Three blank sheets in a row, no shots on their goal for more than 270 minutes… Yes, those figures include two matches with the real starting line-up – versus Sevilla and Atletico de Madrid, no less – and one with the reserves against a less threatening Osasuna, but the fact is that Zinedine Zidane has somehow recovered certain defensive structure since the apocalypse in Paris.
Of course, this team is different when Casemiro is in shape and Ramos keeps his focus on the pitch. It’s never going to be a spotless defensive unit, but with those two keeping the lines together Real Madrid improve a lot in terms of balance. Despite Zidane’s claims, it wasn’t only a matter of intensity: we now see a more cohesive team, better support to the fullbacks, positional exchanges well timed… It probably has more to do with focus and time played together than intensity, although it also helps.
I don’t think this issue is over, as the dependency on Casemiro after the summer transfer window decisions is beyond irresponsible, and we’ll have to play a few top matches with make-do midfields when the Brazilian is injured or suspended – and he’ll miss matches due to both. By the way, he’s played these last three matches so successful on the defensive side of things. But, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the defensive haemorrhages are solved. Real Madrid still have a huge offensive issue on the table, and that one is a lot harder to address.
Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute. The thesis is that we’re exactly where we were last season, and if you disagree, let’s analyse what we have now in terms of offensive weapons.
The only reliable scorer is Karim Benzema, and we now well that the word “reliable” isn’t really applicable to the Frenchman, even though he’s gained consistency in the last year. However, he scores a lot more against small teams than he does in top matches, and no one will be surprised if he spends another five consecutive matches without a shot on goal, like he did right before Julen Lopetegui was fired.
If we continue with those who were here last season, Gareth Bale has thus become so important after his Chinese summer ventures that Zidane rested him against Osasuna so that he could be fresh against Atletico and Brugge. Goals are so scarce for Real Madrid under its current configuration, and the talent of the injury-prone Welshman is so different from any other squad member that his playing time will be as monitored as Cristiano’s after Zidane arrived, if not more.
I don’t think it’s harsh to say that when you must take so much care of Bale he can’t be your go to forward. And if you take aside Benzema and Bale, only Eden Hazard has scored more than 20 goals in a top European team so far, and he did last only once, last season with Chelsea. And, mind you, to get to 20 we need to add the Premier League, the League Cup and the European compe tition, which add up to 21 goals in 52 matches. Currently, Hazard does not pass the eye test in terms of match fitness, but it’s obvious that Zidane has opted for playing the Belgian into shape starting him in every match, so at some point he’ll get going. Or so we expect.
We’ve discussed the three players that Zidane uses as his front trio. What else do we have? A trio of midfielders that chip in much less often than you would think – Casemiro, Kroos and Modric. And a set of bench players full of promise, such as Rodrygo, Vinicius or Jovic (he scored 27 with Eintracht last season, by the way), or the injured Marco Asensio, neither of whom are dependable yet.
Is this a major issue? It’s a serious one, indeed, but Zidane has shown that he has more tricks up his sleeve than we thought, and especially that he can motivate this group to perform when it matters. Yes, yes, not the greatest tactician of all time, I know, but if you haven’t reflected about his skills as a coach after three Champions League titles, you probably won’t either after three good defensive matches.
Fixing the offense, or at least adding a few more weapons to the arsenal, also depends on Zidane. As long as he keeps using matches against less threatening opposition to distribute playing time among the youngsters, the options off the bench will grow.
I know we don’t live in a footballing world that works like that any more, especially in a club like Real Madrid. A top level signing sounds like a much faster fix, but that option reminds me of the shocking amount of Madridistas asking for Mourinho to come back to eliminate our defensive woes after the match in Paris. Quick fixes, no matter what trade-offs they entail. You can never be too sure of who has less patience, club management or the fan base.
I’d love to have another proven striker in the squad, but I also believe that among our current bench players there’s a few that have a real chance to become top level forwards, and there’s nothing more rewarding for a fan than seeing prospects grow match after match. Rather than make a huge fuss about our lack of goals – three in those last three matches, yes –, let’s show some patience for a change. Since the beginning of the season, Vinicius (19) is working on his finishing with Zidane after most training sessions. Rodrygo (18) looks like he doesn’t need too much of that. And when Jovic (21) puts away a couple of chances, I have the feeling that we’ll have a dependable scorer for a long time, even if he does not start every match.
For once, let’s not overreact. We know that the gap Cristiano Ronaldo left wasn’t easy to cover, and that perhaps the 23-man group misses some experienced talent up front. But the squad has a nice, appealing mixture of wisdom and promise, and if they keep the focus this season should be fun.