The sky is falling. Real Madrid have two defeats and one draw in their last three games. They have gone 329 minutes without scoring; if you frame it as being more than five hours (which it is), the run sounds even worse. The last time they went this long before celebrating a goal was in 2007, when Fabio Capello was in charge and David Beckham had yet to move to Los Angeles.
Furthermore, Real failed to score in a Champions League game for the first time in nearly two years, a run of 29 games, and they enabled the opposing goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev, to keep a clean sheet for only the second time in his last 12 years of Champions League appearances.
After his bright start to the season, Karim Benzema is regressing to what he is, a non-scoring center-forward. Luka Modric looks exhausted and drained, kinda like a 33-year-old who put his body through the ultimate emotional and physical strain in the summer and is now sweating on both a new contract (his deal expires in 2020, hence the summer links to Inter) and, until Wednesday morning, a possible charge for perjury. Julen Lopetegui is on the proverbial hot seat and lacks both the gravitas and stone-faced icon status of his predecessor, Zinedine Zidane. (While we’re at it, the last guy to replace a Champions League winning manager at Real Madrid, Rafa Benitez, got bounced out of the job halfway through the season).
That’s the Chicken Little scenario after Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat at CSKA Moscow. And sure, the headline “CRISIS” was all over the Madrid press. But let’s take a step back, shall we?
Real Madrid were admittedly awful against Sevilla a week ago. They didn’t sparkle against Atletico Madrid on Saturday either, mainly because playing a Diego Simeone side in a big game is usually as much fun as a trip to the dentist: You endure the pain or you get an anesthetic. It was a case of the latter in the Madrid derby and even then, it took a couple Jan Oblak specials to keep them out.
And then came Tuesday night. They went a goal down inside of 90 seconds thanks to a collective brain fart that began with Toni Kroos, continued through Raphael Varane and Dani Carvajal and ended with Keylor Navas. That’s four world-class players each contributing to a mini-catastrophe. If any one of those four performs at his level on that play, CSKA do not score.
Individual mistakes happen; there’s only so much you can do to counter it beyond having fail-safes that spring into action when a boo-boo occurs. But when four happen in a row on the same play, it’s happenstance and it’s not something you can dump on Lopetegui: it’s simply what happens at some point when humans play sports.
Beyond that, Lopetegui’s crew hit the woodwork no fewer than three times and clocked in at 1.7 Expected Goals, which isn’t bad against an opponent that was able to park the bus from the second minute onwards. And lest we forget, Real Madrid were without Gareth Bale, Isco, Marcelo and Sergio Ramos, with Modric on the bench for nearly an hour and Dani Carvajal going off injured before half-time. Spotting an opponent six starters and a goal for most of the game isn’t easy, even in this age of polarization and mega-squads.
And since the fall-out matters too, consider this. Real Madrid remain joint-top in La Liga and have already played two of the other three sides in the top four. In the Champions League, they’re one point off the top of the group, having already beaten Roma — on paper, their toughest opponent — 3-0 at home.
So maybe chill a little. Nothing is beyond repair. You worry when a team doesn’t show a reaction and doesn’t create chances, which wasn’t the case in Moscow. And yes, they’ll get better when the regulars return. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t broader issues at work here.
Florentino Perez could have taken the departures of Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo as a chance to rebuild. It would have meant making a difficult decision on guys like Modric and spending big on a genuine goal scorer instead of bringing back Mariano Diaz (who had a nice season at Lyon but is still, well… Mariano Diaz) and pretending Vinicius Junior is ready to contribute. Instead, he opted to try to squeeze another season out of his core, believing that the arrival of Lopetegui could inject enough freshness in the old warriors. That, and the continued development of his young guns — from Isco to Marco Asensio, from Dani Ceballos to Lucas Vazquez — would be enough to plug the gap.
You can be cynical about this and simply say he extended his record of not signing a “Galactico” for yet another season (arguably, the last one was Kroos in 2014). Or you can see the logic in what he was trying to do.
Football is not a zero-sum game. Ronaldo may have taken his 44 goals to Turin but it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be replaced by one guy, in one go. Why not find out, instead, if Asensio, Isco et al can go to the next level?
The sense is that they can and the fact that they are reunited with Lopetegui, with whom they excelled for Spain, is a definite plus. Yet that doesn’t diminish the value of leadership and experience. Real Madrid without Ronaldo, without Bale, without Ramos, without Marcelo and with only the ghost of Modric, lacks the gravitas and oomph the big names provide. It’s a fuzzy concept and one that analytics folk might disagree with, but there’s something to be said for the “been there, done that” star who comes up big when it matters: Witness Ramos’ eerie record of late, late goals.
Without that sort of leadership, you rely on systems and the problem here is that Lopetegui’s system, against sides that shut up shop, is fundamentally Isco-centric. Indeed, it’s not a coincidence that the poor run of results coincides with his absence. Without Isco and with Modric in the red zone, there’s simply too much riding on Kroos’ shoulders in terms of creativity and playmaking. And if Asensio has a bad day at the office on top of that, well… you get what we’ve had in the past week.
Real’s strength over the past three seasons has been the ability to marshal an impressive team spirit whereby the divas outwork the grunts on the other team while waiting for the half-dozen or so individual match-winners to create something. Once you’re ahead, the opposition come out of their shell and you have opportunities. Lopetegui’s focus is much more football-oriented, more tactical and more structured. It takes time and it takes players (and when half a dozen of them are out or unfit, it shows).
Let’s wait until he’s had both to judge, shall we?