Pepe ready to be Madrid’s clasico rock
When José Callejón scored late on to give Real Madrid the lead at Mallorca on Saturday after a tough night, his coach José Mourinho was determined his side wouldn’t let it slip. Having thrown caution to the wind to chase the points, he immediately resolved to change tack on taking the lead and lock the result down.
When Mourinho sprang into action, it was Pepe who the boss approached with a piece of paper detailing fresh tactical instructions, in order that the Portugal international should carry them out on his behalf. At his best, Pepe is key to this side, and Mourinho knows it.
By the numbers: Real Madrid
Because of some high-profile incidents, Pepe's reputation as a on-field discipline problem precedes him; however, last season's La Liga record depicts the Real Madrid center back as one of the teams well-behaved defenders.
Though they sit pretty with a five-point cushion at the top of La Liga, El Real’s start to 2012 has been one of attrition. Sluggish first-half displays against Mallorca and Granada (last week) were overcome, and there was definitely some post-holiday rustiness when Málaga visited the Bernabéu in the Copa del Rey. The away side was 2-0 up after a first 45 minutes, leading Mourinho to memorably remark later he “would have changed all eleven players if I could have.” Again, El Real came back.
In last Tuesday’s return leg against former coach Manuel Pellegrini’s side, in which Real set up this week’s quarter-final clash with Barcelona, more solidity was required. Against a mobile and inventive Málaga team, the capital club defended admirably to control the game before Karim Benzema’s goal made the breakthrough. As Málaga battled to the bitter end to get back into the tie, Mourinho’s men stood firm, and it was Pepe’s perfectly-timed sliding challenge that brilliantly denied José Salomón Rondón. He was unbeatable.
The image of Pepe as a beacon of solidity takes some getting used to, certainly for those who remember his meltdown against Getafe at the Bernabéu back in April 2009. His crazy assaults on Javier Casquero and Juan Ángel Albín, after conceding a penalty for a foul on the first, landed him a 10-match ban and left him openly questioning his future in the game.
It was a far cry from his first major international tournament, Euro 2008, with Portugal. Brazilian-born but keen to pay a debt of gratitude to the nation in which he made his first steps as a professional (and still takes his holidays in), he carried the demeanor of a man on dream holiday; completely comfortable yet held in rapt wonder at the same time. In one press conference, he punctuated cheerfully answering questions with cheekily winking at an attractive female journalist in the first few rows.
In the competition itself he showed the cultured side that marks him out from other central defenders, striding home to stroke home Portugal’s first goal of the championship against Turkey after a sublime one-two with Nuno Gomes.
That mutual warmth between Pepe and Portugal has not cooled with time. He produced two outstanding performances this autumn when his national side needed him most, in both legs of the Euro 2012 qualifying play-off against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Catalan daily Sport suggested that on Saturday Mourinho was getting his “anti-Barça tactical plan” out early, but as regards Pepe, it is certainly hoped that the coach has a new idea after last season’s use of him as a defensive midfielder. It’s not off the table. “I’ll play wherever the coach tells me to,” the player himself told journalists after Saturday’s game. “If he thinks that me playing in midfield is best for the team, then we’ll go on with that. I only want to help the team.”
Monday’s edition of Marca argued that it could be the right plan. “Pepe was Mou’s secret weapon last season to curb Barça’s game,” it wrote. “With the Portuguese midfielder on the pitch, Madrid only conceded one goal. Neither in the Copa del Rey nor in the Champions League, before his sending-off, did Madrid concede a goal.”
This is a very selective statistic indeed, with the important portion being ”with (Pepe) on the pitch.” His sending-off in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final at the Bernabéu was the turning point, and a huge step in barring the way to the longed-for decima (tenth European champions title). Players and bench pleading injustice couldn’t hide the fact that the high, studs-first challenge on Dani Alves was awful.
The position wasn’t new to Pepe, of course. Carlos Queiroz had already placed him there for Portugal with qualification for the 2010 World Cup slipping through his fingers. It was an uncomplicated, straight spoiling tactic, and worked pretty well. Queiroz’s reliance on his new shield was such that even after Pepe’s cruciate knee ligament injury, sustained in December 2009’s match at Valencia, he continued to pin all his hopes on him. When Pepe returned in the third group match in South Africa against Brazil, it was his first start since that December night at the Mestalla.
In Marca’s A-Z of keys to the Clásico this week, “F is for fouls”. Miguel Serrano wrote: “Madrid mustn’t confuse aggression and pressure with committing too many fouls.”
In a 10/11 season with many positive points, perhaps Mourinho’s biggest mistake was overdoing the creation of a siege mentality. In the spring ‘World Series’ of four Clásicos spanning Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League, El Real only once managed to finish with 11 men - and somehow, it was always someone else’s fault.
If such spoiling tactics have often been seen as synonymous with Mourinho, he appears to be moving away from that. Saturday’s switch at San Moix – along with most things that Mourinho has done this season – suggested that he has developed his ideas. The withdrawal of Álvaro Arbeloa for Kaká as Real sought a way back into the match pretty much produced the three-man backline that the side had worked on in training during the week.
This is a far more suitable employment of Pepe’s talents. He simply has a greater sense of control at center back, from where he can see the whole game, organize and pick his passes with greater surety. Moreover, he’s not sent into the game with this mentality of being a ‘destroyer.’ His eagerness is set up to spill over against Andrés Iniesta and Xavi. In the heat of the clásico, he needs to keep his head, rather than be wound up by those around him.
Real Madrid have evolved this season, and so has Pepe. Keeping him in defense, and playing to his strengths, will be the best way to prove that.