Who is to blame for the mess at Real Madrid?
When full-back Marcelo scored what turned out to be a consolation goal against Levante on Saturday it ended a drought that had seen Real Madrid fail to score for 482 minutes.
So far this season, arguably the biggest club in the world have lost three of their first nine league games, the latest of them Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at home to Levante.
With just one point from their past four league games, the alarm bells are ringing at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Speculation is rife that coach Julen Lopetegui is going to lose his job less than five months after his appointment – but who is to blame for the mess at the club?
Is it Lopetegui’s fault?
Lopetegui came in following the surprise departure of Zinedine Zidane – and did so on the back of his acrimonious departure from the Spain team on the eve of the World Cup in Russia.
His team did not make the best of starts, going down 4-2 in extra time to Atletico Madrid in the Uefa Super Cup.
And a record of just five victories in 12 games has led to suggestions that players are not listening to what he is asking them to do.
Players are not responding or playing well. They are all below par – have a look at the performance of defender Raphael Varane at the back at the weekend, or the poor contributions of Luka Modric, Marco Asensio, Marcelo and so on.
Instead of making sure the team are not conceding and building from a solid base, Lopetegui has insisted on playing the same way – utilising the defence very high up the pitch as it was against Levante, allowing sides to counter and easily attack the space behind.
He has been unable to prevent his team starting matches poorly. This season in the league 89% of Madrid’s goals have been conceded in the first half.
Veteran Argentine coach Cesar Luis Menotti used to say that a manager earns his money by getting a team to create chances. Scoring them was part of the players’ brief.
In that sense Lopetegui can point to the fact his team hit the woodwork three times against Levante and had 34 shots with 15 on target, while Levante had two efforts on target and scored from both.
But Madrid’s attacks lack edge and quality. They are not creating as many clear-cut opportunities as the stats suggest.
When it became clear that Zidane was not going to get what he wanted from the club (new blood in and Gareth Bale out) he voted with his feet.
It is not a luxury that Lopetegui can afford. So perhaps most of the blame directed towards Lopetegui has to do with him accepting such a challenging job.
He needed new players in the summer – he wanted striker Willian Jose of Real Sociedad and also a midfielder to replace Mateo Kovacic after he left for Chelsea. He got neither and the only choice he is left with is to suck it up, grin and bear it.
But he remains upbeat and has reiterated many times he has every confidence in this Madrid team. The question is do Madrid have similar confidence in Lopetegui?
What about the players?
This season Real Madrid have scored only 13 goals in nine league games.
The fact that the goal drought was ended by a full-back while there were still three top-class strikers on the pitch – Bale, Karim Benzema and Mariano – says it all.
There are players at the club who have not lived up to the talk, the hype surrounding the attack-minded Asensio being a particular case in point because he is clearly not improving as many thought he would.
Benzema began well but has recently stalled and the constant concerns about Bale’s muscle issues have also stopped his progression.
But it is as a unit that they have been most worrying, frequently seeming uninterested in recovering the ball – and, when they do have it, not showing enough movement, edge or effort.
Is that mental fatigue or an easy way out for players safe in the knowledge that it is with someone else – namely the coach – that the buck will finally stop?
Why are fans unhappy with Perez?
The fans have been remarkably stoic towards Lopetegui, probably because they understand his predicament. Not so with club president Florentino Perez.
In a poll in the Madrid newspaper Diario AS on Sunday, 85% said he is the man responsible for this current crisis.
It probably does not help that everyone knows Lopetegui was very far from being Perez’s first-choice replacement once Zidane left.
Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino, Juventus’ Massimiliano Allegri, Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann and even former Chelsea manager Antonio Conte were contacted before Perez plumped for Lopetegui – for the simple reason that all the others turned him down or were not allowed to leave, or both.
Perez is not exactly going out of his way to defend Lopetegui and the general feeling is that the coach is a dead man walking, with the only real issue being when rather than if he will get his marching orders.
Will it be now, after Tuesday’s Champions League game with Viktoria Plzen, or maybe after El Clasico against Barcelona next Sunday?
Perez has to shoulder much of the blame because much of what Lopetegui asked for has not been delivered.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and right-back Alvaro Odriozola were the only two summer signings.
When Cristiano Ronaldo left, it was clear what was needed more than anything else was goals. Perez thought that with Benzema, Bale and also young Brazilian wunderkind Vinicius Jr they would have plenty of cover. He was wrong.
The only Galactico-style players he is interesting in signing are Paris St-Germain pair Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, with the rest of his thoughts centred around the big money needed for the rebuilding of the stadium.
Perez did not want to spend the sort of money that would be needed to get Eden Hazard from Chelsea this summer. Meanwhile, Kovacic and Ronaldo have gone, while before them Danilo, Alvaro Morata and Pepe left and were not adequately replaced.
Before people start to blame Lopetegui for the league crisis, they should realise that this is nothing new.
Last season’s Champions League success papered over the cracks that were so visible in La Liga. Barcelona ran out champions a full 17 points ahead of Real Madrid.
Would Zidane have survived if Madrid had failed to win the Champions League? I think not, and more importantly, I don’t think Zidane thought so either.
Is it the failure to replace Ronaldo?
Sometimes you need a goalscorer to win games when you are not playing all that well. Madrid had one in Ronaldo but they do not possess one now.
That said, should Madrid need someone like Ronaldo to beat sides like Alaves, Levante, or CSKA Moscow? Not in my opinion.
Last season they scored 94 goals – 26 came from Ronaldo, with 22 of those from January onwards.
More telling were the 44 league goals they conceded – twice as many as Atletico Madrid and 15 more that champions Barcelona. The cracks were already there.
These are also different times in La Liga with its teams in a far more favourable financial situation following the fairer distribution of television rights. Alaves and Espanyol are in the top four in the table, an unthinkable prospect until the changes.
After the Levante game there was a meeting between Perez and Lopetegui. The president also met with captain Sergio Ramos.
With a Champions League game and El Clasico to be played, there might be no immediate changes – although that is not guaranteed – but I would not bet on Lopetegui being around for much longer.
But reports of Real Madrid’s demise could well turn out to be an exaggeration.
Let’s go back to 2000-01, one of the seasons when they had a similarly dreadful points total at the same juncture.
By the end of the season they stood top of the table, seven points clear of Deportivo La Coruna and with a 28th league title.