1. The counter-attacks could be more clinical.
It sounds crazy to say it considering that this Real Madrid squad are Europe's top scoring football club this season but there have been many instances in a number of matches this season where the counter-attacks have died down as a result of bad passing or poor decision making. That's not to say that Real aren't good at counters. Don't get me wrong, Real Madrid are still one of the greatest counter-attacking teams in world football, perhaps the greatest. However, I believe that their standard of counter-attacking play has decreased slightly this season. This may well be as a result of having more possession under Carlo Ancelotti than they did under José Mourinho.
However, despite the increase in average possession it seems as though sometimes the side lack a clinical edge to properly kill off the opposition - or in Barcelona's case in the recent Clásico, to humiliate them. I don't see the same level of incisiveness on the fast break-away that I saw in José Mourinho's Real Madrid or even Carlo Ancelotti's Los Blancos side of last season. Maybe the combination of Ángel Di María's departure and Gareth Bale's recently overcome injury limited the speed at which the team could counter at pace. In fact, I thought the counters against Rayo Vallecano with Bale's return improved a great deal compared to the counters we saw against Barcelona and Liverpool. To put things in perspective, this is a very small gripe and one that can be easily remedied. I just think that it may be important for Real Madrid to improve their counter-attacking ability in case they face a team like Bayern Munich later this season in the Champions League.
2. Defending, particularly set-piece defending.
It is obvious that since the beginning of the season, Real Madrid's defending has improved greatly. Through the first nine competitive games of this season Real Madrid conceded 12 goals compared to conceding five goals in the last 10 competitive games. So clearly we can see a large improvement already. Yet I believe that this team can improve even further in this aspect. Real concede roughly 12 shots per game which is too high a number considering that most of the opposition they face have considerably weaker squads than themselves. Maybe it is due to having so many offensive-minded, attack-orientated players in Ancelotti's preferred starting line-up that Real concede as many shots per game as they do. Perhaps sometimes they miss a more defensive-minded player to control things and read the game in the middle of park like the recently departed Xabi Alonso. I suppose that when you're outscoring the opposition by an average of three goals or more per game that it doesn't really matter but once again this might be costly in the latter stages of this seasons competitions.
Since I started following the team, set-pieces are something that Real Madrid have always been very good at offensively. The flip side is that for as long as I can remember they've always been pretty dire at defending them. It's their Achilles Heel of sorts. This current iteration is no different. Madrid have Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale amongst many others in the squad who are capable of hitting a fantastic free-kick. They also have Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Ronaldo & Raphael Varane who are more than capable of thumping home a header from a corner that could be taken expertly by any of Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos, James or Isco. The problem lies in the defensive side. We often observe kamikaze-like chaos ensue when the opposition win a corner kick or a free kick close to our penalty area. Keepers come rushing out of nowhere to miss the ball and defenders trip over each other or decide to leave their opponents completely unmarked.
I think it's simply a lack of concentration and/or focus. We saw how competent and capable this Real Madrid team can be at defending set-pieces when they were under a barrage of them against Bayern Munich in last season's Champions League semi-final. Obviously, this can be worked on in training sessions. The communication when defending could be improved. Every player should have a clear role and idea of whom they should be marking and the goalkeepers could be making better judgements calls. A clear example of where this part of the team's game can fail us is in the games against Atlético de Madrid. How many times have we seen a defensive mix-up at a set-piece cost us or nearly cost us against Atléti? 2012-13 Copa del Rey final/2013-14 Champions League final anyone?
While we're at it, I think that Los Blancos could also sometimes do a better job of keeping hold of a lead and not letting the opponents get back into the game. Ideally, once a lead is established, you'd want to crush the opposition's hopes by not affording them any opportunities to equalise or pull a goal back. This has already cost Real Madrid this season, notably against Real Sociedad. Even in the most recent game against Rayo Vallecano there was a long period of the game where Rayo were well in contention despite Madrid taking the lead. One last thing I'd point out regarding the defence is that the 4-4-2 formation is definitely more conducive to conceding less goals than the 4-3-3 formation. Across La Liga and the Champions League combined Real have scored 28 goals and conceded 4 in 8 matches playing the 4-4-2 this season. Whereas with the 4-3-3 they have scored 22 goals and conceded 7 in 5 matches playing with the 4-3-3.
3. Rotations and Substitutes.
This is an area where I think Carlo himself could improve. Real Madrid fans lamented his late substitutions and lack of rotation last season and not much has changed in that respect this season. In fact, Carlo's refusal to rotate seems even stronger this season. I guess that the counter-argument to this would be; 13 consecutive wins. Fair enough. But we must remember that it's still rather early in the season and that there is still much football to be played. I think that if we had players like Sami Khedira, Asier Illarramendi, Nacho, Raphaël Varane, Navas & Chicharito etc. getting more minutes, then the majority of Carlo's favourite players could rest a little more often and nearly always be at 100%, raring to go.
Take Cristiano Ronaldo for example. Despite being in amazing form, some have noticed that his levels have dropped in a few of the games. If he was rested every so often then this wouldn't be the case. I think the same could be said for Luka Modric. Modric generally performs well in the vast majority of matches, however there are anomalies where he doesn't influence the game as he normally does. It could be argued that had Los Blancos rotated more last season then they could be celebrating their first ever treble. The players were too physically and mentally tired to play the last few matches of the 2013-14 La Liga season at the level they are capable of. Rotating more often would not only offer the main stars a rest but would also provide the bench and reserve players with that extra motivation and hunger to succeed. They would see that they're being given good chances to impress and therefore strive even harder to do so. In theory at least.
Substitutions are another area which can be improved upon. If Carlo makes his average sub ten minutes earlier than he currently does then that would be optimal. I think the players that come on to the pitch need to know they'll be given enough minutes in order to directly influence the match. For instance, in the most recent win against Rayo, Chicharito came on to the pitch with 5 minutes left and consequently had 0 touches of the ball. It's hard to expect players to offer a great deal if they're only being given 5 minutes to show what they can do. Making earlier substitutions also reduces the risk of injury as players with tired limbs can rest instead of pushing themselves too hard.
4. Pressing from the front.
This is a topic that has been debated a fair bit here already on Managing Madrid but I'd like to call attention to it once more. Karim Benzema does a lot of running in the final third and I believe that if Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale pressed in the same way that the big Frenchman does then Real would be even better at winning back possession of the ball. Obviously, pressing has to be done in stages as it's not very clever to press all the time as injuries will invariably occur from all of the hard running. In recent years Borussia Dortmund have refined the high press to be an effective tool to put pressure on the opponent and to win possession back high up the pitch in dangerous areas. By doing so, a team doesn't have to orchestrate a well-worked attacking move or work so hard to build a clear goalscoring opportunity.
If our attacking trident collectively worked as hard as the midfield and defence do at pressing then I think Real Madrid would be even more difficult to beat than they currently are. The counter-argument goes that Ronaldo and to a lesser extent Bale shouldn't press as hard as other players because if they do so then they'll lose some of their explosive pace on the counter due to being tired. That's not an entirely fair assessment. Once again, I'd point to Borussia Dortmund as an example of a team that showed that high pressing and counter-attacking can be used together harmoniously. When Madrid were defeated by Dortmund in the 2012-13 Champions League semi-final Dortmund used a combination of their high pressing and their devastating counter-attacks to guide them to a devastating 4-1 victory at the Westfalenstadion.
Currently this Real Madrid squad are undoubtedly playing brilliant football. These are just some of the ways in which I think the team can improve. I'd like to hear what the readers have to say. So if there are other improvements that you think could be made, be sure to share your thoughts in the comments section below.