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Real Madrid Season Preview 2016/17: Attackers

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BBC's firepower is backed up by some impressive depth.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

There is no doubt that all the 2016/17 media attention will be focused on Real Madrid's glamorous attacking trident of Benzema, Bale, and Ronaldo. The three combined for 98 goals in 115 matches and spearheaded Real Madrid's quest for European glory. However, it would be a mistake to assume that these three are the only important components of Real Madrid's offense. Lucas Vázquez was an extremely important influence off the bench and James Rodríguez always provided quality when played last season. Luckily for Zinedine Zidane and perhaps unluckily for Lucas and James, the two bench options have further competition from new boys Alvaro Morata and Marco Asensio - both players who will strengthen Real Madrid's attack immensely in the new season.

Incoming Players:
Alvaro Morata from Juventus; buy-back - €30 million
Marco Asensio; called back from loan at Espanyol

Outgoing players:
Jesé Rodríguez to PSG; €25 million

(Price tag information taken from transfermarkt)

#7 Cristiano Ronaldo - The Goal Machine

Position: Wide Forward

Age: 31

Key Statistics 2015/16 (La Liga & the UEFA Champions League):

Season Review:

The million dollar question with Cristiano Ronaldo has always been: 'when will his elite goalscoring standards decline?' Many predicted it would happen with the reduction of his pace, his dribbling, and even when Jose Mourinho left the club, but it didn't seem to be happening any time soon until Rafa Benitez arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu. It may have been a mere case of correlation without causation, but Ronaldo's consistency dropped off and his impact in the big games became negligible in the first half of the season, leaving us to ponder at what Ronaldo used to be. But the fresh start that Zinedine Zidane breathed into Madrid, buoyed Ronaldo to resurrect his form, as he netted crucial goals vs. Roma and Wolfsburg to lead his side to European dominance.

Season Predictions:

Despite the loss of some of his agility and the decline in his dribbling numbers, Ronaldo has become smarter than ever in his off-the-ball movement and interpretation of space. He is a master of arriving from the flanks to knock-in easy tap-ins, and is an expert at maximizing his spectacular aerial skills to score headed goals. But as he proved vs. Levante, Roma, Espanyol, Celta Vigo, Athletic Bilbao, and Valencia, he's still got enough left in the tank to produce pieces of magic all by himself.

Nevertheless, Ronaldo suffered his most serious injury to date when Dimitri Payet crashed into the Portuguese's knee and caused a violent tear. It forced him off the pitch and made him miss Real Madrid's entire pre-season, something that could seriously slow down Ronaldo's exploits at the beginning of the campaign. In conjunction with this forced rest, Ronaldo could miss more games in the season as he previously expressed his willingness to skip more games to preserve the longevity of his career. As a result, do not be surprised if Ronaldo fails to hit the 50 goal mark for the first time in 7 seasons.

Despite this, do not fool yourself into the illusion that Ronaldo will be any less important for Zidane than last season. 50 goals or not, Ronaldo's physical regimen should ensure a more than adequate recovery, which should help him maintain his status as Real Madrid's top goal scorer and best player.

#9 Karim Benzema - The Complete Forward

Position: Center Forward

Age: 28

Key Statistics 2015/16 (La Liga & the UEFA Champions League):

Season Review:

Taking all factors into consideration (goals per 90 minutes (p90), importance of goals, consistency of scoring, etc.), 2015/16 was undoubtedly Karim Benzema's best ever goal scoring season. He notched a mind-blowing 0.97 goals p90 minutes across La Liga and the UEFA Champions League, whilst coupling it with the most winning goals in La Liga and some impressive consistency across both Rafa Benitez's and Zinedine Zidane's tenures. Some of that had to do with the fact that Benzema's number of shots p90 (though it was lower than his 2011/12 season) and key passes p90 were significantly lower than his last 3 seasons, which may have to do with Benitez openly requesting Benzema to become more selfish, thus making the Frenchman more lethal and decisive. Regardless of what truly inspired the change, it led Benzema to finish his most impressive personal season without disrupting the goal tallies of those around him. Only injury limited his number of appearances to 36.

Season Predictions:

If Benzema continues to play with Rafa Benitez's mindset, do not be surprised if the Frenchman matches or surpasses the number of goals he scored last season. However, there is also an argument to be made that Benzema was scoring goals at an elite rate that might be unsustainable come this season, so also be watchful to see if Benzema's goals per minute ratio regresses to the mean. Either way, it is undeniable that Benzema will be the glue that makes BBC tick, leaving the only major extraneous variable as injury.

(Table via transferkmarkt)

As dark as it might sound, it is highly likely that Benzema will be injured once again this season (he only just recovered from a hip injury sustained in pre-season), meaning that 2016/17 will once again be leaving us with "what if's" about Benzema's season.

#11 Gareth Bale - The Beast

Position: Inverted Winger

Age: 27

Key Statistics 2015/16 (La Liga & the UEFA Champions League):

Season Review:

It speaks volumes of Gareth Bale's mental strength that he managed to produce his best season off the back of incessant jeers and and a near total lack of support from the Santiago Bernabeu. Not only did he manage to regain his form, but he improved in so many categories (close-control, heading, decision making, creativity, and goal scoring), that he made the UEFA Player of the Year shortlist and is an outside shot at the FIFA Ballon d'or. Just like with Benzema, Rafa Benitez must be credited with some of Bale's success, as the Spanish coach repeatedly stated that Bale was the center and future of his team. Such open confidence and an initially freer tactical role, boosted Bale's confidence and allowed him to produce spectacular statistical results - 1 goal and 0.5 assists p/90 in La Liga. But Bale didn't just pad his stats against the minnows, as he assisted Cristiano Ronaldo's game winner in El Clásico, single-handedly kept Real Madrid's La Liga title hopes alive in two games where Ronaldo was out injured, and forced an own goal against Manchester City to help Los Blancos lift the Champions League.

Season Predictions:

Just like with Benzema, expect the injury bug to once again derail Bale's consistency on the field.

(Table via transfermarkt - full list of injuries not shown)

As can be seen in the table above, Bale experienced his most injury-ridden season with Real Madrid yet, consistently experiencing recurring muscular problems that prevented him from stringing together a long run of consecutive games. New fitness coach Antonio Pintus might prove to be the magic touch that finally banishes Bale's health issues, but with a poor injury record that dates back to his Tottenham days, don't get your hopes up too high.

Now for the optimistic part: expect Bale to be spectacular when on the pitch. As noted statistically and rhetorically in countless analyses and articles across the world, Bale has improved as a player enormously over the course of only one short year, and at age 27, he could be hitting his prime. Ignoring his penchant to get hurt, Bale is the most physically impressive specimen on the Real Madrid squad. No player on earth is faster than he is and there is a legitimate claim that Bale is one of the top two players in the air (the other being Cristiano Ronaldo of course). If Bale is fit for the right parts of the season, expect silverware to be forthcoming.

#21 Alvaro Morata - The Classic No. 9

Position: Center Forward

Age: 23

Key Statistics 2015/16 (La Liga & the UEFA Champions League):

Season Review:

Alvaro Morata had a topsy turvy 2015/16 season with Juventus that saw him endure a long goal scoring drought (1 goal in 21 matches, albeit with many substitute appearances) and some serious time on the bench. This may have turned some Madrid fans against his return to Spain, but Madridistas should be very careful not to dismiss Morata's season at Juve as a bad one. After his drought, Morata began turning up for Juve in the big games, notching 3 crucial goals against Inter Milan in two matches, a goal vs. Fiorentina in a tense 2-1 win, a game winning assist against AC Milan, and a brilliant assist for Cuadrado that nearly took Juve past Bayern in the UEFA Champions League.

Let's also not forget that also he scored the goal that knocked Real Madrid out of the 2014/15 edition of the Champions League and managed to score Juventus' only goal against Barcelona in the final - this man is the guy for the big occasion.

Season Predictions:

Fans will certainly be eager to see how Morata performs in the new season, but they must remember to initially temper their expectations. Real Madrid plays in a totally different system from Juventus (especially with Los Merengues' single-striker role), so expect Morata to take some time adjusting to the wavelength of his teammates and the duties Zidane has set upon him.

But once he gets comfortable, expect him to really put in some good performances. His all-round game, which sees him run into channels, stretch defensive lines, and drop deep as a target man, provides Real Madrid with an easy focal point in attack, something that will be invaluable when Benzema can or should not play. Additionally, Morata possesses underrated technical skills (something demonstrated by his bursting runs from deep and his impressive number of take-ons p90) and a strong surge of pace that should help him bully tired defenders and nab a couple of goals and assists from the bench.

Finally, never count out his ability to handle himself under pressure and deliver in the big moments. If Benzema isn't cutting it El Clásico or in the Champions League, Morata is the guy who can provide Los Blancos with a decisive moment.

If all goes well, expect Morata to nab 15-20 goals in all competitions and provide Real Madrid with some much needed quality in the striker department.

#10 James Rodríguez - The Technician

Position: Attacking Midfielder

Age: 25

Key Statistics 2015/16 (La Liga & the UEFA Champions League):

Season Review:

Despite James' impressive statistics, many are of the opinion that James did not endure a good second season at Real Madrid. This has to do with relative comparison of the Colombian's brilliant 2014/15 season and less spectacular, but still strong 2015/16 campaign, which is not fully fair - if only because he was seriously stunted by two injuries that kept him out for 10 consecutive games.

(Table via transfermarkt)

He ended up missing most of Rafa Benitez's ill-fated tenure, but managed to make his comeback in time to lose 4-0 to FC Barcelona. Despite finishing Benitez's reign as a starter, he never quite recovered from that, as he was stained with the false claims that he led Real Madrid to play with no midfield.

When Zinedine Zidane arrived, James was immediately benched for the more defensively stable Casemiro, a decision that ended up playing a big role in Real Madrid's epic La Liga comeback and Champions League success. Despite impressive moments when called upon, it became clear by the end of the season that James was no longer part of Real Madrid's best eleven.

Season Predictions:

After such a tough 2015/16, it is very hard to see how this season can get any better for James. Avoiding injuries could help him make a bigger impact for Real Madrid, but there is little forseeable way in which he can manage to break into Real Madrid's midfield or offensive line. Isco and Kovacic are better options in central midfield, Bale is an indisputable starter when fit, and Zidane demonstrated he trusts Lucas in the right-wing position over James, so the Colombian will probably see a lot of time on the bench. As unpleasant as it is to hear for many fans, though James will score a couple of his usual golazos, this season will probably be James' last with the club.

#17 Lucas Vázquez - The Foot Soldier

Position: Defensive Winger

Age: 25

Key Statistics 2015/16 (La Liga & the UEFA Champions League):

Season Review:

It is hard to view Lucas Vázquez's first season with Real Madrid as anything but a success, as he fulfilled every task set upon him by his two managers and managed to surpass everyone's expectations. His season started off auspiciously, as he came off the bench vs. his old club Espanyol and dazzled with some dribbling and a smart assist for Ronaldo. That was enough to earn the faith of Rafa Benitez, who subsequently employed Lucas as Los Blancos' 12th man, leading the right winger to notch an important assist vs. Celta Vigo and a goal in Rafa Benitez's last match as manager of Madrid - a 3-1 win over Real Sociedad. While those will be the moments fans remember, Lucas also provided Real with some true width and defensive stability, something that Zidane valued when using Lucas as his preferred second choice over James on the right-wing. The Spaniard repaid his manager's faith with an important assist vs. Athletic Bilbao, a clutch assist against Roma in the Champions League, a run of 5 goals created in 5 games in April, and an ice-cool penalty that boosted Real Madrid's confidence in the La Undecima penalty shoot-out.

Season Predictions:

It is fair to expect more of the same from Lucas in Zidane's second spell as manager. Vázquez doesn't have a ceiling much higher than the one he has now, and thus he is always destined to be a bench player. But that's absolutely fine - in fact, that's great. Lucas knows his place in the team and will likely never cause problems for playing time because of this. Lucas creates stability in Real Madrid's hierarchy and is a more than useful option off the bench. Additionally, he provides Real Madrid with something totally unique; his ability to execute 5.07 tackles+interceptions p90 whilst making 2.09 dribbles p90 and 0.69 goals p90. His balanced palette of skills will once again be crucial for Real Madrid's success this season, especially if BBC's injury crisis repeats itself once again.

#20 Marco Asensio - The X-Factor

Position: Attacking Midfielder

Age: 20

Key Statistics 2015/16 (La Liga):

Season Review:

Real Madrid's rising star and Spanish football's finest talent had a very impressive outing on loan at Espanyol in 2015/16. He demonstrated a rapid growth in maturity, displaying improved decision making skills, polished technique, and razor-sharp vision. These skills quickly made him the most important player on the pitch, as he grabbed 33 starts in La Liga and became the focal point for Espanyol's attack. The faith placed in him was rewarded with a burst of 5 assists at the beginning of the season along with some spectacular solo displays throughout the whole year; namely a hat-trick of assists vs. Real Betis (Espanyol won 3-1) and winning goals vs. Deportivo La Coruña and Eibar. However, like all youth players, Asensio did experience some inconsistency, as he created only one goal in 13 league matches in the middle of the season.

Season Predictions:

After Asensio's stunning UEFA Super Cup goal vs. Sevilla (go to 1:03), expectations are sky high for the youngster's debut season with the whites. It has to be said that some of the hype is justified. On a technical level, Asensio is already top class. His close control is similar to Isco's and his ability to execute set-pieces is probably his most underrated and deadly ability (he completed a stunning success rate of 19 free kicks out of 29 in the league last season). This will make him an extremely good option off the bench when Madrid needs someone to make an impact in tight games. Expect at least two or three moments where Asensio comes off the bench and scores a game-winning goal or delivers a match-winning set-piece.

However, Madrid fans must also temper their expectations somewhat. Asensio thrived last year because he was given ample playing to time to grow and make mistakes. If he wasn't producing end-product, he still saw time on the pitch, thus allowing him to play his way through his bad form. He won't have that luxury at Real Madrid, because Ronaldo and Bale are indisputable starters and James, Isco, and Lucas are all hungry for minutes.

Thus, due to the dynamic of Real Madrid's loaded offense, don't expect Asensio to break into this team. He will make impacts from the bench and get starts when the big men are injured, but he isn't going to be a spectacular success story by the end of 2016/17. A loan move or a sale with a buy-back clause might've been the smarter option.

(All statistics taken from whoscored.com unless otherwise stated)