Friday, December 18, 2009

Staring through the Pepe-Shaped Hole at the Center of our Defense...

Pepe belongs in a Real Madrid uniform on the pitch: not in crutches inside a hospital

Last Saturday, Real Madrid Pepe launched himself into the air to casually head away a ball that was threatening his defensive territory. Not one soul on this planet knew that it would be his last attempt to do so for the rest of the season. As he landed on the ground, he tore his Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL), news that was confirmed last Sunday to the horror of Madridisimo and the nation of Portugal. His club, its fans, his countrymen and his teammates now know that they will face the 14-game-old La Liga, and round of 16-onwards stages of the Champions League season without the world's best center back... Possibly even the World Cup
Pepe arrived at Real Madrid amid a shocking 30m-Euro purchase that made all Madridistas yell '30million!?! For a Centerback!?!' in unison. It didn't help that he spent his first weeks in Madrid grappling with an injury. When he began to play however, it wasn't long before everyone began to shut up and realize the kind of player we had.
Pepe had all the makings of a great Centerback: strong, tall, broad-shouldered, quick, commanding in his presence, a great sense of anticipation, amazing positioning instincts and impressive aerial ability. Pepe also had a few extra characteristics that gave him the making of a Great Real Madrid Centerback: pace, ability to dribble, pass... and  overall great technical ability. He was a Martian, and he looked like one too... He was the Centerback Real Madrid had been looking for, for so long after the departure of Fernando Hierro... for so long after the club has had to put up with the likes of Raul Bravo, Walter Samuel, Jonathan Woodgate and even Fabio Cannavaro. In Schuster's full season in charge, in the first El Clasico, Pepe played like a titan that had Madridistas all over the world (including this one) conclude: this is it: we've found the first piece for the Hierro-shaped hole in our defense.
Perhaps before I go on to ponder the situation further, I'd like to put out my wishes of get well soon to Pepe (nevermind if he'll never find out about me), as I'm sure all Madridistas out there are doing right now.
The Real Madrid management SEEMS to have gotten it right thus far (if the press reports are true) in terms of dealing with this situation. Firstly by supposedly calling for a meeting between the key men in the sporting department (presumably Valdano, Pardeza and Pellegrini) to discuss the possible solutions to fill this said void. It is an indication that the loss of a player in the most unglamorous of positions is still an important matter to the club. Secondly, it also seems that the club is going to look both ways, internally and externally in their search for alternatives. This shows that there is a veering away from the usual mindset of 'oh, then let's spend 40m for (name of player)...' which is perhaps helped by the fact that this is the CB position we're talking about here.

It has to be said however, that a look into the alternatives for this vacancy both internally and externally. A look into the list of options outside the club considering quality, age, Champions League availability, price and position yield hardly any choices beyond prospects or veterans who have been around the block for too long. What makes the search interesting however, are the countless variant possiblities and permutations that can be used in rationalizing the possibilities:
-Do we buy a Centerback?
-If we buy a new CB, will he be a sub to Garay? or the other way around?
-Does Sergio Ramos move to the Center and we buy a new Right Back?
-Does Sergio Ramos move to the Center and we move Arbeloa to Right Back and we buy a new left back?
-Do we stick to our guns and let Garay, Metzelder, Ramos and Arbeloa (even Diarra V1.0 even perhaps?) take on this role? Then promote a canterano?
I've read several blogs and comments within those blogs all with justified reason for one, the other or completely another alternative to the options I just raised. The rumblings in the press seem to suggest that the technical committee has decided to stick to their guns and let Garay slot into Pepe's chance to give the young Argentinean the opportunity to show the world the talent that he has that got Real Madrid and Barcelona scrambling for his signature some years back. It is also said that Pellegrini is actually a fan of his and genuinely believes that he can fill in for Pepe. These speculations were also further fuelled by Pellegrini's addition of an unusually large contigent of canteranos, mostly comprised of defenders during practice. While we can always go back and recall the Perez policy of refusing to spend money on unglamorous players (e.g defenders), I'd prefer to see it as faith in the squad depth that we had established  at the start of the season in building our team.
Pepe's partnership with Albiol seems to be a similar, yet greatly improved one to that of his partnership with Fabio Cannavaro. As a pair, Pepe, would always be the one who ventured beyond the usual territory of the Central Pair foraging for balls against attackers, terminating most threats before they even materialized, while the Italian (and now Albiol) would lie in wait for those who would slip past. This was a role suited to Pepe's pace and agility. People have talked up Garay's suitability in this role though I have to admit that I haven't seen him fit well in that role yet. It is however a position I've seen Ramos play really well in many times.

There are of course doubts which will inevitably linger in the minds of most Madridistas including this one. For one, despite the fact that Garay once upon a time sparked a mini-bidding war between Real Madrid and Barcelona, his immediate past (last season to be exact) is tainted by the fact that he couldn't even manage to secure his starting spot in Racing Santander. His impressive performance against Valencia aside (complete with a match-winning goal which he admits he didn't know anything about), it is now upon him to prove that the trust being placed upon him is a valid one. The fact remains however that Centerbacks are among those who live each match unaware if they will still be around for the next match given that they live every match teetering on the edge of a yellow or red card, or worse, get on the wrong end of a physical challenge. And while Garay seemed to fit the bill for that role as the '3rd Center Back', with his promotion, brings the perpetually injured and slow-footed Christoph Metzelder to that role: a situation that I'm totally uncomfortable with. Sergio Ramos being thrust in that position (as will be the likely outcome should Albiol continue to be unavailable for this Saturday's match this Saturday) works, yet with him clocking in regular 90-minute shifts at Right Back, and his record-breaking propensity for cards, the possibility of being short--handed in this position remains.
I suppose that it is in times like this where Real Madrid, by right, should summon the best from the cantera and use this as an opportunity for the youngsters to be given the chance to win a spot on the team. I remain optimistic and hopeful that one of them can break into the first team. Whatever the reason is for the non-alarm in the market place for Real Madrid (maybe I'm speaking too soon): be it wanting to keep spending in check, selective willingness to spend (i.e. not on defenders) or a genuine belief that the current team and cantera have the talent to refill the shallowing depth of talent in the club, I'd have to say that at this point in time, perhaps the present stance of non-action, may turn out to be the right course of action.

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