Real Madrid’s shock 2-1 defeat at La Liga new boys Girona on Sunday afternoon has left everyone wondering just how so much has gone wrong so quickly at the Bernabeu.
Just a few months ago, Zinedine Zidane’s La Liga and Champions League winners were widely recognised as the best team in Europe, and even last week they had five players named in the FIFPRO World XI, while Cristiano Ronaldo lifted a second consecutive FIFA Best Player award.
But, domestically, Los Blancos look in real trouble. After two defeats and two draws from their 10 games, they are already eight points behind Barcelona in the La Liga title race, with worries about the squad’s motivation and strength in depth, and a feeling that 2017-18 could be getting away from them already.
Most alarming has been the form of Ronaldo, who has just one goal in the league so far this term. Although suspension saw the 32-year-old miss the first four La Liga fixtures, one goal in six games is his worst start since joining the club. Indeed, having taken 40 shots in total, his conversion rate of 2.5 percent is the worst of all goal scorers across Europe’s top five leagues.
However, it would be unfair to dump everything on Ronaldo’s shoulders — the team as a whole have not been playing well. Both Zidane and club president Florentino Perez have suggested that a dip was only natural following last season’s double, and then August’s twin Super Cup successes against Manchester United and Barcelona.
But former Real Madrid player, manager and sporting director Jorge Valdano told El Transistor on Sunday evening that he was worried by how quickly the summer’s euphoria had been replaced by a lack of energy and focus.
“Today the team left me quite worried, honestly,” he said. “In other games when the results did not come, the team maybe lacked order, but never vitality. Lately something is different. After the Supercopa [in August] here was a feeling of euphoria, but quickly there was a dip, above all in the lack of goals. Today they were well beaten, the opponent won the challenges, the team lacked order, got desperate chasing a result.”
Sunday’s loss at Girona was the first time Madrid had lost to a Primera debutant since Burgos in 1990. It was not an isolated event however. Their first three results at the Bernabeu this season were draws against Levante and Valencia and a defeat to Real Betis. There have been some excellent one-off performances, such as the Champions League win at Borussia Dortmund, but generally the level has been below expectations.
One reason for this appears to be how the squad was shaken up last summer. Experienced senior international back up players like Alvaro Morata (Chelsea), James Rodriguez (Bayern, on loan) and Pepe (free transfer) were allowed to leave. By last October, Morata had already scored late winners as a sub for Real against Sporting Lisbon and Athletic Bilbao, while James and Pepe had also featured regularly.
Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. had no response for Girona’s two second-half goals . AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
Replacements Borja Mayoral, Dani Ceballos, Marcos Llorente and Achraf Hakimi are talented youngsters, but have understandably been less consistent in their contributions. Zidane removed teenage right-back Hakimi when 2-1 down at Montilivi and back-up centre-forward Mayoral was not even on the bench.
“They are very young players having their first top level experience,” Valdano said. “Those who left were more mature, more expert, and contributed a lot whenever they were called upon.”
Finding in-game tactical solutions is also not Zidane’s strongest point as a coach, so being able to bring in talented individuals helps a lot. Sunday’s mid-game switch to a three-man defence did not improve his team’s chances of a comeback.
It all adds up to just 20 points from a possible 30 so far — the worst tally since Jose Mourinho’s turbulent final season at the club in 2012-13 — and the gloom at the Bernabeu has been worsened by Barca’s unrelenting start (nine wins from 10) under new coach Ernesto Valverde. Indeed, Ronaldo’s mood cannot be helped by personal rival Lionel Messi having 12 goals to his name thus far.
Chasing down the Catalans is something that Madrid have enjoyed in previous years, although they have never previously overturned an eight point deficit. Possibly Madrid’s best player this season, Isco, said on Sunday that the team have to pull together to turn things around.
“When things are going well it is very easy to say we are all together,” he told Marca. “Now is when we really must show that we are a real team, and think we can turn this around. We clearly cannot keep going like this, we are Madrid and we cannot drop points this way. But nobody should give up on us yet. We have shown before we can come back, and now we have another opportunity.”
Madrid clearly have a talented squad, but they need to get their domestic focus back quickly. Or Barca could already have disappeared over the horizon before the first Clasico of the season at the Bernabeu on Dec. 23.