These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.
Part two (of six) of my early-season observations. Part one, on Luka Modric’s advanced role this season, can be found here.
Gareth Bale’s shot volume
Julen Lopetegui continually downplays the over-reliance on Gareth Bale (or any one player in particular). “We don’t want it to be something that is the responsibility of anyone in particular,” Lopetegui said at the end of August, on the pressure on Bale to replace Ronaldo’s goals. “That’s a responsibility the team has as well.”
But that reliance is real — and Real Madrid’s ability to score in the post-Ronaldo era when Bale has been rested or injured has been impaired. Even when he plays, if the dots aren’t connected in Real Madrid’s build-up against good defensive teams, Lopetegui’s men haven’t been able to create a prolific amount of high-percentage opportunities. (Though, even with Ronaldo last season in La Liga, those build-up issues were often present.)
The reality of losing Ronaldo is that you lose a lot. Pure goals, for one; but also prolific shooting. There are different forces at play to counter that (as Lopetegui always emphasizes, there is a focus on a more distributed effort to compensate for Ronaldo’s goal-void, and also more focus on preventing goals); but Ronaldo was a huge reason the team could score a ton of goals to outgun their opponents, and a ringleader of Real Madrid’s 73-game goal streak.
Ronaldo gets you chances, full stop. His shots per game in La Liga, since overlapping with Bale: 6.6 last season, 5.6 in ‘16-17, 6.3 in ‘15-16, 6.4 in ‘14-15, and 7.2 in ‘13-14. This season with Juventus, he leads Europe with 7.7 shots per game. (For what it’s worth, Raul de Tomas is in the top 10, and scoring goals for Rayo even when his teammates struggle to get him involved offensively.) Bale among those seasons has been second behind Ronaldo, with his highest spike being in ‘15-16, with 3.6 shots per game. This year, without Ronaldo, he finally has his uptick, with 4.3 attempts. Mariano is at three attempts — giving him a case to play more minutes when Real Madrid need goals, because he can create good opportunities from nothing, throw bodies around, and create chaos.
There’s good reason to play Bale and Mariano together more often, or at the very least, ensuring one of them plays when the other sits. The team has a lot of ball-carriers and link-up specialists — but few pure goal-scorers other than those two. The opponent will not see much of the ball (and in turn, churn out a low xG) when Ceballos, Kroos, Modric and co. are grinding out possession — but at some point, a focal talisman needs to put the ball in the net consistently. Asensio, Isco, and Benzema can all score — but at this stage they’re not assassins in front of goal.
Bale’s uptick in shots are directly related to Ronaldo’s departure; but Benzema has yet to experience a similar offensive surge, apart from his early-season barrage. That could change — but the Frenchman’s comfort continues to be as a shadow-forward who can roam. This season, without Ronaldo, has seen Benzema sling his lowest shot-volume stats of his Real Madrid career, at just two per game. And, as a general rule of thumb, you need a lot of chances to score but a few goals — you’re not going to take every clear-cut chance you get.
And for Bale, almost any shot is a good shot — or a reasonable one to take. Not everyone should be shooting from 40 yards, but with the Welshman, he’s testing the goalkeeper from any range — forcing a chaotic rebound or a corner. Against Sevilla and Atletico, in the first halves of both games respectively, the only chances Real Madrid were getting were essentially through these solo efforts from distance. Sometimes, as is the case in Cardiff, it’s about flying scissor-kicks to get Real on the front-foot. Whatever works. Bale’s unicorn ability allows him to launch those ambitious attempts. “You could opt to take the ball down and do something then. But you know you are in a situation where if you’re going to get closed down you have to try something,” Bale said after the Champions League final. “You certainly don’t really think about looking stupid. If you don’t try things, things never happen. If you have time to think about it, it doesn’t come off. It’s when you have to make those reaction decisions that you normally tend to get the best result.”
It’s not just shooting that your team needs when there is trouble to create as a collective. Against an organized defensive side like Sevilla; Real Madrid didn’t have much going for them offensively in the first half. Bale starts from a deep position here and takes out two players — Franco Vazquez and Guilherme Arana — with a forward dribble and cut-in. Most players can’t get themselves into that position, and most players can’t get a shot-off that well once they get in those spots. If Bale isn’t playing, no one else can really do that consistently — especially if Asensio is having an off-day, or if Bale is having a bad shooting night like he did in Bilbao earlier this season.
“It’s a bit different this year because Cristiano has left and there will be more focus on the players who are going to replace the goals because of a player like Cristiano has gone,” Bale’s national team manager Ryan Giggs said earlier this season. “When someone like Cristiano leaves there is always going to be a spotlight on who is going to replace him goal-wise and threat-wise. But Gareth ended last season scoring goals, even though he wasn’t playing as regular.”
As Giggs also stated, injuries are a problem (though, in that regard, even despite leaving the field at half-time against Atleti with a minor niggle — that aspect of his game hasn’t been a problem yet this season). But Real Madrid needed more than just Ronaldo producing last season domestically, and they’re going to need more than just Bale producing this season.
Bale won’t catch fire with all of his shots, which means you need more people in on the act. That’s not to say the rest of the attackers are doing nothing. The movement from the front three has been generally good all season; and in the above sequence, both Benzema and Asensio hedge away from Bale to drag away the defenders and give Bale shooting space.
The call for Mariano, especially in the absence of Bale, would also help the team continually having an aerial threat on the pitch. Real Madrid have too many good crossers on the team to look up from the flanks and see minions in box — Asensio, Modric, Isco — heavily marked before recycling the possession backwards or sending in a hopeless heave. This happened against Espanyol until Mariano came in, and in the second half against Atletico, where Gimenez and Godin feasted on a combined 17 clearances.
When Bale or Mariano lurk, that hesitancy wanes; and because what they bring to the table — a direct path to goal — is a rare skill-set within the team, there’s a case to play them together more often.
“Gareth can handle anything that is thrown at him,” Giggs says.