Five games into the 2017/18 La Liga season and Real Madrid is already seven points off the pace and currently sits seventh in the table. They’ve won a meagre two games, drawn two and lost one.
Zidane’s men haven’t played terribly so far this season but they have been abhorrent in front of goal, creating a myriad of chances but failing to put them away. An incredulous feat from a team that has Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema.
Ronaldo was banned for five games for shoving the referee in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup. He missed the return leg of the Super Copa and the first four La Liga games, so naturally, Real Madrid was happy about his expected return against Betis but that went sour pretty quickly.
Before last night’s game against Betis, Real Madrid had scored in 73 consecutive games but the team was unable to get anything past ex-Madrid man Adán, who made a number of man-of-the-match worthy saves. Coupled with the Betis goalkeeper’s spectacular display, both Bale and Ronaldo weren’t at their best. Ronaldo had a torrid time in front of goal, skying numerous shots and Bale on the other hand, was in and out of the game but had one brilliant shot on goal that saw Adán conjure up a miraculous save to deny him.
While los Merengues have struggled to bury their scoring opportunities, both Mariano and Morata have hit the ground running for their new clubs. The latter was sort of a saviour last season, coming on as a substitute to score or lay-off the winning goal.
Bale has had a slow start to the season scoring only once and has thus far contributed very little to the team’s play and dynamic. Benzema, before his injury against Levante, was creating chances but hadn’t put away any of his efforts.
Mayoral’s presence in the squad was already a bit risky and his introduction into last night’s game says the club needed a striker in the summer and should have made the effort to replace Mariano and Morata’s departure. He’s a promising player with an abundance of potential and his unfortunate loan stint at Wolfsburg means he hardly had the chance to really hone his skills and therefore, including him as the only backup to Benzema was an absurd decision and could prove to be truly disastrous. Will he be able to provide the team with goals in dire moments the way Morata was able to?
Real Madrid find themselves in a precarious predicament and it will be difficult to claw themselves out of this position. They have failed to make the Bernabéu a sanctuary so far this season and have picked up a paltry two points out of a possible nine. And of the five official games they’ve played at home, the team’s won two, drawn two and lost one.
Los Blancos will certainly find form as the season drags on, but in a league where so little points are dropped and there’s very little between the top two, seven points behind a Barça team that seems in fine form, despite their troubles in the boardroom, will be a tough ask for thewhites. Even more so, as they have yet to meet their toughest opponents- the likes of Sevilla, cross-town rivals Atlético and arch-rivals Barcelona.
In his post-game press conference, the ever so composed Zidane said, the team has to “remain calm and focus on the next game. La Liga is a long competition”. He may be right but his team no longer holds their destiny in their own hands.
After an extraordinary season and having etched their names into the annals of history, Real Madrid looked a magnificent team that never really needed any additional [big name] signings given their strength in depth. However, based on the wants of players, there were always going to be adjustments. Some of which could either propel the team to the brink of invincibility or see them unravel after a near perfect 2016/17 season.
The team’s goal is to maintain stability and bolster the squad, where necessary. Selling too many [important] players would be a disruptive path to continued stability, which raises a number of questions: how has the club performed in the transfer window so far? Have they done enough to ensure continued success or have they done too little? Are they making reasonable moves?
Before answering those questions, we should ask ourselves: what were Los Blancos’ weaknesses despite a glorious double — winning the Champions League and La Liga, an accomplishment not experienced by the whites for more than 50 years — and making history by becoming the first team to win the continental title back-to-back since the era of the Champions League?
The first answer that comes to mind, is the need for bolstering the defence. Real Madrid would have actually lost quite a few games without the likes of Navas, who was in especially fine form towards the end of the season and their incredible players in attack, who just enjoyed outscoring their opponents in games.
Then there was the problem of keeping everyone happy, including those who played a fringe role — James, Coentrão, Danilo, Nacho, Kovacic, Mariano and Casilla — and those who wanted to be more than just a regular substitute — Isco, Morata, Vazquez and Asensio. Zidane was clearly an excellent motivator and had for the most part convinced the majority of players of their importance to the team, even when they didn’t play as regularly as they’d have liked. He even managed to persuade Ronaldo that he needed to be fresh for the final lap of the season and to achieve that he had to accept that he wouldn’t be able to every game.
That was last season and while he succeeded, some players were not going to be convinced for the upcoming season and wanted to seek opportunities outside of Real Madrid.
Los Blancos has since sold Danilo (ca. €30M), Morata (€65.6M plus add-ons) and Mariano (ca. €8M) to Manchester City, Chelsea and Lyon, respectively. James has been sent to Bayern Munich on a two-year loan deal, Coentrão was loaned to Sporting Lisbon for a season and Pepe wasn’t offered a new deal, thereby making him a free agent.
Fairly good business, as Coentrão was injury-prone; James, though brilliant, apparently had a poor attitude in training — if the rumours are to be believed — and he obviously wasn’t a favourite of Zidane’s; Danilo never quite unlocked his full potential at Real — partly down to Carvajal’s constant brilliance —, and was especially prone to mistakes in defence. Pepe was an ageing defender, who at some point had to be replaced, granted Real could’ve done a better job of “phasing” him out; Mariano showed flashes of his brilliance when he was given the opportunity to play and if he can fine tune his talent at Lyon, Real will certainly activate his buy-back clause; then there is Morata, a special case. Incredibly talented player, who in his own right had to move on if he wanted to become more than a super sub, as there was no chance of him breaking into the starting line-up as long as the BBC was still active in Madrid. And at 24, it was now or never and he chose now.
Has the club sufficiently replaced the players gone?
Returning to the club is centre back Vallejo, who spent a year on loan at Frankfurt and was a main stay in the starting 11 for the Bundesliga club. The 20-year-old had a solid loan spell at the Eagles and helped his team to the German Cup final. He has extremely good concentration on the park, rarely loses the ball and is a tidy passer. He does need to work on his aggressiveness when trying to win the ball back and his aerial duel —he had a meagre 1.2 tackles per game according to WhoScored and he won on average 2.2 aerial battles per game last season in the Bundesliga. He does have promise and under the tutelage of both Ramos and Varane and with experience overtime he could develop into a defensive super star. His signing is an overall useful and reliable one both for the present and future.
Also returning to the club is Marcos Llorente, who had an impressive loan spell at Deportivo Alavés. Llorente comes from footballing royalty — his great uncle is Real Madrid legend Paco Gento and his father is Paco Llorente Gento, a Madrid legend in his own right. Young Llorente seems to be following in their footsteps, as he was a constant in the starting line-up at Alavés and helped lead his club to the Spanish Cup final. He was able to exhibit his quality, while gaining experience with the Basque side. He doesn’t have any explicit weaknesses, has excellent tackling abilities and is great at breaking up the opponents’ play. Per WhoScored he had an average of 3.8 tackles per game, better than Sergio Ramos’ season average. He’s also a neat passer —he had an average pass quota of 87% last season. Llorente is without a doubt a rising star and is only 22. He will have the chance to hone his skills under the guidance of players like Ramos, Casemiro, Kroos, Modric, Varane, et al. His return has bolstered los Blancos’ already strong midfield and provides necessary cover for Casemiro.
Borja Mayoral, is one of Madrid’s most promising forwards and has already been compared to club legend Raúl. He had a torrid time on loan at Wolfsburg last season, not because of his lack of quality but rather the perpetual chaos that broke out at the club and the problems that ensued —the club changed coaches several times. However, Zidane has always been a fan of him and the 20-year-old looks set to replace Morata in the squad, even taking over the Chelsea man’s old squad number. His lack of playing time at the Wolves meant he hardly played a role for Spain at the U21 European Championship this summer and made a solitary appearance as a substitute. Considering the scarcity in playing time and inadequate experience, his presence in los Blancos’ squad doesn’t seem all too encouraging but he at least deserves a chance and he’s excelled at the youth level, which may translate into success for him in the first team.
With Coentrão gone, Marcelo needed a deputy. The club needed a player who isn’t prone to injury and capable of stepping up to the plate when called upon. Theo Hernández is exactly that player and at just 19 he could develop into a long-term fixture at Real Madrid, especially under the tutelage of the brilliant Brazilian. Theo, like Marcelo, loves to dribble and can deliver lethal crosses into the box. He also has a wicked left foot and can punish teams from dead ball situations— not that he’ll have a chance to put it to use often, if ever, but it is nice to know he has it in his arsenal. And in a team as fluid as Madrid, his runs down the left could see him start cutting into the box more and punishing the net with that left foot of his. Excellent signing.
Replacing James and bringing in ample cover for Kroos and/or Modric was crucial for the club this season. As we saw last season, los Blancos had trouble at times filling the boots of both the German and Croatian. That’s where Spanish football’s newest prodigy comes in. Dani Ceballos, with his nimble feet and stunning dribbles, enjoys breaking ankles and leaving players dead in his wake. The young Spaniard had an outstanding U21 European Championship and was named player of the tournament. He holds the ball well, can deliver scrumptious passes, tends to get fouled a lot because of his sensational dribbling and gets involved defensively with strong tackling. He does however, need to work on his finishing. It must be frustrating for a player with his skill and talent, who can’t finish off one of his menacing runs. He is nevertheless a massive talent and a player capable of filling the boots of Modric and/or Kroos, when they’re injured or when they choose to move on. One for the future.
Have they done enough to ensure continued success or have they done too little?
The club has done some good business so far, with the exception of not filling the spot left open by Danilo’s departure and the apparent faith placed in the inexperienced Mayoral.
The open right back position may well be filled by either Álvaro Tejero or Achraf Hakimi, both talented young players, who’ve both been impressive for the youth team and were standouts during the club’s pre-season tour. However, like Mayoral, they could either turn out to be brilliant players, who can handle the weight of wearing the white shirt or they could all crack under the pressure.
Placing confidence in these youngsters is a bold move from Zidane but their performances in pre-season show they may well be ready for the demands that come with the badge.
The fact los Blancos has been able to keep their core team together and replace fringe players sufficiently, they seem set to continue their success. Additionally, all the signings made so far means the club has also made an effort to build for the future —the average age of the squad is 25.6 years.