When Real Madrid beat San Lorenzo and lifted the FIFA Club World Cup in Marrakech, Morocco, in December, it was a 22nd straight victory for Carlo Ancelotti’s men. On top of their form and on top of the world, they were the invincibles; the best team on the planet and with the trophy to prove it.
Star names, big summer signings and club stalwarts alike, manager Ancelotti had moulded the European champions into not just a cohesive unit but one which swept all before them with swagger and style. Goals flowed, Cristiano Ronaldo responsible for more than most, and the overriding feeling was that this team could finally be the first to retain the Champions League since its format change.
Then came the winter break, and when Liga football returned in 2015, the first problems appeared.
Since January, Ancelotti and Real have endured an up-and-down year, suffering for a variety of reasons and only now, in the past couple of weeks, looking anything like the striding force of the middle-to-end of last year. Troubles and inquisitions notwithstanding, Ancelotti does still have his side in the running for a formidable double. And with his squad now largely available once again, the Italian should come out of the campaign with a certain amount of credit, something which wasn’t always apparent a few short weeks ago.
January, though. A friendly defeat to AC Milan before resuming competitive action didn’t cause too many raised eyebrows, but when Valencia followed that up by coming from behind to win the first league game of the year, questions were asked. Of course, Los Che themselves have shown this term that they are a force to be reckoned with, displaying a mental strength and tactical fluidity which will be the envy of many in next season’s Champions League.
An immediate chance followed for atonement in the Madrid derby, but Diego Simeone once again showed he has the measure of his great rivals by masterminding a deserved Copa del Rey victory over two legs, before a third meeting soon after, this time in La Liga.
And Atletico wiped the floor with their richer rivals.
A 4-0 scoreline was not in the least bit flattering to Atleti, who dominated from start to finish, set out perfectly in a tactical setup designed to nullify Real’s ability to reach the front players and make the most of defensive deficiencies.
Soon after, a draw with Villarreal and back-to-back defeats to Athletic Bilbao and Schalke 04—the latter in the Champions League—forced Florentino Perez out into the public. The message was clear and made to show Carlo was in charge, not the players: “Do whatever you want, change whoever you want and play however you want, but you have to sort this out.”
Rarely had an aggregate victory and progression to the last eight of Europe’s top competition been so awkwardly and disapprovingly looked upon. At the final whistle, both Real and Schalke players were almost equally disconsolate. Ronaldo shook his head in disgust, Iker Casillas glowered fiercely.
This is Real Madrid. Mere victory is not enough here. At this most successful of clubs, expectation goes beyond the 90 minutes. More is demanded, in style and in silverware, in perception and in panache.
Since then, Real have had four games: three wins, and a defeat in el Clasico. The loss to Barcelona might mean that Madrid are playing catch-up in the title race, but there’s a chance this suits them right now. The demands on performance and results at the club are heavy enough, without also holding off the competition at the same time. Being the chaser this season is no bad thing, even if it relies on a slip-up late on from the Catalan club—as long as the gap does not get bigger.
Why, then, did Real’s fortunes falter so dramatically? There are several explanations.
First of all, injuries. Luka Modric was arguably one of Real’s top two players last year, a pivotal reference point in midfield, the man who made play flow faster, more direct or with more intelligence as needed. He was hurt on international duty and missed a large chunk of the season—manageable, with the squad options Real have, but when combined with James Rodriguez also suffering a long-term injury at the end of 2014, it significantly reduced the options for the team in making that telling pass into the penalty area.
James, for all the criticism the club got for overpaying him in the summer, has also proved a reliable scorer for Real. Isco is phenomenally talented and a great replacement in a similar mould to the Colombian, but he does not yet have James’ knack for reaching the penalty area late on in attacks to finish off rebounds, cut-backs and loose balls.
With those two out, the likes of Sami Khedira and Asier Illarramendi were given chances, and Lucas Silva was added in January, but none had the consistency, the total trust of Ancelotti or the ability to break opponents’ lines moving forward.
Behind them, Pepe suffered his usual bout of short-term injuries, Sergio Ramos faced a lengthy spell out and Raphael Varane went through a bit of a tough time with his own form up and down—not helped by the flapping Iker Casillas between the sticks behind him, of course.
And BBC. The front-line troika of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo became increasingly isolated and disjointed, both from each other and from the rest of the team, with clear divisions between the midfield three and front three in Real’s matches during February and March.
There was no link man between the lines, the media speculation raged on regarding whether Bale and Ronaldo passed to each other or celebrated each other’s goals—and Benzema failed to hit more than a single competitive goal between matches at the end of November and the end of January.
A “drought” (just the three goals in seven games) for Ronaldo, plus a red card at Cordoba, also showed signs of the lack of functionality throughout the team: All those aspects listed both contributed to each other and had the conjoined impact of seeing results dip.
Ancelotti cannot place blame on circumstances alone.
He switched formations after the injury to Modric, pairing Benzema and Ronaldo centrally in attack in a 4-4-2. Isco and James, cutting inside off each flank, gave Madrid tremendous verticality and creativity, which allowed Dani Carvajal and Marcelo to charge forward incessantly and gave a real selection headache when Bale returned from injury.
Once he needed to fit five stars in, 4-3-3 was brought back. It works fine often enough, but Real have usually looked a lot more dangerous and direct with Ronaldo through the middle and runners heading toward the opposition defence on the ball.
Wednesday night’s game at Rayo Vallecano was a perfect example: Stunted and unable to break out of their own half in the first half, Ancelotti switched from three in the middle to four and played directly to the strike pair. The end result being that Ronaldo was in the box more, Carvajal had more space to get forward and more attackers from the second line. Two goals later, the points were sealed.
Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti on the BBC: "There is no doubt. Bale, Cristiano and Benzema are always going to play.”— AS English (@English_AS) February 3, 2015
Ancelotti also hasn’t exactly filled the rest of his squad with confidence by insisting that Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo will always start when fit. What incentive is there for Javier Hernandez to come off the bench and perform well when he knows he’ll be right back there again next week regardless?
Jese is a talented young player, but he hasn’t had the minutes since his knee injury to show he is totally back to peak sharpness. As things stand, he looks in danger of having his development stunted; he isn’t an impact sub because he finds it difficult to get into matches when playing only 15 minutes at a time this year.
All that said, with eight games left to play, Real sit just four points off the pace at the top of the table and are in the last eight of the Champions League. There is still everything to play for now that key individuals are fit again.
A run of big games against Celta Vigo, Sevilla and Valencia will dictate just how close to the domestic title Ancelotti’s team can go. The 9-1 drubbing of Granada shows that the hunger and the attacking threat is still there, still in force and still capable.
From here until the end of the season, it is as much about the mental state of mind of the team as Ancelotti’s tactics and selections—he’ll go full throttle over the next two months, playing his strongest team each time and leaving the rest and recuperation for summer.
If it works, in one competition or the other, he’ll be hailed as the master strategist once more, the man who held together the egos and stars, the arguments and politics to bring silverware to the club which demands it the most. Fail to do so and, inevitably, fingers will be pointed his way as the most expendable and responsible figure in a position of power.