As Alvaro Morata wheeled away in celebration after scoring Real Madrid’s winning goal against Athletic Club on Sunday, the case for Zinedine Zidane to rotate and re-shuffle his forward line became ever-stronger. The weekend game marked 38 days since Cristiano Ronaldo last scored at the Santiago Bernabeu, with the Portugal international frustrating fans with a performance that saw him snatch at finishes that would normally come so naturally.
It didn’t matter, as Los Blancos picked up the three points necessary to leapfrog Sevilla and go back to the top of La Liga, but the manner in which the victory was eventually achieved squeezed more out of Zinedine Zidane’s squad than was necessary.
Injuries to Casemiro, Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric provide the contrary argument that Real Madrid are doing well to pick up points without three key members of their spine, but it is their front three, rather than supporting cast, who are leaving the most question marks with their league performances.
Isco featured again in his favoured number 10 role, as Zidane continues to flip his usual midfield triangle in Casemiro’s absence, laying on three key passes, while Toni Kroos chipped in with an impressive five from slightly deeper. Creation was not the issue, with Marcelo and Gareth Bale offering incisive balls from wider areas too. Lucas Vazquez, who replaced Isco just after the hour mark, also offered three key passes, with the ammunition being dutifully passed onto Real Madrid’s front guns.
Real Madrid had 24 chances, 21 of those from open play, converting a mere 8% of the opportunities – and both of their goals had more than a slice of good fortune about them. The opener from Karim Benzema was a result of a missed interception from young Athletic Club left-back Enric Saborit, who was filling in for the suspended Mikel Balenziaga, while Morata’s winner was stabbed home after Gorka Iraizoz saw an unfortunate bounce cannon off the turf, then his back, before sitting up kindly for the Spain international to polish off.
Cristiano Ronaldo rattled off 11 shots, but failed to find the back of the net once again, with the Portuguese star needing 39 shots in La Liga so far to score just twice thus far. Alvaro Morata, in contrast, hit the target twice with three shots after being injected into the fray on 74 minutes.
Real Madrid’s BBC should be sacrificed for the collective good
Karim Benzema has managed four goals from 21 efforts, with the high level of responsibility on the Frenchman and Ronaldo clear, as without their clinical touch games are being ground out rather than comfortably concluded. Los Blancos have only finished one of their last five league clashes with more than a one-goal cushion separating themselves from their adversaries at the final whistle.
During Sunday’s match, one moment stood out. As Cristiano Ronaldo was picked out in the opposition penalty area, the amount of time he had screamed goal – but his own lack of confidence made itself evident. Rather than going through the motions and slotting home yet another league goal for Real Madrid, there was uncharacteristic hesitancy from the forward, who considered squaring a pass across goal, before instead plumping for a tame shot that was passed into Iraizoz’s grasp to the audible disbelief, jeers and whistles of the Bernabeu crowd.
Injuries have disrupted the momentum and preparation of Ronaldo, who finds himself a second later than usual to react inside the penalty area, and his occasional decisions to ignore good runs from his teammates become more glaring when the ball hasn’t cannoned into the back of the opposition net and already made the case for the shunned option to let bygones to be bygones.
As Real Madrid have kept merely one clean sheet in their last 10 competitive games, this is a time in which Zidane is making it incredibly hard for his defensive players, should he persevere with a front three that offers little in the way of defensive capability. Not only are they not helping out their exposed full-backs, with no Casemiro to shuffle across and slow counter-attacks, but they aren’t taking the chances to give their teammates a comfortable cushion either.
Alvaro Morata has a point to prove since returning to the club, and while his early-season performances were not too promising, recent weeks have seen the ex-Juventus forward put a spring back into his step with goals in consecutive games. Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio, too, benefitted from past injuries to Bale and Ronaldo, but have since found game-time hard to come by at the Bernabeu.
While there is no doubt that Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema ended last season in excellent fashion, before the former two went on to enjoy lengthy participation in Euro 2016, Zidane has to freshen things up to ensure that his squad are firing on all cylinders. All three have immense quality and will be vital over the course of a long season, but the likes of Lucas Vazquez, Alvaro Morata, James Rodriguez and Marco Asensio can offer fresh legs, clearer minds and are desperate to prove their worth to their coach.
At a time when Real Madrid are missing their captain in the heart of their defence, their midfield ballast in Casemiro, and arguably their most in-form player of the season in Modric, Zidane’s system should look to ease the pressure on his back four rather than throw caution to the wind, as his forward options are fit and in plentiful supply. A front three who finds themselves disjointed from the rest of the team defensively and then fails to convert their own opportunities can cause negativity whispers within the team, with Real Madrid taking unnecessary risks ahead of matches against organised, counter-attacking outfits such as Alaves, Leganes and Atletico Madrid in their next three consecutive La Liga outings.
Zidane’s 4-2-1-3 formation in Casemiro’s absence has created chances, and lots of them, but without their front three in sharp form, Los Blancos could find themselves more affected by the chances they afford their opponents than the ones laid on for the BBC in the coming weeks.