Versatile Nacho well prepared to step into bigger role for Real Madrid
A backup player leads a curious existence. The child who plays football on the hallowed turf of their garden dreams of protagonism, of scoring the winning goal, of heroism. The backup player is a slave to patience in a state of perpetual almost-ness. He is usually on the periphery of the scene, and rarely handed a speaking role.
At the age of 27, and six years after making his competitive debut for Real Madrid, Nacho has been given a set of important lines to recite.
Injuries to defensive players, combined with Zinedine Zidane's fondness for rotation, have presented the versatile No. 6 with more opportunities than he has been accustomed to at the start of previous seasons. Nacho has delivered assured defensive displays since Zidane took charge of the first team in January 2016. Yet distinguished performances at left-back against Espanyol and Dortmund, and to a lesser extent against Alaves, reveal the true value of his adaptability.
As a right-footed centre-half, deputising for Marcelo and Theo Hernandez on the left is not a role that comes naturally to Nacho. Nevertheless, in the 2-0 victory over Espanyol, the Castilla graduate made more tackles (5), interceptions (3) and blocks (1) than any of his fellow white-shirted players.
Nacho assumed the attacking obligations of his role with the ease of a man lowering himself into a gently bubbling Jacuzzi. The sole decorations on the heat maps that plotted his average position were generous dollops of red, situated midway through the opposition's half. He is not a centre-half who views the land beyond the half-way-line frontier as nosebleed territory.
Nacho fits within the ideology that Florentino Perez had for the club when he began his first spell as president in 2000.
Perez wanted to blend a team of global stars, like Zidane, with home-grown players, like Paco Pavon. And so the "Zidanes and Pavones" phrase was born. It was a two-pronged approach: local players would cultivate a sense of attachment between club and city, while the red-carpet players, the Galacticos, would build the global brand. Economic necessity lurked beneath the veneer of a purely sporting project. Real Madrid could not afford to pay Zidane, Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo or David Beckham without the sub-class of young Spanish players who earned a relative pittance.
The approach did not work, partly because the so-called Pavones were not good enough. Nacho is a more complete player than Pavon. Paradoxically, he fits more neatly within the home-grown half of the Zidanes and Pavones ideology than the man it was named after.
The romanticised notion of a Madrid boy remaining at the club as a one-club man would suit Perez's vision. That status also appeals to Nacho. He revealed in the paper copy of Marca on Thursday that an agreement to extend his contract beyond its current June 2018 expiry date is "almost done," and added that he would like to end his career at Real Madrid.
He referred to Real Madrid as "the club of my life" in an interview with the same newspaper. This probably explains why he has historically accepted a peripheral role at the Bernabeu. With little hope of dislodging Sergio Ramos or Raphael Varane from the team, a genuine identification with the club has kept him from pursuing a career elsewhere. If that decision is valued on the currency of titles, Nacho has invested well.
He probably will be given the chance to add the Jules Rimet trophy to a burgeoning cabinet as well. Julen Lopetegui has consistently selected Nacho in his Spain national team squads. La Seleccion secured their passage to the 2018 World Cup with a victory over Albania, and it is likely that Nacho will be on the plane flying east.
The immediate future will see Nacho switch flanks to cover at right-back. Dani Carvajal has been ruled out indefinitely with a pericardium infection, an inflammation of the lining around the heart. Eighteen-year-old Achraf Hakimi registered an assured debut performance against Espanyol, but Zidane is likely to favour Nacho's experience with Madrid cut adrift of pace-setters Barcelona.
"The problem is the uncertainty," lamented Carlos Forjanes in Diario AS, in reference to the length of Carvajal's absence. The ambiguity is naturally concerning. But with Nacho as deputy, the right-back berth will be loaned to capable hands. He is a player who rarely steals the show, but never fluffs his lines.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93