Why Nacho Fernandez is the most underrated defender in Europe
The story of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor’s pairing is an awe-inspiring one. Despite the friendship being broken up, they enjoyed a brilliant camaraderie for 20 years and won numerous accolades in that period.
However, once personal differences started hitting the ego, the bitterness just piled up to inevitably break off the relationship. After splitting up, the two couldn’t replicate the success that they had when they were together.
Later, Brian Clough himself admitted in his autobiography that he needed Peter Taylor to be a good manager. In all of this, another person who was just as important to Brian Clough is somewhat always left out.
Jimmy Gordon was a coach who was one of Clough’s closest allies before personal differences once again took over. His importance at Derby and Nottingham Forrest is often overlooked because of Clough’s and Taylor’s charismatic flair, but Gordon always made sure that the players were at their optimum physical shape to keep up with Clough’s strict mental demands.
But only a few know his name and even fewer understand his importance.
Cases like Gordon aren’t rare. In this game, there are always some players whose importance is never properly realised, we often call them as the underrated ones. And, right now, Nacho Fernandez is the most underrated defender in Europe.
The fourth center-back of the club is perhaps the most unfortunate outfield position to fulfil. The chances of playing are far and few and when they do get a chance to play, they have to be at their absolute best because a mistake while defending is half a conceded goal ensured.
In most cases, the fourth centre-half of a top club would struggle to challenge for a first-team place even in a mid-table table. However, at Real Madrid, they have the most underrated defender in Europe.
In almost any other top team, Nacho would have been a regular fixture. However, at the Bernabeu, he has to wait in the wings until an injury to a first-choice defender opens up the way for him. Luckily for him, though, this has happened quite a few times this season.
Indeed, he has played in 24 games this season so far, and he has not been constricted to centre-back only. The Spanish international has played 8 games at left-back and one at right-back, and put up solid displays every single time.
At centre-back, his assured and calm demeanour means that Real Madrid have a player who can be relied upon. Indeed, one could say that he has perhaps been the best defender for the Whites this season.
While Raphael Varane’s scary decline and Sergio Ramos’ proneness to making errors in defence is always a point of concern for the Galacticos, Nacho has been very consistent with his performances at the heart of the defence.
At left-back, he might not be able to provide the attacking outlet that Marcelo so easily does, but he is a more stable defender than the Brazilian, always keeping his zone covered and man marked.
The stats are also in his favour. Among all centre-backs, his 2.2 successful tackles-per-game is the highest, closely followed by 1.8 interventions-per-game—which is only beaten by Sergio Ramos. His passing accuracy is 91.7%, which is only marginally beaten by Toni Kroos (91.8%).
However, stats can only reveal what is apparent, but Nacho does so many things that go unseen.
For a start, he is highly ambidextrous. Against Malaga in January, at the 40-minute mark, an aerial ball was flying towards Nacho, who was stationed at left-back after starting the game at right-back. Being naturally inclined towards his right foot, one would have expected him to control the ball with his right, but he instead lifted his left foot and tamed the flying ball with utmost ease.
It might not seem like a big deal; after all, every professional player is supposed to do that, but for someone who is a primarily a right-footed defender, doing that with such grace is no small feat.
This is the reason why he functions so well on both flanks. To judge a player’s ability with his weak foot, all you need to watch is the first-touch with that foot. And Nacho has a very delicate one at that.
While playing on the flanks, he can push forward and cross with both feet and also keep the defensive integrity of the backline intact. At centre-half, his positional awareness and ability to read danger before it inflicts damage make him a fine all-round defender.
The last game against Alaves perfectly depicted the importance of his versatility. He started the game at left-back but was pushed at centre-back when Raphael Varane had to go off injured after just 10 minutes.
Players like Nacho are a rare breed. With him on board, Real Madrid have the best fourth choice centre-back in the world as well as someone who can fill up in any defensive positions. The fact that he hasn’t had an injury over last 7 seasons is a telling testament to his reliability.
For someone whose football career is still threatened by diabetes, Nacho has shown us that with hard work and determination, anything is possible. When he understood that diabetes has the potential to ruin his dream, he did everything in his power—from eating a balanced diet to training altruistically—to protect it.
His job might not be lauded on a scale that Sergio Ramos or Gerard Pique regularly enjoy, but it doesn’t matter to him. All that he cares about is fighting for his team and do his best at defending the crest of the club.
And so far, he is doing a wonderful job.