Why Will Real Madrid fail this season?
By: Ramzi Tanani
Perez admittedly achieved it! He succeeded to put Real Madrid back under the spotlights and upgraded their squad quality notably. Since then, there were Zillions of articles praising the team and planting promises for the following season. There are enough reasons to consider Real Madrid as a front runner for all the titles of 2010. Let’s not add another article talking about that. Instead, how far is it possible that Real Madrid only yield a huge disappointment?
I can claim that there are as many reasons for the disappointment to happen as there are for success to be achieved. Knowing that Barcelona is the eternal Rival and the team to beat, there is no way to avoid comparisons.
Defence hidden stitches:
Real Madrid defence for this season will have to answer the same question they faced when Hierro left (or was kicked out of) the team. Back then, they bought each and every centre back they read in a newspaper that he is “The big thing”. Walter Samuel, who was labelled as the best Centre back in the world during his days in Roma. Jonathan Woodgate, the Next big thing for England football. They tried to hand the leadership to Iván Helguera, But all in vain. The defence line lacked leadership, which is not acceptable in a big team that competes on the highest level.
Canavaro defence qualities declined notably with time. But he was still capable of pulling all the strings together, instructing, organising, screaming and leading. Now that he left, the question is: Who will lead the defence this season?
Albiol is a defender with great potentials. But his last season performance raised lot of eyebrows regarding how far he can improve to meet the expectations. Pepe is a quality, well…most of the times, but he doesn’t sound to have the “it” to be a leader. He definitely does not have his head between his shoulders all the time, and with a knife in his hand ready to stab anyone in a moment of madness, he is not a good candidate. Beside, will Ramos accept Pepe leadership? What about the other way? In fact the chemistry between Ramos and Pepe will be something to monitor next season while the authority process is taking place.
2) Depth and Characteristics:
This point may prove a deciding factor next season. The main line of defence may include Ramos-Pepe-Albiol- Arbeloa. Some may argue that Marcelo will be the left back, but with time the coach will recognize that this will put lot of pressure on the holding midfielder (Diarra) if Xabi and Ramos contributed offensively. Marcelo can’t act as a third Centre back, which will leave Pepe and Albiol territory exposed. But in any way, who else Real Madrid have in defence? Untested Garay, Injury prone Metzelder, Soon-to-go Torres, and Drenthe the mad boy. I can’t see this as a quality defence for a team aiming to win everything this season. If any two defenders of the primary line up are not available, then troubles troubles.
Midfield and Up:
In midfield the team has lot of quality. The question is about the perfect mix. Not on papers, but on the field.
For example, for the holding midfielders, on paper it’s obviously Xabi-Lass. But I can argue that the two players do not really complete each others. Lass is young enough to improve, but his natural attributes are closer to Xabi than to a pure defensive oriented midfielder. I still believe Mascherano was a better signing for Real than Xabi. The team weakness last season was building up offense, no doubt. But through buying Xabi they ignored the fact that the new signings Granero and Kaka are more than enough to solve that problem.
The problem last season was not only the holding midfielders lack of quality to launch the transition from defence to offense, but the missing link in the midfield to take the responsibility in the last third and orchestrate attack. With Mascherano dropping deep behind Lass, and Granero continuous transitions back and forth, that will release Kaka to operate in the last third so the ball flow from defence to offense could be established without exposing the defence line. Granero will be able to operate on the flank where the fullback can not contribute offensively, creating more balance.
With Lass and Xabi, it will not be the case. As none of them is a Vacuum cleaner as a holding midfielder. Lass is a player who is easy to tease out of position, while Xabi lack Grenaro dynamics to make a fast transition back and forth. Mahamadou Diarra in my opinion is a better partner for Xabi than Lass, if he will come out of his injury with more pace than he had before getting injured.
The wingers are another matter to point out. Real Madrid with all the signings made will lack creating threat from the flanks. Against parked buses you can’t afford missing this option. Kaka on the flank will turn to an easy to contain player, he need more tactical freedom than being flanked. Ronaldo prefers playing in the centre, and he operates better there. Granero is a decent player on the flank, but again he is more productive in the centre.
Higuin and Benzema can open to channels on the flanks, but all that by being in front of the ball, not behind it while building up offense. So they will not contribute in the ball circulation and transition from the defensive third to the offense. If the team played a 4-4-2, they will not be an option. Selling Robbin was a stupid move, and the question is, who will be the new Gravesen (winger) after selling the Claude Makélélé? Julien Faubert?
Marcelo and Drenthe may be considered as promising options. Regardless of how valid or reliable this argument is, it will raise a crucial issue when it comes to starting line up. You need the four positions in front of the two holding midfielders for your key-high-profile-players. Adding two more options there will increase dissatisfaction, unless if Ronaldo takes it cool to be benched while Drenthe runs here and there and every where (except where has to be) on the field.
Up front, Benzema, Higuaín, Nistelrooy, and Raúl are the options. Again, selling Álvaro Negredo was a mistake. He is a strong young bull that you need to run over the opponent defence and create holes for his teammates to penetrate through. While Benzema and Higuain are naturally second strikers more than being target men. Nistelrooy is too old for this role. He is (or at least was, before his injury) the best finisher inside the box. But he is not the tank that Negredo is. Raul has always been a more dangerous forward with a striker in front rather than being the last man standing. He is a smart fox who can read both his teammates and the opponent movements and knows exactly when to run into that right spot in the box at the right moment. Camping in the box is not an option for him.
Another question is about how far Nistelrooy and Raul will turn to be automatic selections. Raul seems to be a none questionable starter. Last season, Real Madrid offense improved only when Nistelrooy got injured leaving a space for Higuain. Raul and Nistelrooy together means a very, very, …very slow offense.
Player’s compatibility and teamwork efficiency:
When you classify Real Madrid squad members, you get the impression that putting them all together on the field is like putting Bailey dancers and Break-dancer on the same stage. Some master slow tempo and Patience offense build up, others are more explosive. Some are more static, positioning sense; others prefer versatility and switching positions. It may sound a weak argument, but even though it will be barely notices while launching counter attacks, it’s the time that will tell us who will dictate the offense tempo in a static situation. That’s a very crucial challenge that will decide how far the players will click together creating a harmonized group dynamic.
Barcelona had to deal with this challenge when they signed Henry and Abidal. Both are more direct players who struggled at the beginnings to understand Barcelona possession game where Patience is a virtue. Henry publicly declared his frustration back then. He ran in a space but instead of getting the ball the midfield kept on playing horizontally, he played the pass in a space while the teammate requested it in another (deeper and more secure) spot.
But because at Barcelona there is an established identity, it was clear who were the players that need to customize their game more, to fit the group. At Real Madrid, it’s not the case. First, there are too many new players with various football profiles, and there is no definite identity. Obviously it’s the coach’s role to dictate one, if he can. But can he? The board and the director of football are not really helping. Selling two players the coach declared that he is counting on for the next season is not a promising start; it won’t strengthen his authority as the main reference. Nor announcing again and again that Wenger was actually the main candidate, but there was no choice to sign him, so “we had to hire that other guy”. If the Board and the director of football do not show unquestionable, unlimited, long term support to the coach, we will see lot of “Heads shaking” on the field as a sign of dissatisfaction, such as “He is too slow”…”Is he blind or what! I ran into a space!”…”Where the hell is he going? We are still in our own half and he is already in the opponents’ box!”
Even in the first Galacticos’ Era there was a point of reference in Zidane. This season things will be trickier as who is the point of reference? Who will lead the offense build-up and to match which player’s taste?
For Arrigo Sacchi: “Today’s football is about managing the Characteristics of Individuals, and that’s why you see the proliferation of specialists. The individual has trumped the collective. But it’s a sign of weakness. It’s reactive, not pro-active.” Then he explains the Real Madrid galacticos policy (the old version), saying:”There was no project. It was about exploiting qualities. So, for example, we knew that Zidane, Raul and Figo didn’t track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend. But that’s reactionary football. It doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: To achieve this multiplying effect on the players’ abilities. Football is becoming all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting X amount of talented players in and balancing them out with Y amount of specialists?”
Now of course, one can admit that Sacchi is an extremist when it comes to being system-oriented. Besides, the new Madrid squad is a bit younger than the previous one which will provide a better work rate for the group dynamics. Yet there is a very valid sense in his argument about team building.
If you compare Real Madrid to Barcelona for example, its not which team embrace more quality individuals. Defensively, its not if Pepe better or Pique, Puyol or Albiol, Ramos or Alves, Abidal or Arbeloa, Maxwell or Marcelo, etc… But it’s the defensive quality of the team as a whole. The group contribution in defence is the main issue. Henry defensive contribution is as important as that’s of Pique. Messi contributes defensively as much as Alves does. Will that be the case at Real Madrid? And how far defensive contribution of the forward line will decrease their offense output? Will Kaka (the Madrid Version) do continuous pressure on the opponent and still after twenty games from now deliver the same quality offense as he used to offer at Milan where he had less (if any) defensive duties?
In fact, the best alternative for Madrid is to copy Barcelona game plan, trying to earn back possession early in the opponent half to avoid exhausting transition back and forth. If the offense line failed to apply high press, the opponent will have enough time to set up offense. That will force Real Madrid defense to bounce back too early to their own third to avoid being striked by counters. Defensively it will be very demanding Physically (transitions) and Tactically (repositioning). It will also stretch the team structure vertically creating highways between the lines. Offensively it will make offense build up too slow to damage, as the fullbacks and holding mids will think twice before contributing in offense, and the playmakers and forward line will not be close enough to the holding mids to create the link.
Have you seen how the titanic cracked into two halves? If Real Madrid failed to apply high pressure in the opponent half, thats most likely happening to the tactical structure. It will look more like a baseball approach, a group of players to defend, and another to attack. Barcelona style is the answer, but that’s easy to say. This football dynamic is a result of years of football evolution. If Madrid reached that level in a short period then no one must hesitate to give them full credit. Beside, this style requires a strong leadership for the back line, and we discussed this point already.
Offense wise, Robben was labelled once as a better player compared to Messi, now the same papers give “Valid” reasons to sell him. So it’s an endless discussion to judge who is better Xavi or Kaka, Messi or Ronaldo, but again, will the duet “Ronaldo-Kaka” deliver a better Understanding and higher performance than the “Xavi-Messi”? Comparing Messi performance with Argentina to his performance for Barcelona gives you an idea how the chemistry between Messi and Xavi delivers a better output than the summation of pure individual qualities of the two players (if Mathematical expressions is a valid terminology in football). Add Iniesta to the Mix, Yaya, Henry, Keita etc…
Ibravimovic situation is a very bold example. He is a quality player no doubt. But he is still not clicking completely with the rest so he usually dances on a different tempo than the one his teammates play. Yet again, the established identity at Barcelona draws clear guidelines. He already knows exactly what to improve and how, so it’s a matter of time. At Madrid, it’s still an ongoing uncertain process.
Last summer, while it sounded all jubilant for Real Madrid after winning the title, I predicted that all the sins of Calderon will be pointed out again (after years of ignorance and denial) the moment the team underperforms. The same goes for Perez now, he is the brilliant guy. He created the perfect team. Even overpaying Ronaldo was not his fault, its Calderon’s. By the way, does anyone really buy that “30 millions Penalty” story? Not me. There is a reason to sell Robben, said Marca. No complains about the depts. But it will only take some negative results, and Calderon will again have a chance to defend himself when Marca and co become more welling to publish his point of view.
I do not predict a clash of ego between the players, as commonly believed. Not on the short term. And not if the coach applied the elementary principles of team building, which is something I know he will. Countries where the community diversities suffer continuous struggles always search for an enemy outside the boarders to unite against. For Madrid Barcelona is the enemy. All the players will be completely focused on outclassing Barcelona. Being the new kids in the building will make all the new players less self-focused and more determinant to behave so they prove their worth for the club. Egos clash may start later on, after they win something, not before. But if the team suffers, there has to be a scapegoat. And that’s where everyone will start to push everyone to the spotlight.
How will Real Madrid succeed this season?
As I mentioned from the beginning, I will not praise their good side, as there are lot of madridistas out there to do that job. The article may turn to sound unfair as it only raises the negatives, but I can claim trying to create some balance with what’s already written. They have enough game changers to win any game, enough said. But there is one external factor that may help them to succeed and it’s important to point out: Barcelona.
The period from the beginning of the season till January is very crucial this season. If Barcelona made a strong steady start, they may cause a permanent damage for Real Madrid moral that will not be easy to overcome, though one must acknowledge their fighting spirit. If Barcelona start was slow and inconsistent, that will offer the rivals lot of hope, but most importantly the time to gel.
I believe Barcelona is the team that holds all the strings of the coming season. It’s up to their performance to decide the destiny of Perez new adventure.