Real Madrid Desperately Need Continuity in Defence with Testing Run Looming

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 30, 2016

Paris Saint-Germain's Argentinian forward Angel Di Maria (R) vies with Real Madrid's defender Sergio Ramos and Real Madrid's French defender Raphael Varane (C) during the UEFA Champions League group stage football match Real Madrid CF vs Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on November 3, 2015.   AFP PHOTO / GERARD JULIEN        (Photo credit should read GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images)

For a long time, the raw numbers suggested all was well, but throughout, the eye told you something else. 

As Real Madrid made a strong start to the current season under former manager Rafa Benitez, the team's defensive record had looked strong. In the opening 14 games of the campaign, Madrid had conceded on just four occasions and had kept 10 clean sheets. In La Liga, their aggregate score had read 24-4. In the Champions League, it was even better: 7-0.

According to the stats, Benitez had tightened up Madrid, made them more robust. And after a 1-0 victory over Paris Saint-Germain in November that secured top spot in Group A of the Champions League, Marca hailed "Real's perfect European defence."

But perfect wasn't the word, and everyone suspected as much. Since then, that suspicion has been proven correct, too.

Another 14 matches have passed since that clash with PSG, and Madrid have kept a clean sheet in only three of them. Against Sevilla, they collapsed to concede three times; against Barcelona, they were torched and conceded four; against Shakhtar Donetsk, a four-goal lead almost wasn't enough; against Rayo Vallecano, they let in two and were a mess until Rayo's red cards; against Valencia, it was the same number but could easily have been more.

In total, Madrid have conceded 19 goals in this latest period, which even if damning isn't at all surprising.

Throughout the statistically strong opening to the season, it had been goalkeeper Keylor Navas who'd been single-handedly responsible for the team's defensive record. Against Espanyol and Levante, his outstanding saves had protected early leads; against Granada, his work coming off his line secured three points; against Atletico Madrid and Real Betis, he saved penalties; against Celta Vigo, he became Neo from The Matrix

Marca said he was "on top of the world." AS called him "the plug in the Real Madrid bathtub."

But a 'keeper can only do so much.

Real Madrid's Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas (C) stops a ball kicked by Celta Vigo's forward Iago Aspas (2R) during the Spanish league football match Celta Vigo vs Real Madrid CF at the Balaidos stadium in Vigo on October 24, 2015.  AFP PHOTO / MIGUE

Throughout many of the most recent 14 games, Navas and Kiko Casilla have had a mess in front of them. In attack, little pressure has been applied by the superstar forwards when possession is lost. In midfield, the team lacked structure and clarity in the final months of Benitez's tenure. 

Yet, perhaps more than anything, Madrid have lacked continuity at the back. 

So far this season, Sergio Ramos has consistently struggled with injuries to his shoulder and calf. Pepe has missed time, too, as has Raphael Varane.

In Madrid's 21 league games to date, Ramos has made only 11 starts. Varane and Pepe have made 12 and 13, respectively. As such, Nacho has regularly been used as cover, and there hasn't been a consistent central pairing at any point this season.

Consider the pairings for the last 14 games: Ramos and Pepe, Ramos and Varane, Varane and Pepe, Pepe and Nacho, Pepe and Nacho, Pepe and Nacho, Pepe and Nacho, Ramos and Pepe, Ramos and Pepe, Pepe and Nacho, Ramos and Pepe, Ramos and Pepe, Varane and Pepe, Varane and Pepe. 

At no stage have Madrid been able to settle into a defensive rhythm with a defined combination. Instead, the dynamic of the back four has consistently changed. With Ramos and Varane together, it's pacey and aggressive; with Pepe and Nacho, it's more conservative; with other combinations, it's a mix. 

For all involved, it's been problematic, form for each player a real issue. Those ahead of them haven't been helped, either, and then there's the politically driven mess at right-back that has kept the excellent Dani Carvajal sidelined too often.

Madrid desperately need this pattern to change. 

SEVILLE, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 08:  Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid holds his shoulder after getting injured while scoring his team's opening goal during the La Liga match between Sevilla FC and Real Madrid CF at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on November 8, 2015 i
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

One of the interesting elements to the scheduling of La Liga is the way the two halves of the season are identical. Once every side has met each other through 19 rounds, they meet each other again in exactly the same order from rounds 20 to 38. 

As such, Madrid, now under Zinedine Zidane, are in the middle of the gentle stretch they enjoyed at the beginning of the season. Having just clashed with Sporting Gijon and Real Betis, the capital club will meet Espanyol, Granada, Athletic Bilbao (at home) and Malaga in its next four league outings. 

But then it gets difficult. 

On February 27, Madrid host neighbours Atletico Madrid in a capital rivalry that's been turned on its head. Quickly following will be tricky outings at home against Celta Vigo and Sevilla before Zidane's men have to take on Barcelona at the Camp Nou. After that, clashes with Villarreal and Valencia also lurk, and Champions League outings are dotted around the calendar, too.

Thus, the exact stretch in which Madrid fell apart defensively late last year is looming once more. To emerge with anything this season, it's a gauntlet through which Madrid must not only survive but also thrive.

Doing so will require a new-found continuity at the back.