La Liga

Solari's Real Madrid hindered by one big flaw

 • by Ryan Baldi
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Anyone of a Real Madrid persuasion will have woken up on Thursday morning wondering just how their team failed to book a place in the Copa del Rey final.

In the second leg of their semi-final Clásico clash with Barcelona at the Bernabéu, after drawing 1-1 at the Camp Nou two weeks earlier, Madrid did everything right yet somehow conspired to lose 3-0.

Everything, that is, except score. Los Blancos cut through Barça almost at will, with 18-year-old sensation Vinícius Júnior a particularly vibrant and productive threat down the left, twisting Nélson Semedo inside out.

But of the 16 shots Madrid mustered, they were able to land only four on target. Barcelona, meanwhile, scored with their only two shots on target, a neat finish and a Panenka penalty from Luis Suárez, and were further aided by a Raphaël Varane own goal.

Such profligacy has plagued Madrid’s season. Defensive woes may be the focus of most analysis of the European champions’ disappointing campaign, with only one team in the top half of La Liga (Sevilla, 32) having shipped more goals than Madrid’s 30, but their lack of ruthlessness in front of goal is what’s really preventing them from hitting stride.

Madrid are La Liga’s second-highest scorers so far this term, with only Barcelona (65) able to better their return of 43 goals. But the fact there is such a disparity between the two sides is alarming from Madrid’s perspective.

Barcelona, with their front three of Lionel Messi, Ousmane Dembélé and Suárez, have an attack that would be difficult for any side in the world to measure up to. But the goals gap between Barcelona and Madrid should be considerably narrower.

As they showed in the Copa del Rey defeat, Madrid have no problem creating scoring opportunities. Taking those opportunities, however, is an issue.

The chances Madrid have created from open play in La Liga this season amount to an expected goals (xG) of 37.69. Yet they have scored only 31 open-play goals, meaning they are scoring at a rate of just 0.82 of what, on average, is expected based on the quality and frequency of chances they create.

Last season, Madrid were performing almost exactly in line with their xG numbers, hitting the net 81 times from open play against an xG of 79.73. This is where last summer’s sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus – and their failure to replace him with an adequate goal-scorer – is still hurting them: Ronaldo not only generated high xG numbers through his ability to seek chances but performed in line with them, with a open-play goals-xG ratio of 0.97.

Incidentally, Barcelona’s 55 open-play La Liga goals this season have come from an xG of just 45.54. This is largely down to Messi’s brilliance. The Argentinian magician regularly out-performs xG at a rate unsustainable for most players, and has scored 19 open-play goals this season from an xG of 12.06, evidence of his ultra-precise finishing.

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It will come as little surprise, then, that the gap between Madrid and Barcleona’s productivity in front of goal can be largely explained by the former’s loss of Ronaldo and the fact Messi, at 31, is as good as ever.

Madrid elected no to make a big-name signing to replace Ronaldo, and instead 18-year-old Vinícius has emerged, perhaps ahead of schedule, to nominally fill the place in the team Ronaldo vacated.

Vinícius has largely been outstanding since playing his way into Santiago Solari’s side mid-way through the campaign, with his speed, dribbling skills and intelligent use of the ball becoming huge assets.

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But when it comes to putting the ball in the net, the teenager is no Ronaldo.

Against Barcelona on Tuesday night, Vinícius had more shots than anyone else on the pitch, but only once tested the excellent Marc-André ter Stegen. The youngster has scored twice in La Liga this season from 31 shots – a conversion rate of just 6.45 per cent – and one of those, against Real Valladolid in November, was via an attempt was destined for the corner flag before being deflected in off an opposition defender.

This is an area of the game in which Vinícius will undoubtedly improve in the coming years, and he already offers enough to the team that his profligacy can be forgiven.

But Ronaldo’s absence has left Karim Benzema carrying the goal-scoring burden. After spending the best part of a decade as one of the most unselfish strikers in football, aiding Ronaldo’s own scoring feats, the Frenchman understandably has struggled to recover his ruthless streak, returning a modest 11 La Liga goals for the season so far.

Defensively, Madrid can count themselves unlucky this term. The chances they and Barcelona have conceded in la Liga have a virtually identical xG value, yet Barça, thanks in no small part to the superlative form of Ter Stegen, have shipped five fewer goals.

Madrid are nine points behind Barcelona in table, having scored roughly two-thirds as many goals. Both of these disparities would be much smaller were Los Blancos better able to take the chances they create.

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