It’s become almost predictable at this point. Any time Real Madrid are trailing going into the closing stages of a game, or drawing when they’d expect to win, droves of observers take to Twitter to wittily voice their premonitions: “89th-minute Sergio Ramos winner incoming”.
They are almost invariably proven correct, as the Spanish centre-back climbs highest to connect with an accurate corner or free-kick to power home a face-saving goal.
That was once again the case last weekend, when Ramos headed in a Toni Kroos delivery to secure a crucial three points for Los Blancos against Real Betis with only nine minutes to play.
Almost instantly the praise came flooding in for the 30-year-old World Cup winner: the big-game player, Madrid’s “Mr. Reliable”, the “best defender in the world”.
But could it be that Ramos’ remarkable ability to crop up with vital goals for his club is disguising the fact that he’s not as competent in his bread and butter defensive duties as would be expected of an elite centre-back?
There’s no doubt about it: the way Ramos attacks aerial balls from set pieces is absolutely phenomenal. At 6’0”, the Spaniard is by no means a towering presence inside the penalty area, yet he consistently demonstrates an indomitable drive to meet swinging centres, while possessing near-flawless heading technique when he gets there.
He also seems to thrive most when the chips are down, either in high-profile matches or encounters in which frustration and tension are palpable inside the Bernabéu.
Indeed, 19 of Ramos’ last 23 goals have been scored while Madrid are either drawing or losing. A statistic made even more remarkable when you consider he plays for one of the best teams in the world who do not find themselves in such situations as regularly as inferior sides.
In the 2014 Champions League final, it was his header in the third minute of stoppage time which dragged Carlo Ancelotti’s men back from the precipice of defeat to rivals Atlético Madrid. And his brace against Bayern Munich in the semi-final helped get them to the showpiece event in the first place.
Last season it was a similar story, with Ramos bagging the opener against the same opposition as well as coolly converting his penalty in a shootout victory.
For all of this, the former Sevilla prodigy absolutely deserves credit.
However, as a central defender, scoring goals is not part of his job description; keeping them out is. His proclivity for finding the net is a wonderful and welcome bonus for Los Blancos, but Ramos is too often culpable for Madrid’s own defences being breeched, and his goals record should not detract from that.
Ramos’ undying commitment cannot be questioned – the Madrid captain embraces the challenges he faces on the pitch and is not shy of confrontation. But he is often rash, tearing into challenges too vigorously and conceding fouls or being skipped away from by an attacker, when a more level-headed defender would have stood his ground.
The 140-cap La Roja man has made more tackles per 90 minutes (2.4) this season than fellow centre-backs Raphaël Varane (1.6) and Pepe (1.5), but, as legendary Italian defender Paolo Maldini once said: “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.”
No La Liga player has conceded more penalties than Ramos this season (four). And it could have been more had he not managed to convince the referee that the ball had struck his face, rather than his hand, in a game against Espanyol, while another handball in a 2-2 draw with Las Palmas also went unpunished – all during a period between August and November which saw him give away three spot kicks.
In the UEFA Super Cup earlier this season, Ramos was culpable for the concession of a penalty in what was the beginning of a run of particularly shaky form for the defender. However, his error was glossed over by the fact that he went on to score a stoppage-time header against Europa League holders Sevilla.
Ramos’ poor disciplinary record has also been widely discussed throughout his career. With 21 red cards to his name since moving to the Bernabéu as a teenager in 2005 – an average of one every 24.14 games -- no player in the grand history of the eleven-time European champions has been sent off more often than their current No.4.
The red cards by no means make Ramos a bad defender, but it does make him somewhat unreliable, forcing his team-mates to play without him far too often.
His scoring record should be celebrated and will no doubt be a factor in ensuring he is remembered as a club legend long after he has retired. With seven La Liga goals to his name this term he is only one behind Álvaro Morata and Neymar in the scorers’ chart, but defenders should not be judged on their strike rate.
Big-game player? Sure; a consistent scorer of clutch goals? Absolutely. One of the very best defenders in the world, however, Sergio Ramos is not. Equal parts hero and liability.