The La Liga title race was blown wide open on Sunday night as Real Madrid lost 3-2 at home to Barcelona in a spectacular El Clasico. However, perhaps more defining than the result was the sending off of Sergio Ramos.
Real Madrid’s centre-back and captain was given a straight red card on 77 minutes following a reckless, two-footed lunge on eventual match-winner Lionel Messi. As a result, Ramos – who has now been sent off 22 times in his Real Madrid career – will be suspended for three matches.
This development is particularly significant for the title race, and particularly concerning for Real Madrid fans, players and staff, because it leaves Zinedine Zidane almost completely without central defenders. Manchester United target, Raphael Varane, last appeared against Alaves on 2 April, where he was taken off after 11 minutes with an injury. The Frenchman was joined by Pepe, who sustained broken ribs in the 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid six days later.
Varane and Pepe haven’t featured since their injuries, and with Ramos now joining them on the sidelines, Nacho is Real Madrid’s only natural centre-back. The 27-year-old has, it must be said, played well since coming into the side, but his lack of an obvious partner is worrying for Zidane et al as they seek to regain first place in La Liga and win their first title since 2012.
Here, Football Whispers considers how they could look to cope without Ramos, Pepe and Varane in the coming weeks.
CENTRE-BACK OPTION 1: CASEMIRO
Perhaps the most obvious short-term candidate to partner Nacho in the centre of Real Madrid’s defence is Casemiro. The Brazilian has thrived in defensive midfield since Zidane made him a fundamental part of the side, challenging, intercepting and harrying with a vigour and intelligence not seen in the team’s midfield for many years.
An astute defensive bulwark, nobody in La Liga has averaged more tackles than Casemiro’s 4.6 per game, a statistic that shows his importance to his side’s tactics.
Yet, while his imposing physical presence, reading of the game and capacity for ball-winning make him an obvious partner for Nacho, the prospect of a Real Madrid midfield without him in it is an unappetising one.
Casemiro's screening of the defence is the platform for so much of the team’s attacking play: it gives freedom to the full-backs, particularly Marcelo, to attack knowing their centre-backs are protected, and it also enables Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to advance when appropriate.
Casemiro may indeed make a solid central defensive stand-in, but Zidane would struggle to fill the subsequent midfield hole, with Mateo Kovacic lacking the necessary nous without possession. Thus, while Casemiro dropping back could solve one problem, it may cause another.
CENTRE-BACK OPTION 2: DANI CARVAJAL
Assuming Zidane doesn’t want to completely distort his midfield shape and therefore the balance and overall effectiveness of his team, he will leave Casemiro in midfield and instead simply look to the rest of his defensive line for potential Nacho partners.
Marcelo is as modern a ‘modern full-back’ as there is, so he absolutely should not be utilised in the centre, while Danilo has, from a defensive standpoint, been a bit of a disaster, scoring own goals with a disconcerting consistency.
With the attacking tendencies and defensive indiscipline of the two Brazilians, the safest full-back to centre-back conversion would be Dani Carvajal. The 25-year-old is a technically refined and athletic attacking force with good crossing and distribution, though he is also sound defensively. Indeed, this season he has averaged an impressive 2.5 tackles and 1.9 interceptions per game.
CENTRE-BACK OPTION 3: TONI KROOS
Hold on, dear reader. Before you walk away from this article at the sheer hilarity of the idea that Kroos might fill in at centre-back, consider the following statistics: only Casemiro and Danilo have averaged more tackles per game than he this season; no Real Madrid player has made more passes per game; only Fabio Coentrao has a higher pass accuracy percentage.
The tackle statistics highlight Kroos’ understanding of the game, while his passing stats are significant, particularly for a team that builds possession from the back. The German would be a risky choice, but with his composure on the ball and cocksure swagger, he’d likely be more than willing to take on the responsibility of temporarily operating at centre-back.
ALTERNATIVE TAKE 1: PROMOTE, AND PLAY, MARIO HERMOSO
The great myth of Real Madrid history is that they do not promote from within. This is simply not true. Indeed, the great Quinta del Buitre of the 1980s was made up largely of graduates from the club’s youth academy, and a number of today’s stars, Nacho and Carvajal included, came from the Real Madrid youth system.
Zidane may look to history for inspiration in his bid to solve the current central defensive crisis by promoting another youth, Mario Hermoso, to the senior squad.
Hermoso spent last season on loan with Real Valladolid in the Spanish second tier, where he played 32 times before returning to Real Madrid’s ‘B’ team, and MARCA reporter Laura Rubio has described the 21-year-old as “a left-footed centre-back with strong aerial and ball-playing skills.” Throwing a youngster, especially one with no prior experience at the top level, in at the deep end is far from an ideal scenario, but Zidane has few other viable alternatives.
ALTERNATIVE TAKE 2: BRING IN THE BACK THREE
At a time when centre-backs are in short supply, the concept of implementing a back three might seem slightly bizarre at first. But it could make some sense for Real Madrid in their current situation. By partnering Nacho with both Casemiro and Carvajal, Zidane could spread the risk by concentrating on defending in numbers.
This quantitative approach would require some serious tactical organisation, but it could also open up attacking possibilities. A 3-4-3-cum-5-4-1 system would give Marcelo the freedom of the left flank and Cristiano Ronaldo the license to concentrate on playing centrally, while it could also see the introduction of an additional attacking midfielder in Isco or James Rodriguez.