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Not Enough Dribblers: The Missing Ingredient in Real Madrid’s Attack

AS Roma v Real Madrid Friendly Match Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The destitute state of Real Madrid’s offense during preseason continued a worrying trend of lacklustre, stifled, and sometimes toothless attacking from Los Blancos in recent years. The team’s potency has looked helplessly blunt at times and fans have openly questioned everything from the team’s tactics to the roster. Despite going through three different coaches – each experimenting with different line-ups and playing schemes – last season, the offense always seemed to be stuttering. There would be sporadic phases where Real Madrid did well in the scoring department but it was always short-lived and on the back of unsustainable factors such as Benzema’s supreme finishing at the start of the season or Vinicius’ game-changing displays under Solari. However, headlines such as the below littered the Real Madrid news feed during the season.

While losing Ronaldo still stands as the biggest reason for the regression in offensive performance, the trend had began while he was still at the club. The difference is that having the Portuguese allowed the team to create a workable attacking system due to his enormous impact and influence in the final third. But there was always an air of stagnation surrounding the team’s level of inventiveness in the opposing half. After hailing the superbly balanced and robust line-up the club had put together, some began to wonder if squad composition was playing a role in the underwhelming showings in front of net. Looking at the roster closer, it becomes obvious that there is a gaping hole in terms of electrifying playmakers of a particular ilk: dribblers.

Going through Real Madrid’s squad last year, only Vinicius came close to offering the type of speed and dexterity that has proven crucial for sustainable and reliable attacking models. Across Europe, every major European contender possesses in their arsenal players capable of turning the game on its axis with their dribbling savvy. In England, Liverpool have Salah and Mane while Manchester City are spoiled for choice with the likes of Sterling, Sane, Mahrez, Bernado Silva, and Aguero. In Germany, Borussia Dortmund roll with the dynamic duo of Reus and Sancho while Bayern Munich are coming off a fruitful period headlined by Robben and Ribery. Juventus have experimented with a number of such players relying on Cuadrado, Douglas Costa, and more recently Bernadeschi and Ronaldo to offer that spark. Paris Saint Germain have Neymar, Mbappe, and di Maria.

Lowest minutes per successful dribble in the big 5 leagues
CIES graphic

In Spain, the domestic reference point has been Barcelona due to their league dominance. And this is an area where they have invested in heavily with world class and promising proficient dibblers coming and going. They currently have Messi (who beyond being one of the world’s premier dribblers offers an effect similar to Ronaldo which lessens the need for these kinds of players), Dembele, Griezmann and are looking to potentially add Neymar to this mix. Coutinho who has looked a dimmer version of his more prolific Liverpool self also merits a mention. Safe to say, Barcelona has prioritized having dribblers (of course who offer a lot more than that as well) in their line-up.

Real Madrid have taken a step to remedy the situation with the acquisition of Eden Hazard and his insertion into the team has already changed the texture of its offensive dynamism. In addition to vertical progression and destabilizing the defense, dribblers — as has been witnessed with Real Madrid’s new no. 7 — naturally help create space for other players due to their “gravity” as they tend to attract significant attention. But Hazard hasn’t fully revitalized Real Madrid’s attack. The Belgian alone will struggle to activate a glitchy attack. Ideally, a team needs more than one player that can bypass defenders or unlock complicated situations with dribbling. The last time this was the case for Real Madrid was under Jose Mourinho and Ancelotti when Ronaldo and di Maria were mainstays in the starting XI. The Argentine was an incredible source of chaos that was very valuable in breaking down sturdy defenses and creating openings out of nothing. It wasn’t just about him being a dribbler in the strict sense of the word.

Championsleague Fussball Borussia Dortmund BVB - Real Madrid Photo by sampics/Corbis via Getty Images

Isco, for example, has an amazing command of the ball, possesses incredible touch and is also a fine dribbler in his own regard but lacks the directness and verticality di Maria had. To attempt to put it more aptly, Real Madrid need progressive dribblers. Marcelo, who in another life could have been wreaking havoc on the wing, showed the kind of magic Real Madrid need in its forward unit with his goal against AS Roma. Bale has the speed but doesn’t have the dribbling aptitude. Asensio and Vazquez come the closest to resembling the sort of dribbler the team needs but neither do it at a high and productive enough level. None of the midfield three are able to consistently offer that kind of guile either. Modric can muster it at times but he is no longer at the levels of his glorious peak.

This is why as things stand, acquiring Neymar almost seems like a no brainer if it ever materializes into a real possibility. The Brazilian would instantly galvanize the team and combine with Hazard to transform its lethargic offensive makeup into one of the deadliest in Europe – in theory. That’s the one caveat to all of this, everything argued above is in theory but there is significant evidence supporting the importance of having elite dribblers in attack. Dribbling is not the only way to achieve the destabilization factor (i.e. verticality) that Real Madrid seems to be missing. Another key to offensive verticality is vision and speed of passing such as what James showed under Ancelotti’s 4-4-2 in 2014-15. But in Real Madrid’s current configuration, dribbling is more sorely needed from an offensive standpoint in order to build on the foundational strength of Zidane’s preferred Casemiro-Kroos-Modric midfield.

As a final note, this article is intentionally focused on the offensive side. The lack of dribbling is a glaring area of potential improvement but it doesn’t mean that the team as a whole is fatally flawed. Real Madrid as it stands has the players to build a competitive and functional team based on control and/or defensive principles. But the fact remains that the lack of dribblers available (pending Vinicius’ evolution) will remain an obstacle to having an effective offensive system.

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