It’s disputable whether Real Madrid fans truly wanted a “worthy rival for a decent derby” as the now infamous banner from the Bernabéu back in November 2011 read, but desired or not they’ve certainly found what they claimed to be looking for now. Perhaps they’ve discovered too tough an opponent, in fact; after being unbeaten for 14 years against Atlético Madrid from 1999 to 2013, they’ve now gone on a rather distressing six game streak against Diego Simeone’s side without winning a match this season.
Some much needed solace can be taken from the game just before that run started, the Champions League final victory in Lisbon which saw them eventually pick up La Decima back in May 2014, but getting Los Rojiblancos in the quarter-finals of this season’s biggest club competition was still a far from positive result from the draw – particularly seeing as that was found out just under two weeks after they were thrashed 4-0 in their latest match-up at the Vicente Calderón.
Whilst it’s not uncommon for Real Madrid’s problems to be wildly exaggerated in comparison to your average team, on that instance the big margin of defeat was certainly accurate. They were heavily outplayed in all aspects, recording just four shots in comparison to Atlético’s 17, failing to cope with the intensity imposed by arguably the most organised side in Europe.
There were clearly defensive issues too, but the lack of chances created (a rather common theme against Atleti’s hugely disciplined and compact defensive unit) was arguably the bigger concern. It also helped draw more attention to a longer running theme in that department – a large decline in their goal scoring.
During the phenomenal 22 game winning streak which they went on from the middle of September, Real Madrid were scoring goals at a rate of 3.69 per game; in the nine (including and ending with the 4-0) following that, goals were being scored at just 1.89 per match. That’s something which not only continued but worsened up until the start of April too, with a rather average 13 (or 1.63 per game) goals being scored in the eight games from immediately after the Atleti one.
The substantial decrease in the number of goals largely came down to the significant worsening in form of their previously electric front three. One of the (slightly stranger) touted reasons for this was the apparent fall-out between Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, and you can make of that what you will, but the far more important relationships on the pitch are the ones which Karim Benzema possesses individually with each of the two wider players. One of the best link-up strikers in the world, the Frenchman plays a huge role in facilitating play through the creation of space for those two runners to burst into.
In some ways Benzema’s form is a mirror which is reflective of the rest of the attacking unit. If he’s playing well then the team generally is too, and his assets allow the team to thrive around him. If he (and thus often the team) is playing poorly though, then the amount of service which Ronaldo and Bale receive is instantly limited and the individualism in the team becomes largely unsustainable – and that’s exactly what happened. Benzema was poor, and so were Real Madrid.
That individualism and lack of associative play amongst the front three wasn’t the only form of isolation throughout the team though. Instead, that links back to and helps provide good proof of an issue which is much more midfield orientated: the speed of ball circulation. For a team who thrive in transitions and by playing at pace, with three extremely quick attackers and a set of midfielders who are very comfortable at carrying the ball forward, this has a huge effect.
Even with such a deeply talented squad, the absence of Luka Modrić from early November onwards began to have a growingly negative effect on the performance of the team. Results generally followed despite that at first, but without the Croatian helping to control the pace of the game the ball was being moved around at a slower rate. That gives opposition defences more time to get into position and cut off space, in turn limiting the amount of space and the number of chances which Real Madrid (and particularly the front three, hence the huge goal reduction) are able to create.
A big reason for the effect being longer term and not an immediately noticeable one was, on top of the sensational form of the front three against pretty weak teams in that period (the end of the winning streak came against the first decent team they played after Modrić's injury, Valencia), that Toni Kroos was capable of performing a similar role – albeit slightly deeper on the pitch. However with him being the only one left who was capable of truly dictating the speed of play, he became too important to be afforded a rest and thus grew noticeably fatigued; which had a damaging effect on his and the team’s performances.
On top of the Modrić injury, another key player in possession also went on to pick up a knock at the start of February: James Rodríguez. Though a less important player in the overall make-up of the team, his goal scoring ability and creation skills were missed in a side that desperately needed players to instigate things from behind the front three at this point. Isco somewhat covered for this from midfield and was arguably their best performer in this period, but the different mouldings of the players – Isco is a more subtle and less direct playmaker in comparison to the Colombian – meant that their variety (as it would have been had Isco been the injured player) was missed by Carlo Ancelotti.
Combined together, the slower circulation speed and the reduction in verticality from midfield (made an even bigger issue by the slower speed of moving the ball) meant play became evidently rigid. Things weren’t linking, lines of play were too distinct, and both Real Madrid’s performances and results continued to be less convincing. So it was no real surprise, then, that the return to action of these two has appeared to almost instantly reignite a missing spark in Ancelotti’s side in the last few games. Performances have been more assured, and the last three games have seen them score a staggering 14 goals in total.
Modric’s first appearance back came as a substitute in the rather chaotic 3-4 defeat to Schalke on the 10th March, a game where they could have seriously done with his control to calm things down. That allowed Kroos the chance to be rested in the match against Levante the following weekend, which has done the German good, whilst Modrić has started every game since the Schalke one. In that time they’ve won four out of five (the other was the loss in El Clasico), having previously gone three games without a win beforehand.
Rodríguez has been back for a shorter period of time meanwhile, but he’s similarly settled straight back in. He’s started two games, grabbing two assists in the 9-1 demolition of Granada before scoring in the away win at Rayo Vallecano, and was then rested alongside a number of other key players against Eibar at the weekend. His return meant Isco was only used as a substitute against Rayo, but the rest seemed to benefit the Spaniard as he put in a man of the match quality performance against Eibar at home.
With these two back and Real Madrid in a much richer vein of attacking form as a result, the upcoming two-legged tie against Atlético has come at a pretty good time. Modrić's place in the midfield alongside Kroos is pretty much guaranteed for these games, and they will be in need of a huge performance from him to help rectify the creativity problems which they encountered in their last meeting by moving the ball around at a speed which can catch Atleti’s defensive unit out of position.
As for the other recent returnee though, Rodríguez’s selection certainly isn’t a definite – and there’s still likely to be a big decision to be made by Ancelotti out of him and Isco. His rest against Eibar could be considered a positive sign for his place for the games, though Isco putting in yet another brilliant performance means it would be not only harsh but a risk to drop someone in such excellent form.
There is perhaps a possibility that both could play, with Ancelotti answering “why not both?” over who would be picked out of the pair in the press conference following the Eibar match, though that would be the result of an unlikely situation where one of the front three would have to be dropped. Realistically, if something like that was to happen, it would mean Bale misses out. Again, unlikely, but could it be what’s best for the team?
Ancelotti has spoken of his reluctance to drop Bale (as well as the rest of the front three) before and understandably so, but it is in games like these, where space will be very hard to come by, that his status of somewhat immunity can justifiably be reconsidered at the very least. His feats of brilliance rely more heavily on power and athleticism than expressions of technique and subtlety, and it would be of no surprise should Atlético manage to close down the space to a level which is sufficient enough to drastically reduce his influence on the game.
Should both Isco and Rodríguez join Modrić and Kroos in the midfield however, as they did when Bale was injured for the games against Barcelona (a 3-1 win) and Liverpool (a 3-0 win) in October, then Real Madrid can – as well as having a greater balance defensively with the ability to create a more 4-4-2 based shape with harder working players than Bale when they don’t have the ball – exert a higher level of control and quick passing on the game to attempt to break down the extremely compact unit which they will be facing.
Bale or no Bale though, and whether only one or both of his attacking midfielders start, having an on form Modrić and Rodríguez back at his disposal in some form is absolutely huge for Ancelotti for this tie. There’s no clear favourite between the two Spanish sides, and it’s sure to be one hell of a contest, but these two may just provide the quality in possession to swing things in Real Madrid’s favour.