Real Madrid’s La Liga title defence, it is fair to say, is hanging by a thread.
The reigning champions are six points behind leaders Atletico, but it could very easily be a lot more than that because they are not playing well and have been rescued by late goals in three consecutive games.
At home to Real Sociedad a couple of weeks ago, the lifeline came from an 89th minute equaliser from Vinicius Junior.
Then came the Madrid derby at the Wanda Metropolitano, where Karim Benzema struck to rescue a valuable point with two minutes of normal time remaining.
And finally last weekend Benzema was again the hero, scoring twice – including a magnificent 92nd minute winner – to turn a 1-0 deficit at home to Elche into a 2-1 victory.
Without those late goals, Real would now be 12 points off top spot, and their chances of taking the title would be effectively over.
Worryingly, those last gasp strikes were fairly indicative of the team’s general attacking play, because Los Blancos have been badly struggling for goals.
Against Real Sociedad their only effort on target aside from Vinicius’s late strike was a hopeful long-range effort from Luka Modric, and against Elche visiting keeper Edgar Badia was only forced into two saves aside from Benzema’s brace.
It is clearly unsustainable for Zinedine Zidane’s team to continually create so few chances and have to rely on late heroics to salvage points. Sooner or later, those vital goals at the death will surely stop arriving, and they will need to start gaining more convincing victories.
Real’s problems in the attacking department have dogged them throughout this calendar year. So far in 2021 they have played 15 games in all competitions, and only scored more than two goals on one occasion – a 4-1 win at Alaves in January.
Overall in 2021 they have averaged just 1.5 goals per game, and are only still in contention for the title thanks to a good defensive record with just four goals conceded in the last eight games.
Those two things are no doubt connected: especially during the injury absence of Sergio Ramos, Real have offered a more cautious and controlled style of play, which meant they provided better protection to the outstanding Thibaut Courtois but posed less attacking threat.
Injuries have also been a factor: key attacking players Benzema, Rodrygo, Fede Valverde and, of course, Eden Hazard have all missed significant playing time, and replacements such as Mariano Diaz and Hugo Duro are not, to be frank, up to the level of a title-winning team.
In two of the last three games – against Real Sociedad and Elche – Zidane has not helped matters by changing to a 3-5-2 formation. On both occasions that switch in strategy clearly did not work, and had to be abandoned by Zidane long before the late goals arrived.
It’s hard to know exactly what Zidane’s intentions were, but against Elche the consequence was that the ball rarely even reached the opposition penalty area, with central defenders Nacho or Rafa Varane invariably left as the spare man with the responsibility of bringing the ball towards goal – a scenario any opponent would happily settle for.
Examining Real Madrid’s problems does not really require in-depth tactical analysis. The issue is quite simple: other than Benzema, the squad does not possess goalscorers.
Last season, they overcame that deficit and won the title thanks to the league’s best defensive record, and the relative weakness of their biggest rivals. But this time around Atletico and Barcelona are much stronger, and Zidane’s men will probably need to win at least nine of their remaining 11 games to have a real chance of winning the title.
The question is, where will the goals come from? Over to you, Karim…