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Real Madrid Still a Work in Progress

Image: Jose Vicente / AP
Real Madrid's 2015/16 season got off to a stuttering start on Sunday night as last year's La Liga runners-up ran to a 0-0 stalemate against top-flight newcomers Sporting Gijon.  

There were brief moments in Real Madrid's 2015/16 La Liga opener versus Sporting Gijon in which Los Blancos displayed glimpses of their potential for the season ahead. 

Jese Rodriguez led Benitez's line in the absence of the injured Karim Benzema, but no matter how relentlessly Real assaulted their opponents', opening clear-cut chances in front of Ivan Cuellar's goal proved tricky. 

Early on, it was Gareth Bale who deftly sparkled at the pumped-up El Molinon, enjoying prolonged spells in possession attacking down the left, but the lack of a central focal point was evident despite starlet Jese's best efforts to offer an outlet. 

Following the Welshman's lead was Cristiano Ronaldo, who, with the assistance of the wizardry Luka Modric, momentarily burst into the penalty area—but was in disbelief not to be awarded a penalty after rather theatrically falling to the ground under a challenge from defender Sergio Alvarez, with the referee not buying his appeal. 
Image: Miguel Riopa / Getty Images
Mateo Kovacic came on for his Real debut in place of Isco, while James Rodriguez replaced Jese in the hopes of providing some creative ingenuity up front. Not event Benitez's vast resources could find the breakthrough, however, against a typically robust and organized Sporting Gijon managed by Abelardo Fernandez, and despite brief flashes of brilliance, the former European Champions put together a somewhat disjointed performance. 

Cristiano Ronaldo came closest for Los Blancos, his thunderbolt stinging the palms of goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar, who magnificently tipped the ball over the bar.

As both sides left the field after the final whistle deadlocked at 0-0, it was more than apparent that Rafa Benitez still has work to do with Real Madrid. 

The most obvious issue for the recently-appointed Spaniard is how his side needs to adapt their shape depending upon the composition of the XI. 

On Sunday against the promoted party's first game back among Spain's elite, Benitez started his characteristic 4-2-3-1, deploying a midfield duo of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. While that dyad is sublime on the ball, Real Madrid will lack power and drive when that combination is used. 

That was certainly the case on Sunday, with Los Blancos missing a midfielder capable of regularly breaking lines—think Angel Di Maria. 

When Jese was substituted for James Rodriguez on the 55-minute mark, the Colombian assumed the Spaniard's regular left-sided role, as Ronaldo moved up front, but struggled to make an impact stuck out wide. 

Needing to alter the game's path, Benitez inserted Mateo Kovacic in place of Isco shortly after. 

However, the reshuffle to best accommodate Madrid's £63 million Ancelotti recruitment neatly illustrated the conundrum facing Benitez: Despite an unrivalled attacking cast, the full array of the manager's options don't all seamlessly fit into the same system. 

A Number. 10 by trade, Rodriguez is most accustomed to playing the central role of a 4-2-3-1. Perhaps such a formation doesn't suit the Ronaldo-Bale tandem quite as well?
Image: Reuters
Gareth Bale's occupancy of the No. 10 role should bear fruit sooner or later, but it's evident the Welshman needs faster passes played into his runs when he drives forward. Where the likes of Mesut Ozil, Isco and James Rodriguez have flourished in previous seasons, Bale is an altogether different animal in that central-attacking midfield berth, pace and power his assets rather than craft and vision. 

Given the sparkling attacking quartet Benitez has at his disposal, it's not a choice that finds unanimous favor among supporters and commentators—but Benitez has to decipher a system with balance to get the best out of his best talents, and in time, deploying Bale in this No. 10 role could yield dividends for the side. 

Toni Kroos, and his supreme playmaking capacity, would be better complemented by more athleticism than that offered by Luka Modric. Indeed, many of the Croatian's talents are wasted when he's forced to sit deeper to shield rather than create, and the connection between Kroos/Modric in the pivot and the rest wasn't quite right on Sunday night. 

A 4-3-3, in the same mould as last season under Ancelotti's tutelage, could be an interesting proposition. Whatever the shape, it seems as if Kroos is quickly becoming undroppable as the stabiliser in the formation; Benitez has been effusive in his praise for the German midfielder since taking over Los Blancos in early July. 

Carlo Ancelotti, former Real Madrid coach, was also highly impressed with the manner Kroos swiftly adapted to an unfamiliar role as the deepest-lying midfielder. He spoke glowingly of the German's virtues in an interview with Onda Cero radia (h/t Marca) last November. 
He has aced his crash course in replacing Xabi Alonso. I've been surprised by the fact he never gets on edge. He always play the exact same way whatever the pressure. He plays at pace, always picks the right pass, doesn't lose the ball and retains possession of the football. 
At the Bernabeu, Kroos has adapted perfectly and has quickly become the linchpin to their midfield. Unlike many of his peers, Kroos could be described as a complete central-midfielder due to his all-round capability. 

At times last season, Ancelotti deployed a 4-4-2 formation, as the wide men—Gareth Bale, Isco and James Rodriguez—positioned very narrow when out of possession. 

That enabled the likes of Bale, Isco and Rodriguez to assist with the defensive duties, whilst ensuring the side's less exposed in transition. 

More often than not in the Modric/Kroos double-pivot, it's the latter who sits deeper of the two central-midfielders, as he looks to start attacks in front of his own defence. Kroos has the attributes to combine technical ability and natural strength, which makes him effective in both an offensive and defensive sense. 
Real Madrid fielded a very strong side but were unable to score a goal against Sporting Gijon on Sunday night 
Image: AFP / Getty Images
However, as seen versus Sporting on Sunday night, the fact that neither players are defensive-minded means that it leaves Benitez's side complacent. 

Mateo Kovacic, who was signed earlier this week for £24 million, could fit the profile. He's talented, he's multi-skilled and he's disciplined. Though he's far from the finished article, the Croatian is a precocious talent ready to be moulded to a manager's liking. A player of positional versatility that Benitez surely likes, quick feet, deft touches, and his performances show real growth. Not only does he dictate play and keep in possession of the ball with consummate ease, but he also shuttles forward, takes markers on and opens up the pitch. 

Kovacic doesn't fill an obvious need. Though extremely versatile, capable of playing in both advanced and withdrawn positions, the Croatian is, at the heart of it, a creative and attacking talent. And his arrival essentially spells the end for Asier Illarramendi.  

Interestingly, it's the long-departed Angel Di Maria who's the versatile piece capable of making the various systems function. 

If Real Madrid and Rafa Benitez are to dominate as they intend to do in 2015/16, it's these puzzles and complications that Benitez must decipher. 
Image: Weltsport.net
The enviable advantage belonging to the former European Champions, of course, is their remarkable firepower. 

For most sides, adjustments phases are defined by barren stretches as new teammates take time to fall sync with those around them. 

Real Madrid are vastly different in that sense. 

This is a side that possesses Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez; a side that was the most prolific in Europe last season; a side that put together scorelines of 9-1, 8-2 and 7-3. Los Blancos have the talent and strike force to push through a transitional period largely unscathed. 

Yet, as made evident last season, the margins in La Liga are incredibly small; slip-ups of any sort seriously hamper a side's title push in the top-heavy first division of Spanish football. 

Benitez's characteristic 4-2-3-1 makes a lot of sense, indeed. Behind the sparkling attacking quartet, Gareth Bale, Isco, Cristiano Ronaldo and James Rodriguez—the presence of a double-midfield that should add a dash of conservatism to the XI, Benitez's only choice being whom to deploy there. 
Rafa Benitez's reign as Real Madrid manager got off to a disappointing start in La Liga following the draw
Image: EPA
Eventually it will all click, and it may well be that second-half display against Sporting, more of a 4-4-2 with Bale and Ronaldo central, is what Benitez turns to over time. It worked under Carlo Ancelotti, and, extolling the benefits, Madrid enjoyed better control of the ball, took more shots on target and scored more often when utilising that formation in comparison to the Italian's textbook 4-3-3. In Spanish, Sergio Ramos admitted after the comprehensive victory over Rayo Vallecano last November that the 4-4-2 formation provides Madrid with better defensive cover and more control of possession. 

For Real Madrid to achieve the dominance they crave in Spain and across Europe, the systematic quandaries will need to be solved, strong combinations must be identified and individual roles need to be settled upon. 

Until that point, Benitez's side are still a work in progress. 

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TheSportMatrix | We Live For Sport: Real Madrid Still a Work in Progress
Real Madrid Still a Work in Progress
Real Madrid have lengths to go to click and fulfil their ambitions in the 2015/16 La Liga season.
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TheSportMatrix | We Live For Sport
http://www.thesportmatrix.com/2015/08/real-madrid-still-work-in-progress.html
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