Real Madrid's Squad Depth Must Pay off with Strong First Half of Liga Season

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistSeptember 24, 2015

BILBAO, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 23:  Karim Benzema of Real Madrid CF celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the La Liga match between Athletic Club Bilbao and Real Madrid CF at San Mames Stadium on September 23, 2015 in Bilbao, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Rafael Benitez has taken just five games to guide his Real Madrid side to the top of La Liga, after a 2-1 win at Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday night meant they joined Celta Vigo and Villarreal on 13 points from five games, one ahead of both title rivals Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.

For Benitez it will be an early vindication of his methods, both tactically as well as with regards to personnel, both of which were unnecessarily questioned in his first days at the club.

Sitting top in September will ultimately mean little to Benitez, though, and he knows that consistency will be critical to any hopes of lifting a long-overdue Liga title in May.

The great depth in squad quality that the manager has at his disposal, and is using far more than his predecessor, is what has to be seen as Real's biggest advantage between now and January—and that's when it needs to count most.

San Mames

The fixture at Athletic saw a strong Real lineup in place: Raphael Varane, Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema all started and are all clearly in Benitez's first-choice XI. Alongside them, however, were Pepe and Dani Carvajal in defence; top players in their own right when at peak form, but neither started the season as No. 1 in their position.

Mateo Kovacic made his first Liga start in midfield, while Isco moved back over to the right of the front three—his fourth appearance from the five league games so far, but he still can't be seen as an absolute first choice because of injuries elsewhere and being left out when all are fit. Isco remains the fifth option for four positions, essentially—not that that's a bad thing.

BILBAO, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 23: Mateo Kovacic of Real Madrid CF duels for the ball with Raul Garcia of Athletic Club Bilbao during the La Liga match between Athletic Club Bilbao and Real Madrid CF at San Mames Stadium on September 23, 2015 in Bilbao, Spain.
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

In fact, that's the very point of the argument: when Real are missing a James Rodriguez or a Sergio Ramos, they have someone of almost equal ability coming in to take their place.

This isn't a squad where 11 need to be in place to be competitive, but rather a battle for certain positions is being established and allowed to thrive.

XI vs Rotation

Last season saw Carlo Ancelotti almost always pick the same XI when his preferred players were fit. When everyone was available, it was fairly straight forward to guess the Real Madrid lineup, even when substitutes had had a big impact the previous week or star names were only just returning from injury.

Real Madrid's coach Rafael Benitez (2ndR) gives instructions to his players during the Spanish league football match Real Madrid CF vs Real Betis Balompie at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on August 29, 2015.   AFP PHOTO/ PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU
PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/Getty Images

Benitez has already made it clear things are different, this season. Per Marca: "Only one player is guaranteed his place here and that's Cristiano Ronaldo."

MARCA | Toni Kroos is currently the one most on the receiving end of Rafa Benítez's squad rotation policy. pic.twitter.com/SudH8V2fX0

— RMadridista (@01RMadridista) September 21, 2015

Benitez: "As I know how important Kroos was for team last season & what it cost him to endure the long season, I want to play him in doses."

— Real Madrid Info (@RMadridInfo) September 18, 2015

A fair exemption, given his titles, accolades and strike rate, but the likes of Lucas Vazquez, Casemiro and Jese have already been involved in multiple occasions this season to remind Isco, Kroos or Benzema that changes can and will be made. Denis Cheryshev and Nacho are two more who perhaps deserve more game time, but have so far found it difficult to be included more heavily.

So far, Benitez's approach has paid off. Five wins from five, fewer goals conceded than any club in La Liga and with nobody from Spain's top flight having scored more either; the manager can be rightly pleased with his team's start and optimistic about their chances of continuing the good run of results, given the number of options he has to make in-game changes if the selected starting XI don't produce.

Rivals

That's Real Madrid taken care of, but while they can only affect their own results, they must be looking at Barcelona's squad in particular and imagining the defeat to Celta Vigo on Wednesday might be repeated more than once—in outcome, if not actual scoreline, which finished at 4-1.

ROME, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 16:  Rafinha of FC Barcelona  after clashes with Radja Nainggolan of AS Roma during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between AS Roma and FC Barcelona, at Olimpico Stadium on September 16, 2015 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Gius
Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

Barca have seen the likes of Pedro and Xavi depart since the end of last season and have been unable to register new signings due to their transfer ban.

With such a small squad of noted senior players available to Luis Enrique, fatigue and injury are both likely to have an impact on the Catalan club. In a league where teams know they essentially need to hit 80 percent win rates to lift the title, it's far from unthinkable that even three or four slip-ups could cost Barcelona before the new year.

Champions League, Copa del Rey and La Liga, as well as the Super Cup matches already played and the Club World Cup games yet to come...they'll all take a toll, and talent and technique alone might not see Barcelona all the way through a tough period.

While top-four candidates from last year, Sevilla and Valencia, have made forgettable starts to the season, Atletico remain on Real's heels. Atleti have a similarly impressive squad to their bigger city neighbours and can't be discounted as having the longevity to stay around Real's points tally for that reason, among others.

All Benitez and Real Madrid can do is keep winning their own games and wait for Barcelona to continue to slip up—and then, in game week 7, make sure they take their A-game to the Vicente Calderon, the scene of Real's heaviest defeat in La Liga last season.

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