The season so far has been good for Sergio Ramos. Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho reacted to his side’s 1-0 defeat in Levante by dropping the Spanish international defender, with Álvaro Arbeloa preferred at right-back for the following game at Racing Santander. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise however as an injury to Ricardo Carvalho meant Ramos soon returned to the side, and more importantly for him - and many in Madrid - he was back in his favoured position of centre-half.
With Ramos alongside Pepe at the back Real have won their last eight games, including impressive 4-0 victories away at Espanyol and Málaga and a 3-0 defeat of Villarreal. This run has seen los merengues move three points clear of Barcelona at the top of the La Liga table. They have also eased through to the last-16 of the Champions League, with Ramos scoring in the 4-0 home win over Lyon last month.
The sight of Ramos commanding the centre of Madrid’s defence has been long awaited by many Madrid fans. This is where he has always been supposed to be. The former Sevilla-man has a special status at the club as the only Spaniard signed during Florentino Perez’s first spell as president. On arriving in 2005 (for £21 million aged only 19) he was given the number 4 shirt which had just been left vacant by the retirement of Fernando Hierro, with the implication that he was to be groomed as the natural successor to the legendary Real and Spain centre-half.
The expensive young defender started the new season in the middle, but by 2006-07, with the likes Christoph Metzelder and Pepe also at the club, Ramos had become established at right-back. He also cemented a regular place there for the Spanish national side, and was a key member of the EURO 2008 winning side. He was still only young though, and only learning. When Mourinho took over in summer 2009, the talk was of his former Internazionale right-back Maicon also moving to Madrid, allowing Ramos to return to the centre. Mourinho preferred to sign his fellow-Portuguese Carvalho from Chelsea and Ramos stayed at full-back. Until a few weeks ago.
Ramos’ move inside fits with the current notably increased Spanish flavour to Madrid’s starting XI - Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso and Arbeloa have also started each of the recent wins - which has gone down well in Madrid. Journalists and supporters who were previously uncomfortable with the Portuguese influence at the club, especially the power wielded by the manager and those players also represented by super-agent Jorge Mendes, are particularly pleased. This change in the power-relations within the dressing room has also apparently helped to lift the mood among the players, with the stresses and strains that followed the defeat to Barcelona in the pre-season Supercopa and defeat at Levante already forgotten.
Mourinho seems happy with Ramos’ recent performances too. When Arbeloa missed the trip to Lyon in the Champions League through injury, midfielder ‘Lass’ Diarra filled in at full-back, even though alternatives such as impressive French youngster Rafael Varane and especially Spanish international centre-half Raúl Albiol were available to come into the centre and allow Ramos to move to the flank. Interestingly, Spanish U-19 full-back Daniel Carvajal, who has yet to play for Madrid’s first-team, also travelled to France for that game. Spanish national side boss Vicente del Bosque must have also been impressed, as he chose Ramos at centre-back in last week’s friendlies against England and Costa Rica.
Ramos’ displays have drawn plenty of praise from the Madrid press too. Last Saturday’s AS ran a feature looking at the improvement in the team’s results and style with ‘Tarzan’ as a left-sided centre half. The theory is that Ramos links well with Alonso in starting moves and also that Arbeloa’s defensive solidity in one full-back position better allows Marcelo to get forward on the other flank without destabilising the defence.
“Mourinho has found an unexpected present,” wrote Marco Ruiz. “With Ramos at centre-half, Madrid has more possession, more ways to attack packed defences and suffers less at the back.”
Ramos himself has also let it be known that he prefers a central role. He played there when coming through the ranks at Sevilla, and has regularly suggested he sees himself first and foremost as a centre-half for both club and country. In an interview in Thursday’s Marca, he talked of how much he was enjoying his football at the moment.
“I really like playing as a ‘central’,” he said. “This is a good moment for me. It is a mix of everything - physical state, enthusiasm and I am more mature now on the pitch and off it.”
The 25 year old even seemed happy to compare himself to one of the great centre-halves of European football during the interview.
“For me it is an honour that my name is linked with Beckenbauer’s, who has been one of the best players in history,” said Ramos. “He marked an era as a centre-half and has always been one of my references.”
This week’s interview may also have been well timed as Carvalho has just returned to full training. It could just be co-incidence, but it was perhaps a little hint that Mourinho should not think of dropping Arbeloa and moving Ramos back out wide to allow the Portuguese to return. This decision looks pretty important, as Madrid now face into their first really tough run of fixtures this season - Valencia away this Saturday, followed by Atlético at home (well, okay) and then the all-important first La Liga superclasico of the season when they host Barcelona at the Bernabéu on December 10th.
This blog would bring Carvalho back and drop Arbeloa. For all the plaudits currently being rained on his ball-playing abilities and reading of the game, Ramos is still more a Spanish version of Micah Richards or Paul McShane than a Hierro-style commanding centre back. His mix of physicality, stamina and not unconsiderable attacking flair, along with a sometimes slightly awry positional sense and tendency to rush into rash challenges, best suit the marauding full-back role. The only place where Ramos really matches Madrid’s last number four is in their disciplinary records – they both have ten career red cards for the club after Sergio was dismissed during last year’s 5-0 defeat at the Camp Nou (although Sergio only needed 175 games to reach that mark, while Fernando took 439).
At Madrid though, things are not always so simple. The unknowable element to the defensive decision now facing Mourinho is how Ramos, and his team-mates and cheerleaders in the media, would react to what might be seen as a demotion. It’s a dilly of a pickle, and could be one of the most important decisions the Madrid boss makes this season.
Dermot Corrigan is an Irish freelance writer living in Madrid and writing about football at Sport 360, Fox Soccer, When Saturday Comes and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.