Wednesday, October 2, 2013

What is wrong with Real Madrid?

The derby defeat against Atletico coupled with a narrow victory over Elche and a draw against Villarreal this season, has left Carlo Ancelotti with a major task at hand, and very noticeable problems that Madrid’s record €100m signing can’t necessarily solve. On Wednesday, however, he has a chance to correct the team’s course against FC Copenhagen at home in the Champions League.

The contrast between Diego Simeone’s team and Ancelotti’s was startling. While Atletico worked tirelessly for each other and every player knew exactly what his job was and used the ball effectively, Real looked confused, aimless, and were largely forced to play in the areas that their opponents were happy for them to play in. Real looked like a team in chaos in technical and tactical aspects, something which has been a recurring theme this season.

Real were a shapeless, confused mess in Bale’s debut against Villarreal. Ancelotti was obliged to play the Welshman regardless of whether the game really merited his presence, and both Bale and Ronaldo drifted around the pitch seemingly at their own discretion, the result being the team lacking structure and being unable to play the kind of incisive first-time passing that made them so lethal on the break under Jose Mourinho. Although Ancelotti insisted that the team played in a 4-4-2 formation, it was the worst execution of such a formation by a side of this quality. When Bale was brought on against Atletico at the weekend, the results were similar- the Welshman did little to solve the troubles that have befallen his team this season, and by sacrificing Angel di Maria for Bale, Ancelotti arguably only worsened those issues.


Therein lies Ancelotti’s dilemma. Bale's price tag and pressure from above means the Italian has to play Bale when he's fit. However, the problem is that Bale’s skillset is in essence similar to that of Ronaldo, meaning that both are likely to be caught out by the same strategy that has proven the most effective against Madrid over the last couple of years: conceding possession to them and taking advantage of their inability to create in tight spaces.

One of Ancelotti’s main tasks at Madrid is supposed to be addressing this very issue, making Real the masters of their own fate, instead of relying upon opponents naive enough to allow them to play on the break. So far, he hasn't been successful and it doesn't look like the former Tottenham man will be much help in turning that around. Bale, like Ronaldo, is at his best when he running at opponents in full flight and punishing them in open spaces. However, neither of them tend to create play between the lines, something that Mesut Ozil excels at.

The German was the one player in the offensive line that was not trained to play on the counter, even though he managed to do it like the best and connected brilliantly in his three years at the club with Cristiano Ronaldo. However, his forte was around ball possession and finding the right space before setting up the forwards, and his suitability at such a task isn’t lost on observers in Spain. While it is true that Ozil was effectively nullified by Madrid's opponents on occasion, their job was made easier by the fact that he was, more often than not, the unique source of spontaneity in the Madrid midfield. 

This change in personnel sort of threw Ancelotti’s plans to change the style of the team down the drain. Isco is the only one capable of holding down possession in the team but he’s got two lightning fast strikers waiting for a long ball to the space, making it extra hard to create more chewed-on tactical plays. This lack of efficiency in front of goal has proved fatal for Real, as half of the players press on the breaks when the other half accelerates; instead of coexisting in perfect balance and harmony, the squad has sort of lost its way. Being able to work at length on fitting Ozil, Isco and Luka Modric  into the same midfield, Ancelotti  may finally have been able to crack the holy formula and form a trio that could indeed have pulled the strings effectively in possession and transformed Los Blancos’ style of play.

The most obvious way to do that would have been to field Ozil as a trequartista, Modric in a deeper role, and Isco in the false winger’s role that he carried out so effectively at Malaga. With Ronaldo’s presence in the team non-negotiable and the Portuguese not happy to play as a number nine, however, that would have meant leaving Gareth Bale out of the team which simply wasn’t an option. Something had to give, and in the end, it was Ozil.

Yet another problem for Ancelotti is the enigma, Karim Benzema.  He is very talented but Benzema, despite his goals and assists, is regarded by the demanding Madridistas as not having his heart in it. In fact, during the second half against Atletico, Ronaldo was forced to drop deeper to help Isco, but Benzema show the desire to run his socks off. This season, with Gonzalo Higuain sold and not replaced, Madrid have just the one No. 9 in Benzema, the problem being that Benzema is quite simply not a clinical finisher. Benzema may feel unloved by the Madrid faithful but, more importantly for him, he still enjoys the support of club president, Florentino Perez, and while Ronaldo certainly doesn't fancy playing in that No. 9 role, for the time being, Benzema still is an important player for Real. 

So, Ancelotti finds himself in his current situation- five points behind Atletico and Barça, and in less than a month he will take charge of his first Clasico as Madrid boss. Atletico’s decent fixture list in the meantime means they won’t play Barcelona until the new year, so if Diego Simeone’s side continue in their current form, they could yet maintain their five point distance for quite some time. Should Madrid stumble against Barcelona – and considering the game is at the Camp Nou as well as the way Los Blancos are currently playing, that isn’t impossible – then Ancelotti could find himself with a mountain to climb in order to catch the top two before the season is even at its halfway point.

Ancelotti has his work cut out. When speaking to journalists following the derby game on Sunday, Cristiano Ronaldo felt the need to publicly declare his support of the Italian, reiterating that he is ‘doing great work’. Ronaldo knows how quickly the media could turn against his gaffer if things follow their current trajectory. The Italian’s CV speaks for itself, but he will need to call upon all of the knowledge at his disposal to mold this mess of a team into something capable of competing with not only Barcelona and Atletico, but also, for the fabled Decima, its presence ever looming in the background. Unless Ancelotti finds a way to fix the team, and quickly, we may be talking about yet another wasted season for Real Madrid.