Defending the structure and defending inside the penalty area was one of Real Madrid’s main issues last season. It is understood that the club signed Antonio Rudiger to mitigate some of these problems and take advantage of an excellent opportunity in the market to sign one of the best defenders in European football.
While I was researching Rudiger’s career, traits and development, I came across this great interview clip where he talks about a specific 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 on the edge of the rules and lost his balls in high-profile disciplinary incidents. Oddly enough, Sergio Ramos received 26 red cards in his career with Real Madrid while Pepe only got three, but the views of the media and fans of Ramos are not negative. Unfortunately, this superficial rhetoric dominates many conversations about Bibi, although it is interesting to discuss how he was one of the best and most influential defenders of the 2000s. He helped set the expectations for Real Madrid’s modern central defence.
Let’s go back to 2007 when Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Milan dominated the Champions League. The central defenders of these teams were Vidic – Ferdinand, Carragher – Ager, Terry – Carvalho, and Nesta – Maldini. These talented defenders share the unifying characteristic of being more comfortable defending inside their penalty area than outside it. It is funny that in the same year, Real Madrid hired a player who would render this central defender file obsolete.
In the summer of 2007, Los Blancos A relatively unknown center back from FC Porto, Kepler Laveran Lima Ferreira “Baby”, has signed. At the time, paying €30m for a center back with no track record or widely recognized potential seemed like crazy. Many media and football fans laughed at the apparent stupidity of this decision. And they cried even louder as Pepe’s first matches in a white shirt featured a tense and extremely aggressive defender who struggled to hold his position in the line and made some notable errors.
In a 2021 interview, Pepe recalled some of his initial suffering, the inherent chaos and danger of playing for Real Madrid:
It was my first match against Atletico Madrid. You were coming from a tactically organized club where if the ball moves to the left side you have to press there. If the ball moves to the right side, you press this way – Things like that, the basics. What I encountered in Madrid was chaos.
In the 30th minute our game was disrupted and they attacked us one-on-one and we ran back. I looked at Fabio [Cannavaro] And he said to him, “Fabio! Fabio! Cover, cover!!!” And he said, “No, no, we don’t do it here. For each side.” And I said, “It’s it? Damn it!”
I was looking around and I saw the defenders up high, the defensive midfielder up high… and I was thinking: “What? Fifty meters behind me and I’m here to play one-on-one?” Then I thought to calm down, I would do well anyway.
Despite Cannavaro’s full potential with the young defender, the December 2007 Clasico gave us our first look at Pepe’s roof. Super strikers Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o faced the future of defense and took a bad loss.
Eto’o couldn’t get a sniff at the ball. Bibi was faster on the ground and stronger in the air. He had a flexible body, long legs, and timing to succeed in interventions that others might struggle with. Pepe was constantly coming out of his line of defense and from the penalty area to intercept passes and scored by Eto’o and Dinho, so the pair had to pay attention to him in the penalty area and all over the field.
Such defensive behavior may seem normal to you now, but back then, it was just something of a man-to-man defense system. We did not see that in the defenses of the region. Pepe was a countercultural phenomenon: a central defender who was more comfortable defending outside the penalty area than inside.
But in that classico, Pepe was flawless all over. He removed all threats from his box and, outside the penalty area, used his speed to instantly close the space between himself and the opponent’s attackers. Nerves gone.
The contrast between this Pepe and those we’ve seen in previous games was so significant that the media talked about it using Jekyll and Hyde analogy. there was baby , The player is overly aggressive and foul-prone, and Don JoseA fast, powerful and well-spoken defender who can neutralize even the best attackers in the world.
Over time, Pepe and his subsequent coaches, especially Mourinho and Ancelotti, shined Don Jose to appear most of the time. Pepe calmed down, and his newfound “controlled rage” allowed him to make the most of his immense defensive talents, leading to his peak period between 2012 and 2016. He garnered many wins during those years, from Real Madrid’s Champions League titles to Outstanding performance. In 2012 and 2016.
While Ramos has become the perfect defender whenever he hears the Champions League anthem, I’d argue Pepe has been the most consistent of the pair in week, week after week. Beyond the highlights, Pepe’s ability to step in has made him a surprisingly clean defender most of the time. Like Casemiro, he also knew how to play on the edge of the rules to avoid cards.
With Pepe developing into one of the best defenders of his generation, coaches and tactical systems have learned to appreciate the value of a central defender like him. Defending fifty meters behind the center back has become an advantage rather than a flaw in modern defensive systems. Possession and pressing teams now require tight spaces between their lines to attack and defend properly. These teams need fast defenses with an outstanding 1v1 ability to hold high streaks and run back across vast distances to put out fires. Even teams with low budgets like Eibar led by Jose Mendelibar used high defensive lines to turn the tables on Real Madrid, as shown in the image below.
Similarly, Pepe’s successors at Real Madrid followed a similar template. There are differences between Varane, Nacho, Alaba, Militao and Rudiger, but they all have a speed that helps them protect the vast expanses behind. Despite their weakness in the air, it was this speed that made Nacho and Alaba valuable in the Real Madrid streak. Nacho was even measured as the fastest player on the team during the 2016-17 season.
Rüdiger and Militão seem to be Pepe’s most loyal disciples, as their personality and career development share some similarities with Pepe. Their early career flaws reflect Pepe’s impotence, with inconsistency and excessively aggressive movement away from the defensive line. Now, 29, Rudiger has learned to tame his inner Hyde to become a more reliable defender, even if he’s still Insane in essence. We expect younger Militao to follow a similar development as he accumulates more experience.
Los Blancos Defending certainly in a more organized and collective way than in the days of Cannavaro and Pepe, but the job of Real Madrid’s central defender still requires a lot of effort and gratitude. They must put out fires in a constantly overexposed high line, defend 1v1s fifty meters behind them, and clear all threats away from the box. Pepe became the first Real Madrid central defender to fit this code and set the standard for how his successors should be defended. Fortunately, Rüdiger and Militão seem like a duo worthy of carrying on that legacy.