5 Reasons why Real Madrid have failed to defend their Spanish title
Trying to understand why Real Madrid have failed to defend their La Liga title.
Real Madrid’s flamboyant start to this season did not last. Their impressive wins over Manchester United in the European Super Cup and Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup were soon overshadowed. Back to back draws to Valencia and Levante, followed by a shock defeat at home to Real Betis, all within the first five matchdays. With five games to go, Madrid have not only given up any hopes of defending their Spanish title but have given it up quite easily to arch rivals Barcelona, who are currently on a record-breaking domestic unbeaten streak. Real Madrid’s start-of-season slump have cost them.
This season, in La Liga, Madrid have already suffered eight draws and five losses as opposed to the six draws and three losses they suffered all of last season. The mojo element to their game seems to have rubbed off on some of their opposition. We’ve had Valencia, Levante, Real Betis, Barcelona, Villareal, and more recently, Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao all coming to the Santiago Bernabéu and taking points off the defending champions. It seems a combination of factors are at play here, all contributing to Madrid’s domestic woes.
1. Slow Start
The most obvious contributor is their sluggish start to the domestic season. It is, of course, incredibly difficult to sustain momentum from a victorious campaign but the lack of cohesiveness within the team and form of many key players during the first half of the season really hurt Madrid’s chances of defending their title. Injuries and suspensions to key players was also a factor – Ronaldo was suspended for Madrid’s first four league (five including the Spanish Super Cup second leg) fixtures after pushing referee Ricardo de Burgos Bengoetxea following a sending off in the first leg Spanish Super Cup encounter with Barcelona. Further, Gareth Bale, Keylor Navas, Toni Kroos, Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Dani Carvajal, Mateo Kovačić, Raphael Varane, among others, have all spent time on the sidelines.
2. Super Subs
Madrid’s finishing has been suspect for most of this season and this is most evident when we consider how, en route to their 33rd title, Real Madrid scored in every La Liga game - a league record. Although, they continue to have a bench that is filled to the brim with talent across positions, they have a depleted forward line. This season they do not have the luxury of goals off the bench with the departures of Alvaro Morata, James Rodriguez and even Mariano Diaz (who’s having an incredible first season at Lyon). Last season, Morata and James scored a total of 23 goals between them in La Liga, the former enjoying his best season in terms of goal-scoring.
3. Need for a New Striker
It is no secret that Karim Benzema’s goal scoring has greatly declined, with only five league goals this season, he’s been wasteful in front of goal. Of course, he has 10 assists to his name in the league this season, and his contributions in terms of link-up play, playing to the strengths of Ronaldo and coming in deep to help the midfield are all quite underrated. But the fact of the matter is that Real Madrid are missing a quality striker, one who can contribute in terms of goals and in terms of overall play, as Benzema has for so many seasons. This also increases Madrid’s reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo, with only four league goals in the first half of the season and 20 in the second half, his form has greatly impacted Madrid’s lifecycle this season. In addition to this, Zidane has also been playing Gareth Bale out of position, the few times he has been given the nod, greatly hampering his ability to influence the game.
4. Underutilisation of the Bench
Further, Zidane has not used his bench as effectively as he could. Dani Ceballos and Marcos Llorente especially have been left out of many squad lists this season and have barely seen minutes, despite the former always dazzling everytime he’s given an opportunity. Madrid have struggled against teams playing a low block, recently the game against Athletic Bilbao was testament to this, the use of players like Ceballos and Mateo Kovačić effectively could help counter these systems, instead of the routine crossing and hoping someone gets on the end of it.
5. Identity Crisis
Finally, Real Madrid’s lack of identity has hurt them. Zidane has tested many formations in the league and otherwise, with different player combinations that has affected cohesiveness and the team’s ability to build rhythm.
They have played the flat 4-4-2 the most this season in the league with 10 appearances. It appears to be the most effective system garnering 35 goals (8 wins and 2 draws). The 4-3-3 with the BBC frontline of Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo is another used to great effect – with 20 goals in six appearances (4 wins and 2 draws). The 4-4-2 diamond has been used on 7 occasions scoring nine goals, but with 2 wins, 3 draws and 2 losses it can be argued that it has been the least effective of all systems employed by Zidane, yet it is the one he persists with in the big games.