Positioning for a centre-back at Real Madrid requires a lot of concentration – a lot of effort too, because we often play very high up the pitch, which means we have a lot of space behind us. We have to find the right balance between whether we come out and press the striker to stop them turning and playing forward, or whether we anticipate and run backwards to cover the space. It involves a lot of communication with your team-mates.
I’m able to run fast but I try to use that as little as possible, which means that I’m well positioned and I don’t have to exert myself as much. That’s experience and it’s something that you work on. With experience it’s easier to anticipate strikers playing in behind. Often, when you defend those types of situations, the striker gets disheartened and feels as though they’re out of ideas. It’s a part of my game that I’ve improved a lot in recent years. For me, a good defence is about disarming the striker. It’s about the striker saying to himself, “If I go long, I won’t get the ball; if I drop off and ask for it to feet, I won’t be able to turn around. I’m trapped.” I like it when the striker feels kind of imprisoned.
Obviously physical impact is important in our position, but it’s not just that. For me, tackling is a last resort. It’s the last option when you’ve been beaten for pace or you want to intercept a pass, but it’s no longer the most common way of stopping the striker, at least not in my style of play. If you’re well positioned, if there are no mismatches and if you’re organised, there’s no need to tackle; anticipation and reading of the game can make more of a difference. Football is played very quickly, so going to ground is a disadvantage and can put your team in danger, because the referee might interpret it as a foul. It’s a very delicate zone in which we play and there’s no room for error. Tackling means taking a risk and we try to take as few of them as possible. It’s something that I try to analyse before I intervene and when I go in [for a tackle], I go in at full throttle. I try to be as surgically precise as possible.
It constantly changes between zonal and man-to-man defending during a match. It’s really rare to see a team that just defends man-to-man or just zonal; it changes depending on the situation. Sometimes, when we press high up the pitch, it’s man-to-man; sometimes, when we sit deeper, it’s zonal. But we’re also close to our own goal so everyone has to cover for a team-mate – or even more than one, depending on the area of the pitch.
Often it’s a decision that you make in a split second. You need to know whether to cover your man or whether to cover an area to protect your team-mates, and sometimes you’ve got to do both, you’ve got to alternate. I like to position myself so that my team-mates feel more comfortable, so that they have fewer areas to cover and can concentrate on smaller areas of the pitch.
I don’t think that my playing style immediately makes you think that I’m a warrior. That’s not what stands out first about me. However, I do think that I have a warrior mentality. I quite like challenges. The harder the challenge, the more I enjoy it; the less you believe in me, the more motivated I am. That’s my way of being and thinking, and I think that is what’s helped me get to the highest level and stay there for several years. I’m always trying to stretch my limits and aim even higher.