Some thought he was on his way out of the club this summer, but even while he’s injured, Xabi Alonso is proving to be a vital piece of the Real Madrid gameplan, which doesn’t seem to be working as efficiently without him playing in the deep playmaker position.
Maybe there’s a bit too much panic at the Santiago Bernabeu over their start to the season – six wins, one draw, one loss, although two wins have come with a lot of luck and help from the referee, as injury time saves them from being out of the title race before the beginning of October.
The impossible reality of the La Liga means that if a team drops five points this early in the season, there’s a good chance it’s out of the title race. Barcelona and Atletico Madrid aren’t stopping, continuing their perfect season, even if they aren’t playing well all the time. Real Madrid? They find it easy in the Champions League, but in Spain they’ve hardly put on more than one half of impressive football.
Defensively and offensively, the problems come on both ends. Carlo Ancelotti keeps making changes to his midfield, either pairing Sami Khedira with Luka Modric or with Asier Illarramendi. Both pairings have their issues, affecting the team’s attack more than anything. Luka Modric just isn’t cut out to be a central midfielder who push a team like Real Madrid forward all the time. He doesn’t release the ball quickly from his feet, and seems to be a lot more adept in possession based football, not to mention being a defensive issue on most days.
Sami Khedira and Illarramendi are both proper defensive midfielders, and when the two play together, Real Madrid’s attack comes to a complete halt. ALl the talk in recent years about being a one-player team, completely relying on Cristiano Ronaldo moments of brilliance? Well, it hasn’t changed, because without Xabi Alonso, it seems that the link between the team’s separated parts just isn’t working.
Alonso is still injured, although he’s due to return within the next month or so, but Real Madrid can’t wait. Illarramendi might be good enough to emulate and replace Alonso in the future, but right now he isn’t accustomed to the new team, the new system and much greater expectations from him. Real Madrid rely heavily on Isco to make things pop, but teams have realized that shutting down Isco takes Real Madrid out of the game, so far relying on individual plays from Angel di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo to come out with the win.
On away matches, that’s just not enough, as the intensity shows against Real is good enough to throw them off their game, and make it about sheer luck and opportunism if Real Madrid actually win the match, like it went down in Elche and Levante.
The concept of failure and success in the La Liga is very different than in the rest of Europe, but it doesn’t change the fact that the most ambitious club in the world is underachieving on most years despite spending more money than anyone else. Despite all of their moves to dethrone Barcelona, this season is slowly slipping away from them, and their biggest hope to pick it up to a desirable level is the return of a 32 year old midfielder.