Goal.com's Cyrus C. Malek points out why Cannavaro's summer move from Real Madrid could potentially spell trouble for los Blancos' defence.
It is a bittersweet exit for the 35-year-old Italian who, upon arriving to the Bernabéu, was billed as the best defender in the world. Like many centre-backs who join Real Madrid, Cannavaro, despite being a seasoned veteran and the linchpin of the Italian national side, had a difficult time adapting to the attack-minded style dictated by the Madrid faithful.
He was brought on by then-coach Fabio Capello, to shore up a back line that had been porous since the departure of Fernando Hierro. But despite the impressive pedigree, Cannavaro never quite regained the form that earned him the highest honour a footballer can receive at the World Cup.
That is not to say he was not immensely valuable in his time as a Merengue though. Capello emphasized a commitment to defence and it was this stalwart defending that eventually won Real Madrid La Liga that year. Although Cannavaro wasn’t flying around making the jaw-dropping tackles that won him such praise in Italy, he was a critical contributor to the organization of Madrid’s back line, bringing his savvy and discipline to a defence that was far too quick to give up chances before his arrival.
Cannavaro has by no means been the perfect player. In the last two years especially, the Italian has lost much of his pace and has begun to look less and less comfortable on the ball. But the centre-back has done a superb job of complementing fellow defender, Pepe who is much more of a risk-taker in the back line. While Pepe uses his long stride to snuff out counters or streaks forward in an impressive demonstration of offensive play, Cannavaro is back to cover, constantly communicating with Iker Casillas as to how far he should push up and from where the imminent threat is coming. Sure, the Italian has been caught with his pants down a few times—in the Champions League match against Liverpool at Anfield, Cannavaro was ridiculed time and again by Stephen Gerrard—but the Italian does bring value and calm to the back line with his leadership. So much so, that Madrid will have a difficult time replacing him.
Real Madrid have a habit of chewing up and spitting out central defenders, some with impressive pedigrees. In fact for a central defender, playing at Real Madrid can be an absolute nightmare for confidence and career. Madridistas will quickly remember how the disastrous Jonathan Woodgate was to become the new rock at the back only to show, when he wasn’t in the medical ward with serious injuries, that he might better be suited to tackling rocks. In fact, in July 2007, Woodgate was voted the worst signing of the 21st century by Marca readers. Ironically though, once departing from Real Madrid, after spending a good while piecing together his confidence, the Englishman would again find his form with Middlesbrough, be crowned North East Player of the Year by the Prince's Trust charity, and earn an international cap with the English national side.
Central defenders Iván Helguera, Alvaro Mejía, and Francisco Pavon would suffer similar failures with Los Blancos, being unable to stifle opposing offences and leaving Iker Casillas with it all to do. In fact, it is a testament as to just how talented a goalkeeper Casillas is that he has been able to win with the play of his back line in recent years. In some of those games, Casillas was single-handedly (pun somewhat intended) winning Madrid their matches.
Before the arrival of Juande Ramos, Christoph Metzelder—a fixture in the very impressive German national side’s defence—looked to be on the same path to anonymity and, although he has enjoyed something of a resurgence, in struggle to find form, he still has not been able to play assured defence consistently.
Playing at Real Madrid is pressure enough for many players. Every decision is scrutinized, every inaccurate pass is mercilessly whistled, and every goal against Los Blancos is attributed to bad defending rather than good offence.
But playing central defence at Madrid is a particularly tall task because of the style of football that Real Madrid are obligated to play. Football is not just a sport at a club like Real Madrid, it is a spectacle; the Bernabéu is where football fans come from all over the world to watch athletics take on an art form with smooth passing, delightful flicks, and a plethora of goals. And the entertainment of goals is only achieved through relentless attack.
At Real Madrid, the right-back and left-back positions are forced to push so high in support of the offence, that the central defenders are stretched thin, being forced to cover a larger area than would otherwise be comfortable. Much is asked of these men, but Cannavaro did a good job of not forgetting that his principle task was to defend and he took this task very seriously. In fact, when he is out of the line-up, Madrid tend to look a little less confident closing down opposing teams—much in the same way Barcelona seem a little more shaky when Puyol is not directing his back line. Players like Cannavaro and Puyol make the players around them better as Fabio has taught Marcelo the tenants of sound defending and Carles has Piqué playing like a seasoned veteran.
But it seems as if Cannavaro’s days at Madrid are numbered and Madrid will need to find a sure-minded substitute for the Italian. After spending another season at Racing Santander, Ezequiel Garay is set to come to the Bernabéu to try his hand at keeping the back line stable alongside Pepe. While regular football at Racing has done Garay a world of good in his development, it is tempting to say that he may have learned more valuable lessons playing alongside Cannavaro or Pepe this season so that he would have been able to slowly adapt to the style of defending at Madrid rather than just being thrown into the fray.
Garay is still young and should he have some growing pains, Madrid could be in a difficult spot. Sergio Ramos is superb in either the centre-back position or the right-back position and with Maicon being a possible summer signing, the Sevillan could potentially make the early switch to the centre—thus becoming Madrid’s Paolo Maldini. But Ramos still has many years left at the right-back spot and is a fixture at the position in the Spanish national side.
Thus, to take the place of Cannavaro, it might be best for Madrid to consider allowing another veteran defender to step in—one used to the pressures of playing with an attack-minded team, with the touch and dexterity to distribute the ball effectively, and able to shoulder the burden that comes along with the Madrid back line.
Porto’s Bruno Alves, Bayern’s Lucio, and Villarreal’s Godin are a few players that speculation brings to mind.
Cyrus C. Malek, Goal.com