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Rüdiger and the Legacy of Pepe

Pepe was one of the most impactful defenders of the last decade and Rüdiger is one of his disciples.

Portugal v Germany - UEFA Euro 2020 Group F Photo by Andre Weening/BSR Agency/Getty Images

Defending structure and defending in the box were some of Real Madrid’s most prominent issues this past season. Understandably, the club signed Antonio Rüdiger to mitigate some of these problems and take advantage of an excellent market opportunity to sign one of the best defenders in European football.

As I was looking into Rüdiger’s career, attributes, and evolution, I found this fascinating interview clip where he talks about a certain Real Madrid defender as one of his inspirations...

At this point, most of the football world seems to remember Pepe as a thug who played at the edge of the rules and who lost his marbles in high-profile disciplinary incidents. Curiously, Sergio Ramos accumulated 26 red cards in his Real Madrid career while Pepe only got three, yet media and fan perspectives of Ramos are nowhere near as negative. Unfortunately, this superficial discourse dominates many conversations about Pepe, even though it’s far more interesting to discuss how he was one of the best and most influential defenders of the 2010s. He helped set the expectations for the modern Real Madrid center-back.

Let’s go back to 2007 when the Champions League was dominated by Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and AC Milan. The center-back pairings of these teams were Vidic - Ferdinand, Carragher - Agger, Terry - Carvalho, and Nesta - Maldini. These talented defenders shared the unifying trait of being far more comfortable defending inside their own box than outside of it. Funnily enough, that same year, Real Madrid recruited a player who would render this center-back profile obsolete.

In the summer of 2007, Los Blancos signed a relatively unknown center-back from FC Porto, Kepler Laveran Lima Ferreira “Pepe”. Back then, paying 30 million euros for a center back without a distinguished track record or widely acknowledged potential sounded like madness. Many football media and fans laughed at the seeming stupidity of this decision. And they howled even louder as Pepe’s first games in a white shirt showcased a nervous, overly aggressive defender who struggled to hold his position in the line and made some high-profile mistakes.

In a 2021 interview, Pepe recalled some of his initial struggles and the inherent chaos and risk of playing at Real Madrid:

My first game was against Atletico Madrid. I was coming from a tactically-organized club where, if the ball moves to the left side, you have to press there. If the ball moved to the right side, you press that way things like that, the basics. What I came across in Madrid was chaos.

In the 30th minute, our play broke down and they came at us one versus one and we ran backwards. I looked back at Fabio [Cannavaro] and told him: “Fabio! Fabio! Cover, cover!!!” And he said: “No, no, we don’t do that here. To each their own side”. And I was like: “It’s like that? Fuck!”

I was looking around and saw the full-backs high up, the defensive midfielder high up...And I was thinking: “What? Fifty meters behind me and I’m here to play one versus one?” Then I thought to calm down, that I would do well anyways.

Despite Cannavaro going full T’Challa on the young defender, the December 2007 Clásico gave us the first glance of Pepe’s ceiling. Superstar attackers Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o faced off against the future of defending and lost badly.

Eto’o couldn’t get a sniff on the ball. Pepe was faster on the ground and stronger in the air. He had the body elasticity, long legs, and timing to succeed at tackles that others would struggle with. Pepe constantly moved out of his defensive line and the box to intercept passes and mark Eto’o and Dinho, so the pair had to watch out for him inside the box and all over the pitch.

Such defensive behavior might sound normal to you now, but back then, it was only a thing of man-to-man defensive systems. We didn’t see it in zonal defenses. Pepe was a countercultural phenomenon: a center-back who was more comfortable defending outside his box than inside.

In that Clásico, though, Pepe was flawless everywhere. He cleared all threats away from his box, and outside the box, he used his speed to close the distance between him and the opposition attackers instantaneously. The nerves were gone.

The contrast between this Pepe and the one we had seen in previous games was so significant that the media talked about him using a Jekyll-and-Hyde analogy. There was Pepe, the overly aggressive and error-prone player, and Don José, the fast, strong, and composed defender who could neutralize even the best attackers in the world.

Over time, Pepe and his subsequent coaches, especially Mourinho and Ancelotti, got Don José to appear most of the time. Pepe calmed down, and his newfound ‘controlled fury’ allowed him to make the most of his vast defensive talents, leading to his peak period between 2012 and 2016. He obtained many victories during those years, from Real Madrid’s Champions League titles to outstanding performances in the 2012 and 2016 Euros.

France v Portugal -EURO Photo by Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates/Getty Images

While Ramos became the perfect defender whenever he heard the Champions League anthem, I would argue Pepe was the more consistent one of the pair week in, week out. And outside of the high-profile incidents, Pepe’s tackling ability made him a surprisingly clean defender most of the time. Like Casemiro, he also knew how to play at the edge of the rules to avoid cards.

As Pepe developed into one of the best defenders of his generation, coaches and tactical systems learned to appreciate the value of center backs like him. Defending with fifty meters behind the center back became a feature rather than a bug of modern defensive systems. Possession and pressing teams now require tight spacing between their lines to attack and defend properly. These teams need fast center backs with outstanding 1v1 ability to hold high lines and run backward across huge distances to put out fires. Even teams with low budgets like José Mendílibar’s Eibar used high defensive lines to turn the tables on Real Madrid, as shown in the image below.

Similarly, Pepe’s successors in Real Madrid have followed a similar mold. Varane, Nacho, Alaba, Militão, and Rüdiger have their differences, but all possess a speed that helps them guard the vast spaces behind them. Despite their weakness in the aerial game, this speed has made Nacho and Alaba valuable in Real Madrid’s high line. Nacho was even measured to be the fastest player on the team during the 2016-17 season.

Rüdiger and Militão seem to be the most faithful Pepe disciples, with their personality and career development sharing a few parallels with Pepe. Their early career deficits strongly mirror Pepe’s, with inconsistency and overly aggressive movement away from the defensive line. Now 29 years old, Rüdiger learned to tame his inner Hyde to become a more reliable defender, even if he’s still a lunatic at his core. We expect the younger Militão to follow a similar evolution as he accumulates more experience.

Los Blancos certainly defend in a more organized and collective way than it did back in the days of Cannavaro and Pepe, but the job of a Real Madrid center-back continues to be highly demanding and thankless. They must put out fires in a constantly overexposed high-line, defend 1v1s with fifty meters behind them, and clear all threats away from their box. Pepe became the first Real Madrid center-back to fit that bill and set the standard for how his successors should defend. Fortunately, Rüdiger and Militão look like a duo worthy of carrying that legacy.