Comment: On Real Madrid’s Fragile Backline

Spanish and European giants Real Madrid’s main problems lie in their backline and in the wake of their 2-2 draw with Espanyol in La Liga on Sunday night, questions should be asked once again…..

Like the discussions on the Middle East crisis, the lost world of Atlantis and the Holy Grail, the analysis of Real Madrid’s defence has been so intense and beaten down that one has run out of inclination and ambition to go over the whole matter all over again.  

But like Brangelina stories and Britney Spears’ comebacks, it simply cannot be escaped, the discussion on Real Madrid’s almost spineless defence that is. Every time you turn yourself away from the topic and rush under cover, it discovers you and ekes you out of your den and you are forced to contemplate the situation all over again.  

Same Old, Same Old?  

And Sunday night was not different as Real Madrid’s defence once again exhibited the usual cracks. No, this time like most other times the defenders didn’t feel proud of those cracks and did all they could to patch them up, but the problem is that they couldn’t.  

On Sunday night against an Espanyol side that had Ivan de La Pena back and skipper Raul Tamudo scoring his first goal against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, the Real Madrid defence didn’t quite buckle down with the naivety of the proverbial farmer who killed the goose that laid him the golden eggs but they always seemed to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown (as they almost always do).  

While the first goal was the product of a dreadful Madrid offside trap that was never set-up and Gabriel Heinze’s desperation, the second one owed to the incoherent and stagnant Real Madrid backline.  

Theory Vs Practice…..  

Against Espanyol, Sergio Ramos started as the right back and Gabriel Heinze was the left back while Fabio Cannavaro and Pepe were the two central defenders with Mahamodou Diarra proving the defensive shield from the midfield.  

Understandably, on paper this defence line looks quite impressive but since when was football played on paper? On the pitch, the tale is quite different. While Sergio Ramos is a world class right back- possibly the best of the world- and Pepe is a top draw central defender, Fabio Cannavaro looks more and more past his prime and as far as Heinze is concerned, the fact that Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson let him go in the summer of 2007 because of his costly mistakes speaks volume.  

Then again, Real coach Bernd Schuster rarely plays the same backline for a long stretch. Maybe it’s because of the injuries that the Real Madrid defenders have the spooky habit of picking up from time to time or because of tactical alterations or maybe because Schuster wants to keep everyone happy, but anyway, this has clearly not helped his cause.  

Because while the defensive personnel for Real Madrid are individually quite brilliant, and in the case of Ramos truly exceptional, a lack of understanding among the backfour has been the thorn in Real Madrid’s paw. Schuster’s disinclination- or inability- to play the same backfour week in and week out has been more a disadvantage than an advantage that could haunt them as the 2008-2009 season progresses, both in Spain and in Europe.  

Presence Of Depth But…..  

Not that Real Madrid don’t have depth in their defence. In Miguel Torres, so ridiculously unused by Schuster and so very prominent under Fabio Capello in the second half of the 2006-2007 season, they have a versatile full back (who looks more comfortable in the left back slot); Marcelo is a very, very, very promising left-back who has as much defensive qualities as attacking while Michel Salgado, although somewhat past his prime, has still managed to keep himself fit. And then you have Christoph Metzelder, a solid albeit pace-lacking central defender.  

But the problem is that these defensive personnel are not without their flaws and Schuster, for one reason or the other, hasn’t been able to eclipse those holes by playing them according to their strengths. While Ramos is superb in providing the crosses and in getting goals from set-pieces as well as in possessing the pace to run at the opposing defence, he does have the propensity to leave gaps at the back.  

Cannavaro seems past it and is reportedly looking for a ‘semi-retirement’ in Italy, Miguel hasn’t got Sergio Ramos’ pace, Salgado has lost his, Marcelo is on a learning curve and Heinze loses his concentration at the wrong moments and makes the wrong tackles at the wrong times.  

As for Metzelder, the German has started only 8 league matches for Real Madrid since his arrival to the Bernabeu in the summer of 2007 and like his club team mate Arjen Robben has an enigmatic affection for the medics’ table.  

Quick Solution Needed  

So apparently Bernd Schuster has been handcuffed as far as his defence is concerned. Moreover, there was the lack of any defensive reinforcements in the summer. But if Schuster couldn’t help that, then he could have certainly done something, and can still do, about these set-piece situations.  

Real Madrid never look comfortable during set-pieces and concede goals from corners and free-kicks far more often than they would have liked. Even during the reign of the ultra-defensive Fabio Capello in the 2006-2007 season, they were almost gleefully shipping in weird goals and Schuster hasn’t quite been unable to arrest the situation.  

But he needs to do this right now. Real Madrid do have a very strong team with remarkable depth, have (at least!) two players for every position and have a very attractive midfield. Their Achilles’ heel is their defence and Schuster needs to find a solution in this department, and find it quick.  

Subhankar Mondal