Sergio Ramos Display vs. Juventus Calls into Question Real Madrid Recruitment

Nick Dorrington@@chewingthecocaSpecial to Bleacher ReportMay 6, 2015

Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos gestures after a foul, during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Sevilla and Real Madrid at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium in Sevilla, Spain, Saturday, May 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

Sergio Ramos endured a difficult night as Real Madrid fell to a 2-1 defeat away to Juventus on Tuesday in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final clash.

“It wasn’t a great match from a personal point of view,” he admitted afterward, per the team's official site, after struggling in an unfamiliar midfield role. He did break up play quite well on occasion—resulting in four tackles and three interceptions, as per WhoScored.com—but he struggled to effectively shut down the area in front of the Madrid defence on others.

Carlos Tevez drifted unnoticed past Ramos into space on the edge of the area to receive Claudio Marchisio’s pass and fire an effort on target that was saved by Iker Casillas and put in on the rebound by Alvaro Morata to give Juventus an early lead.

And his distribution was erratic throughout, as illustrated by the below image from FourFourTwo Stats Zone:

Ramos' passes vs. Juventus
Ramos' passes vs. JuventusCredit: FourFourTwo Stats Zone

The experiment of using the centre-back in midfield worked in specific circumstances against Atletico Madrid in the second leg of the quarter-final.

Ramos was, however, less effective against Sevilla at the weekend. And he was even less so on Tuesday against a Juventus side that was well-organised and whose players covered 7.7 kilometres more than their Madrid counterparts over the course of the match, as per M.A. Del Pozo of AS (in Spanish).

The Sevilla-native was one of five Madrid players (alongside Dani Carvajal, Raphael Varane, Marcelo and Gareth Bale) whom AS deemed unworthy of a score (via TikiTakaTactics):

It is not the player's fault. Ramos is simply fulfilling the wishes of his coach and trying to do his best in an unnatural role. “He sacrificed himself for the team,” Carlo Ancelotti explained, as per Dermot Corrigan of ESPN FC, in the wake of the quarter-final win over Atletico.

The real question is how a club who have, as per TransferMarkt, spent €300 million on new players over the last two seasons, including €49 million on defensive midfielders, have found themselves in a position where they have had to field a centre-back in midfield at such a critical juncture of the campaign.

Asier Illarramendi was the most expensive of those defensive-midfield recruits. He was signed for €30 million from Real Sociedad in 2013 but has never established himself as a first-team regular in Madrid.

Illarramendi is best suited to a role as the less vigorous member of a double pivot. It was there that he thrived for La Real alongside Markel Bergara. But at Madrid he has often been required to fulfil defensive or offensive tasks that fall outside of his natural competencies.

Per Diego Torres of El Pais (in Spanish), Ancelotti lost faith in the midfielder following his poor performance against Borussia Dortmund in last season’s Champions League quarter-final. The 24-year-old has failed to take advantage of recent first-team opportunities against Celta Vigo and Almeria and seems unlikely he will be called upon for the second leg.

Illarramendi has spent much of the season on the bench.
Illarramendi has spent much of the season on the bench.Paul White/Associated Press

Another €13 million was dedicated to the January purchase of Lucas Silva from Brazilian champions Cruzeiro. The 22-year-old is more robust than Illarramendi and has shown flashes of talent in his brief appearances to date. He has not, however, had sufficient time to fully adapt to European football.

With few minutes under his belt, it would be unfair to thrust him straight into the limelight in one of the most important matches of Madrid’s season.

The final €6 million went on Casemiro, who is currently enjoying an impressive loan spell at FC Porto. He struggled badly in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final defeat to Bayern Munich but has otherwise shown enough to suggest he will be a competent squad player next season.

But that will do Madrid little good in the final stages of the current campaign. With Illarramendi out of favour and low on confidence, Silva insufficiently prepared and Sami Khedira nowhere to be seen since his poor performance in the 4-3 home defeat to Schalke in March, Ancelotti has little to work with. Sergio Ramos expressed optimism as it pertains to his team putting forth their best effort, per the team's official site:

The knee injury Luka Modric suffered in the win over Malaga in mid-April has dealt a huge blow to Madrid’s chances of picking up silverware during the final weeks of the season. The Croatian is a relatively unique player, combining excellent technical skills and passing range with good energy and work rate and a strong awareness of his defensive responsibilities.

Without him Madrid have looked vulnerable. Their strike force bailed them out against both Celta Vigo and Sevilla, while even Almeria caused some problems in the first half of their 3-0 defeat at the Bernabeu. In Turin on Tuesday those deficiencies resulted in defeat, leaving them with a one-goal disadvantage to overcome on home soil next week.

Squad-planning is not an exact science. Madrid probably didn’t expect Xabi Alonso to leave the club at such short notice last summer. But even so, a team who spend as much as they do should not be in a position whereby it is necessary to move a centre-back into midfield—especially not for the final stages of Europe’s elite competition.

The tie is still open. Madrid’s away goal gives them hope, as does the likely return of Karim Benzema for the second leg. But if Ancelotti’s side are eliminated next Wednesday, serious questions will have to be asked about the recruitment strategy of the club.

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