vs. Atléti:
But, most eye-catching of all, was Ramos’ continual decision to step out of his defensive line to close down attackers in space. This is a signature part of his game and puts on show his world class aggression, speed, physicality, sense of timing, and tackling ability.
The first clip in the above compilation demonstrates the basic reasoning behind Ramos’ desire to do this — it cuts off the attacker’s operating space, thereby rushing their decisions. Furthermore, by snipping at the heels of players when their back is turned to him, Ramos is out of his opponent’s field of view, allowing him to take the initiative without the ball. In this instance, it leads to a situation where Casemiro can easily swoop in and win possession.
In the second clip, Ramos uses this technique to prime himself for an interception, which he executes through superior physical strength and that trademark aggressiveness. In the third and fourth, Ramos bursts out of the back line to solve deficiencies present in his team’s defensive structure. This hints at Ramos’ level of tactical intelligence, his speed of thought, and athletic and technical abilities, and is indicative of the type of environment he typically plays in.
Real Madrid’s 3-0 win over Atlético Madrid in the 2016/17 Champions League semifinals was actually one of Zidane’s stronger tactical performances and Madrid were reasonably well organized on most occasions. In most other matches, Ramos is not so lucky.
Real Madrid’s recent 1-1 draw against Real Valladolid is a good example of the way Madrid’s defensive side of the game has largely looked under Zidane. Los Blancos were not overly exposed without the ball due to the way Madrid controlled possession, but the lack of offensive organization led to a spotty and disorganized counterpress that put their back four under repeated pressure in defensive transition.
Being the center back next to the most offensive fullback in world football in Marcelo puts Ramos in a unique bind. Plenty of elite defenders, such as Virgil van Dijk and Gerard Piqué, are tasked with protecting marauding fullbacks, but they rarely do so without structural protection ahead of them (this is especially true of van Dijk, in recent years, who benefits immensely by playing under the best pressing tactician of all time). Ramos does so almost all the time, meaning the left flank of Madrid’s defense is a highway for opposition attacks.
The second clip is the perfect example of the type of high-value defensive interventions that Ramos is regularly asked to make. It is hard to put into words the type of mental agility it requires to assess a multitude of threats on the fly before identifying the ideal set of defensive actions to execute.
It also demonstrates how Ramos has to juggle his duty to protect Marcelo while also closing down central gaps:
The second clip, again, is particularly impressive because of the speed with which Ramos must collect information on the location of the ball and the defender running to his left. With just two, quick scans, Ramos is able to readjust his positioning so that he can cut out a pass that would’ve surely led to a goal.
These situations show us that Ramos’ role is more about mitigation than it is about stopping the opposition from scoring. In many instances, Madrid’s back line is put under far too much stress for a clean sheet to be a viable objective.
Real Madrid’s fortunate 2-1 victory over Ajax in the first leg of the 2018/19 Champions League quarterfinals was the quintessential illustration of this. Playing with their classic lack of defensive transition and Solari’s overly rigid offensive structure (which was incredibly weak against pressing), Madrid faced a tsunami of transition attacks.
Ramos kept Real Madrid afloat:
The amount of fires that Ramos had to snuff out in the first example is truly absurd and his whole body of defensive work vs. Ajax made his performance a true masterclass.
But, as was mentioned before, Ramos’ context makes him a mitigator rather than a stopper. Additionally, due to the very nature of defending, an individual defender’s impact is dwarfed by the influence a single player can have on the offensive end; defenders don’t control the ball — attackers do. Defense is more greatly affected by collective effort and team-wide structure, thus, reducing the significance of a defender’s elite contributions.
Consequently, Ajax still created plenty of opportunities despite Ramos’ best efforts and the Dutch side outplayed Madrid based on underlying numbers.
Perhaps symbolically, Ramos eventually paid for Madrid’s inability to control Ajax’s transitions when he was forced to commit a foul. He received a yellow card, as a result, and was suspended for the second leg, which Ajax won 4-1.
None of this is to say that Sergio Ramos is never responsible for any of Madrid’s defensive woes. In fact, he can be rather mistake-prone and is notorious for letting his aggressiveness lead to unnecessary bookings. In Madrid’s last game vs. Villarreal, Ramos foolishly gave the ball away, causing Madrid to go behind.
That is why I have no qualms with people who decide not to anoint Ramos as the greatest defender of all time and why I think it is fair to believe that the likes of van Dijk were superior defenders last season. But the claim that Ramos is not an elite defender has no basis in reality.
When I read opinions like these on Ramos, my mind shifts to the following question:— José C. Pérez (@jcperez_) September 12, 2019
Take any defender and put him in Real Madrid's chaotic defensive structure, which relies more on individuals than systems. Who could have performed better than Ramos in that context? https://t.co/q5hOCH6Vdl
Ramos’ ability to plug holes in chaotic or non-existent defensive transition is enough to solidify him as one of the world’s best defenders, but his game is also far more expansive than that.
Ramos is dominant aerially; he makes use of the leaping ability, physicality, and heading technique that makes him such a threat on set-pieces to outmatch forwards in the air.
He is also an extremely good passer and possesses world class press resistance, which greatly enhances a player’s defensive value given the pressing-focused nature of the modern game.
His 2016/17 performance as a libero vs. Sevilla in the Copa del Rey displayed his capability to switch play without a second thought, break lines with vertical passes, control the base of his team’s possession game, and take touches under pressure.
Combine those qualities with Ramos’ other attributes, and you have arguably the most complete center back of all time and one that is most definitely a great defender.