The Troublesome Seven

Navas almost had it; Madrid almost played a good game…

They were shooting for a 7 point-lead. Then, they’ve lost to Sevilla. They were shooting for a 4-point lead. Then, they drew against Las Palmas. Real Madrid might not be choking their 33rd La Liga title – but they’re definitely making the race for it much closer than it should be. And here’s why:

Problem #1: Defending the counter attacks.

Oh, how many of them happened on Wednesday! Considering the teams, the venue and the stakes – it was quite ridiculous. Only in the first half, Jesé, Tana and Boateng have produced 4 dangerous chances through quick breaks, using their pace to expose creaky Madrid’s defence. Dani Carvajal and Sergio Ramos have been forced to perform miracles in order to shut down the various shooting opportunities for Las Palmas – and so did Keylor Navas on the goal line. However, defending the counters, by any means does not start from them – and it’s midfield, who put them in a precarious position.

Will Toni Kroos and Mateo Kovačić ever get any better at pressurising the ball immediately after it’s being lost? They are both terrific passers with great vision and superb technical ability – but two days ago, their defensive acumen eluded them. The Croat has won two tackles, but he’d also be dispossessed two times and missed six out of 37 passes he’s tried. Kroos, naturally more involved and very dangerous on the set-pieces, looked far better with three interceptions and a particularly great moment 75 minutes in, when his superb anticipation swiftly led to a terrific goalscoring chance for Real…

…but, no – those two are not really suited to take care of the pacey opposition that knocks the ball to the wings immediately after winning it back. Real Madrid, for your own good, please start conceding the possession as far up the pitch as you possibly can.

Problem #2: Over-reliance on through balls.

This was yet another sin to haunt Zidane’s men in the first half. They’ve opened the match with Álvaro Morata constantly playing off the shoulder of Mauricio Lemos – and repeatedly attempted to play into this strikers’ strengths by setting him up for one-on-ones with Javi Varas. As a result, the ex-Juventus man has finished his 80-minute stint with a brace – except that both of his goals have been chalked off by Mr Fernández Borbalán. And no: that actually was not an example of the referee’s incompetence – to his credit, all offsides of the match have been called with good judgement and accuracy.

But why the game had to necessarily revolve over those key passes to Morata? He’s been responsible for 4 out of 8 offsides Madrid fell for in this match and the only time a through ball has succeeded was when he stepped aside, leaving Isco space in the middle to make the crucial run. It was a tight call, but a correct one: Dani Castellano came a split second too late to push forward and there was no marker coming back from the midfield to take care of Isco. Unfortunately, that one moment was the only one when it all (barely) worked out.

The team looks decent going forward – but it needs more variety in order to surprise the opposition. Because on Wednesday, even with the back-up centre-back Aythami filling in for Pedro Bigas – Las Palmas had sorted out the through ball problem far too quickly.

Problem #3: Lack of aggression.

On paper, this should’ve been a good thing; a sign of footballing maturity from a team that does not need to play dirty to win games. After all, Real have outplayed Osasuna (3-1) while committing only eight fouls; they’ve made a good comeback against Napoli (3-1) while conceding nine… and an even bigger comeback at Villarreal (3-2) with just six bad challenges being made. In view of that, 15 fouls and six bookings against Las Palmas do seem like a genuine step forward in the aggressive department.

Except that those are merely the numbers. In reality, an eleven-men, first-half Real Madrid have been giving far too much space and time for Las Palmas to knock the ball around and build-up their attacks. Even Gareth Bale’s dismissal looked like a desperate, frustrated bid to reverse the tide and undo the lethargic approach his teammates have taken. Surprisingly, it worked to a degree: after the red card, the weakened hosts have gained focus and started to seriously undermine the opposition instead of waiting for the match to win itself.

Alas, it was very, very polite performance from them anyway – and Quique Setién’s lads, though surprised by getting so much ball at Santiago Bernabeu, took full advantage of that. Maybe it’s already a sign of a subtle, underlying fitness crisis at Los Blancos?

Problem #4: No Casemiro, no organisation.

We’ve already seen that from Madrid. A star-packed team is actually being built on the shoulders of an unquestionably great defensive midfielder – and when that midfielder doesn’t play, everyone else suffers. In 2003, the departure of Claude Makélelé has led Los Merengues to finish 4th in La Liga (after losing the final five games of the season!), lose the Copa del Rey final (2-3 to Zaragoza) and drop out of the Champions League quarterfinals (1-3 and 4-2 against AS Monaco). Sometimes – it’s all about the team’s engine.

Casemiro does not (yet?) have Makélelé’s status out there – but his influence helps immensely anyway. As it stands, he averages a whooping 4.9 tackles won per each La Liga game played and leaves all his teammates in the dust when it comes to winning back the ball. “For the balance of the side, Casemiro is their most important player, certainly.” – said Diego Simeone about the Brazilian – and that’s a manager who knows more about proper organisation than any other boss in Spain.

Fortunately for Zidane, his DM isn’t injured – he only needed to get some rest. On the other hand: the fibula shaft injury he suffered in September has deprived him of over two months worth of training and match fitness. Madrid fans, you better pray; your engine is needed now more than ever.

Problem #5: Marcelo’s role.

A proper winger disguised as a left-back, Marcelo had a roller coaster of a game against Las Palmas, providing plenty of attacking options down the flank, but also losing the footrace with Kevin Prince-Boateng which resulted with the third goal. Again, it all came down to his old habits kicking in in a unusually precarious defensive setup. Normally, the Brazilian does have a defensive cover behind his back in form of Sergio Ramos and either Raphaël Varane or Pepe. On Wednesday, all he could count on was Nacho – and Nacho did not quite cut it.

Is Marcelo really going down the path of his famous compatriot, Roberto Carlos? Is he really going to be the defender who’s never conquered the mastery of defending because he was so valuable on the other end of the pitch that it made him undroppable anyway? Because his predecessor, even at the end of his prime, at least had a phenomenal athleticism to make up for his less-than-perfect abilities to tackle and close down the opponents. Marcelo is very fit, true, but his last effort (4 dribbles won, 2 interceptions, 1 key pass, 0 tackles) was far from the ones once displayed by El Hombre Bala.

It’s time to re-invent the lad – or, at the very least, to put better centre-backs behind him.

Problem #6: Benzema’s efficiency.

The Frenchman has been a usual suspect for years when it came to scapegoating and witch-hunting after dismal performances. However, this time, he well and truly failed, no question about it. Having been gifted with just a 19-minute long cameo, he’s managed to waste two golden chances anyway. Already three minutes in, he found himself less than nine yards away from the goal, with a good ball falling right on his foot – he blasted it over the bar. Eight minutes later, it was even more of a slapstick: both Karim and Cristiano have missed shots that many of mere mortals would’ve been able to put away.

It’s a fact: Benzema’s golden days at Madrid are a thing of the past. This year, he might’ve broken Thierry Henry’s record of goals scored in the Champions League – but overall, he hasn’t been terribly productive. It’s March now and his seasonal output is stuck at 11 goals and 3 assists in 30 appearances in all competitions. That’s two goals and one assist less than Morata – the same Morata, who’s been shipped to Juventus once, when the club was backing up his older, more experienced colleague.

Could it be that this summer will bring someone new who’ll put this silent rivalry of two forwards to bed for good? After all, there’s one, excellent striker who’s already promised his father that he’ll move to Madrid one day…

The final minutes: unfortunately, it’s still the #7 who’s #7 problem.


Problem #7: Ronaldo’s impact.

Cristiano’s perfect penalty and a bullet header have saved Real. True. And now, to make the picture complete: he’s also performed a handful of dives. Plus – he’s committed a bunch of fouls on the defenders who are nowhere near his ability. He got booked by too much of theatrical exercises and did not win (or even attempted) a single dribble, losing one tackle as well. It took him 29 minutes to make any substantial difference out there, and when Bale squared the ball to him after a good run, he couldn’t finish it properly, so it was blocked.

Yep. Those things happen. Ronaldo remains a phenomenal sportsman and probably the greatest workhorse in the history of the game – but since cheating one’s body has been proven impossible, it’s obvious that he’ll be having occasional poor games at the age of 32. This time, his criticism will go well under cover of his late two goals and the general impression of a saviour he’s given – but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t have an awful first half and he didn’t have to redeem himself. Who’s going to bail out Zidane’s team when CR7 shall get more of those mediocre days?

The team had it’s glory and a ridiculous winning streak. Time to move on and plan for the future – because, as it stands, Real Madrid’s foundation for the success are coming off as highly questionable.

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