Since 2009, when Florentino Pérez recovered his position as president and bought Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, Real Madrid’s most remarkable feature has been its extraordinary firepower. Not for nothing, Los Blancos have been able to score more than a hundred league goals every season since the 2009-10. Last year, however, Carlo Ancelotti developed a game plan in which the midfielders took a more prominent role, and his men managed to play their most attractive football in years, at least in my opinion, but in the end their lack of accuracy in concrete games costed them the trophies.
Rafa Benítez’s biggest efforts in the preseason have been focused in building a robust team that will concede very few goals, and he seems to be succeeding so far. Nevertheless, he should not trust that simply the talent of his attackers will suffice to get the number of goals that a team needs to become champion. Offensive transitions and counterattacks will not be a problem, but some schemes of positional attack will need to be devised in the early months of the competition.
The current Ballon D’Or holder is, without a shred of doubt, Real Madrid’s best player. It’s been many years now since the pundits started to claim that he would lose his pace and he would not be able to make a difference playing in the wing and, while it is true that he is not as brilliant as he was in the 2010-11 or 2011-12 seasons, he is still a lethal threat. Having a player with an average of 1.04 goals per game in your roster (who reached an unbelievable 1.13 goals/game last season) is an extraordinary advantage in the long run, which Los Blancos will for sure make profit of.
Taking into account how the preseason has been so far, we must expect Ronaldo to play in his favorite position, as a left winger in a 4-2-3-1 but with freedom to move along the frontline to unbalance the rivals’ defensive system. However, it should not be a surprise to see him playing as a pure striker sometimes when Los Blancos adopt a more defensive stance. This would reduce his direct impact on the game, but would help Real Madrid to create strong superiorities in the midfield, as barely no coach in the world would take the risk of using just one of his centerbacks to mark CR7.
The Cardiffian had a very convincing first season in Real Madrid, which he culminated with his goals in both finals Real Madrid won, but his output last season did not fulfill the expectations posed on him. The mantra in most of the mainstream media is that the right wing does not suit him and he should be playing on the left, but the truth is that he has managed to play extraordinary games for Los Blancos on the right (see, for example, the brutal 1-6 victory against Schalke 04 in the 2013-14 Champions League), so it can’t just be a matter of positioning.
Still, Rafa Benítez believes that some tactical changes could help Bale show his best football, which is why he has given him the spot of the mediapunta in the 4-2-3-1, where he shone in his last season with Tottenham. There, his long shot will be an extraordinary asset like in the right, and it will be harder to corner him against the wing to force him to play with his weak foot. However, it will be hard for him to exploit his speed in the centre, which will encourage him to escape through the left. If he and Ronaldo manage to cooperate and not obstruct each other, Los Blancos will be virtually unstoppable.
Playing as a #9 in a team that has Ronaldo and Bale in its lineup is extremely difficult and Benzema is, probably, the man which is best suited for such a task. His wise reading of the game and his ability to drop to the midfield or the wings to open lines for his partners are extraordinary features to unleash the potential of his partners. Besides, and contrary to what most of his critics claim, he is a good finisher who averages a more than decent 0.48 goals per game since he joined Real Madrid (for the sake of completeness, let’s just recall that Raúl averaged 0.44 goals per game throughout his career in Real Madrid), but it is true that, sometimes, his love for the assist makes Real Madrid miss easy occasions that a killer would, for sure, convert.
As it has been published lately, Rafa Benítez wants a pure striker to join the team in order to give Karim some rest in certain moments of the season, but also to put some pressure on him. His virtue will not suffice this season, and he will need to work a lot pressing upfront as Real Madrid’s first defender.
When Real Madrid dropped €80 million on Rodriguez last summer, many questioned the move? Was he just a one-hit wonder? Did his time at his previous clubs warrant such a move? How will he fit in? James took all those questions and emphatically answered them with an incredible 17 goals and 16 assists across all competitions. What makes these numbers even more staggering is that he missed 13 games due to injury. Had he not, it's not unreasonable to assume that he would've topped the 20/20 mark which is just absurd for someone in his first season with a new team.
So what to expect from James this season? Well, probably more of the the same. Much discussion has been had over Gareth Bale playing as a 10 of sorts behind the striker but with the fluid nature of Rafa's attack in the preseason we can also expect James there as well. He'll likely also get more time out wide where he'll have a chance to beat his man 1-on-1 while using his incredible crossing skills to feed Ronaldo and Bale in the box. It will be interesting to see how much defensive responsibility gets placed on him depending on where he is as the wide players have definitely been asked to do more in the preseason but make no mistake, his primary job will be as the distributor in the final third alongside Luka Modric, two men whose absence was severely felt when Real Madrid couldn't break down low blocks last season.
The greatest talent that has come out of La Fábrica in the last few years seems to be fully recovered from his injury and has had a very convincing preseason, playing both as a winger or as a pure striker, which makes pretty clear that he will be the first option to replace each of the members of the BBC trio. Benítez’s rotation policy will give him enough opportunities to shine and prove that he can become a world-class player in the near future.
After having seen him in Castilla, many people thought of Jesé as a prospect of a Cristiano Ronaldo type player, but he might be turning into a different thing now. It is clear that he is not as fast as Ronaldo was and he is not a dribbler either, but he is terribly strong and his accuracy in front of the goal is extraordinary (possibly, the best in Real Madrid’s roster). It may seem weird to postulate him as a unique #9 due to his aerial weakness, but that should not be a problem given how easily Ronaldo or Bale occupy the box when it is needed, and this is where we are likely to see him feature a lot throughout the season.
Lucas Vázquez & Denis Cheryshev
The couple of canteranos have come back to Madrid after brilliant performances in Villarreal and Espanyol last season. Both of them are pacey wingers that do not hesitate to work a lot in the pressure and that have sufficient individual talent to be decent bench players in Real Madrid, but we should not expect either of them to be decisive in important games. Still, they will be great assets for Benítez to rotate his most important players to make him reach April and May in a good physical condition.