I started this piece the day after Real Madrid lost the league title to Atletico Madrid. I wanted the dust to settle a bit before I dive deep into analyzing the brilliant season Nacho Fernandez has delivered. By the time I got started, Nacho had been inexplicably left out of the 24-man Spain squad for the Euros. Luis Enrique’s reasoning behind the decision left more questions than answers. The Euros could have capped off a season where Nacho persisted in debunking myths about him being only good enough as an eternal back-up to Real Madrid’s galactic center-back pairings or as a make-shift solution to their injury-prone full-backs. But with or without the Euros, we mustn’t stop talking about Nacho’s contribution during the 2020-21 season.
Nacho is 31 years old. He has spent 20 out of those 31 at Real Madrid. Coming through the ranks of La Fabrica, Nacho’s first team debut ecstatic. Real Madrid had just beaten Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final of 2011 at the Mestalla and Madrid were facing Valencia in that same arena in the next league game. Valencia offered a guard of honour for the cup winners and as Nacho walked out of the tunnel with elite company. Real Madrid won the game 6-3, Nacho played at left-back. As dreamy as the start was for the Spanish international, it took him another three seasons to become a full-time first-team player under Carlo Ancelotti in 2013-14.
Nacho has been the king of versatility at Real Madrid. Although he is more comfortable at center-back, he has been called upon to deputize for all of Real Madrid’s full-backs over the years. His performances have been rocky at times but somehow the likes of Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Rafael Benitez, Zinedine Zidane and Julen Lopetegui found a way to trust Nacho whenever they had nowhere else to go. It is the essence of this trust that defines Nacho and his Castilla DNA. You are not allowed to give up here. You keep grinding until it’s your time and then you rise to the occasion. In 2020-21, Nacho really did rise to the occasion.
It’s wild that Nacho was almost out of Real Madrid at the beginning of last season. His agent Juanma Lopez confirmed that Nacho had serious offers from three major Italian clubs but Dani Carvajal’s injury prevented the move. Real Madrid’s injury list would get much bigger by the end of the season but Nacho stood firm and helped the team when Real Madrid were struggling to fill the quota of 11 players for the first-team roster.
It must have been a difficult move from Zidane’s point of view as well, to have let go of Nacho. The Spaniard has played more than 20 games in a season only three times in his senior career. In only three season — 2016-17, 2017-18, 2020-21 — Nacho has played more than 2500 minutes. All of them were under Zidane, of course.
Nacho was always called upon only when the big boys like Sergio Ramos, Pepe or Raphael Varane would get injured or suspended. Previously, during Nacho’s most prolific seasons (in terms of minutes), he was either a makeshift fullback or a the fourth choice center back who had his positioning scattered all over the place. But the 2020-21 season was different. In Ramos’ absence Nacho made the left-center-back position his own.
Zinedine Zidane was first seen applying the invented-fullback role (more regularly) in the 2019-20 season. However, that was with Dani Carvajal in the right hand side of the pitch. In early 2020-21, Zidane deployed Ferland Mendy in that role (on the left) for a few times to penetrate the left-half space. It was rather lacklustre. But with Nacho, Zidane was a bit more consistent. Nacho would generally play as the LCB and make these runs into the left half-space to good effect while the traditional full-back would have his overlapping role intact. Nacho was especially effective in this role when Real Madrid faced the two Italian sides last season.
In the first sequence, Nacho’s intelligent off-ball ball movement allows him to exploit space and it earns a penalty for Real Madrid against Inter. On the second sequence, Nacho keeps moving through the channel, evading multiple defenders before taking a shot that could easily have been a goal. He is no longer a makeshift rookie. This is a confident first-team man, repaying the trust his manager has put in him.
It’s not just about his offensive positioning though. In terms of playing out from the back, following the textbook defensive instructions and being intelligent in anticipation — Nacho in up to the mark in all regards.
Statistically, Nacho had a case for replacing every other center-back in Spain’s Euro squad barring Pau Torres. Nacho had played a long yet good season. He had continuity that Diego Llorente and Eric Garcia did not. Aymeric Laporte had a decent season but he has never played a minute of football for the Spanish National team whereas Nacho has already represented his country in a world cup.
For the long road Nacho has travelled in his senior career, it is imperative that he gets some continuity at the top level to show his worth once again. Real Madrid will have a new manager for the upcoming season and things may not remain the same for Nacho. He could be trusted with an even more significant role than in 2021-22. He could also be on his way out of the club or at least out of the the starting line-up once again. But what we do know is that Nacho gave his all during 2020-21 season, and the former Castilla captain would not settle for anything less if he is given the opportunity again.