Cristiano Ronaldo looked frustrated throughout against Atletico Madrid
It is the quote that could come to define this Real Madrid team—one that no one is entirely sure was actually ever said.
"The sale of [Mesut] Ozil is bad news for me,” was what Cristiano Ronaldo infamously told teammates after hearing of the German’s exit, according to AS.
“He is the player who knows best my movements in front of goal. I am very unhappy about the sale."
While the English media has spent the weeks since Ozil’s £42.5 million arrival at Arsenal waxing lyrical about his sublime skill set, the media in Spain has been pursuing altogether different agendas—with a section of the Madrid press corps dancing to Florentino Perez’s tune in attempting to rationalise and justify Ozil’s departure.
The reality, rather than the supposed lifestyle choices or disappointing attitudes of the Germany international, is that he was sold to balance the books after the arrival of Gareth Bale (and, to a lesser extent, Isco).
What remains to be seen, though, is whether Ozil’s penchant for assists (47 since joining Real according to Opta; 27 of them for Ronaldo) can be filled by another member of the 2013-14 Real squad.
On Sunday, in one of their first big challenges of the new season, Real struggled for real incision in front of goal.
Ronaldo, Isco, Angel Di Maria and Karim Benzema started as the side’s attackers (with Gareth Bale a second half introduction) against an Atletico Madrid of burgeoning ability, but the Portuguese talisman was quiet throughout, and Real failed to score.
A 1-0 defeat, leaving Real five points adrift of Atletico and their other arch rivals Barcelona at the top of the table, already has some in Madrid talking of a crisis. While this is premature, there are certainly seeds of doubt.
Real have looked disjointed before at points already this season—away to Villarreal in Bale’s debut, more recently against Elche in a last-minute win—but Carlo Ancelotti has insisted that has nothing to do with Ozil’s departure.
"Ozil has great attacking qualities, but in the last two games against Galatasaray and Getafe we have played without him and we've had no problem scoring goals,” the Italian stated to Goal.com after the Elche win. “We scored 10 and we could have scored 15... We are still very good going forward even without Ozil."
Ozil’s de-facto replacement in the Madrid lineup is Isco, a summer acquisition from Malaga. The Spain international has already earned early comparisons with Zinedine Zidane (now one of Real’s assistant coaches, among other responsibilities) for some of his interventions in a Blancos shirt, although he still has a lot to learn.
"I asked Zidane if he agrees and he said 'No, not yet. But he could be very close in the future,'” Ancelotti noted to the BBC. "He is very similar in terms of ability and mentality. For Isco to be compared with Zidane is not bad after the few games he has played."
Despite that, Isco was the player removed when Real were searching for a late goal on Sunday—striker Alvaro Morata going on as Ancelotti attempted to hasten the progression of the ball from defence to attack.
"The only option was to put crosses into the box, so I removed Isco for Morata and left Benzema,” he explained to AS afterwards.
Ancelotti has been given a squad by Perez that, in Bale and Ronaldo, possesses two “wide attackers” that like the ball at their feet with space to run into. That favours a counter-attacking style—but Real’s status as favourites in almost every game they play means they generally have to prepare to break defensively-minded sides down patiently.
That requires another player, an orchestrator, to find ways to release those two star attackers in the spaces they want—something that Ozil proved himself remarkably adept at doing (at Arsenal he has been similarly effective at making space for others, a rare quality), and Ronaldo evidently appreciated.
Isco, for all his undoubted ability, is still learning that difficult art (Luka Modric—a second half substitution against Atletico—offers similar creative potency, albeit from a deeper position), and such growing pains (complicated by various injury adjustments) have already cost Madrid five points.
The problem is that the competitive inequality that exists in La Liga—promoted by the uneven distribution of television revenues—means the top teams (Barca and Real) tend to drop very few points over the course of the campaign.
While it is exceedingly early in the season, it would nevertheless not be foolish to suggest that the Liga will be beyond Real should they fall more than six points (the sum they can make up in Clasico encounters) adrift of their Catalan rivals.
At that point, pursuit of "La Decima," Real’s 10th European crown, make take on precedence.
The assault on this year's Champions League has started well, with an emphatic 6-1 demolition of Galatasaray in Istanbul, but the cohesion and attacking fluency that has been missing so far in the league will be required for the tougher opponents laying in wait in the latter stages of the competition.
Ancelotti will be hopeful he can find the answer by then. He is already facing criticism in the Madrid press (being accused of making "a mess" in one publication) and, with Ronaldo cutting a disgruntled figure on Sunday, cannot afford such a situation to continue.
Ronaldo may have initially seen Ozil's departure as bad news for him, but so far, despite his protestations, it is proving to be far worse news for Ancelotti.