The Factors Behind Real Madrid’s Decline

January 02, 2018

- Grant Whittington

Last June, Real Madrid made history by becoming the first club to retain the modern iteration of the Champions League. Their 4-1 victory over Juventus seemed to usher in a new era of dominance for Los Blancos, who completed a league and European double while winning their fifth major honour in just 18 months under the stewardship of Zinedine Zidane.

While Madrid have added the European Super Cup, the Supercopa de España and the FIFA Club World Cup to their honours roll so far this season, there is no doubt that the club has entered a period of decline. Inconsistent league form has seen the club fall a staggering 14 points behind Barcelona in the defence of their La Liga title, for example, while their failure to dominate their Champions’ League group has seen them paired with tournament favourites PSG in the second round of the UCL.

In this post, we’ll look at the factors behind Madrid’s decline, and ask whether Zidane’s tenure as manager is under threat?

  1. The Decline of BBC

At their peak, Madrid’s famed ‘BBC’ forward line (comprising of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo) were integral to the club’s success. Thanks to their combination of searing pace, ruthless finishing and sublime touch, they were equally effective at stretching their opponents while in possession or on the counter-attack and capable of punishing even the most innocuous of errors.

None of these forwards has performed at their best this season, however, with French striker Benzema bearing the brunt of harsh media scrutiny. So often the focal point of Madrid’s attacks and deadly in front of goal, the forward has suffered an alarming loss of form in 2017 while he has scored just five times in 20 appearances so far this season.

When it comes to Bale, the Welshman’s decline began in earnest last season, when he was replaced in the starting line-up by the mercurial Isco. He has suffered further with injury this term, having scored just four goals in 13 appearances across all competitions. With speculation continuing to hint at a potential return to the Premier League, Bale is also the target of increasing hostility by the fans and Spanish media alike.

Even Ronaldo has struggled to replicate his best form this season, despite plundering 16 goals in 22 outings. Nine of these have been scored in the Champions League, with the Portuguese talisman only able to record four La Liga goals in 12 appearances.

  1. The Change in Formation

In some respects, Madrid’s forwards have been hampered by Zidane’s tactical reorganisation of the side. After all, Bale’s continued absence has encouraged the French manager to evolve the club’s trademark 4-3-3 formation, preferring instead to deploy a midfield diamond behind two central strikers.

This has left Casemiro anchoring the midfield behind Toni Kroos and the irrepressible Luka Modric, with the talented Isco operating at the tip of the diamond. Benzema and Ronaldo have subsequently been paired in a more traditional strike force, with Bale (when fit) and players such as Marco Asensio often required to play cameo roles as substitutes.

Neither Ronaldo nor Benzema look comfortable playing as part of a two-pronged attack, however, while defending teams tend to find it easier to contain the explosive Portuguese by packing the central areas of the pitch. The lack of natural width also exacerbates this issue, while the loss of Bale’s natural pace in attack has often forced Madrid to play in front of their opponents.

Zidane must certainly think on this tactical conundrum, as Madrid would most likely benefit from a return to a more expansive 4-3-3 system. This could include Isco playing alongside Modric and Kross dropping the bench, with Asensio or Bale being restored to the starting line-up alongside Benzema and Ronaldo.

  1. The Loss of Key Squad Members

If you look at Madrid’s incredible success last season, the strength of depth in Zidane’s squad was of paramount importance. This created a sense of youthful energy and purpose within the playing squad, while also maintaining some much needed competition for places.

Madrid have undoubtedly lost this during the recent campaign, while the failure to significantly strengthen the squad has also caused it to go slightly stale. Talented starlets such as James Rodriquez and Alvaro Morata were allowed to leave without much opposition, for example, with the latter completing a permanent move to Chelsea despite scoring 20 goals in 43 appearances in all competitions last season.

These players contributed heavily last season, particularly when Zidane was forced to rotate his line-up during the second half of the season. These questionable departures, coupled with the absence of any high profile signings during the pre-season, have left Madrid’s squad looking unusually light and strangely bereft of options.

This is something that has affected numerous successful sides throughout history, and Zidane may need to consider bolstering his squad in the January transfer window if Madrid are to rediscover their sparkle.

  1. The Quiet Progress of Barcelona

While Madrid may have been besieged by issues off the pitch, their struggles have been amplified by the quiet and impressive strides that have been made by Barcelona this season. New manager Ernesto Valverde has successfully reinvented Barca’s style of play, restoring the club’s focus on dominating possession while also strengthening the side’s defensive structure and organisation.

Valverde has also simplified Barcelona’s approach, restoring Lionel Messi to the elusive, false number nine role that enabled him to become the best footballer on the planet.

Barcelona’s new-found economy and efficiency was evident during the recent El Classico, where the patient Catalan’s were able to frustrate their rivals before gradually beginning to monopolise possession. This created a platform on which an inspired Messi began to dazzle, before firing Barca to a decisive 3-0 win.

In contrast, Madrid looked disjointed throughout, with their lack of options and tactical confusion contributing heavily to their downfall. During these 90 minutes, the growing chasm between these two sides was apparent, and there’s no doubt that Los Blancos have fallen far behind their rivals during the new season.

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