Real Madrid’s most noticeable concerns this season were protecting structure and defending in the box. To be sure, the club recruited Antonio Rüdiger to help alleviate some of these issues and to take advantage of a fantastic market chance to buy one of Europe’s greatest defenders.
While researching Rüdiger’s career, characteristics, and progress, I came across this intriguing interview footage in which he mentions a specific Real Madrid defender as one of his heroes.
Pepe is now remembered by the majority of the football world as a bully who played on the fringes of the rules and lost his marbles in high-profile disciplinary events. Surprisingly, Sergio Ramos has 26 red cards in his Real Madrid career whereas Pepe has only three, yet Ramos’ media and fan perceptions are far more negative. Unfortunately, this shallow debate dominates many Pepe discussions, despite the fact that it’s far more interesting to talk about how he was one of the finest and most impactful defenders of the decade. He was instrumental in establishing the contemporary Real Madrid center-demands. back’s
Let’s go back to 2007, when Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and AC Milan ruled the Champions League. Vidic – Ferdinand, Carragher – Agger, Terry – Carvalho, and Nesta – Maldini were the center-back partnerships for these teams. These superb defenders all had one thing in common: they were significantly more at ease defending within their own box than they were outside of it. Surprisingly, Real Madrid signed a player who would make this center-back profile outdated the next year.
Los Blancos signed Kepler Laveran Lima Ferreira “Pepe,” a relatively unknown center-back from FC Porto, in the summer of 2007. Paying 30 million euros for a center back with no proven track record or generally recognized talent seemed insane at the time. Many football journalists and fans chuckled at the decision’s apparent idiocy. They screamed even louder when Pepe’s first games in a white shirt revealed a jittery, overly aggressive defender who battled to maintain his line position and made some high-profile errors.
Pepe recounted some of his early problems, as well as the inherent turmoil and peril of playing for Real Madrid, in a 2021 interview:
Atletico Madrid was my first opponent. I came from a strategically organized club where you had to push the left side if the ball moved there. If the ball moves to the right side, you push in that direction – these are the fundamentals. In Madrid, I encountered a lot of turmoil.
Our play went down in the 30th minute, and they came at us one on one, forcing us to go backwards. “Fabio! Fabio!” I exclaimed back at Fabio [Cannavaro]. Cover, cover, cover!!!” “No, no, we don’t do that here,” he said. Everybody’s on their own side.” “It’s like that?” I wondered. Fuck!”
I was glancing about and noticed the full-backs were high up, as well as the defensive midfielder…
And I was wondering to myself, “What?” I’m fifty meters behind you, and you want to play one-on-one?” Then I reminded myself to relax and that I would do fine whatsoever.
The December 2007 Clásico provided us our first glimpse of Pepe’s ceiling, despite Cannavaro going full T’Challa on the rookie defender. Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o, two of the best strikers in the world, went battle against the future of defence and lost severely.
While Ramos transformed into the ideal defender everytime the Champions League song was played, I believe Pepe was the more consistent of the two players week in and week out. Pepe’s tackling skills made him a fairly clean defender most of the time, even outside of the high-profile situations. He, like Casemiro, knew how to play on the edge of the regulations in order to avoid being dealt cards.
Coaches and tactical systems began to recognize the worth of center backs like Pepe as he evolved into one of the finest defenders of his time. Modern defensive systems have made defending fifty meters behind the center back a feature rather than a flaw. To attack and defend effectively, possession and pressing teams now demand precise space between their lines. These teams require quick center backs with exceptional one-on-one skills to hold high lines and rush backwards across long distances to extinguish flames. As demonstrated in the graphic below, even low-budget teams like José Mendlibar’s Eibar deployed high defensive lines to turn the tables on Real Madrid.
Pepe’s successors in Real Madrid have followed in Pepe’s footsteps. Varane, Nacho, Alaba, Milito, and Rüdiger are all different, but they all have a quickness that allows them to protect the enormous expanses behind them. Despite their lack of aerial ability, Nacho and Alaba have proven to be vital members of Real Madrid’s high line. During the 2016-17 season, Nacho was even rated as the team’s quickest player.
Rüdiger and Milito appear to be Pepe’s most devoted followers, with their personalities and career paths resembling Pepe’s in some ways. Their early career flaws are eerily similar to Pepe’s, with inconsistency and a tendency to drift too far away from the defensive line. Even if he’s still a madman at heart, Rüdiger has learnt to tame his inner Hyde to become a more trustworthy defender at the age of 29. As he gains more experience, we expect the younger Milito to follow a similar path.
Los Blancos defend in a more structured and collaborative manner than they did during the Cannavaro and Pepe eras, but the job of a Real Madrid center-back remains difficult and thankless. They must put out flames on a high-line that is constantly overexposed, defend 1v1s with fifty meters behind them, and remove any threats out of their box. Pepe was the first Real Madrid center-back to fulfill that description, and he set the bar high for his successors. Fortunately, Rüdiger and Milito appear to be a team capable of continuing on that tradition.
Rüdiger has even said that if he could partner up with any CB in football history, he would choose Pepe.
— José C. Pérez (@jcperez_) June 2, 2022