After four defeats in their last five games, Real Madrid are mired in a crisis for which several figures must take their share of the blame.
Far from turning their situation around, Real Madrid just seem to be going from bad to worse, slipping further and further into a malaise that is now five games long: five games that have seen Julen Lopetegui's men lose four times (to Sevilla, CSKA Moscow, Alavés and Levante) and draw once (against Atlético Madrid). A negative sequence in which they've conceded seven and scored just one, having gone on a barren run in front of goal that is the worst in the club's history: 481 consecutive minutes without finding the net. Marcelo finally brought that drought to an end against Levante on Saturday, but it was not enough to prevent a defeat that has exacerbated a crisis in which there are a several figures to blame...
The results of an AS.com poll carried out in the wake of that 2-1 reverse leave little room for doubt about who the fans believe is chiefly culpable for the team's current predicament. More than 80% feel club president Florentino Pérez deserves a greater portion of the blame than head coach Lopetegui. Since Real registered their best ever campaign in 2016/17, winning both LaLiga and the Champions League, the squad has got progressively weaker as, one by one, significant individuals have departed the Bernabéu: the likes of Álvaro Morata, Danilo, James Rodríguez, Mateo Kovacic... And, of course, the biggest-name exit of the lot: Cristiano Ronaldo, sold to Juventus for 117m euros this summer. The finger of blame cannot so much be pointed at Pérez for the deal itself - after all, it was the forward who agitated for the move - as the fact that the Portuguese has not been adequately replaced.
Real placed their faith in the ability of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Marco Asensio and company to step up and ensure that Cristiano was not missed; however, it has become abundantly clear that they cannot fill the void. The European champions opted against strengthening up front with a top-level signing (only bringing in Mariano Díaz because the opportunity came up to buy him back in a cut-price deal) and have merely succeeding in leaving themselves with more work to do next summer, when they will have no option but to carry out an overhaul. In recent times, Pérez appears to be more concerned about pushing through the remodelling of the Bernabéu than putting sufficient firepower at his coach's disposal to compete with a Barça side who may have sold a star themselves in Neymar, but have reinvested in the likes of Ousmane Dembélé and Philippe Coutinho.
Lopetegui arrived at the club with Cristiano still there, and it's safe to say that the 33-year-old's departure was a blow to his plans. But his utter failure to negotiate that goalscoring shortfall has been striking nevertheless. At the other end, meanwhile, he is overseeing a team who let in goals far too easily, despite his commitment to the kind of energetic, high pressing without the ball that the team had been lacking in recent years. Real give up a hatful of chances in each and every game, so it is little surprise that they have conceded in eight of the Basque's 12 matches in charge. What's more, it's also apparent that the players' physical conditioning has contributed to Real Madrid's poor form, with several members of the squad succumbing to muscle injuries. The problems with last summer's squad planning are not Lopetegui's fault; but, given that his squad still boasts players of the calibre of Bale, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Asensio, Dani Ceballos et al, five defeats in 12 games - and the club's longest ever run without scoring - is simply not good enough. For the moment, the 52-year-old remains in his post... but he will be in last-chance saloon in next Sunday's Clásico at Barcelona.
The dressing room
In a side on a run of four defeats in five, there is little room for any of the squad to be absolved of blame; however, it is true that some have played more of a role than others in leaving Real Madrid where they are.
Benzema began the season on fire; indeed, it was even suggested that Cristiano's exit would free the Frenchman up to reach unprecedented goalscoring heights. He scored four times in his first three LaLiga games, and was on also on target in the UEFA Super Cup. However, that purple patch proved to be no more than a false dawn. The striker has now gone eight appearances without a goal, failing even to register a shot on target in several of those matches. For weeks now, the debate has been raging over whether Lopetegui should place his faith in Mariano over Benzema, although the youth product has not staked an indisputable claim, either: since hitting a fine goal against Roma on his second debut for the club, he has not scored again - albeit he has jad bad luck with the woodwork.
Cristiano's move to Serie A left Bale tasked with replacing the Portugal captain as the team's attacking spearhead. The Welshman had threatened to leave in the summer if he was not afforded the first-team status he felt he deserved, and having been given just that by the new man in charge, the 29-year-old has amply demonstrated that he is no Cristiano, and certainly isn't his equal in physical terms. After a promising start to the season in which Bale scored in Real's first three LaLiga games and appeared to have shaken off his injury woes, everything has changed in recent weeks. He asked to come off at half time against Atlético and in the second half at Alavés, with the club claiming on both cases that it was merely down to "muscle fatigue". His influence has dropped off to the point that he was only able to muster a negligible impact against Levante as a half-time substitute. He has neither scored nor supplied an assist in his last four league appearances.
In the past two seasons, former boss Zinedine Zidane had continually been criticised for not giving greater opportunities to Asensio, who did much to fuel such dissent with fine performances and goals. Following Cristiano's sale, the Spaniard was promoted to starting status in attack alongside Benzema and Bale, but his displays have not justified that elevation in importance: so far in 2018/19, he has one goal and three assists to his name. He had in fact made a decent start to the campaign, setting up his team-mates and winning penalties too, but in recent weeks has gone completely off the boil, struggling to make his presence felt in games - most recently against Levante, a match that saw him hauled off after an hour.
Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane
Much of the blame for Saturday's defeat has been laid at Varane's door. The centre-back was at fault for both Levante's goals in a display that echoed the wobbles that his defensive partner, Sergio Ramos, has suffered this season. The club captain is far from in top form and, in several games, has appeared more preoccupied with adding to his goal tally than limiting the opposition's. The Varane-Ramos pairing is enduring a difficult spell and Nacho, a perennial substitute despite scarcely putting a foot wrong whenever given his chance, continues to wait on the bench. As for the rest of the defence, Dani Carvajal got injured at the worst possible time and Álvaro Odriozola is yet to meet expectations in his stead, while Marcelo, who actually had a decent game against Levante, still suffers from the age-old problem of shirking his defensive duties and focusing pretty much solely on joining in the attack. There's no denying he's very effective going forward, but it's also his responsibilty to keep an eye on what's happening behind him from time to time.
It's not that Courtois has made mistakes; he hasn't. However, the Belgian goalkeeper isn't proving the wall between the sticks that had been hoped, either. On Saturday, for example, Levante shot on target twice... and scored twice. Lopetegui's rotation of Real Madrid's keepers - with Keylor Navas starting in the Champions League - is not benefitting either of them.