Real Madrid vs. Valladolid: Mesut Ozil Brilliance Covers Up Defensive Frailties
It is a testament to how high expectations are for Real Madrid that they can win seven of eight matches and still be considered struggling by their fans and higher-level administrators.
In the EPL, such a run of form would be labelled "dominating" and "imperious;" in La Liga, it's business as usual.
But maybe that's a good thing.
Because the truth is, while Real Madrid have been very good this season (as always), they've been held back by a their inability to defend set pieces. This was a problem for the team last year too, but their ability to regularly put between three and five goals in the back of the net covered it up.
This year, in the games where Real's offense has struggled to hit its optimum level, these flaws have become readily apparent to viewers and supporters of the team.
In order to emphasize how big of a problem this is, let's go through the league goals Real have conceded this season.
In total, Real have conceded 13 goals in 15 games, which might seem like a solid defensive record, but when you're a perfectionist team like Real, you'd like to have that closer to between eight and ten.
Of those 13, six have come from set pieces. In those games where Real Madrid has conceded from a set piece this season, their record is 1-2-2, their only victory coming against Valladolid on December 8.
Just think back through this season's disappointments and you'll see how big of a problem this is for Madrid.
Valencia draw? Caused by a headed equalizer from Jonas off a free kick.
Getafe loss? The first goal was a header converted by Juan Valera off a free kick.
Sevilla loss? Piotr Trochowski hit the ball on the volley from a corner taken by Ivan Rakitic and was left unmarked with acres of space to run.
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Undoubtedly, Jose Mourinho took note of his team's struggles on set pieces and worked hard to improve them in practice. From the Sevilla game up until just before the Valladolid game, Real Madrid conceded on just a single set piece in 10 games; Lionel Messi's direct free kick goal in El Clasico.
But again, against Valladolid, these frailties threatened to cost Real Madrid the game. A game that they admittedly struggled to dominate, but still managed to edge in terms of possession (54-46) and shots on goal (13-4).
Valladolid scored not once, but twice through corners from the same player.
Manucho may be tall and strong, but he is not a striker that many would consider to be among the world's best. His goals should have been prevented.
The first goal conceded by Madrid was just sloppy. It looked like Sergio Ramos came out to clear the ball, but missed it (reminiscent of Bayern Munich, perhaps). The ball then bounced around in the box and finally fell to Manucho, who simply had to blast it into the net.
One word; preventable.
Again, guess who was at fault for the second goal? Sergio Ramos. The Spanish international allowed Manucho to pin him to his back, thus giving Manucho a relatively easy opportunity to convert when the ball came in in front of him.
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Mesut Ozil's own set piece abilities ultimately bailed out Real Madrid in the end, but one can only imagine the criticism that would've been poured further upon Mourinho if they'd dropped points in such a poor manner.
All credit to Valladolid for putting up a good fight, but the wounds in this one would've been very much self-inflicted for Real Madrid.
The good news is that up front, Real Madrid's attackers looked to be communicating and linking up well, while at the back, the team's ideal starters were not available; Nacho started because Fabio Coentrao and Marcelo were unavailable, and struggled in doing so, while Michael Essien may have been an option over the ineffective Alvaro Arbeloa if he was fit and uninjured.
Real Madrid are 9-0-1 in La Liga when they don't concede off set pieces and 1-2-2 when they do.
It's not reasonable to expect that Real will never concede off set pieces, but if they continue to work on them and limit the number they concede, they're guaranteed to significantly improve their win percentage and keep themselves alive in La Liga and the Champions League.
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