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Issues beyond Benitez

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A Clasico always has a sense of finality to it. In the aftermath of a clasico, there is always a urgency and need to draw significant conclusions from the game and there is definitely merit to that approach. While issues should be considered in a larger context as well, El Clasico is the biggest game in world football and requires special focus

Desolate in defeat
Desolate in defeat
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

There is no doubt that there was an overwhelming defeat as shown by the scoreline but it is not at the same level as the 5-0 and 6-2 in recent years. Both of those games were footballing masterclasses by Barcelona who were at a different elite level. Barcelona were excellent yesterday as well but this result was undoubtedly down to a crippling, incompetent performance by the Madrid players.

I personally was strongly against Ancelotti’s sacking but was and still am willing to give Benitez a chance in the job. The team until the Clasico had performed decently but nothing special at all. A few games into the season, Benitez was creating a promising system centered around Bale in a free roaming no 10 role. However, injuries have hindered any progress in terms of developing team balance and consistency. In the midst of the injury crisis, Casemiro was brought into the team and really changed the entire dynamic of the team. Free, flowing attacking and defensively open football changed to compact, pragmatic play that was acceptable and sensible during the crisis. The previous results have been decent as well.  Madrid deserved more from the Atletico game but far less from the PSG home game in which we were battered. Therefore, Benitez has been unable to establish a consistent system and style of play but this does not account for the horror show yesterday.

This entire 11 except 2 players has played an entire season together and have shown some periods of great chemistry. On paper, it is undoubtedly one of the most formidable midfields and attacks in Europe. But there is a distinct lingering sense that finally once again there are just too many superstars for the system to gel. While I hope it is not the case, the Galactico issue has reared its head again. There is a need to understand the roles of the players in the system and compare it to what they did yesterday.

In a 4-2-3-1, the wingers are meant to track back while defending, essentially making the midfield 2 into a 4. While attacking, the wingers are meant to stretch the play and provide passing options wide for the midfield playmakers. The no 10 usually stays up high while defending and mainly just presses the defenders on the ball. While attacking, he is meant to control that entire zone, provide central passing options in between the lines for the midfield. The striker usually also just presses the defenders and makes runs in behind defenders.

At Madrid, we must start with Ronaldo. On paper, he occupies the left wing spot but on the field is permanently up in the box or just outside it. This is why Marcelo is so essential because he is therefore the passing option on the left wing. Ronaldo basically plays striker or second striker. This is usually not a massive issue against most teams against whom Marcelo can afford to push so high up. However, on days like yesterday, when Marcelo also has a defensive shocker, the left wing becomes an issue. He stayed further back to defend and Ronaldo stayed up front and the left wing is useless now.

There seems to a belief that criticizing Ronaldo is sacrilegious. The man is supposed to be completely free from criticism and anyone who says a word against him is either a traitor or Barcelona fan. There needs to be a concrete discussion about his role in the team. He simply has to accept the striker role and forgo his ego. The goals are not an issue because we know that is a constant with him and moving him up top will only maximize his current abilities. Moving from the wing would be an admission on his part that he no longer has certain attributes needed of a winger-forward and that is what is stopping him from accepting a new role. There is a level to which indulging him is acceptable but a decision will have to be taken soon. His contribution in general play has been nonexistent and unless goals are really laid out for him, he is unable to get into the game. No one is calling for him to be dropped because that would be ridiculous. He obviously must be in the 11 but just in a different role that helps the current team in multiple ways. He is still the best player in the box and the team must play to his current strengths instead of past ones.

James Rodriguez on the right is expected again to be a passing option on the right wing and really redouble his defensive output to cope with Ronaldo’s lack of defending on the other side. Gareth Ba, le in the no 10 role is meant to play across the whole zone and especially also into the vacant wing space on the left. As the main man of the team, he has to help Modric and Kroos to a lesser extent to tie the entire play together. Karim Benzema is also expected to create play especially when Ronaldo pushes past him into the box. Yesterday, what we often saw was a bank of 4 defenders with Marcelo staying back usually to defend. Modric and Kroos came next in midfield but they were often pushed wide to receive from Ramos and Varane. Beyond them, there was a huge chasm: acres of space. And then finally, 4 of our superstars all positioned at or near the last Barcelona defensive line.

Some of the pictures below are damning and frankly disappointing. A lot of blame comes down to the coach and enough has been said about the man who already looks like too small in stature and personality for the Bernabeu. But at some point the buck stops with the players. The lack of selflessness and desire to work for the team is shocking. James Rodriguez is one of the most expensive players of all time, the absolute star for Colombia and in general a superstar who would be the main man in most teams. The same points can be said for Gareth Bale with the change to Wales. Karim Benzema is one of France’s main players and credit has to be given to him. He has consistently sacrificed his personal interests for the greater good of the team and in particular Ronaldo. The picture with Ronaldo is clear already: greatest Madrid player ever, 2nd best player now etc.

At Madrid, we are expecting a team to achieve perfect balance with an overwhelmingly lopsided split between attackers and defenders. Benzema has consistently adapted for the team. James has shown that he can play for the team, put in defensive work and curb his natural main man instincts, especially in that purple patch 22 win period. Benitez has taken the bold decision of making Bale the new main man of this team by giving him that unique no 10 role. He seemed to be doing well and has just come back from injuries so I will not condemn him in any way. This is chance to rise to the occasion but he has to accept the responsibility and take games by the neck.

But James is an out and out attacking player and he is expected to put in a midfielder’s job. Not only does this prevent him from maximizing his attacking output but also forces him to expend energy on defending so heavily when he is also not good at defending fundamentally. This situation is made worse because of Ronaldo on the other side.

But at some point, a question will have to be asked: is this perhaps just too much to put together without other cogs?

Shocking lack of process

The picture is damning because it shows us 4 players all waiting to be on the end of a final pass. None of them are interested in being part of the process but only at the end of it. This is representative of their mentality and natural instinct: to be the big moment player on the biggest stage there is. And I do not blame. They all have the talent to be so and as earlier discussed would be the main men on any team. But perhaps that is the issue. To be the main man, they each have to be supported by other players. But if everyone wants to be the one, then who actually builds up the play ?

Bale had to be taking action there, dropping deep to receive and building up play. James too. Ronaldo should have dropped deeper into the left wing spot that he holds so dear but refuses to actually play there when needed. Perhaps, the project has been pushed too far. Mourinho’s Madrid had Ozil, Di Maria and peak Ronaldo as attackers who helped build up play with Alonso and Marcelo. Ancelotti managed to fit Bale in but only because Di Maria sacrificed himself for the team and accepted a new role. Last season, our best patch came without Bale because we switched to a 4-4-2 and hence had Isco, James, Modric and Kroos in buildup. The inclusion of Isco who also sacrifices himself for the team allowed James to play more freely too.

This is the crux. The support system is lacking. Even Barcelona has realized this and found a way to cope. Busquets is an original defensive midfielder, Rakitic is a workhorse and Iniesta also to a lesser extent. The forward 3 also heavily press the opposing defenders and defensive midfielders which helps those further back. Madrid has to find a way to achieve this balance and if it means sacrificing a glamour player for a support player then so be it. 2011-2014 teams were in my opinion very well balanced and included players who were willing to play for the team: Ozil who was perhaps the most selfless player around and the embodiment of the no10 role, Di Maria who after already putting in work in the Mourinho era went a step further and became a shuttler in midfield under Ancelotti, Alonso who was a rock solid defensive midfielder and Khedira who I dislike but essentially also worked for the team.

I doubt Benitez will survive this. He will be sacked whether soon or at the end of the season unless the team pulls off some major victories. I still believe this team can work. The players have to come together and accept roles within a team and all contribute to the whole process. Aside for this and possibly mainly, Benitez has to come up with some solid plan and style. He sent his team out like headless chickens and that was shocking. If this 11 does not work out then, he should therefore just do things his way. He could bring in Isco to have a bit more midfield presence or really go his preferred route and bring in Casemiro. Perhaps the play will not be as glamourous but atleast we would be more solid.

All of this may be an overreaction but a battering in a Clasico demands a reaction. After the 5-0, Mourinho learnt his mistakes and setup the team in future Clasicos in counter attack mode. Those games were not pretty but we won a lot of them. Big decisions happen after the biggest game and rightfully so. I hope this current 11 find a way to gel but unless players decide to take one for the team, I am not hopeful. Hopefully Benitez finds a way to work this out and does what he believes is right instead of bowing to public pressure.

A final word has to be said about Florentino Perez. He has made some unforgivable mistakes over his 2 reigns but also woke up Real from a slumber both times. But the Ancelotti sacking was shocking. He does not learn from his mistakes. Selling support players (Ozil, Di Maria, Makelele etc) and sacking coaches unfairly (Ancelotti, Del Bosque). No point in complaining about a man who is not leaving the club anytime soon. But I will forever hate him for selling Ozil. Seeing Ozil go on a rampage in the Premier League with an average Arsenal team has made me extremely nostalgic. This Ronaldo would be perfect for him. Hopefully he comes back to his real home one day.