Almost exactly a year ago, Real Madrid bounced back from 0-2 down at
Villarreal to triumph 3-2 with a 83rd-minute winner. Three days later,
they were down 1-3 at home against Las Palmas, but rescued a draw
thanks to goals in the 86th and 89th minute. There would be similar
late heroics against Valencia, Real Betis, and Sporting Gijon.
Now Real Madrid have gone from champions to chokers as they are now
the ones dropping points late in games. The latest debacle was
Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Levante, who equalised in the 89th minute through
Giampaolo Pazzini. This means Real have dropped eight points on these terms from goals
conceded after the 75th minute against Valencia, Real Betis, Celta
Vigo, Villarreal and Levante.
A proud and illustrious side that does not take kindly to being
second-best now find themselves fourth in LaLiga after the high of
sweeping four trophies last season. The Champions League is their last realistic chance of silverware this
term and with the Spanish giants, out of the King’s Cup, could very well
end up empty-handed this season. Just what is wrong with Real?
While the players deserve the bulk of the blame, manager Zinedine
Zidane has to be held responsible for failing to build on past
successes. If the Frenchman thinks he can change Real’s philosophy
from a buying club to a building club, he’s making a big mistake.
Perhaps encouraged by his stint at Real Madrid Castilla, the club’s
reserve team, he opted to promote the likes of 19-year-old right-back
Achraf Hakimi, 22-year-old central midfielder Marcos Llorente and
20-year-old striker Borja Mayoral. His inexperience and naivety in the summer transfer market were
exposed by underwhelming signings – 19-year-old left-back Theo
Hernandez and 20-year-old central midfielder Dani Ceballos. Promising
players they may be, but they are not the Galacticos the Bernabeu
faithful is used to. There is a fine line between faith and
More unforgivably, Zidane allowed bona fide gems such as James
Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata to leave on loan and permanently
respectively. The Colombian scored eight goals in 22 league games,
while the Spaniard had 15 in 26 the season before they were shown the
door. None of Real’s current crop of youngsters even come close to
such hauls. Their lack of depth was even more evident when injury struck key
players such as Gareth Bale and Daniel Carvajal, whose absence was
magnified by Danilo’s sale to Manchester City.
With Zidane resisting any reinforcements in the January transfer
window, he desperately needs his senior players to deliver at a time
when huge egos are bruised and clashing.
Cristiano Ronaldo has openly blamed the departure of his amigos for
the decline, while according to tabloids, skipper Sergio Ramos has
launched a rebuttal and led a group of five to urge the club not to
renew Ronaldo’s contract. While Bale has done well to keep his eye on the ball, scoring six
goals in 11 league games since returning from calf and hamstring
setbacks, the same cannot be said of his team-mates.
Full-backs Marcelo and Carvajal combined for 14 league assists and 25
in all competitions last term but those figures have dwindled to just
five and three respectively thus far this season. With the duo
providing the only semblance of width for Real, they are parked high
up the pitch and often leave the side vulnerable on the counterattack,
which led to Villarreal’s late sucker punch earlier this month.
Midfielders Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro also play so high up
they provide inadequate cover for their centre backs.
A common complaint of Real teams past and present is they are so
stacked with individual talents, they don’t work well as a team like
Barcelona do and when these stars are not shining, Real spiral into a
black hole. More often than not, Zidane doesn’t seem to have a Plan B, reaching
into his bag of seven substitutes around the hour mark, and often
pulling out attacking midfielder Lucas Vazquez, who has come off the
bench 13 times out of his 18 league appearances, only to muster one
goal and two assists.
Perhaps more crucially, their talisman Ronaldo and striker Karim
Benzema are no longer as clinical as before. Last season, the
Portuguese scored 25 league goals from 162 attempts. This season, his
LaLiga conversion rate has dropped to just seven per cent with eight
goals from 115 shots. Likewise, Benzema grabbed 11 goals from 70 shots
last term before dipping to just two from 29 attempts.
Both have been booed by their own fans and while Real president
Florentino Perez reportedly urged Ramos to take Ronaldo out for dinner
to assure him of his legendary status at the club, the Madrid giants
are not known for their patience.
With Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino and striker Harry Kane,
Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea and Paris Saint-Germain
forward Neymar all on Perez’s radar, expect him to whip out his
chequebook at the end of the season if Real fall to PSG in the last 16
of the Champions League.
Perez’s trump card is always in the buy-and-bye, and as history
suggests, this half-season of embarrassment, like the previous year of
unprecedented success under Zidane, will be quickly forgotten.