What on earth is happening to Real Madrid?
In the space of six weeks, Zinedine Zidane’s men have shown themselves perfectly capable of winning any game, anywhere, by coming away victorious from Barcelona and Inter Milan, but also proven to be adept at losing against far inferior opposition with home defeats to Cadiz, Shakhtar Donetsk and Cadiz.
There is not just one simple explanation for this rampant inconsistency, but many factors at play.
For starters, the significance of injuries cannot be discounted. With Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema and Fede Valverde all absent, Los Blancos were missing three of their four most important players (Casemiro being the other) for Saturday’s defeat to Alaves, and suffered a further setback when Eden Hazard limped off in the first half.
But that cannot really be used as the excuse for such a poor display. There was far from a full squad for the authoritative and commanding victory at Inter just a few days earlier, and it’s hardly as though the alternatives are sub-par.
The starting midfield trio against Alaves of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, supplemented by Isco and Martin Odegaard from the bench, should be capable of delivering a far more controlled performance than the mess we witnessed, and it can hardly be said that Real suffer from a lack of quality (other than at centre forward, where Mariano Diaz and Luka Jovic are poor replacements for Benzema).
So if the players are good enough to perform much better against teams such as Alaves and Cadiz, as they clearly are, what is the problem?
Zidane’s verdict in the face of a defeat is generally some variant of the old ‘we need to work hard’ line of explanation. And although he is always careful not to directly criticise his players in public, reading between the lines it is easy to see that such utterings are intended as a chastisement to his players for a deficient attitude.
And there’s definitely more than a hint of truth here. At times – and this has been going on for a while – there is a clear impression that Real Madrid believe they will be able to play badly but still come through unscathed simply because they are Real Madrid, without necessarily having to work particularly hard for their results.
When the focus needs to be right – for trips to Inter Milan and Barcelona, for example, or the short and sharp run-in towards the title at the end of last season – more often than not the attitude is right. When they know that there is no choice but to be serious, Zidane’s men apply themselves, play with concentration, maintain their discipline and apply collective effort.
But as a bunch of world-class talents they know, even subconsciously, that they can often get away with loosening up a little for home games against Alaves and Cadiz. They can slip into cruise control mode, going through the motions and relying on that extra bit of quality to see them home. Often, that is the case and many games have been won on the back of flashes of individual brilliance despite mediocre team performances – especially back in the days when Cristiano Ronaldo’s presence virtually guaranteed a goal per game.
Sometimes, though, if you play with fire you will get burned. And the complacent laziness that regularly creeps into Real’s approach can very easily result in sloppy mistakes. Mistakes such as Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos getting completely out of position to allow Antony Lozano to net Cadiz’s winner last month; mistakes such three members of the back four conceding penalties at Valencia and the other scoring an own goal; mistakes such as Thibaut Courtois carelessly gifting possession to Alaves forward Joselu for a simple tap-in on Saturday night.
Mistakes happen when an insufficient level of attention is being paid, when the mind and body are distracted or not properly focused on the task at hand. And mistakes, which could easily be avoided with the right attitude, are fast becoming a hallmark of Real Madrid’s season.
The players, of course, deserve criticism for their lapses into sloppiness. But so too does Zidane: he, after all, is the highly respected leader who sets the tone in the dressing room and on the training pitch. And Zidane, for whatever reason, is letting his players get away with too much casual complacency.
The French coach is also clearly responsible for the tactical disorganisation that was evident to an alarming scale in the losses against Alaves and Cadiz. In particular, the lack of coordinated movement when the team loses the ball was shocking – some players appeared to be keen to press high, while others looked happy to drop off and defend deep. There was little sense of a collective approach, with the consequence that the opposition had space to play into, especially on the break, and therefore plenty of chances to score many more goals.
When Real dip down into their sloppy ‘coasting’ mode, as they did in those recent home losses, the opposition find it embarrassingly easy to play against them. Plenty of space is left in midfield to be exploited, few players work hard enough (Ferland Mendy, Lucas Vazquez and Fede Valverde are exceptions) to close down space or retrieve possession, meaning that those frequently recurring mistakes come gift wrapped with goalscoring opportunities.
Regularly making needless mistakes and not working hard enough to rectify them is a bad combination. And if Real Madrid, including their manager, don’t mentally sharpen up they will soon find themselves – just as they did in a couple of other seasons under Zidane – so far behind in the title race that they’re not even in it.