When one thinks of center backs, the image of a battle-hardened warrior often comes to the forefront. The stern brow of John Terry, the shaggy and sweaty stature of Carles Puyol or the cheeky smile of Sergio Ramos is the image footballing fans have grown accustomed to, for such a commanding position. Yet, among the elite defenders in the world of football, two young players may just be besting them all. Marija Nastasić and Raphaël Varane: the former, of Manchester City, the latter, of Real Madrid. Where once Mats Hummels from Borussia Dortmund stood alone in the next generation of center backs, these two have broken through and established themselves as key contributors for their teams. These two richest teams in the world have the luxury of purchasing any central defender of their choosing, and yet, with their almost-infinite resources, it is two 20 year old's who have broken through and earned roles in the starting XI.
Nastasić is, perhaps, the only successful signing for Roberto Mancini this season; where Maicon and Javi Garcia have failed to make an impression or break into the starting line up, Nastasić quickly displaced Joleon Lescott and made himself an undisputed starter alongside club captain Vincent Kompany. The former Fiorentina man stands at six foot two inches, and at only 20 years old, he has established himself as a viable option in a tough Manchester City backline. What kind of player is Nastasić? Well, comparisons could be drawn with his compatriot Nemanja Vidic, but former England and Manchester City manager Kevin Keegan sees it differently. "Nastasić is a different sort of player to Vidic," Keegan told media. "More of a Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer style of player. I'm not saying Nastasić is as a good as Beckenbauer because we've got to see more of him." Rather big claims for a young center back, but, should Nastasić pan out, he could very well be one of the best long-term signings Manchester City has made since their renaissance period under Sheik Mansour. He would also be one of the cheapest, costing Manchester City only £12 million, as well as Stefan Savić going the other way. He has become a regular for the Serbian national team since last year, and has been capped nine times. His defensive style is similar to Mats Hummels, in that he uses all his assets to defend and isn’t afraid to get into a tough tackle. He has a strong head on his shoulders but is also capable with his feet. Nastasić is also a very efficient passer, averaging over 85 per cent in his pass success stat. It is this, plus his combined pace and calmness on the ball that makes him a capable defender all around.
Nastasić has already picked up a Player of the Month nod for his performances in November, only one month after his debut, and what a debut it was. Nastasić first pulled on the baby blue of Manchester City against Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League at the Santiago Bernabéu. Since then, he hasn’t even come close to losing the starting spot. So, as Matija Nastasić, only 19 years old at the time, faced down his opponents in white shirts in one of the greatest football stadiums in the world, it would be hard to believe that another 19-year-old defender would also be lining up opposite him: Raphaël Varane.
Born a little under a month after Nastasić, Varane has made similar waves over in Madrid. He, too, has broken into the starting line up in Sergio Ramos and Pepe’s absence. It’s hard to find a flaw in Varane. Like Nastasić, Varane is a young and capable defender. He is an inch taller but relies less on his physicality and more on his defensive prowess. He is a defender who is absolutely aware of what is happening all around him, and his positioning reflects his ability to think steps ahead of his opponents. He is also very bright and smart, both on and off the field. He has been described as an elder in a youngster’s body because of his playing style. He also picked up the Spanish language much quicker than his teammate, Karim Benzema.
In Spain, Varane has been nicknamed Don Limpio, or Mr. Clean, for how consistent he is in both his tackling and his marking. He hardly commits a foul, but is always in the right place at the right time. His one flaw is not even a flaw – he is far too modest and reserved off the field. Jose Mourinho has prohibited him from giving solo interviews, to protect him from his own star power in an already star-studded Real Madrid team. Varane is a different kind of defender from Nastasić, but he is equally effective. The one area Varane has an advantage is in his shooting. "Right from the start you could see in training that he had great natural qualities: speed, positioning, power and something that people haven't yet seen – a powerful shot with both feet. But the fact that he has reached this level so fast took everyone by surprise," Alvaro Arbeloa told media. And, of course, Varane was cheap. He cost Real Madrid a measly €10 million from RC Lens in France. When Zinedine Zidane, the head scout for Real Madrid, was chasing his signature, he had called the young French defender, but Varane politely asked Zidane to call him back later, since he was studying for an economics exam at the time! Varane explained later that he did not realize it was Zidane, such was his commitment to finishing his schoolwork.
All in good fun for the two, especially for Varane, whose handling of the phone call didn’t stop him from suiting up for the French national team. He has already played a handful of games and has lined up alongside Valencia’s Adil Rami (who managed to injure himself a few days ago dancing the Gangnam Style dance for a goal celebration). Varane looks to have established himself as a regular for a Real Madrid team that has, historically, spent little thought on the defensive side of the roster. Where the first Galacticos project failed upon the sale of Claude Makelele, this time around, Madrid has been built with a solid backline first. Varane will be an important piece of that defensive foursome for years to come. He and Nastasić certainly have bright futures ahead of them. Perhaps one day soon, the two will meet again on the grass of the arena, sharpened with experience and with their defensive skills honed to perfection. When that day comes, we will look back on that fateful September night in the Santiago Bernabeu as the day two footballing giants met face to face when they were but children. What a sight it shall be.