Real Madrid: a champion in decline

Top team goes to pieces in La Liga for a variety of reasons, including a fragile defense and anxious play

Eleonora Giovio
Cristiano Ronaldo during the game against Celta.
Cristiano Ronaldo during the game against Celta.Octavio Passos (Getty Images)

Zidane canceled the training session that had been scheduled for this Monday. After Sunday’s draw against Celta in Vigo, which left Real Madrid 16 points behind FC Barcelona in La Liga even before the first round is over, the French coach figured that it would be best to let each player do some personal stocktaking, far away from the ball and the training pitch.

Yet a few players showed up at Real Madrid City in Valdebebas for the volunteer work session – including Casemiro. The previous evening, Real president Florentino Pérez had paid the squad a visit inside the dressing rooms where, according to a witness, he greeted the players one by one.

Ever since its two Super Cups, Real Madrid has been unable to play well for 90 minutes

Real Madrid is going back to work on Tuesday, with the Copa as the ultimate goal and one month to turn the situation around before facing PSG in the Champions League round of 16. This is an epic task, considering that the team has been in a nosedive since September, losing 19 points along the way (by comparison, last season Real lost 21 points in the entire championship).

There are several reasons to explain the Liga champion’s recent decline:

Short on goals. Real Madrid has eight points less in this Liga compared with last season. This time last season it had scored 46 goals, as opposed to 32 now. Likewise, it took 318 shots, 125 on goal, compared with 320 shots, 118 on goal this season. Not only is the squad creating the same occasions for scoring goals, it is actually at the top of the Liga shot ranking (320, ahead of Barcelona’s 287). But this is not translating into goals: its forwards have no more than 10 between them. Cristiano has scored four times, Benzema twice; Bale two times as many as the Frenchman, despite spending 384 fewer minutes on the pitch.

A fragile defense. It seems like any rival is capable of embarrassing Real Madrid, even though it has let in no more goals (16) than at this time during last year’s Liga season. And shots against the team number 162, up from 151. Even so, the team exudes fragility, partly because results are not what they should be, and because they cannot conceal defense errors like the ones that were committed on the Celta pitch last Sunday.

It would seem that the team wants to score quickly to take the pain away

Anxious play. Marcelo defended himself in Vigo from those who accused him of facilitating the 2-2 outcome in Vigo. A lost ball of his triggered a chain reaction of mistakes by the Real squad. The bad moves in front of the net are leading to anxiety and rushed decisions. It would seem that the team wants to score quickly to take the pain away, attacking without criteria and without playing real soccer.

Lack of self-confidence. Ever since its two Super Cups, Real Madrid has been unable to play well for 90 minutes (save for the volley against Sevilla at Bernabéu). It has suffered at numerous times, toggling between good play and chaos. Against Barcelona, it had the upper hand in the first half of the game and went to pieces in the second. Same in the game against Celta. The coach blames it on a lack of self-confidence. It’s a case of being on top of the game, seeing that this superiority is not translating into goals, and losing one’s nerve over it. “Lately we don’t have faith in our own possibilities,” said Zidane.

Physical condition. Out of the 32 goals scored by Real Madrid, 23 came in the first half of the game. Zidane denies that this is a physical problem – and individual player stats seem to back this up – but the fact is that several players on the team (Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema, Kroos, and for much of the season also Modric, Varane) are not at their best moment, and are not performing as well as last year.

Planning. Following the victory in Cardiff, Zidane told Florentino Pérez that he would not make any changes to the team, as he was delighted with what he had. Pepe left and there was nothing anyone could do to hold back James and Morata. The club tried to sign Mbappé but was unable (nor did it wish to, out of respect for the other players) to compete with the salary offered by PSG. The market was not searched for an alternative, because it was believed that the remaining team was competitive. There was a new batch of young players, Vallejo, Ceballos, Theo, Llorente and Borja Mayoral, who barely counted for anything to Zidane.

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