Madrid struggling to find balance
After a summer full of exciting news from the Spanish White House, the casual La Liga follower could very well be thinking that this year's success is already guaranteed for los merengues.
Mr Pérez delivered the constellation of stars he'd promised, the contingent of eternally injured flying (and bar-hitting) Dutchmen were partially offloaded, and the Madrid media keeps telling us that archrivals Barcelona lack enough quality players for such a long and demanding season.
However, the true Real Madrid fan knows better. I, for one, am terribly worried. There are too many loose ends for this experiment to work out. Just bear with me while I walk you through the main points of concern at the beginning of the 2009-2010 Real Madrid season:
1. The starting line-up is totally dysfunctional. Mr Pellegrini is trying to implement the team structure of his impressive Villarreal side, a 4-2-3-1. Xabi Alonso and Lassana Diarra play in front of the back four, while Kaká, Raúl González and Cristiano Ronaldo feed Karim Benzema and switch positions constantly. Whenever I read the starting line-up for a match, I can't avoid a huge grin of satisfaction. This is a seriously loaded side, who wouldn't love it?
But the feeling of joy lasts only until the game in question starts, and the theoretical 4-2-3-1 quickly becomes a chaotic 6-4. The four players up front were never known for their defensive discipline, and that forces Diarra and Alonso to fall back more often than desired. The team split in two, and the match immediately becomes an endless series of counter-attacks by both sides. Given the calibre of their forwards, Real Madrid should win plenty of entertaining matches this season, but the aforementioned 6-4 is hardly a good strategy when facing top-level sides.
There is a recent precedent of that type of (unintended) approach: my beloved Atlético de Madrid with old chap Javier Aguirre at the helm. After the 10th minute of each match, the front four (Kun Agüero, Diego Forlán, Simão Sabrosa and Maxi Rodríguez) would stop tracking back, and the counter attack carrousel begun. That Atlético side prevailed in several thrillers because of their huge amount of talent in the final third, but proved unable to beat any of the top-five teams, much more balanced in their tactical disposition. Why copy that Russian roulette approach when we already know it does not work?
Needless to add, and in my humble opinion, the only thing which Real Madrid should copy from the colchoneros is the splendid fried calamari sandwich available at the Vicente Calderón bars. Any other imitation of Atlético would be an embarrassing downgrade from 100+ years of glory.
In any case, it's blatantly clear that Real's starting eleven is not adequate for this formation. The gaffer needs to sort out this mess as early as possible. But can he? That is exactly my second point.
2. Pellegrini does not have the reins... yet. Florentino's signings were not restricted to the pitch. The galáctico in chief also brought back a bunch of former Real Madrid players, such as Jorge Valdano, Miguel Pardeza and Zinedine Zidane, in various (and probably conflicting) capacities to help with team management. All of them enjoy a decent amount of airtime with the president, and have had decisive roles in hirings and firings, at times overruling Pellegrini's opinion (i.e. the departure of Wesley Sneijder). Some sectors of the Madrid media even believe that the current team selection is heavily influenced by this group of advisors, which would explain the unbalanced starting line-up.
Even if this is the case, our Chilean gaffer does not seem the type of manager that would accept interference in his daily duties for too long. In Villarreal he showed he's been blessed not only with an enviable mop of hair, but also with the determination to bench his best player when necessary. Once he gets more confident with his surroundings, one of the front four should warm the bench, leaving space for Esteban Granero to bring more equilibrium to the side. At least that is what I keep telling myself...
3. The defence is a black hole. And that is quite an understatement. The 6-4 issue does not help the back four in an open game. Additionally, the team retain their recurring habit of conceding at least two chances on goal for each set piece taken by the opposite side. A lot of work to do here for Mr Pellegrini.
Every Real Madrid supporter thinks that the defence will get better when Pepe and Sergio Ramos come back from suspension and injury, respectively. Read that sentence again, please. Pepe and Sergio Ramos! The solution to our defensive woes depends on:
a. A 26-year-old centre back who, just over a couple of months ago, had a nervous breakdown in front of over 80,000 people, during which he repeatedly kicked an opponent in his back after having fouled him inside the penalty box, punched another opposition player in the face, left the pitch insulting the referee and some of his own teammates, and spent the following month pondering retirement from football as his most reasonable life choice.
b. A 23-year-old full-back who spends 80 minutes per match out of position, seems to believe he should score 30 goals per season, and keeps trying an annoying back heel dribble that every single player in all 208 FIFA countries knows how to defend at this point. Bernd Schuster, by his own right in the top three of both most lazy AND arrogant Real Madrid players ever, just publicly stated that Ramos "needs to work harder and be more humble". Ouch.
Well, things could be worse. For instance, Madrid's fantastic goalkeeper Iker Casillas could be in his worst shape since he joined the first team in 1999... Wait, he actually is!
4. Cristiano Ronaldo looks out of character in his Real Madrid shirt. When I saw his presentation at the Bernabéu, the first thing that struck me was the shape and size of his new shirt. We had just signed the only legitimate heir to David Beckham's King of Metrosexuals throne, and Mr Ronaldo looked like he'd borrowed a Real Madrid jersey from his older, severely overweight brother.
I wanted to believe that it was just a beta version of the 2009/10 uniform, but I was painfully wrong: he still wears that same baggy piece of clothing for each match. He is CR9, for the love of God! He NEEDS to look cool to play well. The current shirt has an impact on Ronaldo only comparable to that of a plain black tuxedo on Lloyd Christmas, Delilah applying a drastic haircut on Samson... you get my point.
No wonder his performance so far has been well below expectations. He looks awfully unhappy in that jersey. Let's get him a tight, pectoral show-off shirt, please. It's not that hard.
Don't let all the glamour and the upcoming endless collection of 5-2 wins over mid-table teams fool you. Unless the gaffer steers the ship in the right direction, Real Madrid run the risk of become an extremely expensive version of last year's Atlético de Madrid. As Real's neighbours know well, that doesn't win you any titles...
PS: By the way, I just remembered that the splendid fried calamari sandwich I mentioned earlier in the article is actually available at the Teresa Rivero Stadium bars (home to mighty Rayo Vallecano). My sincere apologies, I was getting my "other teams from Madrid" mixed up. I'll have to think of another thing to copy from Atlético... or maybe not.