Deciphering Real Madrid's slow start in La Liga
It's been an unusual start for the reigning Spanish and European Champions in the La Liga this season. It wasn’t long ago when Real Madrid had a good win over Manchester United in the UEFA Super Cup which was followed by a dominating win over Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup.
The display that made Barcelona defender Gerard Pique admit that it was the first time in almost a decade that he felt inferior to the side from the capital. The expectations were similar when La Liga began, and it was the perfect start. A 3-0 win away at Deportivo La Coruna, without Cristiano Ronaldo, the perfect win to start off a long campaign.
Things though have changed as draws at home to a good Valencia side and a well-organised Levante side followed by a poor display against Real Betis has already pulled the Blancos back in the title race. Seven points behind in a league where there usually is very little margin for error is a cause for concern.
It’s a start that no one saw coming, but what exactly has gone wrong within a period of just a month? The victory against Barcelona on the 17th of August was “Golden Standard” of football according to current Dortmund manager Peter Bosz, and here we are a month on since the whites have failed to win a single game at the Bernabeu.
The games, in all reality and with all due respect to the two sides, were not as difficult as some of the other games in the league keeping in mind Madrid’s strength in depth and that on most days their so-called “B” team could beat these sides. Which was the case on quite a number of occasions last season.
Sticking to our topic of discussion, what exactly has gone wrong for Zidane’s men this season so far? Madrid have created a total of twenty-four chances so far in the league, the most by any side.
Eleven of those have been converted to goals, the conversion in any other circumstance might not seem all that bad but given Real’s recent run, it is something to mull over. Eight of those eleven goals have been away from home, which leaves us with three goals from three games at home. Something that no club in the World would be appreciative of in any circumstance.
Profligacy in front of goal
While the level and quality of football has been pretty good, the team has lacked the clinical touch-up front which is pretty much what it all boils down to. Madrid’s struggle for goals is something that was evident last season, perhaps it was more the grit and determination to win the league at all costs that pulled them through last season.
Benzema and Cristiano, both had below-par starts to their seasons last time around. Alvaro Morata scored crucial goals against Celta and Bilbao at home in the League. James Rodriguez scored the first goal against a tricky Espanyol side. Crucial goals which were the deciding factors in the end of a tough season.
The situation is not too different now, Cristiano is yet to find his flow, Benzema had an awful game against Valencia and has been injured since. While his return will be a relief, expecting him to hit the ground running would be too much of an ask. Bale showed glimpses at Anoeta and against Betis but difficult to see him bagging braces against tight defences at the moment.
Mayoral is Real’s second option as a proper striker and as it stands, he doesn’t look like getting too many chances ahead of Bale and Ronaldo. Perhaps another season out for him at a club where he gets ninety minutes week-in-week might make him the player Madrid want him to be.
Mayoral is, by many, touted as the perfect replacement for Benzema but as things stand, Madrid might need someone more in the mould of Morata, someone who could come off the bench and do the job when it is difficult to break down the opposition centrally.
Mayoral, might not get a chance as long as Benzema plays and could well end up playing at bench or reserve role through the course of the season, not helping matters for either party.
As far as the style is concerned, continuing with the similarities from last season, situations, and teams against whom Madrid have been behind, the last quarter of such games has been all about crosses into the box until met with a header.
Sporting Lisbon, Bilbao at home, Villarreal away, all these games from last season are prime examples of that. The games against Villarreal, where Madrid staged an extraordinary comeback from 2-0 down, Bale and Morata headed home crucial late goals.
These headers and goals are something that Zidane expects from the current bunch of players but while some are yet to find their feet this season, the loss of Morata as a heading exponent is currently being felt. Especially after seeing his recent heading exploits at Chelsea.
Can the substitutions be better?
Zidane tried to force the issue against Betis and was harshly criticised. His decision to take off Modric and Isco, arguably his two most important players, for Mayoral and Asensio drew some flak.
For someone who’s followed Madrid closely will know of this; Asensio-Marcelo on the left and Vasquez-Carvajal on the right are a lethal crossing combinations, combinations that worked wonders late on in games, but this time around those crosses might not have the personnel yet to convert them into goals. Goals that Zidane’s men are so in need of.
Keeping the footballing factors aside, luck does play an important part in such times. Madrid have hit the post a few times this season. The goalkeeping, to be fair has also been top notch, from Valencia’s Neto to Levante’s Raul to Betis’ ex-Madrid keeper Adan, all have been excellent.
One might expect such goalkeeping performances spread out throughout the season but Madrid have had to deal with them on all of their home games, something that has not only docked points off them but has also hit their confidence to an extent.
Madrid have not exactly been solid at the back either but that is something everyone following them is quite used to know. It’s been the story of pretty much every season, successful ones, and unsuccessful ones, they’ve almost always dependent on their forwards to get them out of trouble which currently is not happening.
As things are, goal scoring seems to be a problem and one that could impact their season. The game against Espanyol on Sunday remains an important fixture especially given the current circumstances the club finds itself in, dropping points is not an option, especially at home.
All said and done, football remains a game of uncertainties. Barcelona might start dropping points and who knows Madrid might start scoring for fun again. It’s still quite early in the season and Real Madrid, the reigning Spanish and European Champions, are well equipped to turn such circumstances around.