Every defence has its deputy. While it takes four to construct and coordinate a back line, there is inevitably a linchpin, a player who directs his team’s defensive formation and ensures that the door to goal is kept well and truly shut.
For Barcelona, that skipper is Carles Puyol, the aging but foot-perfect rock called upon to extinguish danger when all other remedies have failed. Gerard Pique is being groomed to fill the captain’s very big boots upon retirement (in the meantime, given more freedom to roam forward), but for Barca, the reference for defensive security continues to be Puyol.
Those who remember recent history at the Bernabeu will recall that the defensive-minded Fabio Capello specially recruited Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro to batten down the hatches in his defence and nearly every elite team in Europe have their defensive general. At Chelsea, it is John Terry. At Milan, Alessandro Nesta has taken the torch from Paolo Maldini. At Real Madrid this season, that man was Pepe.
When the towering Portuguese defender went down in the match against Valencia, it was instantly apparent that it was serious. There is something about injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament that makes the severity of the injury immediately clear and when Pepe’s knee buckled on the Mestalla turf, one knew even before he frantically signalled to the medical staff on the sideline, that one of the most serious injuries a player can suffer had been suffered.
Pepe is (was) not just a world-class defender, but also a world-class athlete. Last year, as Madrid recorded their sprinting times in a track workout, the Portuguese finished second in the squad only behind the mercurial Arjen Robben and the defender’s exceptional speed was frequently on exhibition as he would more often than not beat opposing strikers in a footrace, even when covering for the lapse of another defender.
He was also an extraordinarily adept player offensively. A threat on set pieces, Pepe got his start in football as a striker and was comfortable – and perhaps even favoured – marauding into the offensive third of the pitch. While he has not yet scored a goal in his tenure at Real Madrid via his legs, a rasping long-range shot from his days with Porto are evidence of the central defender’s exceptional goalscoring acumen.
But perhaps Pepe’s most important quality was what he offered upstairs inside his shaven head: the responsibilities he inherited from Cannavaro in mentally understanding the game and coordinating his back line to function as a single unit. Few realise just how much work goes into ensuring that all the defenders lift at the precise moment to catch a streaking striker offside or switching marking when a winger cuts inside toward goal or another offender cuts down the wing on an overlapping run.
As the linchpin of the Blancos rearguard, Pepe was instrumental in coordinating this choreography and when the gruesome snap of the central defender’s ACL was heard in the front offices of the Santiago Bernabeu (an ACL tear sounds very much like the popping of an overstretched rubber-band, such that many players know the extent of the injury even before it is revealed via MRI), it is no wonder that the club’s director-general, Jorge Valdano joined in the Spanish capital’s panic, immediately on the phone attempting to assess the situation and vowing to dip into the pocketbook as necessary to bring in a suitable substitute for the €30 million centre-back.
The €30 million rubber-band
But one measures the success of a team by how well they can fill the absence of a starter with a player from the bench and, in one of Ramon Calderon’s 2008 signings, the young Ezequiel Garay was called upon to keep Valdano’s cheque book shut. A very highly rated player especially after the 2005 U-20 World Cup – so much so that he was initially courted by Barcelona, who were forced into signing Martin Caceres after the Argentine opted for Los Blancos – Garay came into this year’s Madrid squad after spending an extra season on loan at Racing Santander.
With both Pepe and Raul Albiol commanding the centre of defence, the youngster found breaking into the starting lineup a tall task. But in the wake of Pepe’s injury, coach Manuel Pellegrini called upon Ezequiel to undertake the complex responsibility of serving as Madrid’s last line of defence and, the goal he scored to give Los Blancos the victory at the Mestalla notwithstanding, the No. 19 has delivered with flying colours.
Garay’s introduction into the back-four was not a seamless substitution for Pepe. Favouring the left side of central defence rather than the right-side frequented by Pepe, the Argentine’s presence allowed Raul Albiol to shift over to his natural right-sided position, the position he played at Valencia and plays in the Spanish national team.
Garay is a sure tackler, but, while no slouch, he also does not possess Pepe’s speed. However, for what he lacks in speed he makes up for with distribution. One of the Argentine’s most prized assets is his passing ability.
Similar to the crucial role Gerard Pique provides for Barcelona with incisive passes into the midfield, Garay offers accurate passes into his team’s attack. While they may not look like much, his long switches to Albiol across the pitch (frequently one-touch passes) are very important as they get the ball across the width of the pitch with urgency, allowing the rest of the offence to link up passes and attack the space not yet covered by the opposing defence.
Particularly notable is his long-range passing, an area he definitively supersedes Pepe, as Garay has frequently put the ball right on the boots of a streaking Marcelo, Cristiano Ronaldo or Alvaro Arbeloa when it looked as if the angle along the sideline was far too acute. Also worth mentioning is his goalscoring ability; he won the match against Valencia on a headed goal, but he also has a cannon shot in his right leg that he can control with great efficacy on set pieces.
Garay has even gone on record saying that he is contemplating working up the courage to ask CR9 for a few chances at free kicks, although his statement was [mostly] said in jest. What Garay has accomplished in just the few matches he has served as the Merengues’ pillar in defence is nothing short of astonishing, particularly at a club like Real Madrid where the philosophy in the Spanish capital is that the team must first entertain and then second, win.
Garay has been the perfect deputy to the deputy
To feed the public demand for silky smooth football, Los Blancos are obligated to play in a very advanced position, with the central defenders stationed only slightly to their side of the centre of the pitch. While such a system does make for a plethora of chances for the offence, it also makes any defensive missteps very costly, requiring the ultimate concentration on the part of the defenders so to not be caught out of position on the counterattack.
The fact that Madrid have not conceded a goal since the Argentine’s introduction into the starting lineup is testament to Garay’s confident displays and while Pellegrini’s men have learned to defend as a team, rapidly recovering possession in the opponents’ half of the pitch, the central defender must be credited for what he is due as, at just 23 years old, he has taken on the great responsibility of directing his defence with the maturity of a savvy veteran.
Now, as Real Madrid prepare to face one of their bitter rivals Athletic Bilbao in what is always a vibrant match at the San Mames (if not for the football then for the politics), they do so without Gonzalo Higuain, out for three weeks with a leg injury, and possibly without Xabi Alonso, slow to recover from a knock picked up against Mallorca.
With Fernando Gago, fresh off of an exceptional match against the Balearic Islanders last weekend, billed to fill the void in the midfield and the fast-improving Karim Benzema favoured to cover for El Pipita, Garay serves as an example for the entire Merengue squad that every player contributes to the team’s collective effort, every component is valuable, and that victory is only achieved with the quality input from bench players.
The mark of a true professional is how prepared he is to perform at a high level when called up from the comfort of the bench. If a few pages out of the Book of Ezequiel are read by the rest of the Madrid squad, Los Blancos could just emerge as the new rulers of La Liga and Europe.
Cyrus C. Malek, Goal.com