Real Madrid: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?


How do we evaluate Real Madrid's 2012/2013 campaign? Are they suffering 'Third Season Syndrome'? Today on the blog Chalkontheboots offers his thoughts and analysis.


The Third Season is Fatal

As Jose Mourinho continues to navigate rough seas at Madrid, perhaps he will take more than a cursory glance at the words above, spoken by the legendary Hungarian coach Bela Guttman.

Familiarity can breed contempt they say. At the Santiago Bernabeu right now, the familiarity with Mourinho may be proving a burden too great to bear for a number of the playing staff and many of the fans that pack the stadium regularly. A marriage made in heaven at the outset is delicately poised, teetering on the brink. Can the partners reconcile before they go their separate ways?

The reigning Champions have all but conceded their La Liga crown trailing both Barcelona and neighbours Atletico. Mourinho has spoken of defending their crown now as being “impossible”. Indeed, as surreal and outrageous as it may sound, for a few fleeting moments Madrid's poor form had them nervously glancing over their shoulder at the chasing pack behind. Now though, third place is the minimum they should achieve but to finish as low as third seems unthinkable in Spain.

Season 2003/04 was the last time Real Madrid finished outside the top two in La Liga. Valencia under the tutelage of Rafa Benitez were winning their second league title in three seasons as the curtain was falling on one of the most, if not the most, successful periods in the club's history. Deportivo La Coruna was enjoying unparalleled success. The club from the smallest Spanish city to have ever won the top flight just three seasons earlier under the guidance of Javier Irureta. This was the era of Super Depor. The trophies accumulated by Madrid coach Vicente del Bosque were not sufficient to quench the thirst of President Perez who relieved the Spaniard of his duties to be replaced by Portuguese coach Carlos Querioz for that fateful season almost ten years ago.

And now another Portuguese tactician retains the managerial hot seat.

Third Season Syndrome?

Mourinho lasted just over three seasons at Chelsea before he was relieved of his duties. The seeds of discontent had been sown the previous season with increasing friction between Roman Abramovich and his coach, most notably in the form of Chelsea acquiring and foisting Shevchenko and Ballack upon the Portuguese maestro. Chelsea failed to retain their Premiership title and the lofty ambition of becoming the first English club to achieve the quadruple fizzled out as the season reached its climax. Chelsea did claim the FA Cup to ensure Mourinho had claimed all of the English game’s major prizes during his tenure, but there was an element of disappointment. A few months later, Mourinho departed Stamford Bridge.

Mourinho has often spoken of his teams operating at their maximum level during his second season and this was true of his Madrid side. A Copa del Rey triumph in his debut season provided the first trophy before Madrid conquered Guardiola’s great Barcelona team and claimed the La Liga title in his second season. The threat of Barcelona hegemony was shattered. But the real prize, the Champions League, eluded him again with defeat on penalties to Bayern Munich at the semi final stage.

This season, his third at the Bernabeu, should have seen his squad develop and aim to defend their domestic crown whilst seeking the elusive European prize but problems have existed from the outset.

Murmurs of player unhappiness at pre-season preparations and training whilst on tour in the USA marked the beginning of the problems. The effects of this remain visible. A few players such as Benzema carry some extra weight. Ronaldo, feeling unloved by the Bernabeu faithful early in the season, spoke of being “sad”. Following leaked stories appearing in the press, Mourinho talked of three “bad eggs” in the camp and dropped Club captain, perhaps the lead “egg”, Iker Casillas for “technical reasons”. President Florentino Perez was forced into an impromptu press conference to deny allegations that senior players had issued an “us or Mourinho” ultimatum to board members. An allegation run by the pro Madrid newspaper, Marca.

And then there are Mourinho’s constant flirtations with potential suitors. When he speaks with the English press, he speaks of how he loves “everything” in England and how he will return there. Yet when speaking to the French press, he talks of coaching in France. It’s the pragmatic streak that runs through him and enables him to keep his options fully open until the end.

And it’s visible in his football.

Mourinho’s sides will never be praised for the style of football they deliver. Pragmatic above all else, he delivers teams that win. The second season proved that. This success should have been built upon but the side appears to be moving backward.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

On the pitch, the team have shown a worrying regression. During Mourinho’s first season, the team was characterised by a split; the defensive unit and the attacking unit with Xabi Alonso seeking to link the two components. There was a reliance upon individual brilliance to overcome problems with no discernible pattern of play often evident between team members. But the Copa del Rey confirmed the side were heading in the right direction. It convinced the Madridistas to remain faithful.

And now in the third season, we see a regression.

At its simplest level, Madrid is scoring fewer goals in league whilst conceding more goals. In their title-winning season Madrid were scoring a remarkable 3.18 goals per game whilst conceding 0.84 goals per game. This contrasts sharply with this season’s performance where they are scoring just 2.5 goals per game whilst conceding 0.91 goals per game. It’s a small drop but in a league where the big two are so far ahead of the pack, small details can determine titles.

 PossessionPass CompletionShort PassesTacklesInterceptions
2010/2011 56.8% 83.2% 432 22.4 21.8
2011/2012 59.3% 85.0% 474 21.9 16.4
2012/2013 56.1% 80.6% 411 19.4 13.3

Yet the problem goes further than that as the statistics above show.

Madrid have moved from a position of dominating games to sometimes actively sitting back, encouraging the opponent forward only to counter attack. Whilst this is a perfectly legitimate tactic, Madrid is adopting such an approach partly out of necessity. They need to bring the opponent out, as they are unable to break them down when they sit defensively.

The team is divided into two units again with an increasing reliance upon Ronaldo to be the decisive factor. Opponents notice this and adapted to how they face Madrid. Against teams with a low block, Madrid struggle, lacking the guile to discover solutions on the pitch. They try to force the issue too frequently, looking for the killer pass. They have technical quality in abundance and should use their superiority here to their advantage. Recycling possession quickly to stretch opponents and creating space for scoring opportunities but it’s overlooked. There is a worrying lack of associative play between certain components of the team. New signings for the central midfield area have failed to adapt. The team remains reliant upon Xabi Alonso for creativity with firstly Sahin and now Modric failing to create an impact.

Madrid continue to be a side who possess a devastating attack on the flanks in quick bursts but who struggle to control the tempo of a game when required.

Too often we see long diagonals from Alonso searching out Ronaldo and Di Maria. The number of short passes has dropped by 13% as the side become more direct. A further result of the longer passes is the pass completion rate, although still high, dropping from a high of 85% to 80.6% this season. Again, a small decline but enough to make a difference at the very top level.

The desire to exploit the teams’ main assets has arguably seen a worrying trend develop towards over reliance on individuals at the expense of constructing patterns of play.

In spite of these matters, the side now present greater balance in attack with less reliance upon the left side. This season has seen 65% shots from the middle of the pitch, an increase from 57% last season. Is this development due to Ronaldo frequently cutting in field though?

Previously, Madrid had been able to call on three goalscorers in the shape of Ronaldo, Higuain and Benzema ably assisted by the laterally movement of Ozil. That swift and waspish movement from the German remains with a supreme talent for carving out assists and is a necessary ingredient to the side. It further complicates the role of Modric. Where exactly is the Croatian to play?

That goals were spread across the forward line reduced Madrid’s predictability and avoided the cliché of theirs being a one-man team, an accusation increasingly levelled at Messi and Barcelona. But is there a grain of truth in that allegation with regard to Ronaldo this season. Increasingly, the Portuguese player is carrying the side. It’s Ronaldo who is required to be the divisive force during games.

 Season 2010/2011Season 2011/2012Season 2012/2013
Ronaldo 1.17 1.21 1.00
Higuain 0.59 0.63 0.53
Benzema 0.45 0.62 0.32

Ronaldo has a slightly lower goals per game ratio in the league this season. This should notice though the evolution of Ronaldo as he has moved from a player with a noticeable selfish streak, one who preferred to score from increasingly acute angles rather than perhaps open up play for a team mate with a pass. Paradoxically, as he becomes more attuned to the needs of the group, the group need him to rediscover the selfish streak. Higuain has seen his goals per game ratio drop too but it’s Benzema who has noticeably dropped off, only averaging one goal every three games now.

On the defensive side, los blancos continue to tackle less and make fewer interceptions this season in La Liga. There is a lack of intensity to their game at times. Yet Madrid has conceded an average of 10 shots at goal per game across each of Mourinho’s seasons. The difference now is that opponents are getting closer to Madrid’s goal and are under less pressure when taking shots. Again, a small but crucial difference that enables the opponent to score.

Is this a hangover from their pre-season preparations, is there a loss of appetite within the squad that has won it all or is it something more than that?

Does Mourinho demand so much from his sides that the teams inevitably burn out and are unable to sustain the required momentum?

Madrid is on course to finish the season with 79 points. If that occurs, it will be their lowest league points tally since season 2008/09.

Yet Mourinho remains in charge of Madrid.


The Quest for La Decima

The quest for la decima is the glue that binds Madrid and Mourinho together. It holds the partnership intact even if it is being fully tested. His departure is inevitable, the marriage is ending, and only the terms of the split remain to be discussed. With just two trophies in two seasons, the next few weeks will confirm his legacy at Madrid. The past will be erased. All that matters now is the Champions League. His epitaph will be written after the event. There is no room for second place at the Bernabeu. There will be no consideration of the problems he has faced, some of which were of his own making. It’s all or nothing.

Followers of Man Utd may consider the 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu as a great result and one that gives them the men from Old Trafford an edge in this tie. Some would even suggest that Man Utd are now favourites to progress.

Only a fool would write off this Real Madrid team.

True, they are nowhere near top form and have been beset by problems both on and off the pitch but this is a team, and indeed a squad, filled with players who have won all the major honours that the game has to offer. There is quality in abundance in the side and they retain the ability for an individual moment of brilliance to dig them out of an unwelcome situation.

In a one off game, would you really bet against Madrid securing a result when they can call upon players of the calibre of Ronaldo, Alonso, and Ramos as the spine of their team?

They demonstrated that ability to rise from the mediocrity of their league form when they convincingly recorded a 3-1 away over rivals Barcelona in the Copa del Rey.

The self proclaimed “special one” arrived in Madrid with the aim of defeating Barcelona and reclaiming the European Cup. He has so far achieved one of these ambitions.

Manchester United now stand in his way of achieving the second.


The Odds: Real Madrid are best priced at odds of 3.06 with Pinnacle to defeat Barcelona this weekend while Cristiano Ronaldo is available at odds of 4.50 to be First Goalscorer with Ladbrokes and William Hill.



Follow Chalk On The Boots on Twitter: @chalkontheboots.

And read more of his work on his blog

Stats from

Tags:  Football , La Liga

No stereotypes, no cliches, no fuss. Just analysis with a Spanish flavour.