With the acquisitions of Hazard and Jovic, Real Madrid have made a statement in the transfer market signifying their intent to challenge on all fronts next season. It’s no secret that Los Blancos completed one of their worst campaigns in recent times (and in history all things considered) as they faltered in the three main competitions they participated in. Their struggles in the league however were particularly fascinating and saw them let go not only one but two coaches as they sought to right a ship that never seemed to be sailing in the right direction. The narrative during the season pitted Solari against Lopetegui as onlookers attempted to ascertain whether Perez was too quick to pull the trigger on the Spaniard’s tenure and whether replacing him with the then Castilla coach actually led to any improvement.
Despite a sobering loss against Atletico in the European Supercup being the outcome of Lopetegui’s first competitive match in charge, the team seemed to start wonderfully under his guidance (scoring 10 goals and only conceding two as they recorded nine points over three games). Things dramatically took a turn for the worse as the season wore on — Real Madrid went on to break several unflattering records for their muted offensive showings and productivity. Solari was brought on and despite re-establishing hope and faith in the three-times defending European Champions, his fate was similar to his predecessor’s.
After some time has passed, we have seen that the problem of the team was not fixed with the changes of coaches. We lost several games in a row and it was very difficult, at that time, to understand that this team was not able to be at the level we thought.
Looking at the raw points tally, Florentino Perez’s evaluation appears to have merit as the squad relatively performed along the same lines compared to their main reference points domestically: Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. In fact, sympathy for Lopetegui that segments of the fan base held could have legitimacy given the fact the coach was in a relatively similar position to the other managers compared to Barcelona. However, looking at the trend over the course of the season shows that Lopetegui’s tenure ended with the worst point differential compared to both Barcelona (tied with Zidane) and Solari.
The scariest part of the above graphic is that Real Madrid was only ahead of Barcelona for a minor period (looking at each coach in isolation). Getting back to the topic at hand however – Lopetegui faring worse in terms of the points gap compared to the team’s primary domestic rivals confirmed the feeling and eye test which suggested that Solari outperformed the former. This is further proved if you look at points per game. After ten games (the amount of matches Lopetegui oversaw before his departure), the recently appointed Sevilla coach had averaged 1.40 points per game compared to 2.20 for Solari. If you extend that to Solari’s full set of games, the Argentine essentially maintained the same level of return at 2.18 points per game.
How did Lopetegui’s Madrid trail Barcelona by a roughly similar number of points if they didn’t earn as many points as Solari’s per game? The answer is Barcelona’s form drastically picking up during Solari’s stay. The Catalonian club amassed 25 points during Solari’s first ten games compared to 21 for the same for Lopetegui. During this time, Ramos and co collected 22 and 14 points under Solari and Lopetegui respectively. Zidane walso bested Lopetegui given the 17 points Real Madrid had earned after the former’s tenth game.
Delving a little deeper to uncover the underlying drivers behind the differing levels of performance under each coach reveals minimal differences in key performance metrics. Tactically, there were sweeping changes from Lopetegui to Solari that saw a shift from a methodical possession based system to the more robust direct style Solari introduced. But looking at shots and shots on target doesn’t reveal any significant variation. The team took slightly less shots under Solari but made up the difference in conceding fewer shots as well. Where they excelled in comparison to Lopetegui was how much of their offensive shots were converted into goals.
Digging into this and looking at the conversion and accuracy differential (i.e. how much better or worse the team shot on target and converted their chances compared to their opponents over the course of the season), it shows just how much better (or perhaps lucky) Barcelona were in the finishing department during Solari’s period in charge.
Barcelona’s shot accuracy and conversion were at historic heights during Solari’s stint with the Blaugrana putting an unprecedented 20%(!) more of their shots on target than their opponents (for context, Barcelona’s 12 year average was 7%). Similarly, they converted a stunning 10% more of their scoring chances (versus a 12 year average of 7%). Their stats when Lopetegui was in charge were paltry in comparison shooting on target just 4% more of their shots on target and converting at a worse (-5%) rate as opponents. All in all, it is fairly evident that Solari’s recruitment certainly led to an improvement in league performance and may have been a necessary decision at that point in time.
That all being said, no matter how we spin it, 2018-19 was an incredibly mediocre season in the league by Real Madrid’s standards. Many point to Ronaldo’s departure as a major reason for the team’s misfortunes as the forward’s consistency and goal scoring was sorely missed.
The Ronaldo sized hole in the team will not be easy to fill in the near future, if ever. Zidane’s return and the ambitious signings Real Madrid have made early into the transfer season at least indicate that the powers that be have identified a critical gap in the team’s makeup and are willing to attempt to address it.