We look into the fascinating story of Sergio Ramos, one that is filled with success, leadership and bizarre tendencies to lose his head.
The scene is set. The first El Clasico of the season, Real Madrid have effectively shut down Barcelona. Luis Enrique throws on Iniesta in the second half and suddenly Barcelona become fluid again, chances are created and they finally score a goal. The league is suddenly slightly open, Madrid’s lead cut down to 3 points. An unnecessary foul by Arda Turan means Modric stands over the ball. He stands offside as he always does, forcing the opposition to choose – Mark him and force the defensive line deeper or let him be and gamble that he will be caught offside. He you wonder? Who else but Sergio Ramos. Pique, his marker, is being hassled by Lucas Vazquez who uses his tireless engine to block, jostle and be a bloody nuisance for Pique. Modric swings it in and Ramos does what he does best, triggering another bout of PTSD in Atleti supporters by popping up with another ridiculous late goal. If that goal wasn’t ridiculous enough, in the next game against Deportivo Real Madrid are drawing 2-2 and the ball goes out for a corner. The crowd starts chanting “Sergio Ramos give us a goal” and obviously he had to oblige with another ridiculously late goal didn’t he?
If the first El Clasico showed one side of Ramos, the second one showed the other side. The “Let’s make stupid reckless tackles and get sent off” side. He is just 31 years of age, 3 or more years of his prime career still to go and he already is the most booked player in Real Madrid history and closing in on the all time Spanish record. It is frankly astounding how an elite defender like Ramos can often end up diving into needless tackles and getting booked or even worse, sent off. And make no mistake, Ramos is an elite defender.
It feels like fate. One of the last signing of the first Galactico era would provide the single most defining moment of the second Galactico era. The only Spanish signing of the first Galactico era becoming a leader and lynchpin of an increasingly Spanish Real Madrid squad. While great things were expected of him when he became the most expensive Spanish teenager, no one thought he would ever become quite so iconic.
From a marauding right back, bombing up and down the flanks whipping in dangerous crosses to teaming up with Pepe and forming one of the most physical, devious, dirty and downright brilliant defensive partnerships, Ramos has come a long way.
Ramos is a larger than life, almost cartoonish presence on the pitch. He does everything, be it defending, building up play, finishing chances or acting like an idiot and getting sent off. He is simultaneously incredibly clever and brave and incredibly stupid. He organises and leads the defense extremely well and he goes and commits some truly idiotic challenges that would embarrass academy players.
In a weird way, despite all the brutality of the Pep Vs Mourinho clasicos, Ramos was one of the Real Madrid players who was still respected by the Barcelona players. Quite a few people were shocked with the ease with which he and Pique teamed up at Euro 2012. Considering the incredible animosity and tension between the Madrid and Barca teams at the time, that partnership seemed doomed to fail. But this is where Ramos’ personality comes in. There is an air of genuineness around him. He will be your best friend off the pitch, but on it he will literally kick the ever-loving crap out of you if he must. The Barca players respected him for it. It takes a great personality to be able to command such respect.
The main problem with Ramos is he is so antithetical to our concept of what defenders should be. It is hard to take him seriously or appreciate how good he is. Central defenders are the stoic heroes, zealously guarding the goal by putting their bodies on the line, scrambling the ball away, hacking the opposition down and doing everything they can to ensure a clean sheet. The centre-back is a genuine hard-man, Terry Butcher of blood soaked bandages, Nemanja Vidic of the steely eyes or Jaap Stam the giant. Or he is a cultured ball player, winning the ball and moving it on with a minimal fuss, like Rio Ferdinand, Nesta, Maldini. But a player like Ramos? With the flamboyance of a winger, the finishing and physicality of an old fashioned target man, and passing of a regista? He simply challenges all our preconceived notions of what an elite centre-back is supposed to be. They are not supposed to Cruyff turn the opposing attackers who are hounding them mercilessly, look up and ping a 50 yard diagonal to a rampaging full back. Ramos in essence, challenges the very notion of what an elite central defender is supposed to be.
The most important thing to note is that defenders more than any other position are dependent on the system they play. You may put Ronaldo or Messi in pretty much every team and they will score goals. But a defender is not like that, a defender can be carried by his individual brilliance only so far, the rest is a byproduct of the system he plays in. This perception of Ramos not being an elite defender occurs due to the simple nature of the football that is played at Real Madrid and Spain. With the extremely high line, rampaging fullbacks and an attacking mindset, Ramos often ends up defending in a back 3, the 2 center backs and 1 defensive midfielder. As a byproduct of the system, Ramos inevitably is defending 1 v 1 more times than most defenders should be comfortable with. I am only mildly joking when I say that Ramos ends up isolated and defending 1v1 more times in a month than Terry has been in his entire career. Apart from the occasional games, Ramos has never played for an extended period in a defensive team where the back four are parked in their own half or even their box with the entire team dropping back in support. Ramos’ recklessness might make him a card magnet but it also is a crucial strength, a foul at a halfway and eating a yellow card is better than allowing the opposition to break upfield and have a chance at goal. Such a playing style requires exceptional ability to defend 1v1 and more importantly, it requires a certain degree of madness. It also opens up opportunities for rapid counter attacks. Ramos stepping out and winning the ball early often creates some excellent chances for Real Madrid in almost a counter-pressing way. The opposition are caught neither here nor there and thrown into disarray. It allows him to use his precise passing and feed the lethal players up front quickly.
This is a player who has scored in so many big games, most players wouldn’t even dream of. His reaction to that penalty miss against Bayern in the 2012 UCL semifinal? A promise to himself that the next one is a Panenka. Come the EURO 2012 Semi-Final shootout against Portugal and he calmly chips it down the middle. The 2014 UCL semi-final, Allianz Arena, in a country where Real Madrid have struggled to get a result for years, he pops up with 2 brilliant headers to knock the holders out. Real Madrid finally reach the final after 12 years only to see their hopes of La Decima slip away? Ramos pops up with THE goal of his career. All the way to the 2016 UCL final and beyond. He always turns up when his team needs him. There is a fascinating stat that since the 2014 UCL semi, 18 of his 22 goals have come when the team was trailing or drawing the game. This ludicrous goal scoring record also puts us in a bind in that it gets very hard to judge how good he actually is.
In big games, Ramos is always present front and center. Either turning in a man of the match defensive performance, scoring crucial goals or simply getting sent off, Ramos is always involved. He simply doesn’t do boring 6.5/10 performances. It’s the smaller games where it’s an issue. His infuriating tendency to switch off and not focus completely when the stakes aren’t high is downright dangerous. Indeed you can make a case that maybe Ramos should occasionally sit out the smaller fixtures. But that is neither here nor there. What is important is to remember one simple thing.
You simply do not get away with spending 10 years at a club like Real Madrid if you are not excellent at what you do. He is an integral part of a team which has reached 3 Champions League finals in 4 years, winning 2 with the third to play for. It is extremely counter intuitive to imagine such a reckless player can be such an inspirational leader, but Ramos leads by example. He drives the team forward by sheer force of will at times. He organises the defense solidly despite being at-times disorganised himself. The reckless tackling, dirty fouling, immense defensive performances and some truly important goals are just a part of the package that is him. And until his performance levels are maintained he will be there at Real Madrid, his heart on his sleeve throwing everything he has at the opposition in the desperate quest to get the result.