Álvaro Arbeloa recently completed a return move to his childhood club Real Madrid for €4 million. While deserved attention went to the second-generation galácticos Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, and Karim Benzema, Real Madrid also made transactions that do not rate high on sex appeal yet realign the glaring weakness behind its disappointing last season.
For the majority of the season, Real Madrid’s defensive line consisted of Sergio Ramos at right back, Pepe and Fabio Cannavaro in central defense, and Gabriel Heinze at left back. Others who contributed to the defense included left backs Marcelo and Royston Drenthe, central defender Christoph Metzelder, and right backs Miguel Torres and Michel Salgado.
Perusing the raw numbers produced by the Real Madrid defense, it gave up fifty-two goals in thirty-eight games, which finished seventh in La Liga. For a club that sees itself as one of the elite, seventh position simply will not make the grade. What skews its total goals allowed is the astonishing performance of goalkeeper Iker Casillas. As one of the top goalkeepers in Europe, people expect him to play at a high level, but during Madrid’s torrid streak after the first Barcelona meeting in December until the second meeting in May, one goal decided eight of their matches, including six matches that ended 1-0. Even during the 6-2 mauling by Barcelona at the Bernabéu, Casillas had seven saves and probably kept Madrid from giving up eight or nine.
While Casillas was the highlight of the defense, most of the other defenders did not perform up to their capabilities. Sergio Ramos played a sufficient right back, but there were more than a few instances where his lack of focus contributed to schoolboy errors in the back. Pepe had a solid season but marred his reputation by his undisciplined and inexcusable outbursts against Getafe, leading to a ten match ban, including the last six matches of the season. Fabio Cannavaro was a shell of himself and clearly lost a step as forwards continually outmuscled and outpaced him.
The same could be said for Gabriel Heinze as right-sided players frequently went through and around Heinze. Marcelo apparently did not get the memo that part of his responsibility as a left back was to mark offensive players. He performed well when he bombed down the left flank, but too many times, his effervescence caught him out of position, leaving his zonal area completely open for the opposition to work the space how they wished. He eventually lost his starting position to Gabriel Heinze, but Real Madrid later reformed him as a left midfielder, a position more naturally suited to his set of skills. Royston Drenthe gave mediocre performances in the first half of the season, and when the Madridistas started to show their disapproval of him, he could not handle the negativity and hardly played for the rest of the season. Christoph Metzelder spent much of his time in the training room, Miguel Torres showed promise but made mistakes as a young player, and Michel Salgado was old.
The acquisition of Raúl Albiol for €15 million shores up the central defense with a highly regarded international defender who is only 23 years old. Álvaro Arbeloa gave a solid two seasons for Liverpool as the starting right back who could also play a competent left back. If Arbeloa did not openly express his desire to move back to Spain, there was a decent chance that Liverpool would not have involved themselves in the Glen Johnson sweepstakes. With Iker Casillas in goal, Sergio Ramos on the right, Pepe and Raúl Albiol in the center, and Álvaro Arbeloa on the left, this defense should be vastly improved from last year’s debacle. Real Madrid scored 83 goals in the previous season, and the added superpower to the club indicates that offense should not be the issue in their quest to dethrone Barcelona in any or all three competitions this season. If the added defensive pieces fit the back line puzzle, Real Madrid should have at least one piece of silverware at the end of the 09-10 season.