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17th Oct 2019

Real Madrid are La Liga leaders but remain deeply flawed

Jeff Simon

18 points from eight games and top of the league.

What more can Madridistas ask for? On the face of it, all is well in the great (demanding) state of Real Madrid. But scrape at the attractive facade and you’re welcomed by a crumbling and borderline risible institution.

Let’s offer credit where it’s due though – Real Madrid are the only unbeaten team left in La Liga, they’ve capitalised on fellow title challengers Atletico Madrid and Barcelona’s shortcomings, they escaped from the Madrid derby with a point and could’ve stolen a win for their efforts, have the league’s top scorer in Karim Benzema among their ranks and have other players hitting all the right notes on the pitch.

Don’t be misled by the convincing act though, as Madrid’s troubles run quite deep. Let’s start with last season.

First, they clumsily poached Julen Lopetegui from the Spanish national team a day before they were due to commence their World Cup campaign. Genius.

Under his tutelage, the team began in ominous form – going on a six-game unbeaten streak and winning five of those matches. Benzema grabbed four goals and three came from Bale during that run. And then, things began to unravel – RM sacked Lopetegui after a 5-1 hammering at the hands of their arch-rivals Barcelona before instating Santiago Solari who lasted 133 days before getting the sack and finally, the prodigal son Zinedine Zidane arrived bringing a renewed optimism to a club grovelling as the laughing stock of the footballing world.

Alas, things didn’t go to plan. Madrid were 12 points behind leaders Barcelona when Solari was sacked and that gap extended to 19 points (a record) by the time Barca were crowned champions. Zizou ended up losing four of the 11 games he managed including back-to-back losses for the first time in his RM tenure. To lavish the entirety of the blame on the Frenchman would be unfair, as it’s the players who don the shirt and wage war on the pitch.

Exactly two years before the 2018-19 season, Real were touring the streets of Madrid celebrating their Champions League triumph over Juventus, a week after they won their 33rd La Liga crown – their first double in 59 years.

In the aftermath of their historic triumph, talk began to surface of a dynasty forming and Luka Modric further fuelled that fire with his belief that this team could dominate Europe for years to come. And who could blame the veteran? the team had a solid spine of seasoned champions complemented by an exciting crop of talented youngsters in the squad.

The Beautiful Game can be cruel though – all the team planning, coaching, experience and training never guarantee success as Real experienced first-hand the following season. Despite winning their 13th Champions League, their league and Copa del Rey losses served up a grim warning of the flagging players.

In the summer of 2018, as Cristiano jumped ship, there was talk of other squad players stepping up their goal contributions to fill the CR7 sized void in the attack. Gareth Bale even came out saying that he believed Madrid played more as a team without Cristiano. That might have been true but if their results were anything to go by, they certainly missed their mercurial talisman.

In fact, the team scored their fewest La Liga goals in 18 years and failed to score at all in nine games.

And so we arrive at the current 2019-20 season. As mentioned above, there are reasons for optimism but just as many reasons for despair. Here’s why Madrid could end up finishing the season without a single trophy:

1. Injury crisis

Real have been battered by injuries since pre-season. Marco Asensio was sidelined for 9-10 months after rupturing his ACL during pre-season. An additional 14 players have faced time on the sidelines with Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric being the latest victims. No team can perform at their highest level when left bereft of their best players consistently throughout the season, leave alone, a team as unconvincing as Madrid.

2. Burnt-out players

On paper, Madrid have a genuinely astonishing squad. One glance at their starting XI gives an inkling of the ability possessed by the names on record – but football isn’t played on paper, it’s contested on grass. And far too often in the last 24 months, Real have looked far less regal than their club crest portrays. They’ve continuously made the mistake of putting up mid-table performances at a top-tier club. Why? A possible reason could be that Zizou has shown far too much loyalty to the same core group of players.

After his arrival in Spring 2019, an overhaul seemed incoming after Zizou mentioned that changes were on the way. Except, the only noticeable changes to the starting XI was the departure of Keylor Navas to PSG and the arrival of Eden Hazard for a grand total of two.

In the last four years, Real have played 60 games per season twice while paying at least 50 in all four seasons – that’s 231 games. Furthermore, seven of the RM’s starting squad have started over half of those games. You don’t need to be a doctor to diagnose that that’s a lot of miles in those legs.

Footballers are required at least 72 hours of rest between games to ensure a healthy recovery as well as observing a day’s rest for every time zone passed while flying. Throw in the CL, Copa Del Rey, international weeks, friendlies and frequent travels in and from Europe and you get a clear formula – players running on fumes.

Toni Kroos, for example, has played the most minutes and gained the most starts of any RM player since 2015 and along with his 21 starts for Germany, has played over 16,000 minutes in the last four years.

In addition to the physical exertions, there is a strong element of the psychological and mental toll exacted on the players too. This team has won 13 trophies over the last six years with a core that is marginally different to the starting XI this season. There is now a legitimate question to be posed that these lads might be quenched in their desire for more silverware – what more can they do? What more can they win? What more can they rake in for the club?

During their double-winning 2016-17 season, Real Madrid were astonishing. Almost no game was lost beyond doubt or unwinnable. Time and time again, they came from behind to secure draws and wins where other teams might’ve flaked and collapsed in the corner. Case in point was a game against Villarreal in February 2017, where they found themselves 2-0 down at one point before running out 3-2 winners by full-time or even their 3-3 draw against Sevilla to maintain their unbeaten streak and set a Spanish record of 40 games unbeaten.

That team has long left the premises as almost none of that fight, sprit or bravery remains in the current side. There is a sense of inevitability when goals are conceded, the Bernabeu is no longer a fortress and a sense of despair arrives when staring at a possible defeat. A sobering reminder of how far the mighty have fallen.

3. The Cristiano Ronaldo factor

One mark of a healthy offensive system is the conjuring of high quality and quantity of shots. The premise is this – the more shots a team produces, the more chances of the ball ending up in the back of the net. And if more of the shots arise from within the penalty box and from multiple players, even better.

During the 2017-18 season, Madrid offered up an average of 26.1 shots per game in the league, with Cristiano alone taking 6.6 shots per game. That fell to 21.7 shots per game in the 2018/19 season and this season, it’s fallen even further to 16.8 shots per game.

Cristiano is a statistical freak – at 34 years of age and soon to turn 35 in four months, he’s doing things on the pitch that nobody his age has the right to do. Two days ago, he became only the sixth player in history to enter the elusive and decorated 700 goal club, joining some elite company in the process. Not that he’s unworthy of any such company in the first place.

One of the best things about the RM-Cristiano relationship was that Ronaldo arrived in his peak and left as he was declining, ergo, Real literally got the best of his services in every department – goals, assists, shots, shots on target, free kicks, penalties, long shots and of course a dollop of his unquenchable ‘big cojones’ mentality. The latter of which is still being demonstrated in spades by the Portuguese talisman at Juventus.

Currently, Madrid do not possess anybody even close to the statistical output of Ronaldo on the squad or in the starting XI. And even more than his goals and assists, the Portuguese was second to none in his work-rate and mindset. His ability to push himself to the outer limits of his footballing talents and endure through the worst of adversities undoubtedly had a positive influence on his teammates. That, coupled with his mercurial talent brandished a tangible level of fear in any team or defence who had the misfortune of having to play against him. That quality is sorely missed at Madrid right now.

4. Champions League record

For all the talk of their unbeaten performances in the league, Real are languishing at bottom of their CL group with just one point from two games – five points behind leaders PSG. It was telling that this happened to be the first time that they were winless after two matchdays in their entire CL history. This is before we remind ourselves of the 3-0 pasting they received at the hand of PSG – a PSG side deprived of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani through injury.

In recent years, RM have tended to prioritise the CL over the league and as a result, they’ve won just two league titles in 11 years compared to four CL trophies in six years. Except this time, whether by choice or not, Real look far from exiting their own group leave alone winning the coveted trophy. A daunting must-win clash against Galatasaray awaits them before El Clasico on the 26th. Anything less than a win against the Turkish side would leave them with a genuine chance of missing the knockouts for the first time ever in 23 years.

5. Was Zidane the right man for a rebuilding job?

With his beloved side in dire straits, Zizou was convinced by Florentino Perez into returning to take the helm of a scuttling ship.

Given his prior managerial record at the club, who could argue with the decision? Nine trophies in 2.5 years, a 40-game unbeaten streak, most trophies in an RM calendar year and a 73-game scoring streak amongst other achievements. But, despite all his efforts, Zizou was still untested in this sphere of coaching – there was no evidence or sample size of him building a squad from scratch. When he first arrived in January 2016, he inherited a stellar squad and all he needed to do was swap out the odd misfiring cog, freshen a position or two to keep the team ticking over at optimal performance.

But this team is crying out for so much more than just running repairs, this team needs an overhaul. And was Perez’s decision to bring back the legendary Frenchman justified? Initial evidence would say no.

Since his return in March 2019, he’s garnered five losses and six draws in 22 games so far for a win rate of 50%, a good way off the 69.79% he had when he initially left RM in May 2018. Zidane is a legend of the game and a legend at Madrid – in no way does this writer intend to belittle him, his reputation or his legacy but only to pose the question as to whether he was the best fit for the club at this point in time. Only time will tell.

There is every possibility that Madrid could recover from their shaky start and win a trophy or more this season but it’s hard to see that happening at the moment. In a few days, Real have a crunch game against Barcelona coming up, with the recent Catalonia independence protests adding further fuel to a fire that never required any stoking.

That game should serve as a proper litmus test of Real’s title credentials and expectations heading forward. Watch this space.

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