By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Something is still not quite right at Real Madrid. Summer signing Gareth Bale may be settling, under-fire Karim Benzema is improving and Cristiano Ronaldo in fantastic form as the goals fly in for Carlo Ancelotti's side. But the goals are also flying in at the other end - and far too often.
Ancelotti has been in charge for 16 competitive matches now and has named 16 different line-ups so far. Changes have come all over the pitch, with several different defenders used: Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Raphael Varane, Marcelo, Alvaro Arbeloa, Dani Carvajal, Nacho and Fabio Coentrao have all featured at the back in the current campaign. And behind them, two goalkeepers: Diego Lopez in La Liga; Iker Casillas in the Champions League.
But more than the personnel, it is the performances which will concern Ancelotti: in those 16 games, Madrid have let in 20 goals, including seven in the last three matches - with five penalties conceded in those fixtures. It is, quite simply, not good enough - especially if Madrid aspire to winning the premier prizes this term. And that, of course, is the goal.
Ancelotti promised "spectacular football" when he was unveiled in front of the Madrid media in the summer. The club's new style, he promised, would be an attacking brand of possession play, easy on the eye and with plenty of goals. After the sometimes sterile showings under Jose Mourinho in recent times, many Madridistas liked what they heard.
Madrid's defence this season
|2||The goalkeepers used by Madrid this term: Diego Lopez in La Liga; Iker Casillas in the Champions League|
|3||Clean sheets in 16 games: against Granada, Malaga and Copenhagen|
|5||Penalties conceded by Madrid this term - all in the last three games|
|7||The players used at the back so far: Arbeloa, Carvajal, Coentrao, Marcelo, Nacho, Pepe, Varane|
|16||Different line-ups from Ancelotti in Madrid's 16 games in 2013-14|
|20||Goals conceded so far this season - an average of 1.25 per match|
After losing 4-0 to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League on Wednesday, Austria Vienna coach Nenad Bjelica sent some words of warning. "The Champions League won't be won by Cristiano," he announced. "It will be won by a well-organised and disciplined team - like Atletico or Borussia Dortmund."
Madrid have kept just three clean sheets this term (against Granada, Malaga and Copenhagen) and beaten only one elite rival, Juventus (at home), while losing to both Barca and Atletico in La Liga. And even the Juve win came courtesy of a penalty and an unfair red card which left the home side in control. Convincing it was not.
Indeed, while winning the majority of their games this season, Madrid have been caused all sorts of problems at the back by teams like Betis, Sevilla, Levante and even Elche. Perhaps Xabi Alonso's much-heralded return in midfield will make the difference. So far, however, it has not.
In central defence, Pepe and Sergio Ramos are caught constantly out of position and concede far too many fouls, whle many of the pair's problems are caused while Marcelo is playing in an advanced position further upfield, leaving spaces behind. Meanwhile, last season's revelation Raphael Varane has looked rusty on his return from injury and has also been prone to uncharacteristic errors, while the right-back role, seemingly strengthened by the summer signing of Carvajal, remains problematic as neither he nor Arbeloa have made the position their own.
Instead of blaming his back four, Ancelotti has concentrated on his full XI. "We are lacking a little balance," he said following the 7-3 win over Sevilla late in October. And after the 2-2 draw at Juventus on Tuesday, he added: "Balance means attacking well and defending well."
Ahead of that game, Varane - given a rough ride by the Juve attack - explained: "We have to defend better - it is something all of us have to do. The defensive block is not just the defenders, it is the whole team - and if we make the effort we will improve in time."
Former Madrid defender Alvaro Mejia agrees. He told Goal: "The defence is not only the back four and the attack not just the forwards. There has to be balance in attack and in defence - that's how results arrive."
|There has to be a balance in attack and in defence - that's how results arrive"
- Former Madrid defender Alvaro Mejia
Mejia believes Madrid are still adapting to Ancelotti's ideas and says the team's attacking style has led to some problems at the back.
"Perhaps they have been slow to get going and remember, this team has a new coach, with new players and has played in a number of new systems. But it's also a very attacking team and when you are an attacking team, you perhaps take less care at the back.
"We all want to see an attacking Madrid team and a side moving forward, bringing the ball out quickly from the back. The players are adapting to that style little by little and they will get better. The team is getting better all the time and I have complete confidence that they can challenge for the biggest titles."
Madrid fans will hope he is right, because until what is a dreadful defence is sorted out and tightened up considerably, the biggest honours are likely to remain out of reach this season.
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