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Real Madrid Season Preview 2018/19: Attackers

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Will Real Madrid’s attack be able to make up for the loss of Ronaldo?

Manchester United v Real Madrid - International Champions Cup 2018 Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Ronaldo is gone and so are his guaranteed 40+ goals a season. Real Madrid responded by, *checks notes*, bringing in a right back, two goalkeepers, and a raw, unproven, eighteen year-old winger? Los Blancos’ transfer strategy almost sounds absurd until you realize that Real Madrid are not interested in finding any one player to replace one of their greatest ever. Aside from rumors about the search for a backup striker, it seems clear that Florentino Pérez and Julen Lopetegui are happy with their squad as constituted and believe that a collective approach is the only way to replace Ronaldo’s gargantuan contributions.


Wingers

#11 Gareth Bale - AKA: The Welsh Dragon

Age: 29
Real Madrid v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

2017/18 Season Review

2017/18 was tough on Gareth Bale. After a poor start in La Liga, where Real Madrid failed to win three of their first five games, Bale was benched before suffering a calf injury and a pulled hamstring. He made his return in an inauspicious manner, coming an as a substitute after a sending off had reduced Madrid to ten men in a Clásico they lost 3-0. From then on, Bale swapped between roles as a striker and a winger in a multitude of different formations and systems. This caused his form to waver and led to Zidane benching the Welshman in key Champions League games, including the final vs. Liverpool. With his Madrid career standing on shaky ground and the fans turning against him, Bale made an epic statement when he came on for Isco in the second half.

But the wonder-strike and the following decider weren’t enough to soothe Bale, as he used his post-match press conference to indicate his unhappiness with his position in the squad. This prompted fears that he would be off to greener pastures before the subsequent resignation of Zidane and Lopetegui’s demonstrated faith in Bale nipped the problem in the bud.

2018/19 Season Predictions

The current season is poised to be a big one for Gareth Bale. The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo has paved the way for a new alpha dog to lead the attack and the former Spurs man is the perfect candidate. In only 1,803 La Liga minutes, Bale was Madrid’s second highest goal scorer; he managed to find the back of the net 16 times and shot close to 4 times per 90 minutes (p90). He also created an impressive 2 key passes p90, which, based on the quality of shooting locations they created, should’ve led to close to 6 assists.

The big “IF” about Bale’s 18/19 season obviously surrounds his fitness record, which has been overwhelmed by numerous injuries in the same muscular groups. Lopetegui will be hoping that luck falls his way in this regard but there is little reason to believe that this year will be any different than the past four or five. Hence, it’s reasonable to expect Bale to accrue Madrid’s best attacking production on a per minute basis while falling short of elite numbers in total terms due to injury.

#20 Marco Asensio - AKA: The Future

Age: 22
Real Madrid v Athletic Club - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

2017/18 Season Review

Marco Asensio’s season started in supersonic fashion with two blinders vs. FC Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup. The goals put his stock at an all-time high and quickly generated unrealistic expectations for the games to come. Fans wanted to see similar low-percentage shots go in every single game - something Asensio could never live up to. This played its part in creating the image of a somewhat disappointing season from the winger, who managed a standard 6 goals and 6 assists in slightly more league minutes than Bale. But to focus only on his end-product would mean overlooking his line-breaking qualities, defensive effort, and underrated change of pace - all things that showed up on a fairly consistent basis in 2017/18. Nevertheless, with Ronaldo off to Juventus, Asensio will be required to pick up his offensive production and make the much anticipated leap from promising young talent to world class footballer.

2018/19 Season Predictions

With the left-wing spot no longer non-negotiable and Lopetegui seemingly comfortable with moving Isco into central midfield when the situation arises, Asensio should be set for even more minutes this season. That should correspond with a rise in offensive creation, as his excellent 2.56 key passes p90 and 0.3 expected assists p90 should fashion more end-product if given more time on the pitch. Fans will probably hope for the same to happen with his goals, but the increase is likely to be less than they wish. Asensio is not a high volume shooter and around half of his shots come from outside the box.

Asensio’s shot map for La Liga 2017/18
understat.com

The loss of Ronaldo’s shot volume should create a distribution effect that gives Asensio more attempts at goal, but that is unlikely to affect the Spaniard enough to make him a serious goal threat. Instead, we will likely see Asensio’s biggest increases come on the chance creation front and with certain intangibles; decisions in build-up, big-game performances, etc.

#17 Lucas Vázquez - AKA: The Foot Soldier

Age: 27
Real Madrid v Athletic Club - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

2017/18 Season Review

Lucas Vázquez has proved to be a critical tool in Zidane’s three title-winning campaigns at Real Madrid. The winger’s hardworking nature and defensive intelligence helped cover for Zizou’s sometimes questionable defensive structure, while Vázquez’s 1v1 ability, crossing skills, and tendency to provide natural width perfectly suited the Frenchman’s cross-heavy tactics. Indeed, when Madrid faced their toughest tests towards the end of the season, Zidane turned to his trusted lieutenant and started Lucas in nine out of ten league games between February and April and sacrificed Bale for the Spaniard against Paris St. Germain. Lucas Vázquez delivered, scoring 3 goals and setting up 6 more in his string of league starts while notching an assist vs. PSG.

2018/19 Season Predictions

Fans of the humble academy player may have reasons to fear for Lucas’ importance under Julen Lopetegui. The former Spanish national team coach prefers to utilize technically gifted wide players that are heavily involved in build-up down the flanks and capable of dropping deep and roaming inwards. Lucas Vázquez has shown an underrated capacity to carry out some of those duties under Zidane but those responsibilities certainly do not suit his game. Perhaps Lopetegui’s left-sided focus in possession will free up Lucas for 1v1’s out wide like it did for Bale in preseason and the Spaniard may yet keep a key role at Madrid, but the future is certainly doubtful for one of the capital’s favorite sons.

#16 Vinícius Júnior - AKA: The Prodigy

Age: 18
Real Madrid v AS Roma - International Champions Cup 2018 Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

2017 & 2018 Season Review

Vinícius Júnior played for Flamengo’s first team in the 2017 Brasileiro Série A at ages sixteen and seventeen, producing a modest 3 goals and 1 assists in 705 minutes and 25 appearances. He spent large periods on the bench and largely got playing time as a substitute, with his club keen not to rush the youngster’s development. In the following season, Vinícius asserted himself as a starter and provided 4 goals and 4 assists in 11 starts. This seriously impressed Real Madrid, the club who had acquired him and loaned him back to Flamengo at the start of the 2017 season, leading them to call him back for preseason in the United States.

2018/19 Season Predictions

With Vínicius still not registered as a first team squad member on the team’s official website, it is unclear exactly how Madrid plan to develop him this season. An accidental leak by Marcelo showed Vinícius sitting under the #16 in the dressing room, indicating that Real maybe see the starlet as a first team member. Until that is confirmed, it is hard to forecast Vinícius’ season. However, for now, a probable scenario may see him enter some sort of arrangement where he plays for Castilla while training with the first team and occasionally joining Lopetegui’s squad for “easier” matches.

Regardless of where he plays, Madridistas’ should be optimistic without expecting much of Vinícius. The Brazilian is a fantastic talent but he will need time to adjust to a new country, culture, league, teammates, and system, at an age where most kids have only just graduated high school. Footballing-wise, he seems to possess skills that look ready to be transferred to elite-level competition, although, his decision-making remains questionable. He dribbles far more than he should - he attempted 6.95 take-ons p90 in Brazil with a success rate of only 42.5% - and his preseason, while promising, revealed his tendency to value flash over substance. Thus, Madridistas must be extremely patient and cautious not to load Vinícius with more hype and pressure than is necessary.

Strikers

#9 Karim Benzema - AKA: Mr. Diplomatic Immunity

Age: 30
Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid - UEFA Super Cup Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

2017/18 Season Review

Karim Benzema did not have a good last season under Zidane. He managed a paltry 3 non-penalty goals in 32 league games and often looked devoid of confidence and the sharpness of his previous seasons.

A graph showing the quality of chances players received and the quality of shots (judged based on power and placement) they took.
Siddharth Ramsundar ‏

It got to the point where Ronaldo had to give Karim a penalty in order to boost the Frenchman’s self-belief and get the fans back on his side.

It must be noted that Zidane’s midfield structure, which often put great onus on Benzema to drop deep and act as a pseudo-midfielder, did the striker no favors, along with the Frenchman’s secondary strike-role as Ronaldo’s foil. Indeed, while Karim’s goal scoring record was absymal, he still managed a superb 1.83 key passes p90 and 10 assists on the chance creation front.

With a new, more tactically-minded coach in charge, Real Madrid fans will be hoping that Benzema can get back in the box and back to his best.

2018/19 Season Predictions

It is almost certain that Karim Benzema will score significantly more goals than he did last season. His expected goal total from the 17/18 La Liga campaign was 13.97, meaning he scored at under ~2.8 times the predicted rate when including his two penalties. That type of finishing streak is certainly not sustainable and it is only logical to assume that Benzema’s goal total will at least double in the new season. But the question remains as to whether Karim can get into enough goal scoring situations and finish at a high enough level to help replace Cristiano Ronaldo’s production. The optimist might say yes, given that Karim’s larger role will ensure that he manages more than his mediocre 2.62 shots p90 from last season, but his age and visible decline creates reasonable doubts. Additionally, his aerial duel percentage from last season, which stands at 23%, pales in comparison to Ronaldo’s 54% and Bale’s 52.4%. This might make it difficult for Benzema to poach as effectively as he may like, though a change away from a cross-heavy strategy (or a turn to one that focuses on ground crosses) may negate this weakness.

All things considered, Benzema is probably good for 15-20 goals in the league this season with an additional 4-5 goals in the Champions League. Alone, those figures are strong and rank in the upper percentiles of Europe’s forwards, but with Bale’s injury issues and the sale of Ronaldo, it probably won’t be enough.

#21 Borja Mayoral - AKA: The Forgotten One

Age: 21
Fuenlabrada v Real Madrid - Copa Del Rey Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

2017/18 Season Review

To put it simply, Borja Mayoral has done almost nothing significant over the past two seasons due to a complete lack of playing time. A disastrous loan at Wolfsburg saw him receive only 375 league minutes before he was called back to the Bernabéu to feature even less in La Liga. Despite showing flashes of quality in the Copa del Rey and managing a goal vs. Dortmund in the Champions League, it is clear that Mayoral is not adequately experienced to be Madrid’s main backup striker.

2018/19 Season Predictions

Given news of Real’s search for someone like Rodrigo or Mariano, it feels like Mayoral is set for another insignificant spell in the capital unless a loan is imminent. It serves no one’s purposes to see him rot on the bench while his promise still remains, and a failure to give him playing time in 2018/19 would be an inexcusable oversight by the club.

Poll

Will Real Madrid’s attack be able to adequately make up for the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Yes
    (59 votes)
  • 29%
    Yes, if Real somehow buy a striker capable of competing with Benzema in the short window that remains
    (286 votes)
  • 7%
    Yes, if Madrid nab a backup striker
    (73 votes)
  • 30%
    Yes, if Bale manages to avoid significant injuries
    (295 votes)
  • 25%
    No
    (246 votes)
959 votes total Vote Now