Time is of the essence for Julen Lopetegui at Real Madrid

Colin Millar by Colin Millar / 04 October 2018, 14:15

For outsiders looking in, Real Madrid are a club who are a handful of below-par results away from a full-blown crisis.

It appears to be an astonishing situation for a club who are currently second in La Liga and who are only behind Barcelona courtesy of the club’s goal difference.

Furthermore, Madrid have had a tangibly tougher start to their league campaign than their Catalan counterparts. Julen Lopetegui’s side have already faced notoriously difficult away trips at Athletic Club of Bilbao and Sevilla – a ground at which they have now lost in six of their last seven league trips – while also facing a capital city derby against Atletico.

Yet the concerns at the club lie much deeper. Few clubs in global football have quite the level of scrutiny as the current European champions, who dominate column inches and media coverage within Spain and further afield. Such is the intensity of this lens, the club are never further away from mass exaggeration and when performances and results are below par, criticism will swiftly follow.

Madrid have now failed to score in three consecutive games in all competitions for the first time since January 2007 while boss Lopetegui has failed to match expectations in any of his major tests so far.

League victories over Getafe, Girona, Leganes and Espanyol were all expected but the European Super Cup loss to Atletico Madrid coupled with the midweek Champions League defeat at CSKA Moscow have amplified underlying concerns.

 

There is a temptation to draw parallels with the situation at the club three seasons ago when Rafael Benitez was appointed at the helm and subsequently dismissed six months later. Zinedine Zidane was his replacement and his three successive Champions League titles have ensured his successor would always need to juggle inflated expectations along with a rebuilding job of sorts.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s summer exit dominated the headlines; with 450 goals in 438 first-team appearances his absence was always going to be felt in the immediate aftermath. Mariano Diaz and Vinicius Junior have both arrived this summer but neither have yet started in Lopetegui’s team with Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema elevated into central stage.

The Welshman’s patchy injury record has left fans concerned at his ability to stay fit and such fears were heightened when he was withdrawn with an abductor strain at half-time in the Madrid derby.

Benzema found the net four times in his first three league outings – just one shy of his total La Liga tally from the previous campaign – but has failed to add to this in six games since. The Frenchman has added attacking balance to Madrid over the years but his lack of goalscoring prowess has often been a source of criticism from his many detractors.

Problems reach further than a lack of goals, however. Luka Modric has spoken of ‘physical and mental fatigue’ following his summer exploits with Croatia, while Marcelo, Dani Carvajal and Isco have all suffered injuries.

The first-team squad does not have the depth of two years ago, highlighted by Sergio Reguilón’s start in Moscow for the Champions League clash. It was the 21-year-old’s debut for Madrid’s first-team and he has never previously played at a higher level than Spain’s third tier.

Loan exits for Theo Hernandez, Achraf Hakimi and Mateo Kovacic have only heightened the sense that Madrid’s margin for error is increasingly diminishing.

There is little doubt over the ability of their starting XI but an absence in squad depth may begin to bite over the course of a testing campaign. The form of individuals have been questioned, including the normally imperious Sergio Ramos and Toni Kroos, who made an uncharacteristic error leading directly to CSKA’s midweek winner.

There are doubts too over Lopetegui’s suitability for the job itself. Many commentators have highlighted how this squad and this club have reacted well to a boss who favours man-management over an intense focus on tactics.

This explains the success of Zidane and Carlo Ancelotti, two hugely popular dressing room figures, as opposed to Benitez, who players saw as aloof and distance. Lopetegui himself is a different style of coach but in attempting to tweak tactics – focusing on higher pressing and a greater emphasis on possession – may not be the tonic that Madrid needed.

There is a frustration that Los Blancos failed to capitalise on Barcelona’s recent slip-ups. In the immediate aftermath of Ernesto Valverde’s side shock loss at Leganes, Madrid were mauled at Sevilla. Following the Blaugrana’s surprise 1-1 draw at home to Athletic Club, Lopetegui’s side failed to break down Atleti.

The reality is that these are still early days and Lopetegui’s style and system has not yet had sufficient time to be implemented. The danger is he knows his side now must mix transition with genuine substance and propel his team to a winning run. If he fails, he must surely know that there are few clubs as unforgiving in their pursuit of success.

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