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How Rafael Benitez's Game Plan Will Fix Early Real Madrid Goalscoring Problems

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistAugust 27, 2015

Real Madrid players Cristiano Ronaldo (C) Gareth Bale (L) and Marcelo de Silva (R) hold Australian Rules footballs after a team training session ahead of the International Champions Cup football tournament in Melbourne on July 17, 2015.   AFP PHOTO / PAUL CROCK-- IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE        (Photo credit should read PAUL CROCK/AFP/Getty Images)
PAUL CROCK/Getty Images

One game into the new Liga season and, predictably, crosshairs are already being painted on Rafael Benitez by a few people watching his Real Madrid team.

Or, perhaps more accurately, people not looking at his Real Madrid team but looking at their results under him and drawing the conclusion he is not merging this talented side together in the right way. Marca reported the 0-0 draw at Sporting Gijon as the "most goal-shy start in a decade," taking into account pre-season fixtures under Carlo Ancelotti, Manuel Pellegrini, Bernd Schuster and other previous managers all the way back to Vanderlei Luxemburgo and Mariano Garcia Remon in 2004.

It's a quite incredible way to castigate a new manager, given the disparity in competitive and non-competitive games, managers in their second season and managers beginning anew, styles, transfer budgets and many other reasons beside.

It's also far from the only such headline. Reuters highlighted the lack of goals, while Marca went with defenders scoring the goals against Galatasaray in Real's final pre-season friendly as being a concern because the forwards had drawn blanks in four out of eight games over summer. AS even complained (via International Business Times) about the lack of forwards on the bench compared to defenders for the draw with Sporting.

The boss won't be unduly worried about it at all, though, with the players still getting up to speed on his requirements in the final third while also performing the defensive duties he asks of them—it's worth noting that while they haven't scored huge volumes, six clean sheets in those "first nine games" have been attained.

Offensively, Real are on the right path, and Benitez will have them scoring plenty of goals in no time.

Rafa's Conviction

Benitez himself has few conerns about the quest for goalscoring. The manager has told his players not to worry about the lack of finding the net, per Marca, that the plans being put into place will yield plenty of goals and results over the coming weeks.

After the Sporting draw, he spoke about the gradual improvement needed and maintained that the team simply lacked a clinical edge, per BBC Sport.

We lacked precision in the final pass and accuracy in the shots on goal. 

In general, we lost the ball too much in the first half and gave them a lot of opportunities to counter-attack. 

In the second half, we had more control, more possession, more danger—but without that final pass to leave you with a clear chance at goal. 

We will continue to tweak and improve things like the physical condition, the precision and the co-ordination between the players and in that sense I remain optimistic.

It would be nothing short of a miracle if Real—disjointed, lacking cohesion and playing as individual lines rather than as a unit at the end of last season under Ancelotti—were right at the top of their game for match No. 1 under Benitez.

There are, though, plenty of signs of what he is trying to do and why it should work if the players are on board.

Positional Rotation

Forget, for a moment, the debate about whether Isco or James Rodriguez should be starting. Benitez has obviously opted for Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and one of those other two for now, but it's imperative that Real have at least four options for those three positions. It's not going to be about an XI this term, as it was last year for Ancelotti.

In fact, last year alone should show why options are important.

Ronaldo missed games through suspension, Bale suffered two separate injuries as well as a drop in form, James suffered a long-term injury and Karim Benzema went through a long spell without being able to score. Four attacking midfielders, plus Benzema and Jese to make up the attack, gives options for Benitez to look to create far more space for these attackers than has habitually been the case.

What was seen against Sporting was an insight into why things will work out with Benitez's plan.

Real Madrid starting XI vs. Sporting Gijon.
Real Madrid starting XI vs. Sporting Gijon.@karlmatchett

While the nominal positions were Ronaldo on the left, Jese up front and Isco on the right, very rarely did Real look anywhere near that structured—there was clear licence for the wide players to come infield, both in a supporting capacity and to be the furthest-forward player, while Jese naturally gravitated to the channels to utilise his pace in behind the defence.

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When the players behind that line understand the movements, when those attackers themselves are more ingrained as to when to time those runs and as the team as a whole gets more confident, the quality of players means this will translate into a lot more scoring opportunities opening up for Real Madrid.

Then, it's just down to having that clinical edge—and they certainly have the players to hit the target.

Bale: 10

Bale's playing in the middle of the attacking-midfield line has been a cause of complaint for several watchers of Real Madrid this summer. In one regard, it's understandable: He's not a playmaker, and in James and Isco, Real have two exceptional players who perhaps prefer to operate from that area.

The point of the rotation, though, is that they can play in a similar area—just not doing the same role as Bale, who drives on from the middle.

Credit: Sport1

Benitez's idea will be almost to use Bale as a secondary striker rather than a playmaking option, with his power and pace, not to mention his shooting ability, being key factors in breaking defensive lines and making use of Real's play on the counter-attack.

Credit: Sport1

The Welshman is lacking confidence at the moment, and Real are still trying to use him as a link man rather than someone who will bounce the ball off and receive it back on the move to generate a shooting chance, but Benitez should persist with him in this role.

Once the players are more synchronised with each other, Bale himself will score plenty of goals, running late into the penalty area or simply pushing on and shooting from anywhere around the edge of the box.

Modric

That's the attacking-midfield line taken care of—but the supply line comes from behind them. Luka Modric was largely exceptional against Sporting Gijon and served notice of why, once more, he will be pivotal to Real's success and Benitez's plans.

The Croatian was part of the double pivot alongside Toni Kroos in midfield, but it was Modric who had licence to move the entire width of the pitch, find possession and move quickly—in or out of possession—to create space for himself and others.

Modric doesn't just have a good passing range: He has excellent mobility and energy, which helps Real get the ball out of the crowded middle area of the pitch and into more advanced positions very quickly.

He supports the attack itself by moving into the final third, up to the edge of the area, and he is aggressive and tenacious with his defensive work too—important against better opposition as the season goes on.

Credit: Sport1

Modric will be pivotal to Benitez's success with this Real side. In that regard, considering Modric's injuries last year, perhaps it's not a real surprise Mateo Kovacic, who can perform a similar role, was signed. Indeed, the two ended up together on the pitch toward the end of the Sporting game, trying to find spaces in a midfield three to allow the three ahead of them to play much higher in goalscoring positions.

Kroos

The one star name in the squad who will arguably benefit least from the plans in place to improve the attack is Toni Kroos. The German midfielder, mainly an offensive talent with Bayern Munich, has been used almost entirely as the protective element of the Real Madrid midfield since joining a year ago.

It is likely Benitez would prefer to use somebody such as Casemiro, a more natural defensive presence, for this particular "sitting" role, and there should be little doubt he will feature fairly prominently in certain fixtures this term. Kroos has so far been instructed to hold his ground in deep areas, often just outside the centre circle, and simply redistribute and recycle possession to those in space ahead of him.

GIJON, SPAIN - AUGUST 23: Toni Kroos of Real Madrid duels for the ball with Miguel Guerrero of Real Sporting de Gijon during the La Liga match between Sporting Gijon and Real Madrid at Estadio El Molinon on August 23, 2015 in Gijon, Spain. (Photo by Juan
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Defensively, he needs to be the focal point for the rest of the team to restructure themselves around as they drop deeper out of possession, while also making interventions himself to protect the back line.

It's not Kroos' best role and, again, Casemiro might be a better option to play it. However, Benitez will accept that the Real Madrid job comes with certain political requirements, one of which is playing the top names as often as possible.

Variation

While movement and speed of transitions will be key to Real's attack for Benitez to be successful, he already looks as though he won't limit himself to one core formation this season.

The 4-2-3-1 might be the starting point, but pre-season and their opening game have already seen two centre-forwards used and a 4-3-3. It should be admitted, however, there was very little cohesion to Real's play by the end of the Sporting match—instead, it was almost each to their own as they sought to find the ball and get another shot off quickly before the final whistle went.

That cohesion and trust in the game plan will only come eventually and only if Benitez gets results in the meantime.

His plan for Real should yield success in the attacking parts of their game, but he will know as well as anybody that time is a luxury most managers at the club are not afforded by media, board members and supporters alike.

He needs results to come fast. The style of play—although it will add to the quality of the team later in the season—has to be worked on alongside attaining positive scorelines.