While the socios are calling for heads, Real Madrid are waist-deep in their annual crisis, and the club has had one of it's worst La Liga starts in the past ten years, it's an opportune time to dissect Real Madrid's attack. After two and a half years, we have enough data to come to some kind of sound evaluation of the Bale-Benzema-Cristiano trio. What has it done, and where is it headed?
Here's what we know: Real Madrid has three world-class players in its attack who can wreak all kinds of havoc against anyone, but typically only do so against teams under the top tier. If you crop out the toughest opponents Real Madrid have had this season from the rest of their schedule, the BBC have combined for one goal and one assist in five matches. These matches include trips to Sevilla, Atletico, and PSG, and two matches at home against PSG and Barcelona. The numbers look infinitely more impressive if you look at the remainder of the games in the schedule, where the BBC has combined for 46 goals and 8 assists. The latter stat should not be of surprise to anyone. Real Madrid is well-known for it's supremacy over Spanish minnows. What the supporters want to see though, is the same kind of dominance in big matches.
Disclaimer: The above paragraph is a deceiving one. The entire BBC did not play in the five aforementioned big games. Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema played neither game against Paris, and Benzema missed the match in Seville. Furthermore, Bale was just returning from an injury and came on as a substitute in Vicente Calderon.
There is a number of ways to look at these numbers too - it's not so black and white. On and off the pitch, there is turmoil. Real Madrid has been decimated with injuries this season, and the few games where the A-team is available, some patience is required to allow the players to mesh. One could argue that the majority of this team has played together for years, but it's not so cut-and-dry. In reality, it's the same players in a different system, a different coach, dealing with health issues, and a plethora of distractions off the pitch.
This version of the BBC is hardly the same as the one Ancelotti had - despite the face of it being the same on paper. Ancelotti had a Ronaldo at his peak, a Benzema who was focusing on his football without much exterior noise, and a Bale who - particularly in his first year at Real Madrid - was part of a scheme that absorbed attacks and exploded on the counter, fully utilizing this Welshman's pace and sheer power. Back to that first year where Bale thrived, the BBC was supported by a dominant midfield that no one in Europe could properly cope with. Xabi Alonso was the perfect midfield general - the best brain Real Madrid had in that deep position to organize the midfield since Fernando Redondo - and two complimentary midfielders in Modric and Di Maria beside him. The following year, when Ancelotti lost his two engines to Bayern Munich and Manchester United, Carlo still managed to have an efficient midfield that supported the attack in Kroos and James, but ultimately, Kroos was overworked and Real Madrid were hampered with injuries in key moments of the season.
When you take these factors into the equation, it's hard to blame any of the BBC for their current shortcomings, when a lot of their success lies on exterior factors, mainly the injuries to the team, the players supporting them, and the system deployed by the manager.
Looking at their year-to-year progression is interesting. Their combined numbers are nearly identical in their first two years, as is their percentage of the team's overall goals, which, in another way to explain it, is essentially the degree to which the rest of the team relies on their attack. This number is at 70% both years. This year, while understanding we're only still in December, the number is up to over 80%, and even despite all the criticism, BBC is on course to surpass their numbers from the previous two years, only with a higher dependency on their shoulders.
Bale's best year with Real Madrid remains his rookie season with the club, so the main reason the collective numbers of the front three remain the same in his sophomore season are because of a dramatic increase in goal tally from Ronaldo. This year, thanks to a stat-padding thumping against Rayo, Bale is on course to match or ameliorate his first season at the Club.
The increased reliance on the front three points to something alarming: The team has been unable to find much creativity outside BBC. Keep in mind that, within these stats, Benzema and Bale have missed large chunks of the season, and they, along with Ronaldo, still combined for over 80% of the team's goals. The biggest attacking threat outside of the BBC is undoubtedly James Rodriguez. On paper, anyway. Statistically speaking, him and Isco have been just as productive, with Marcelo - the attacker disguised as a wing-back - not far behind.
So what would happen if the BBC was broken up? It's often noted that despite the exaggerated stats (exaggerated in the sense that they're padded against smaller teams), the BBC experiment is not going to bring Real Madrid a ton silverware because it's so one-dimensional. That's true and not true at the same time. While Ronaldo and Bale both thrive in space, they scored more goals both overall and in big games with the trio of Xabi-Luka-Angelito behind them. Again, it depends all on the system they're playing in. But so long as the criticism keeps pouring in, at some point someone has to step back and point out just how efficient BBC has been this season, despite being thrown into the fire of one of the most dysfunctional Real Madrid teams since Bernd Schuster's last season with the club. The team is playing in a scheme that gets overworked and outnumbered in midfield on a consistent basis, James looks lost, and the back four and deep midfielders have no proper outlet to ignite attacks. And, amidst all of the turbulence, BBC is carrying the team while being attacked with wave after wave of criticism.
But here's something to consider: While the BBC is - statistically speaking - carving up opponents, it may be timely to end the experiment after this season is finished in order to accommodate a more versatile front-three. Playing with two inverted wingers who rely on athleticism won't work as well when Ronaldo's inevitable decline manifests itself fully. The team struggles to create goals against compact defenses that move as a unit. If we assume that Benzema will leave after this season and Real Madrid decide to cash in on a declining Ronaldo, Gareth Bale may be left as the only player remaining from BBC next season.
I'm not one to fantasize about this player and that, but it's interesting to note that if Real Madrid are smart about this inevitable transition, they don't need to blow up the team entirely. Perhaps the only purchase needed in this scenario would be a striker to compliment Bale and James. The latter would slot in and replace Ronaldo, which would allow Isco to shift in behind the front three. All of a sudden, with Ronaldo gone, you have just one direct winger in Bale, with a more stable and sound cast supporting him in James and Isco acting as your transitory glue-guys and Modric as your deep-lying play-maker.
Bale has already started to play smarter this season. Undoubtedly, with Ronaldo gone, opposing defenses will shift their attention towards Bale as the main threat to get in behind their back-line. They will double-up or even triple-up on the wings to close his channels. This, actually, should be something Bale can lick his lips for. He's become tremendously good at crossing the ball quickly before the defense closes in on him. Typically, the defense won't shift efficiently enough and will collapse with a timely cross or pass into the middle. Whipping the ball into the box with pace and accuracy is a very underrated part of Bale's game.
Currently, per 90 metrics, Gareth Bale is 2nd behind only James in chances created. That's pretty good, considering Bale is regarded as a one-dimensional player who relies on power and pace rather than creativity.
An underrated - or perhaps unnoticed - problem this season has been Benzema's lack of involvement in build-up, something he's typically very good at. Here's a wild statistic for you: Benzema hasn't had a single assists yet this season, while his average in the past five seasons is 11.2.
Again, we have to consider that we are not even half-way through the season yet, so the small sample size alert is real, and there have been plenty of injuries to disrupt the team. But 22 games is not short enough to be dismissed by any means. If the team wants to decrease it's dependency on BBC, Benitez needs to figure out a proper scheme to strengthen the supporting cast and bring out the best in the midfield, which currently looks rattled.
There is no perfect science behind how Real Madrid can improve their play enough to win a trophy (or two) by the end of the season, but there is some reasoning behind the struggles, and the problem is not necessarily on the front three - or the players themselves at all. Rather, the system seems to have gaps, and if Real Madrid want to look like a free-flowing fluid machine again, they need to strengthen their transition game from the midfield to attack. To be sustainable, Real Madrid needs to rely more on team play and less on individual stat-padding by the attacking trio.
It is interesting to note that despite Real Madrid having their worst start in years, they lie third, just a few points away from the top of the league while having comfortably secured top spot in their Champions League group. The frustrating part perhaps goes beyond results, and that is that despite having a phenomenal team on paper, Benitez has yet to reveal the team's true capacities.