But I beg to differ.
Yes, Los Blancos were uncharacteristically toothless in defence. They allowed Osasuna up the pitch with relative ease and Raul Albiol’s defensive gaffe gave up the earliest goal Madrid have allowed this season with the exception of the second-minute goal conceded to Fernando Llorente in the defeat at Athletic Bilbao.
But from my observations of yesterday's match, the origins of Madrid's problems did not rest on the shoulders of the defence; instead, I saw the root of their errors to be in attack - or more precisely, their lack of effort in attacking the ball both on offence and defence.
“In my opinion, the entire team was very bad - I speak of the forwards, the midfielders, and those at the back.” These were Cristiano Ronaldo’s post-match comments and they seemed to align more closely with the deficiencies that I perceived.
At a club like Real Madrid, the brand of football demanded is that of free-flowing, attacking football and for much of at least the first half against Osasuna, Los Blancos were very sprightly going forward. Many would argue that when you commit players forward, you leave gaps at the back that the opposition can exploit and that is why Osasuna were able to cause so many problems. But the idea that playing attacking football leaves the defence vulnerable is a misconception; it is only proven to be true if the defenders are the players charged with the duty of defending.
In a team that insists upon the mantra of attack, the first line of defence has to be the forwards; meaning that when the team lose possession of the ball, the drive to pursue, pressure the opposition defence, and win the ball back has to start with the strikers positioned farthest up the pitch. Such a committed effort to pursuit is not only profoundly important for an attacking team to win the ball back in as advanced a position as possible, it creates a team chemistry devoted to working hard as a unit - as players see their team-mates’ work ethic and are compelled to contribute. Furthermore, the fans appreciate the effort and are inspired to support the team with applause; at the Santiago Bernabeu, such praise from fans is more valuable than gold and can serve as an integral element in the team’s stability and success.
But in yesterday’s match against Osasuna, one could see some disturbingly frugal efforts to win the ball back after an errant pass. Even worse, players would take the time to breathe an irritated sigh and visibly give up on the play instead of putting the mistake out of their minds and focusing on the task of recovering possession.
When Gonzalo Higuain first joined Los Blancos back when Fabio Capello was coach, Pipita won the fans’ affection not by scoring goals, but by persistently and doggedly fighting defenders for the ball. In fact, it was this work ethic that helped bring the 2007/2008 La Liga title to the Bernabeu that season as Higuain, in the dying minutes of a late-season match at Espanyol, won the ball with a slide tackle against an Espanyol defender before sprinting up the pitch to score the winning goal.
Now, Pipita’s motor seems to only reserve its gas for when he is in possession of the ball. Cristiano Ronaldo is no different; he may be Madrid’s most productive player on the offensive end, but such excellence on the ball does not make him exempt from his duties when the team is without it. Karim Benzema, Guti, and Granero were similarly lacking in their work rate.
Young Higuain fighting hard for the ball
Professional sports players, regardless of talent, cannot afford to scowl instead of pursuing the play and continuing to compete. Throwing up one's hands in frustration does nothing to help a team succeed and, if anything, makes a team more susceptible to a more lax work ethic. In attacking teams particularly, such poor attitude and effort can lead to more direct consequences.
Take the following example: as those viewers with attentive eyes might have noticed in Barcelona’s Champions League semi-final defeat to Inter at the San Siro, in an atypical expression of frustration, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi began to pout after Javier Zanetti muscled La Pulga off the ball. Such petulance made Messi nothing more than a spectator as he watched the Inter counterattack instead of pursuing the ball with his usually tireless tenacity to regain possession. That particularly lazy effort proved very expensive for Barca as, on the ensuing counter-attack, Maicon scored Inter’s second goal.
Contrastingly, some players have risen to stardom with their undying work ethic. As Higuain won Madridista hearts with his persistence, Barca’s Pedro Rodriguez has drawn praise far and wide for his commitment to racing deep into his own half to pressure the opposing team or sprinting upfield to give the opposing goalkeeper a little less comfort receiving the ball. The reason Madrid’s Fernando Gago has now started eight consecutive matches after spending nearly the entire season on the bench or the subject of transfer rumours is because of his commitment to fighting for every ball.
In an instance that exemplified this effort, against Osasuna, the Argentine sprinted full speed all the way up the pitch toward Ricardo in an effort to pressure the Osasuna goalkeeper. Faced with a few less seconds to gather himself on the ball, Ricardo kicked the ball straight into the onrushing Gago’s back. The ball ricocheted off the midfielder and carried over the end line for a goal kick, but what sort of praise would Gago have garnered if the ball had rebounded into the back of the net for a goal? Regardless of the outcome, I am compelled to ask, where were Cristiano Ronaldo or Higuain? The fact that a defensive midfielder should rush forward faster than either striker is embarrassingly shameful.
Marcelo did well to run on both ends of the pitch and scored what he later said was only the second header in his life. He has improved by leaps and bounds in defence and in the closing minutes tracked back well to intercept a threatening Osasuna pass down the wing. Sergio Ramos, Kaka, and Xabi Alonso also took care of business with industrious performances full of effort. These players (along with Cristiano Ronaldo, but only when going forward, not in winning possession back) looked aggressive in their play and were always looking to attack the ball, whether on offence or defence.
Marcelo has been going forwards when tracking back
But other than those players, last night I saw a Madrid team that, despite the stakes of the match in terms of the Liga title, seemed desperately lacking in discipline and motivation. Countless times Cristiano Ronaldo received the ball at the edge of the area and sat there going through his repertoire of stepovers and feints as he waited for a team-mate to either make a cut inside the box to receive the ball or draw defenders away from goal to open up space for the Portuguese. Madrid lacked dynamism and many players were static at both ends of the pitch.
Real Madrid have earned 29 victories this season, beating the Liga record of 28 previously set by Los Blancos in 2007/2008 and Barcelona in 1996/1997. But despite this incredible and unprecedented feat, the team still have a number of deficiencies. A team becomes truly exceptional when it takes the time and effort to focus on the under-appreciated details of sport: pursuit, communication, and selfless play. It is the commitment to perfecting these minute but exceedingly important fundamentals that can make the difference between a win and a loss, especially when facing opponents that do not readily gift mistakes.
If Real Madrid surrender their Liga title charge before the final day of the season, it will be because of this lack of discipline and commitment to detail. On Wednesday Mallorca will be far less forgiving of such lacklustre effort and if Los Blancos wish to hold any hope of fighting for the Champions League next season, they had better be willing to get their white shirts dirty and fight for it.
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