Further to the suspension of the domestic league amidst the growing COVID-19 international outbreak, this unfortunate stoppage offers an opportunity to review Real Madrid’s performance in La Liga this season to date. The last match the team participated in before the suspension undid all the magnificent effort Zidane’s men put forth in reclaiming first place from their perennial rivals the preceding match day. The Clasico victory was supposed to launch the team into a new path of consistency and allow them to put the occasional slip-ups behind them. The Clasico victory was supposed to be a statement win. A statement that Madridistas needed — one that re-affirmed the club’s commitment to addressing the lack of league silverware in the trophy room in the last decade.
What followed this momentous and rhapsodic triumph was a screeching, soul crunching reality check when the team stumbled in their next match against Real Betis. The elephant in the room many hoped the Clasico win had subdued reared its unmissable head to remind the team about their struggles in matches they should have been winning if they wanted to be champions.
Real Madrid have dropped points in 11 matches this season (eight draws and three losses). These have soured what had the potential to be an undeniably great season. Zidane reshaped the team’s mentality over the course of his short tenure at the end of 2018-19 and the time since leading into the current La Liga term. The mister managed to successfully integrate and capitalize on the qualities of the club’s big-money signing, Eden Hazard. However, the Belgian’s added value was heavily compromised by the injury issues he has experienced this season. But perhaps, most critically, the biggest sign of how well this team has recovered from the down year is their performances against the heavy hitters. Real Madrid have won the most points out of any team between the top four.
Real Madrid’s performance against the teams currently in the Champions League spots (1-Barcelona, 3-Sevilla, 4-Real Sociedad) has been especially impressive as the team won all but one of the five games so far. Against these teams, Ramos and co have accumulated 13 points (!) which corresponds to approximately 1.11 points (weighted average) more than the other top four teams averaged against each other and Los Blancos. This is an otherworldly improvement over past years where the team often performed at roughly the mean level.
On a qualitative level, the huge improvement reflects the dynamic evolution and refinement of the tactical framework that was observable this season. Zidane managed to create an optimal system. This included vital new pieces such as Hazard’s gravity defying offensive influence, Valverde’s structural dyanmic effect, and Mendy’s collapsing coverage. These factors along with enhanced pressing schemes and strong possession game control principles combined to provide a reinforced foundation that allowed the team to compete exceptionally well in the mini-league.
With the exception of the anomaly in 2017-18, Real Madrid continued to out-shoot top four opponents at nearly the same rate as in the last five seasons. Where they have attained major gains are shots on target and goals recording 2.50 and 1.08 more than their opponents on average respectively. This level of dominance of their closest competitors for the league title begs the question: why are Real Madrid in second place and not considerably ahead of the pack?
Despite posting more than adequate performance statistics by outshooting (both general and on target) and outscoring the whole of La Liga at better rates than the other top four teams, Real Madrid are not realizing the points that those performances should generate. The advantage they built in the mini-league (five points - 13 for RM over 8 for BAR) is completely wiped out by points earned against the rest of the league. In their games against non-top four teams, Real rank in dead last (being seven points behind Barcelona) amongst top four teams. They accumulated just 43 points compared to 44 (Sevilla), 45 (Real Sociedad), and 50 (Barcelona). Although Sevilla and Real Sociedad have played one more game in that regard, the fact that Los Merengues are closer to those two than Barcelona is damning in and of itself.
While there are mitigating factors — such as the spate of injuries the team faced or poor conversion/finishing fortune — to explain the lack of consistency against non-top four clubs, there are certain elements within Real Madrid’s control that could have been dealt with better. The foremost issue which many will point to is rotation and utilization of the roster. In Zidane’s title winning season and over the course of his trophy laden maiden tenure, diligently making use of as many players as possible was a hallmark of his management model. The stark contrast to this season is clear. Players like Mariano, James Rodriguez and Brahim Diaz (lesser so) have sparingly been used in 2019-20. They could have made a difference in games where the team struggled to break through a creativity barrier that they’ve hit so often this season.
This issue speaks to failures on two levels — firstly, there appears from a distance to be a gap between some of the players Zidane has at his disposal and who he can trust. Organizationally, it has been reported that the club failed to secure targets the manager wanted. The other side of this has been Zidane’s utilization of the players which could be broadened to take advantage of possible game-changers that haven’t seen much time yet. And additionally, simultaneously ensuring the development and maintenance of chemistry and functionality in the line-ups he uses. As an example, Valverde wasn’t a starter in six of the games the team dropped points in this season. It’s curious why he hasn’t become a default starter in most league matches since it became evident how important he is.
Overall, Real Madrid’s 2019-20 season had all the makings of a potentially great season. Zidane did wonders to create a workable system in optimal conditions which has proven effective in big games. However, there is room for improvement in squad utilization to ensure both leveraging all assets (some that have been in the periphery so far) and maximizing the use of players, such as Valverde and Rodrygo, that have shown their quality and value. Trailing Barcelona by two points is unfortunate given the immense and excellent work the team has done but they are responsible (even if one gives allowances for injuries and other external factors) for their relatively poor record against the rest of the league.