Rafael Benitez started life as Real Madrid’s manager with a tame 0:0 draw with newly-promoted Sporting Gijon. Real was dominant at El Molinon in the first round of La Liga but failed to find their way to the net even after as many as 27 shots.
As expected, Benitez turned to the 4-2-3-1 that was his constant at previous clubs. The Spaniard has traditionally favored this formation and at Valencia it was used to good effect – two league titles and three consecutive seasons as La Liga’s tightest defense. Rafa’s Liverpool were also in the top four in terms of fewest goals conceded from set pieces in five of his six seasons at Anfield – topping the list twice – while using the same formation.
There is no doubt Benitez can organize a defense, but it also goes without saying that Real Madrid is expected to score a lot of goals, play attractive football and be in the running for as many titles as possible.
“When you have a team with so much quality you have to attack. I want the team to entertain the fans. We have to score goals. People say I’m a defensive coach but at Napoli we beat the club record for goals scored two seasons in a row,” Benitez said on his arrival.
A strong advocate of the 4-2-3-1, Benitez will look to add a greater sense of two-way commitment at the Bernabeu, striving for the balance between defense and attack that was absent at various junctures last term.
After 25 years, Iker Casillas left the Santiago Bernabeu. The team’s main goalkeeper will be Keylor Navas, with Kiko Casilla brought in as his replacement on the bench. New signing Danilo, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo are first-choices in the back line and Rafa will have only one dilemma in defense – Raphael Varane or Pepe.
Luka Modric and Toni Kroos will undoubtedly be the team’s first pick of central midfielders. In a sense, their partnership in a 4-2-3-1 would be similar to the one they formed in the 4-4-2 Ancelotti switched to at times in the 2014-15 season.
The real question is what Real Madrid’s front line will look like. Against Gijon, Real’s Croatian-German midfield was headlined by an attack of Cristiano Ronaldo on the left, Isco on the right and Bale in the center. Benitez replaced Bale and Isco’s roles and put the Welshman in as a number 10. The move, although technically not backfiring, turned out to be less than inspired. Against a Sporting side content on sitting back and defending and Real Madrid themselves enjoying plenty of possession, Bale seemed to run into too many blind alleys. He even failed to complement the runs of the players ahead of him as he played the wrong pass more than once, or ran with the ball for too long.
Real’s finishing was far from what it should be. Ronaldo was not his usually sharp self and Sporting Gijon seemed to grow in confidence with each shot that went wide or was parried by the keeper. The Portuguese star had three successful dribbles and ten goal attempts, but only four were on target. That’s why it wouldn’t be a surprise if Rafa Benitez moved his best player to the center of attack.
Ronaldo, who at 30 years old may start to suffer from the effects of ageing this season, is set to be released from defensive duties by playing up front at the possible expense of Karim Benzema.
But, is that a good idea? On Sunday, winger Jese started up front for Los Blancos instead of the injured Benzema and Madrid quite clearly missed the Frenchman’s influence. Given that fact, and even without it, Madrid would be crazy to consider selling him to Arsenal, despite the former Lyon striker having been heavily linked with the Gunners.
Jese should not have a place in the starting 11 while James Rodriguez will fight for his position in front of the line.