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.
Losing your two defensive pillars — the cornerstone behemoths that masterfully steered the backline through a historic three-peat title — in Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos, was going to be a mammoth challenge and never easy to recover from. But less than one year removed from their departures, the club has one Champions League title, one league title, and three great center-backs to lean on.
That’s a great turnaround. Maybe it’s just that I’m traumatized from years’ past. Following this team for the past 24 years, it’s known that having great center-backs wasn’t always easy. Once Manolo Sanchis and Fernando Hierro moved on, the transition was painful. Defenders wouldn’t pan out and the signings were top-heavy. Walter Samuel was a bust in 2004 and Fabio Cannavaro took time to adjust in 2006.
Pepe was Real Madrid’s first true long-term pillar. He, Ramos, and Varane wrote history together. How Real Madrid were able to navigate the end of that era with Eder Militao, David Alaba, and now Antonio Rudiger is highly encouraging. Maybe it’s just ‘normal business’; but to me, it’s more — partly because of previous wounds. The names of Real Madrid’s center-backs after Hierro and Sanchis are still jarring to see.
Rudiger is a natural leader and in his peak; Militao hasn’t reached his yet. Alaba is experienced, savvy, and versatile. Nacho is still a reliable filler. Real Madrid are in a solid place defensively.
The transition has been tremendous. One could argue the club could’ve further bolstered their defensive line last season — Florentino Perez drew that heat in recent weeks with all the money he saved up Kylian Mbappe not meeting its intended goal — but it’s worked out, and waiting out on Rudiger, somewhat unintentionally, was probably worth it. Rudiger is coming off his best season. There are not many, if any, center-backs on the market as good as him.
Rudiger is one of the best center-backs in the world, full stop. He’s great defensively but elite for his position on the ball too. He ticks off all the boxes to be a Real madrid firefighter: Press-resistant, strong aerially, high defensive IQ, good locking down world class attackers 1 v 1, and a good vertical passer. On a more intangible level, he’s a spiritual leader, combative, and backs a ton of bite to feed his bark. One of my favourite things that Vinicius Jr does — beyond the obvious offensive blitzing and moments of transcendence — is when he hypes up the Santiago Bernabeu crowd at the corner flag. If you love that stuff, you’ll love Rudiger doing the same. I can already picture it: Rudiger puts in a strong, clean challenge to send an attacker flying like some annoying pest being brushed off. What ensues is a battle cry as the German pounds his chest. The Bernabeu will rise to their feet. That kind of energy is contagious — the team will feed off it.
Real Madrid fans saw Rudiger’s tenacity and efficiency up close at the Bernabeu in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. They even saw a goal, too. Ironically, Rudiger displayed in that game a piece of the puzzle that Real Madrid lack — the ability to both defend and attack set-pieces. Rudiger won 75.8% of his aerial duels in the 2020 - 2021 Premier League season — the fifth most of any player in the league.
Rudiger, whose contract with Real Madrid will run for four years, will give Carlo Ancelotti a variety of options to play with. He could slide alongside Eder Militao while pushing David Alaba to the left-back slot, or slide alongside Alaba. If you partner him with Militao, you’ll have a physical partnership that can dominate aerial duels. If you pair him with Alaba (where one of he or Alaba will have to play shift as the rcb, of course), you’ll have one of the best center-back partnerships in the world in terms of ball progression.
(I’m personally most intrigued to see Alaba and Rudiger together while letting Mendy keep his starting left-back slot. Mendy and Alaba have good synergy and can send each other up the field, and that can give you the best balance of attack and defense rather than just simply relegating Mendy to the bench. Rudiger has played on the right side at times and has looked fine. We’ll analyze that more thoroughly in this week’s podcasts.)
Where Rudiger fits provides for a healthy problem. This past season, when Mendy was injured or clearly playing at less than 100% — Alaba couldn’t always be spared to play on the left. When Militao was going through a rough patch riddled with mistakes, there wasn’t a Rudiger-type firgue around to provide the Brazilian with rest and a chance for him to recalibrate and refocus.
It’s true, though, that if everyone is healthy in a do-or-die knockout game, someone will have to sit. Until then, the ebb and flow of the season will allow for plenty of minutes for everyone, and plenty of intriguing combinations that will come out as a result of injuries, suspension, and rotations.
How much does Rudiger’s signing impact the chase for Fran Garcia? If the club sees Alaba as more of a center-back than a left-back (not inconceivable, given that when Nacho and Alaba were both healthy and Mendy wasn’t, there were examples of Nacho playing on the left over Alaba), then having Fran Garcia available to supplement Mendy’s health concerns would be a good luxury to have. If Alaba plays on the left more, then Fran Garcia’s signing would prove to be unnecessary.
Discussing the backline almost becomes a secondary discussion when factoring that Rudiger is coming to be a starter, which enables more dialogue about his impressive traits as a center-back and what he can bring to the table — and there’s a lot to be impressed with.
Rudiger slung 220 passes into the final third this season — the seventh most of any player in the Premier League. His teammates passed him the ball 2197 times. Only three players in the Premier League were the target of more passes. He successfully tackled 65.2% of the dribblers who took him on — the fourth best in the league. What does all this mean? To put it simply: Rudiger is not shy. He is the focal point of his team’s build-up, shows as an outlet constantly, finds solutions, and progresses the ball at an elite level. And, he puts in a mean challenge.
If Real Madrid do decide to put someone more attack minded at the left-back slot like David Alaba o Fran Garcia, Rudiger is an expert at covering ground and snuffing out space in transition. He is accustomed to marshalling high lines.
With the ball at his feet, Rudiger can do the long-range diagonal switch (the Ramos special), and has been trained by Tuchel-ball to play the surgical vertical pass that breaks presses — a key attribute to allow Real Madrid to kickstart transition attacks for their devastating attackers at a quicker and more prolific pace.
As stated earlier, in addition to his technical attributes, I am very excited for his energy and hype. In an interview recently, Rudiger said that his ideal center-back partner would be Pepe, and we could all use a bit more of Pepe in our lives.
“I would go with Pepe,” Rudiger said in an interview with Fifa22 when asked who his ideal center-back partner would be. “The way this guy plays... I like it. He’s sometimes on the edge, always motivated — I like it. I like him very much as a player. People just see the aggressiveness in him, but, honestly the way he plays football, for me he’s class.”