It was the 68th minute and SC Braga was pressing for an equalizer and pressing Real madrid tough, the spirits increased after reducing the visitors’ lead to 2-1.
It might seem like a small detail, but their link-up can be seen as a sign of the confidence and control Madrid can now summon from players beyond the starting line-up. And this strength in depth has always been considered important at the Spanish club.
Back in 2016-17, Zinedine Zidane La Liga and The Champions League winners relied on players like Mateo Kovacic, Ice shoeJames Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata in major supporting roles—they were collectively known as “Unidad B” (Unit B).
The subject of group division is not unique to Madrid, but this week it was clearly the focus of manager Carlo Ancelotti – with El Clasico on Saturday.
After a 1-1 draw at Seville Last Saturday, as Ancelotti fielded his favorite XI, the Italian spoke of the possibility of changing his squad for the first time this season. For the opener in Portugal on Tuesday night – where victory was won throughout Rodrygo and Jude Bellingham goals — four substitutes were expected to start: Nacho, Fran GarciaLuka Modric and Josela.
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Nacho is the first senior captain at the club and it is very noticeable on the pitch because when he plays he is the one who calls the shot. Against Braga, you could see him giving constant signals to his teammates, especially in the first few minutes. He had six clearances in the game and impressed with his delivery from the back – the long ball Vinicius Jr into space for Rodrygo’s opener.
Madrid have not hesitated to give Nacho the role of third choice central defender after the cruciate ligament injury that keeps Eder Militao out for at least another five months. Now 33, his contract expires at the end of this season but according to sources close to him – who, like all those quoted here, were not authorized to speak publicly – he has already been told he will be able to stay longer than that .
As for the 38-year-old Modric, at the end of last season he had a lucrative offer from a Saudi Arabian club, but he turned it down to stay at Madrid, as no one was going to say no to the idea.
Now his role has changed and he is playing fewer minutes than last season, but those around him are still in perfect condition. “He still has a lot of football left in his legs,” said a source close to the Croatian, while also dismissing any suggestion he could leave in the January window.
At Braga, Modric started for the first time since September’s 3-1 La Liga defeat against Atletico Madrid. He played a near-perfect 94 minutes, completing 73 of his 75 passes (a field-high 98.6 percent accuracy), seven of which created key opportunities for his team. As further proof of his weight in the team, he was the designated penalty taker for the game.
Modric also made six saves and once again proved to be an important player defensively, particularly on the left flank, where on Tuesday night he supported Fran Garcia’s work at left-back.
Garcia, 24, spent three years on Rayo Vallecano before returning to the club that founded him this summer. He is struggling to fit into Madrid’s first team and hasn’t started since the Atletico game either, but he settled the game in Braga brilliantly, making four clearances, five recoveries and having a greater attacking impact than Dani Carvajal on the opposite side.
No one around the team denies that he is a valuable quarterback Ferland Mendywho missed 23 games last season through injury – and the first six of this campaign.
“I changed the line-up a bit because there were some players who were injured,” Ancelotti said after the match. “As I said yesterday, David Alaba is coming back from injury, Mendy could be dangerous. Those who have replaced them have done a very good job.”
Mendy is seen as a less risky option defensively, and Eduardo CamavingaThe play at left-back is also admired, but even if Garcia doesn’t play regularly, his character makes him a positive presence in the dressing room and he has been waiting for his opportunity.
Tuesday was a real missed opportunity for Joselu, but it was no fault of his own. He was supposed to play in Braga, but he was late withdrawn from the team with flu-like symptoms.
Joselu, the first team’s only recognized striker, has always been valued more inside than outside the club. In the end, Rodrygo started opposite Vinicius Jr and the goal he scored was important – it put Madrid ahead but it was also his first strike since the opening of La Liga.
Joselu has scored five goals in 637 minutes from his full-back role and on Saturday in Barcelona it seems certain that he will not be part of the starting line-up.
Meanwhile, Ancelotti’s choice showed Brahim Diaz and Lucas Vazquez — the two outfielders with the fewest minutes so far this season, outside of the injured Dani Ceballos — that they remain a step below the others. Brahim did not come on and Vazquez came on in the 88th minute.
Neither of them have shown any signs of unprofessionalism and they are also the kind of players who create a good atmosphere around the team. No one at the club seems to rule out the possibility of them playing a more prominent role in the future if more opportunities arise due to injury or suspension.
These are the occasions when the ‘B Unit’ comes into its own – just as Nacho and Modric did on Tuesday night, providing security and continuity in times of risk.
(Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
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