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Benitez must find his "equilibrio"

The elusive balance which has evaded many Real Madrid managers.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

For the past two seasons, fans of Real Madrid were treated to Carlo Ancelotti's favorite word: equilibrio, or balance. Balance between the offense, defense and everything in between. Though Ancelotti did strike that fine sense of balance in his season and for a part of last year, the wheels came off in the second season and it didn't take an expert to see that this team was lacking that equilibrium that would allow it to both unleash its potent attack while maximize its wealth of talent on defense. Ancelotti lost his job, Rafa Benitez came in but talk of this equilibrio remained.

What fans have seen so far from Benitez and his side is a glimpse of its potential; the potential for his offense to be the best in the world and for his defense to have a sense of maturity and responsibility at the back that we haven't seen in years. However, we've also seen this team hit the wall on both ends of the pitch and a hesitancy to blend both the offensive and defensive aspect of the game in a responsible fashion. Yes, the offense will run and gun to force the issue and yes, the defense will hold tight and keep another clean sheet, but we've yet to see a complete match where the offense performs efficiently while the defense does its job without going into turtle mode. When the offense does click, the defense has still shown a tendency to concede a number of late shots and though potentially conceding a goal up 5-0 isn't a glaring error, one would still like to see a game finished out more responsibly on both ends of the pitch.

Fans don't have to look far to see how two primary rivals have adopted this sense of balance in all phases of the game while still staying somewhat true to themselves. Barcelona following Pep Guardiola's exit adamantly adhered to its possession-heavy style, often getting ripped apart on counters and in the air and drawing criticism for its tactical rigidity. Enter Luis Enrique and his pragmatic, yet open-minded, approach with Barcelona now being as feared on the counterattack as they are in possession, capable of devoting resources on defense instead of pushing up on possession. The defense was elite, not because of any parked bus and negative play, but rather because of a smart approach of efficiently killing off the game early through MSN and then smartly not conceding the ball. Though the Barcelona defense is struggling at the moment, Enrique's turnaround of their weaknesses last season was the catalysis for a historic season.

Bayern took longer than a year having been obliterated by both Spanish giants due to their playing style (and injuries), but Pep now seems to have found that fine line between offensive juggernaut and stifling defense. Though their defensive record is more a product of their possession than perhaps Barcelona, Guardiola has found a way to stifle opposition thanks to his shape-shifting and player flexibility.

Nine matches into the season and Real Madrid is a mixed bag. Though they lead the league in shots taken and goals conceded, it has been too much of one or the other. The offense went off versus Real Betis and Espanyol, but looked impotent versus Sporting Gijon, Malaga and Atletico Madrid. Though they generated many shots in the first two of those three, not enough were quality enough shots to put away these sides and secure the three points (especially versus Malaga where 17 of the 31 shots were off target). This side can rack up the goals versus minnows and the average league sides fairly easily, but murmurs of Benitez resorting to negative tactics grew louder in Madrid's two toughest tests to date, versus Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid, specifically in the second half of both matches.

Of note in these two matches is that Real Madrid led both times when they closed shop. In the second half versus Athletic, Real Madrid was outshot 7-6 with nine of Athletic's 12 shots in the game coming inside the box. Versus Atletico the numbers were even worse as Diego Simeone's men held an 8-4 shot advantage in the second half with 12 shots in the game coming from inside the box as opposed to Real Madrid's five.

On the one hand, this makes sense as you don't want to over-chase the second goal and leave yourself open at the back and vulnerable on the counter. However, to completely abandon the idea of that second killer goal sees Madrid walking on a razor's edge, especially when they looked so threatening early in both matches. Benitez has to fight the impulse to tell his men to close up shop, he has a side capable of counterattacking anyone in the world and this is the most talented offensive group he'll ever manage. Turtling and counting down the seconds until game's end is fine if you have the requisite goal advantage and gameplan to harass the opposition when they have the ball, but this Madrid side has drawn many comments from neutral analysts about its lack of pressure in the midfield and willingness to sit back and invite shots. The talent to consistently prevent goals is there in the midfield and defense, but we've seen this back four make far too many mistakes over the years to place full trust in them to sit back and cut off any opportunities the way Atletico Madrid does.

So is it all doom and gloom? Well, not at all actually. Though Real Madrid hasn't faced a schedule as difficult as Barcelona's yet, this is the first time since the 2010-2011 season that Real Madrid isn't trailing Barcelona in the standings after seven league matches. They have the top league scorer, the top league keeper and have accomplished this without Pepe and three preferred starters in Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez and Danilo. Despite having a sometimes laidback attitude when the opposition has the ball, this Madrid side is fifth in shots conceded in the league and tops in clean sheets. Stating the obvious, Real Madrid also doesn't have the comfort of a manager already established at the club like its two biggest title threats in Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, so with these factors in mind there's probably more positives than negatives to take away from this stretch of matches and its not unreasonable to assume that play will improve further once Benitez gets settled in and the players' knowledge of his system increases.

However, a cautious eye must be kept on the level of balance exhibited by Benitez and his side given its tendencies in the two biggest tests of the early season, albeit them being a small sample size. This is a side that should comfortably beat the minnows of the world but there's no reason why it should fear its elite rivals. There is absolutely nothing wrong with pragmatism but deliberately handicapping the team's potential, whether through a lack of initiative on offense or a lackadaisical effort on defense goes away from all the talk of balance we've heard from Benitez, a lack of balance which is all too familiar at Real Madrid.

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