It was the 68th minute and SC Braga were pushing for an equaliser and pressing Real Madrid hard, their spirits boosted after having cut the away team’s lead to 2-1.
But far from rushing, Nacho and Luka Modric began to combine on the ball with quick touches, slowing down the play and helping calm the situation.
It might seem a small detail, but their link-up can be seen as a sign of the confidence and control Madrid can call on right now from the players beyond their starting XI. And that strength in depth has always been considered important at the Spanish club.
Back in 2016-17, Zinedine Zidane’s La Liga and Champions League winners relied on players such as Mateo Kovacic, Isco, James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata in key back-up roles — they were known collectively as ‘Unidad B’ (B Unit).
The subject of squad rotation is not a unique one to Madrid, but this week it was clearly a focus for manager Carlo Ancelotti — with El Clasico to come this Saturday.
After the 1-1 draw at Sevilla last Saturday, in which Ancelotti fielded his favoured XI, the Italian spoke about the possibility of rotating his line-up for the first time this season. Before kick-off in Portugal on Tuesday night — where victory was achieved through Rodrygo and Jude Bellingham goals — four back-up players were expected to start: Nacho, Fran Garcia, Luka Modric and Joselu.
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Nacho is the first captain in order of seniority at the club and that is very noticeable on the pitch because when he plays he is the one who calls the shots. Against Braga, he could be seen giving constant signals to his team-mates, especially in the first few minutes. He made six clearances in the match and impressed with his passing out from the back — his long ball set Vinicius Junior off into space for Rodrygo’s opener.
Madrid have had no hesitation in giving Nacho the role of third-choice centre-back after the cruciate ligament injury that will keep Eder Militao out for at least five more months. Now 33, his contract expires at the end of this season but, according to sources close to him —who like all those cited here did not have permission to comment publicly — he has already been told he will be able to stay beyond that.
As for 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, where nobody 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 still him in perfect condition. “He still has a lot of football left in his feet,” said a source close to the Croatian, while also rejecting any suggestion he could look to leave in the January window.
At Braga, Modric started for the first time since September’s 3-1 La Liga defeat at Atletico Madrid. He played a near-perfect 94 minutes, completing 73 of his 75 passes (98.6 per cent accuracy, the highest on the pitch), seven of which created key chances for his side. As further proof of his weight in the team, he was the designated penalty taker for the match.
Modric also made six recoveries, and proved once again to be an important player defensively, especially on the left flank, where on Tuesday night he supported Fran Garcia’s work at left-back.
Garcia, 24, spent three years at Rayo Vallecano before returning to the club that formed him this summer. He is finding it hard to adapt to Madrid’s first team and had not started since the Atletico game either, but he solved the match in Braga with merit, making four clearances, five recoveries and having more of an attacking influence than Dani Carvajal on the opposite flank.
Nobody around the team denies that he is a valuable back-up for Ferland Mendy, who 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 game. “As I said yesterday, David Alaba is coming back from injury, Mendy could be a risk. Those who have replaced them have done very well.”
Mendy is seen as a less risky option in defensive terms, and Eduardo Camavinga’s play at left-back is also admired, but even if Garcia does not play regularly his character makes him a positive presence in the dressing room and he has waited for his chance.
Tuesday was something of a chance missed for Joselu, but through no fault of his own. It was planned for him to play at Braga, but he was withdrawn from the squad late with flu-like symptoms.
Joselu, the first-team’s only recognised out-and-out striker, has always been valued more on the inside than the outside of the club. In the end, Rodrygo started up front alongside Vinicius Jr and the goal he scored was important — it gave Madrid the lead but it was also his first strike since La Liga’s opening day.
Joselu has scored five times in 637 minutes from his back-up role, and on Saturday in Barcelona it seems certain he will not be part of the starting line-up.
Meanwhile, Ancelotti’s selection showed Brahim Diaz and Lucas Vazquez — the two outfield players with the fewest minutes played so far this season, apart from the injured Dani Ceballos — that they remain a step below the rest. Brahim did not come on, and Vazquez was introduced 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 want to rule out the possibility of them playing a more prominent role in the future if there are more opportunities through injury or suspension.
Those are the cases where the ‘B Unit’ comes into its own — just like Nacho and Modric did on Tuesday night, providing security and continuity at a time of risk.
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