Whom do Real Madrid miss the most?
After starting the season in appallingly bad form, Real Madrid seem to have settled into some sort of rhythm now. Personally, I still feel that they are a house of cards just waiting to fall because their consistency levels leave a lot to be desired. But for now, let’s try and understand where Madrid are particularly lacking at the moment.
As is typical in the Spanish style of play, Madrid employ the 4-2-3-1 formation. Even though you are perhaps very familiar with the squad, let’s do a quick recap. At the back, we have Arbeloa, Ramos, Pepe and Marcelo. Defensive midfield is Alonso and Khedira. Attacking midfield is Di Maria, Ozil and Ronaldo and up front is the Higuain / Benzema switch up. Pause for a moment and look at the names again. Marcelo: Injured. Khedira: Injured. Replacements? Michael Essien at left back and Luca Modric at right holding midfield. With Fabio Coentrao sidelined with injury for quite some time, Madrid have been particularly vulnerable while defending this season. Raul Albiol was absolutely horrible in the game against Levante this past weekend and while Raphael Varane has shown a lot of promise, he has miles to go.
So, just how influential are Marcelo and Khedira?
Several people, including me have been overtly critical of Khedira in the past. I have found him to be sloppy and unfit, often losing the ball too easily. But he has worked on his fitness ever since the European Championship this summer. His ball control has improved tremendously. What Madrid need right now is a physical presence in the defensive midfield who is able to dart backwards and protect his defenders while making plays up front as well.
Alonso and Khedira complemented each other perfectly and had settled into a very good rhythm. There is a lot of physicality to Khedira’s play and this is often overlooked. While Modric is no doubt a good player, he is not suited for this sort of a role, especially in Spanish football. Modric’s natural ability is the short pass game with a lot of inside draws and quick bursts on the wing as well as through the center. This is in stark contrast to what Khedira does. As a result of Modric playing his natural game, Alonso has become more of a false five in defense and has restricted his runs up front. Khedira also has a superb understanding with Di Maria and Ozil often linking up with the two of them superbly to form a passing triangle that moves well together on the pitch very smoothly.
Modric has tried to emulate this into his style of play, but it will not come easily. He has to drop a lot of Habits he picked up during his days at White Hart Lane. Madrid need Khedira back. Quickly.
Ah Marcelo! Where do I begin? This little Brazilian has now incurred the wrath of Mourinho by getting himself sidelined for three months with a broken leg. As luck would have it, Madrid’s backup left back, Fabio Coentrao was injured too. In comes Michael Essien. I don’t want to say “I told you so” but wow – talk about disappointment! I’m not sure if Marcelo has raised the bar or Essien has lowered it, but the difference is scary. Marcelo’s ability is far superior, no doubt. But what Madrid miss the most, nay, what Ronaldo misses the most is when he can sprint through the left wing and then fake out his guard and dart towards the middle knowing fully well that a few feet behind him is Marcelo, ready to charge through the left (I cannot help but reminisce about the Roberto Carlos, Raul and Fernando Morientes days as I think about Marcelo) and can very suddenly charge through this middle.
Marcelo affords Ronaldo the chance to take more risks and the two of them have developed a brilliant understanding when it comes to the tiki-taka passes and they have understood each others runs very well. Moreover, just as Khedira and Ozil work well together, so do Marcelo and Ozil. Ozil has the unenviable task of having to keep an eye (snicker!) on the left and the right and looking for opportunities where he can thread one of his magnificent through passes to either Ronaldo or Higuain / Benzema. With all due respect to Essien, he is not at all cut out for playing the supporting role to Ronaldo or even suited for the Madrid style of play.
He looks unsure of himself and at times takes too long to make a decision. More than once, I have seen a stationery Marcelo immediately followed by a sprinting Ronaldo because he knows that Marcelo expects him to do something like this and would have mentally made the pass already. Essien is not in sync and actually looks confused when Ronaldo does make his runs. He prefers the direct pass rather than the through ball, something which Ozil must absolutely detest!
With Benzema in his own world after his inspirational Champions League against City and then Ajax, he has gone to sleep. Higuain seems to have stepped up his game, but as always, the goal scoring is down to Ronaldo’s prowess and genius. With Ozil and Alonso having to do parts of Modric’s job and no Marcelo around, Ronaldo is now a lethal weapon with no ammunition. For him to score, he needs to be fed the ball. The ball feeders are busy trying to untangle themselves from the midfield mess they are in. The smooth consistency of last season is lacking and they look very rusty. Their mid week performance against Dortmund was quite ordinary by their standards and while Mourinho has maintained that he is pleased with the progress, he is no doubt apprehensive about how long this will last as we approach the knockout stages in the Champions League and Copa Del Rey action picks up as well. If we compare the current situation with that of Barca, even though Pique and Puyol were missing, Valdes and Alba as defenders and attacking wingers was of great help to Fabregas, Xavi and Iniesta to feed Messi or Villa or Sanchez the ball.
Madrid have unsteadily climbed to third place in the Spanish league, eight points adrift of Barca with little hope of catching up to them, forget beating them. The special one has made some interesting choices so far this year – among them being having Callejon as a starter, bringing on Raul Albiol at strange times, not using Kaka‘ as often as Madridistas would have hoped and handing Morata his debut a lot later than he should have. But, who am I to doubt the God himself! I trust his decisions blindly and my football knowledge and instinct is about 1/10000th of what he has. I am just a Madridista who is waiting for the magic to return!
My hope in the meantime is that they try something radical like using Kaka in the holding midfield alongside Alonso and slowly start giving him more time to play so that he gets his confidence back. I still believe he has the skills in him, but he needs to believe it too. The best way to do that is not on the training ground, but on the pitch, on matchday. In the meantime, here’s hoping for the speedy return of Marcelo and Khedira. Hala Madrid!