FEATURE | Is Éder Militão ready to lead Real Madrid’s defence?

Éder Militão was Real Madrid’s first signing following Zinedine Zidane’s second homecoming, however, in spite of the €50 million price tag, Militão failed to break into Madrid’s famed centre-back pairing, falling to fourth-choice at one point.

As Madrid boasted the best defensive record of any team (top 5 leagues) in their title-winning 2019/20 campaign, Militão looked less and less likely to be able to make his mark. In his appearances, which had been few and far between, Militão often seemed shaky with intervening lapses of concentration. Even rumours of a loan move to Tottenham surfaced in January 2021, after a poor early red card against Levante, and a lot of Real Madrid’s demanding fanbase were starting to give up on the Brazilian prodigy just 18 months into his career in white.

The saying goes, “every cloud has a silver lining”, and it stands particularly true in Real Madrid’s case. More than 60 injuries over the course of the 2020/21 season saw Real play with their first-choice backline (Carvajal-Varane-Ramos-Mendy) just six times over the entire season. Captain Sergio Ramos suffered no less than seven separate injury spells, limiting him to just 15 LaLiga appearances. Partner-in-crime Raphaël Varane, usually injury-free for the majority of the previous two seasons, suffered two in short succession in April and May, ruling him out of the club’s crucial climaxes in the latter stages of both LaLiga and the Champions League. Real Madrid yearned for a new ray of hope, a rock at the back to keep the ship stable.

Militão and Nacho perform admirably vs Liverpool

Up steps Éder Militão. Alongside Madrid’s ever-reliable loyal servant Nacho, the second choice centre-back pairing put in phenomenal displays. Heading into Madrid’s most decisive week of the season from April 6 to 14, the Champions League quarter-finals against Liverpool sandwiching a six-pointer El Clásico, uncertainty was the overwhelming mood given Madrid’s rotten luck with injuries. That soon changed into ambition as Real emerged victorious 3-1 at home against Liverpool; to elation as they defeated Barcelona on the weekend, and finally to euphoria as a stunning defensive display saw the Spanish giants hold Liverpool goalless at Anfield. Real Madrid had passed the acid test with flying colours. At the heart of it, was Madrid’s backup defence – and the pick of the bunch was Éder Militão. Militão’s renaissance saw Madrid keep six clean sheets in a busy 8-game fixture pile-up, as the Brazilian not only secured his Real Madrid future but once again threw light on the notion that he could well become Madrid’s next defensive kingpin.

Tactical debrief

But what are the attributes that made Militão one of the most coveted young defenders in the world? Just a highlights reel would be enough evidence that Militão is, stylistically, very similar to Sergio Ramos, closer than perhaps any of his contemporaries.

Perhaps the only complaint Madridistas had of Marcelo in his pomp was his lackadaisical defensive work, which often needed Ramos to step out of his position and anticipate the danger in the space left unattended by the wing-back. Militão shares this characteristic with the former Madrid captain. He possesses similar awareness and anticipation and is not hesitant to step out of his comfort zone for a challenge.

What assists Militão in his audacious style of play is his pace. The 23-year-old is very quick and certainly possesses the recovery pace against a fast attacker. Prior to the last Clásico, it was revealed that Militão was only behind Vinicius in Madrid’s pecking order for pace, his best being an impressive 30.4 km/h. It is a phenomenal asset to have for any defender playing in a high line, a system commonly employed at both club and country for Militão. He is also a potent reader of the game, having averaged more than two interceptions per 90 throughout the course of his career.

However, the aggressive style of play comes with its downsides. Much like Ramos himself, Militão can sometimes over-commit to a challenge, leaving a last-ditch effort needed from somewhere else. During Militão’s impressive Copa America 2021, experienced compatriot Thiago Silva spoke of this very aspect: “Militão trusts his speed a lot. He’s a very quick guy and sometimes he loses his position a bit because he knows he will track back successfully. That’s something I learned when I got to Milan and it’s something I try to tell and teach him.” While the quality is clear as day, Militão’s over-commitment, coupled with occasional lapses of concentration, are areas he’ll need to polish as he looks to usher a new era at the heart of Real Madrid’s defence.

Aerial prowess is another piece that makes Éder Militão one of the most complete young defenders. Militão ranked top in percentage of aerials won in LaLiga in 2019/20 and was second in the same list the following season. Militão is a gigantic presence in defensive aerial duels, as well as from offensive corners. The latter was particularly evident in Madrid’s game vs Osasuna on 2 May 2021, where Militão registered three attempts on goal from headers and broke the deadlock with a headed goal in the 76th minute.

Militão’s stylistic comparison with Ramos doesn’t end just in their defensive style. He is very capable of playing out from the back, as well as progressing slightly forward with the ball at his feet. The lofted diagonal long pass (often to Carvajal on the right) to switch play had become Ramos’ trademark at the Santiago Bernabéu, and while Militão is yet to display it on a consistent basis in white, long passing was one of his shining attributes in his impressive breakthrough season at Porto. Militão isn’t shy, however, still averaging 15 long passes per 90, just short of Ramos’ average and better than Varane’s in 2020/21. The precision isn’t quite there yet (79% to Ramos’ 88%) but the signs are promising.

What’s in store?

The long-standing contract negotiations for Ramos ended in heartbreak for Madridistas. Fans had always hoped that Varane would, sooner or later, become the leader, but the Frenchman hunted fresher challenges in Manchester. This has left the door wide open for Militão to take command of Madrid’s defence for some years to come.

Thus, the silver lining to Real’s atrocious injury record last season has been that Éder Militão gained invaluable experience, and in high-pressure circumstances. Not only did he receive a consistent run of games for the first time in his fledgling Madrid career, but he also played with composure well beyond his years, and it was a telling reminder of his potential to naysayers. He was so good to the extent that it almost felt harsh to leave him out in case Ramos and Varane made it back for the Champions League semi-finals. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to say that club president Florentino Pérez could have well used Militão’s great form as leverage in his negotiations with Ramos; and it showed that irrespective of a mass exodus of big names from Real Madrid’s defence, it is not going to be all doom and gloom.

Real Madrid have moved into the 2021/22 season with only three renowned centre-backs: and David Alaba has only just joined. Militão now has a clear path into the first XI, and if he can minimise his occasional erraticism, there is plenty to be excited about for Madridistas. In a revamped and renovated Bernabéu, Militão can grow into one of Madrid’s leaders in the new era and establish his own legacy.

Roddur Mookherjee

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