A familiar scene played out in Turin on Thursday. It was during Spain’s World Cup qualifier against Italy, and La Roja were cruising toward victory with roughly 20 minutes left when chaos struck. All of a sudden, the Italians, who had, to that point, failed to effectively press the Spaniards all match, began to control and move the ball with more purpose, furiously attacking David De Gea’s goalmouth.
Then it happened.
After first lazily clearing a longball, Spain captain Sergio Ramos clipped the on-rushing Eder, conceding a penalty. Daniele De Rossi subsequently buried the spot-kick, giving the hosts a share of the spoils. It was a scene that’s become commonplace whenever and wherever Spain compete: Ramos, with his hands on his head, wondering how the hell he got into this predicament.
Although Spain ruled over Italy in every discernible way during the majority of the game, from possession, to corners, to shots, it was a single moment of madness from Real Madrid’s Madman Du Jour that punctuated the missed opportunity. Still, as only he can do, Ramos managed to find a little luck by not picking up a second yellow on the challenge, ultimately sparing him a sending-off.
So far this season, for both club and country, Ramos has conceded four penalties and garnered six cautions. And this is just 12 games in. Like his musical namesake, Sergio Leone, the 2016 version of Ramos has more than enough good, bad, and ugly to fill the Bernabeu 10 times over.
Over the last few months, Ramos has been giving his footballing interpretation of the William Foster character from the 1993 film Falling Down, as if he’s on a personal mission for clarity through unbridled destruction.
Watch him for Madrid and you’re likely to see him liberally roving forward with the ball like he’s taping one of those Nike Joga Bonito commercials. Where classic defensemen like Beckenbauer or Cannavaro would focus on keeping shape and guarding their penalty area, Ramos often acts as the shape-breaker in the attack, forcing his deep midfielders to fill in his void. These ventures have paid off, sort of.
He’s scored three goals this season, one of them — the second in Madrid’s 3-2 UEFA Super Cup victory over Sevilla — being a prime example of the auxiliary forward position Ramos regularly finds himself in these days.
It’s a bit startling, to be sure, watching Ramos embark on these walkabouts seemingly at-will. But it’s also plenty fascinating. Here’s a video compiling each of his touches on the ball during last month’s Liga match against Villarreal:
Here, Ramos is virtually taking up every position over the course of the 1-1 affair. He even plays winger at one point (4:25 in the video), delivering an unsurprisingly wretched cross to nobody in particular.
It’s not entirely clear if Ramos has been given the order from either Zinedine Zidane or Julen Lopetegui to roam as freely as he has in recent months or if it’s simply being done on his accord. It’s fairly justifiable to allow a grizzled, decorated veteran like Ramos to call his own shots, regardless of how unorthodox they seem; this is a reigning Champions League holder, for goodness’ sake.
Unfortunately, as of late, Ramos’s YOLO joyrides and reckless decision-making have caused his teams lots of unneeded pressure, even if they’ve also resulted in a few goals-for. He’s become a model risk/reward player. In a central defense that includes Pepe, Ramos appears to be the powder keg.
This phenomenon was on full display Thursday, as Ramos surveyed the ends of the Juventus Stadium pitch over the course of the 90 minutes, occasionally stopping to either give the ball away with a lazy pass or to partake in some brilliant defending (such is the current dichotomy of the Andalusian). On the other hand, his national partner/domestic rival, Gerard Pique, has managed to mirror Ramos’s offensive impact at Barcelona, but with less downside.
Like his compatriot, the Catalan acts as an additional penetrator in Barca’s attack. Pique has tallied four goals this season, although he’s yet to concede a penalty and has generally kept his face free of any egg all the while. It could be argued that he’s playing the best football of his career. With that being said, it’s Real Madrid who sit tied with Atletico Madrid atop La Liga, having yet to taste defeat. And it’s Real Madrid who’ve given up three fewer goals than Barcelona. So, Ramos could be swirling into madness these days, but as Akira Kurosawa said, “In a mad world, only the mad are sane.”
This certainly isn’t a referendum on Ramos as a defender, or even a suggestion that his days for either Madrid or Spain should be over. Sure, he’s now 30-years-old, but his recent club accolades in Europe prove beyond doubt that he’s still one of the world’s best. This is merely an exploration of one of world soccer’s most enigmatic, inconceivable stars.
No matter how many times the Andalusian has been skinned alive by rival Lionel Messi, or shamed by his elder Iker Casillas, or bewildered that any official has dared to blow their whistle at him, he always comes back harder and louder. This Sergio Ramos we’re seeing right now is the hardest and loudest we’ve ever seen. And it’s pretty awesome.