Fifteen minutes into the Madrileño derby and Kiko Casilla punches clear an Atletico corner kick which eventually finds its way to Luka Modric, who caresses the ball into an on-running Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese, in a full out sprint, was beaten to the ball by Juanfran. The former Madrid youth player is no spring chicken, he will be turning 33 in January and Ronaldo will do the same in February. It was a reminder that Ronaldo is not the quick blazing winger he once was. He has evolved. Though he may not see himself as a pure #9, he is now far more a striker than a winger.
Ronaldo’s gradual change has impacted his favourite partner in attack — Karim Benzema. They now occupy the same positions on the pitch, often times seen running side-by-side. Benzema, like the new Ronaldo, is not in the mould of a striker who will run in behind defenses. He is not going to stretch backlines and test the offside trap like an Aubameyang, a Sadio Mane, or a Kun Aguero. Ronaldo is not that type of player either. Both look to connect with their teammates and perform quick one-two’s with their back to goal. If Zidane persists with the dual striker system, Benzema and Ronaldo will continue to struggle. An opposing defense only has to prepare for one style of striker. An unfit Bale, leaves the Madrid attack lacking the dynamism and speed to test backlines and keep them guessing. Ideally in a two striker formation, one striker comes to the ball, while another looks to make a run in behind. This ying-yang of runs forces the backline to make decisions. They have to decide: do we step up or do we hold our line? Currently, both Benzema and Ronaldo are coming to the ball, meaning the backline can make one uniform decision with ease.
So the question arises — can the dual striker system be maintained with two similar players like Ronaldo and Benzema? Do we revert back to a three-pronged-attack with Gareth Bale’s reintroduction into the squad? Marco Asensio is a player with the dynamism necessary to change a game, but Zidane didn’t give the youngster an opportunity until the 75th minute against Atletico Madrid.
After eight seasons with the club, Benzema may no longer be the perfect partner for Ronaldo as he evoles, he simply may not fit the system. Two goals for each Ronaldo and Benzema in the last match against APOEL will help boost confidence, but long term questions still linger. An ageing dual striker front line will need added speed and agility to test defenses and continue battling for silverware, and the Ronaldo-Benzema partnership is not the solution to Real Madrid’s problems. Zidane may have to revert the system or push Benzema, someone he has described as pure talent, to the bench. Time will tell if Bale can be relied upon to change the attacking prospects or if someone like Asensio is given more opportunities. If neither comes to fruition, Madrid may need to turn to the market for a player with the right attributes to leave defenses in their wake.