What: Nacho’s debut
When: April 23rd 2011
Who: Against Valencia
Where: Mestalla, Valencia
Score: Valencia 3-6 Real Madrid
Goals: 0-1 (Karim Benzema, min 22), 0-2 (Gonzalo Higuaín, min 30), 0-3 (Kaká, min 38), 0-4 (Gonzalo Higuaín, min 41), 0-5 (Gonzalo Higuaín, min 51), 1-5 (Roberto Soldado, min 59), 1-6 (Kaká, min 61), 2-6 (Jonas, min 79), 2-6 (Jordi Alba, min 84)
Real Madrid line-up: Iker Casillas; Raúl Albiol, Ezequiel Garay (Pedro León, min 74), Ricardo Carvalho, Nacho; Esteban Granero, Lassana Diarra, Sergio Canales (Xabi Alonso, min 62); Kaká; Karim Benzema, Gonzalo Higuaín (Cristiano Ronaldo, min 66).
Coach: José Mourinho
There aren’t many debuts like Nacho’s. After 10 years in the club’s youth academy, the Real Madrid defender made his first ever appearance for the senior side in a LaLiga fixture away at Valencia. That’s already quite unique, as few players start their careers off in such high-profile fashion, yet that’s not all that made Nacho’s debut special. What really stands out is that this game was a nine-goal hour and a half of drama.
It started in unique circumstances too, as Nacho was given a guard of honour by the Valencia players even before he’d kicked a ball in earnest for the first team. Even his younger brother Álex had made his debut and played more minutes for the first team. Yet Nacho took part in that ceremony as Real Madrid had won the 2011 Copa del Rey final against Barcelona at the same stadium, at Mestalla, just a few days previously.
21-year-old Nacho hadn’t been involved in that cup run at all, but he was playing here at left-back as José Mourinho made nine changes to his starting line-up, with another Clásico coming up just four days after this league match in the 2010/11 Champions League semi-finals. Only Iker Casillas and Ricardo Carvalho kept their places, with Nacho one of those to come in to give the usual starters a breather ahead of the midweek duel.
The afternoon started brilliantly for Nacho. Personally, he won possession back for his side just eight seconds into his Real Madrid career, while on a collective level the team played some really nice football and dominated the early proceedings. With neither side having much to play for, it was an open game as both sets of players were afforded more creative license than they usually were by their coaches, Mourinho and Unai Emery.
Real Madrid, though, had the superior quality. Even with what was basically a reserve side, they won almost every individual matchup and created several early chances. Karim Benzema came closest as he struck the crossbar in the 20th minute, before the Frenchman did open the scoring in the 22nd minute as he capitalised on a great pass from Higuaín and on a goalkeeping error from Vicente Guaita.
Higuaín, who had recently returned from a four-month back injury, was excellent in this game and led the charge as Real Madrid raced into a commanding lead. First, he made future Barça man Jérémy Mathieu look silly to make it 2-0, before the Argentine set up his South American neighbour Kaká for the 3-0. Then, Higuaín completed a hat-trick with one goal just before and one just after half time, leading Los Blancos into a 5-0 lead that led some fans of Los Che to head for the exits with over half an hour still to play.
What’s striking about Real Madrid’s dominance in this game is that this was the second-placed team in LaLiga fielding a de facto reserve side and still running rings about the league’s third-placed team. That was what LaLiga was like back then. Real Madrid and Barcelona were just so far ahead of everyone else, as would be proven further as Real Madrid and then Barcelona won the title with 100 points each over the following two seasons. It makes you appreciate, in a way, how the league has become much more competitive – and, therefore, interesting – since the new and fairer system of TV revenue distribution.
But back in 2011, this wasn’t the case. From Nacho’s point of view, that was surely welcome. The debutant really didn’t have much to do at all in the first hour or so of this game given how much his team had their collective foot on Valencia’s neck. When he did have work to do, he generally did a good job and often won back possession, before safely feeding the ball backwards to Casillas or Carvalho, allowing the more experienced players in the team to get the ball moving back to where it needed to be.
The final half hour of the game did provide a bit more work for the Real Madrid defence. After Valencia had gone five down and after several fans were already wandering the streets outside the stadium, Emery made a double substitution to introduce Joaquín and Jonas and the latter made an instant impact by setting up Roberto Soldado. This wasn’t on Nacho’s side of the pitch. Instead, the move came down the right, on Raúl Albiol’s side. But it was the start of a more difficult stretch for the Real Madrid defence.
The result was never in doubt, especially not after Kaká added a spectacular sixth at the other end by nutmegging Marius Stankevicius and finishing well, but Valencia were stronger in attack as they finally decided to have a go. In the second half, Nacho was on the touchline closest to the dugout so he was receiving regular instruction from the Real Madrid bench as he was put through his paces by Joaquín and a more ambitious Valencia.
Nacho was up to the task. His positioning was decent and any time he was slightly away from where he needed to be, the young Spaniard made up for it with effort and determination, even really putting his body on the line in the 66th minute to block a Jonas shot. Valencia did score two more late goals through Jonas and late sub Jordi Alba, but neither was Nacho’s fault. In fact, it perhaps says a lot about Nacho that the only Valencian substitute who didn’t score was Joaquín, the man he was marking and who he kept under control.
The final few minutes even saw the debutant try out a new position. After going down with cramp as the clock ticked towards 90 minutes and after even being stretchered off because of it, Mourinho was having none of it and threw the youngster back on, albeit in a central midfield role as the coach swapped Nacho and Lassana Diarra around to leave the exhausted Spaniard in a less vulnerable position.
Overall, this was a positive debut for Nacho and one that he can remember very fondly as he even took a piece of memorabilia home with him, given that Higuaín gifted him the matchball that he’d collected for his hat-trick.
So, Nacho’s debut included one guard of honour and one hat-trick matchball from one appearance. He hadn’t actually earned either of them himself, but he has earned himself the right to play for Real Madrid again thanks to his good performance. As a reliable warrior in the back line, he has now gone on to make 199 Real Madrid first-team appearances. When the Coronavirus pandemic eases up and allows football to return, the Spaniard will be hitting another milestone. We’ll just have to wait to see if his 200th outing is as entertaining as his first.