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Examining Marcelo's performances with Real Madrid

Real Madrid left-back Marcelo Vieira has struggled for form after coming off an unfortunate World Cup performance where he netted an own-goal against Croatia and succumbed to the German barrage in Brazil's infamous 1-7 defeat. Marcelo has yet to return to his best, and we identify which facets of his performance from the last two league games have left us pining for more from Madrid's "Sunshine."

Michael Regan

Football is a team sport, and for this reason, it may be unfair to dedicate an entire column to the critique of one player. However, I feel the time has come to examine Marcelo's start to the season and make a case for areas where he could improve.

After netting a brilliant, confident, and emotional goal against Atlético de Madrid in the Champions League final, I thought Marcelo's dip in form would evaporate into the Lisbon skies and he'd join the Brazilian national team for an unforgettable World Cup. The tournament unfolded rather differently for the host country, and the World Cup now stands as something those 23 Brazilian players, and particularly Marcelo, will be keen to forget.

Real Madrid's left-back has started both of Madrid's Liga BBVA fixtures this season, and aside from an encouraging thirty minutes against Real Sociedad, he's been unable to demonstrate playmaking and creativity that once made Robert Carlos declare he wanted Marcelo's technical ability. What parts of Marcelo's game have slipped, exactly?

In some ways, Marcelo embodies a growing trend in modern football: he's a versatile, highly technical player who could play several roles on a team, but he lacks the specificity and mastery of defensive concepts needed to excel in the role of fullback. While I firmly believe his defensive lapses can be overstated on days when Real Madrid nation is in panic mode, there's no denying that Marcelo is a frequent culprit to leaving yards of space behind him and failing to track back quickly enough to pick up his marker. This puts the team in a bind because it forces Sergio Ramos to rush to the touchline to stop potential counterattacks, leaving a glaring hole in the defensive line that can be exploited with an accurate through-ball or cross. We've seen it time and time again, most recently during Real Sociedad's third goal. To truly dominate matches, Real Madrid needs Marcelo to push forward and support the midfield and forwards in attack, but with that offensive liberty must come a commitment to getting back in position once the team loses possession.

Now that Marcelo's most notable shortcomings have been stated, let's take a closer look at his attacking contributions from the last two matches.

Many fans have claimed that Marcelo's crossing has been sub-par since last season, and the trend appears to have extended into the start of the 2014-2015 Liga campaign. Against Córdoba, the Brazilian international attempted five crosses, none of which reached their intended target. Against Sociedad, Marcelo completed only one out of five crosses.

While these numbers are alarming at first glance, the statistic doesn't take into account the positioning of our forwards and the defensive pressure they're under. Does Marcelo need to improve his accuracy? Certainly. However, from the BBC, Cristiano Ronaldo presents the biggest aerial threat, and he tends to prefer quick passing combinations with Marcelo on the left wing rather than camping out in the area in the vein of a classic target man.

Benzema, while a great header when given space, doesn't necessarily tower over defenders with the same tenacity and consistency as a Ronaldo or Sergio Ramos, making it difficult for fullbacks like Marcelo to feed him with crosses. It'll be interesting to note whether an understanding can develop between the fullbacks and Chicharito Hernandez, who is more of a traditional striker than our current modern forwards.

Now is Fabio Coentrão a better crosser than Marcelo? In truth, it's quite hard to say, simply because Fabio does not cross the ball with the same frequency as Marcelo. With the use of WhoScored, I took a look at Marcelo and Fabio's cross completion rate from last season's 2013/2014 Liga campaign. Over the course of the season, Marcelo had the fourth highest cross completion rate on the team compared to Fabio's standing as eighth best. Things look good for Marcelo, right? Well, he completed 24 out of 110 crosses last season, whereas Fabio completed 3 out of 15. Granted, Fabio missed a large chunk of the season due to injury, but he featured as a starter in the Champions League beginning with the quarterfinals against Borussia Dortmund all the way through to the final.

If we compare Coentrão's cross completion rate in last year's Champions League campaign with Marcelo's, the difference is negligible. Fabio completed 3 out of 9 crosses while Marcelo completed 2 out of 8. Furthermore, if we take a look at Coentrão's numbers from both semifinal matches against Bayern Munich and the final against Atleti, we'll find that he attempted zero crosses across all games. When Marcelo came on in the final, he attempted three crosses, completing one.

So, what do we make of this data? Basically, we can choose to drop the "gloom and doom" approach to Marcelo's crossing in relation to Coentrão's and settle for the fact that their differences in this tactical respect are just that- differences. Marcelo, known for his attacking prowess, is simply more likely to get forward and attempt crosses than Coentrão. And while Marcelo should certainly sharpen his accuracy, the argument that Coentrão crosses the ball better than Marcelo is incorrect (though WhoScored and Squawka are by no means infallible). If we're to take a positive from this quick analysis, it's that Marcelo is at least attempting to generate opportunities by getting the ball in the box at a consistent rate (the trend is similar when comparing Carvajal to Arbeloa). Now he just needs to tighten up his service.

Another area where Marcelo needs to improve based on the first two league appearances is that of offensive take-ons. According to Squawka, a take-on is defined as successful when the player dribbles past the opponent and keeps possession of the ball. As those of us who've been watching Real Madrid for a while know, take-ons are one of Marcelo's strengths. Or at least they used to be. For such a gifted dribbler, it's concerning to see Marcelo's virtually non-existent take-on numbers from the last two games.

Against Córdoba, a team that just gained promotion to the first division, our skillful Brazilian artist only attempted one take-on in the 86th minute of the match, and failed. If he's lacking the confidence to challenge Liga minnows with his footwork, how is he going to fare against top European sides? In the defeat to Real Sociedad, Marcelo attempted zero take-ons, though he did have two clear chances on goal, one which forced a fantastic save from Zubikarai. Madrid needs Marcelo's dribbling to break down well-organized defensive sides, but his reluctance to take-on opponents so far this season is surprising when we take into account his demonstrated talent in this aspect of the game.

To wrap it up, Marcelo remains a gem and a special talent in world football; however, we haven't seen him retain his best level over an extended period of time since the 2011/2012 season. While he's not the most conservative defender, his offensive attributes are too good to ignore and could even be used as a defensive tactic by forcing the opposition's wingers to stay in their half of the pitch. The problem that's arisen is that, especially in the current calendar year, Marcelo hasn't been himself in attack, either.

Still, I remain completely optimistic that we'll see the best Marcelo again, but Ancelotti must also employ a more generous rotation that allows both he and Fabio to get adequate rest (injuries permitting). So Marcelo, if you're reading this, I want to provide you with a little inspiration in the form of a highlights from one of the world's premier fullbacks: yourself.

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