Real Madrid’s chance creation problem surfaces in Ronaldo’s absence

Julen Lopetegui is not a enviable man. Of course, most people would not think twice when they get the chance to become manager of Real Madrid. But Lopetegui got his chance in very special circumstances. He doesn’t just have to deal with the usual over-the-top expectations that come with this job. He has to do so without superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. And to make things more complicated, Real decided not to attract a replacement striker, but expected to fill the void by having other players step up in Ronaldo’s absence.

Fast forward to October 2018 and it seems fair to say things haven’t exactly gone according to plan. Getting early results under a new manager is crucial to establish faith, and create a building platform for the squad to learn the patterns of – in this case – Lopetegui’s philosophy of possession play and pressing. Exactly those early results have been problematic for Real, who lost the UEFA Super Cup to rivals Atlético Madrid in Lopetegui’s first competitive match in charge, and more recently suffered the ignominy of the longest goal drought in their 116 year history.

To make things worse, this Sunday Real will face the harshest test of their young season against arch-rivals Barcelona, who despite the absence of Messi are finally finding some solid tactical footing. A loss at Camp Nou and the gap to Barcelona will grow to a near insurmountable seven points.

As a preview of sorts to El Clásico, Between the Posts will look at Real’s LaLiga numbers, discuss their tactical issues, and propose some alternative solutions.

Real Madrid have a chance creation problem
Julen Lopetegui’s Real Madrid clearly has offensive issues. Having scored just thirteen goals in the first nine LaLiga matches is problematic, and a look at the underlying expected goals numbers is hardly comforting. While Real is generating a bit more expected goals than before from set pieces, they have suffered a tremendous drop in chance creation from open play. Real may still be top five in La Liga when it comes to open play expected goals, but as shown in the chart below, this number has seen a huge 35-40% decrease compared to previous seasons.

Since Real still produces as many shots as before (17 per match), this drop in open play expected goals comes from lower shot quality. In other words, Real’s attackers are shooting from worse positions than before and the team is creating lower quality chances.

Real Madrid expected goals from open play

On top of the dramatic decline in expected goals created, Real also suffers from issues of shot conversion and finishing, which makes their offensive crisis complete. Their league goals per game (1.44) are  well below their expected goals per game (1.94). Managers usually have little control over such high variance streaks, and a regression towards the mean in terms of conversion often happens sooner rather than later. However, even with a return to normal finishing, Real are still way behind their usual offensive numbers, and the points dropped during the finishing draught won’t return on the board.

Real Madrid relies more than ever on crossing
To understand the reasons behind this painful decrease in open play offense, we must go further down the rabbit hole of expected goal data and find out which attacking mechanisms are working for Real Madrid and which are not.

Under former managers Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid was known for relying heavily on crosses as a mechanism for attack. Throughout both managerial tenures, Real was one of top three sides in La Liga with most attempted crosses per game. A surprising find comes up when exploring this attacking behavior under Lopetegui.

We first defined a metric called cross reliance, which is the percentage of open play expected goals that is generated through crosses. Ancelotti’s Real averaged 32% crossing reliance in 2014/15, a number which crept up each passing season under Zidane until it reached 42% in 2017/18. Under Lopetegui, crossing reliance has reached a staggering 70%. league average in LaLiga is 44%

Interestingly, this increased crossing reliance is not a result of the team crossing more often than before. Lopetegui’s Real averages similar numbers to previous seasons in crosses per game, number of shots off crosses, and expected goals from crosses. The extreme crossing reliance stems from the fact that other sources of open play chances have dried up.

Real Madrid struggles in longer possessions
For a possession-heavy side, like Lopetegui’s Real Madrid, who are second in LaLiga at 64 percent, close behind Barcelona, it is essential to be able to create chances from longer spells of possession. Any possession-heavy team that fails to create from open play is easily accused of being ‘sterile’ in possession.

Looking at Real under Lopetegui, however, it is hard to find support for a claim of ‘sterility’. The team is as much present in the danger zone as Zidane’s sides were. Under Lopetegui, Real attempts and completes as many deep passes and very deep passes Deep passes end 25 yards or closer to the opposition goal. Very deep passes end 15 yards or closer to the opposition goal. as they did under Zidane. Their percentage of shots taken from inside the box remains the same, too.

The crucial difference lies in the output generated from longer spells of possession. Using the definition that a long possession lasts over 15 seconds—which is the median of possession spells resulting in shots—the big culprit reveals itself.

The one thing Real now does a lot worse than in previous seasons is shooting from long possessions as frequently as before, but with a significant drop in shots quality. Currently, Real averages 0.08 xG per shot off a long possession, which means a 30-40% decrease compared to prior 2014 – 2018 seasons. In other words, whenever Real string long a possession spell together, it tends to result in shooting from significantly worse positions and situations than before.

Real’s struggles to create from long possessions are a massive problem for a team that now dominates possession more than ever. Lopetegui’s Real racks up 64% of ball possession, up from the 55-58% averaged during the 2014 – 2018 seasons.

The struggles of Benzema and Asensio
The idea to fill the Ronald-shaped hole in their offensive output by having other players step up in his absence is failing. The offensive positions have mainly been filled by Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Marco Asensio and to a lesser extent due to his recent injury, Isco Alarcón.

Bale averages roughly the same number of expected goals per 90 minutes he did last year, while Isco has seen a slight increase. In contrast, both Marco Asensio and Karim Benzema have seen 25 percent decreases to their number of expected goals per 90 minutes compared to the previous season.

Benzema is a curious case. Some fans argued that Ronaldo held him back from being the team’s main striker, while others made the case that he profited from Ronaldo’s presence to create more and better chances for himself. Since the start of the season, Benzema is not shooting more often than before, and his expected goals number has even dropped. The relationship between Ronaldo and Benzema seems to have been symbiotic, rather than parasitic.

Real Madrid - Non Penalty Expected Goals Strikers

How can Real improve the quality of their chances?
Real Madrid can obviously look for solutions in future transfer windows, but let’s focus on El Clásico and shorter-term solutions that involve current personnel.

Option 1: Mariano for Benzema?
As shown in the previous plot, Mariano averages a higher xG per 90 than Benzema right now, with the caveat that his playing time has been limited to 246 minutes. His increased physicality and tendency to get into better scoring positions might make him a better asset for a team that is relying so heavily on crossing.

However, as in any tactical decision, there are trade-offs. Mariano is not as good in link up play as Benzema, which will result in Real attacking in an even less structured fashion than before. Real (as a team, not just Mariano) will lose possession more often, and that could be a problem if we consider their current tactical and mental struggles in defending opponent counterattacks.

Option 2: Change the style and lineup to reduce reliance on crossing
Mariano is an alternative that could take advantage Real’s excessive reliance on crosses. That might work on the short term, but sooner or later Lopetegui must find a way to make the team less reliant on crosses and generate better shots from longer possessions.

The league games against Getafe and Athletic featured a different midfield structure from the usual Casemiro – Toni Kroos – Luka Modrić trio. Kroos played as a lone holding midfielder and two of the more intense Isco, Luka Modric and Dani Ceballos played as central midfielders who pressed aggressively. Such a midfield trio is, on paper, the one that is best suited for Lopetegui’s possession and pressing philosophy.

Interestingly, these two games featured Real’s lowest number of attempted crosses in the season. We should always be careful of such a small sample, but perhaps this more creative midfield without Casemiro allows the team to find alternative attacking routes to crossing. Once again, this decision comes with a defensive trade-off. The absence of Casemiro usually results in Real struggling more at defending counterattacks.

Option 3: How to improve the performances of Benzema and Asensio?
With Asensio and Benzema struggling to get into goal scoring positions, it makes sense that Lopetegui would want to find ways to improve their performance.

For Asensio, the key is to maximize the amount of time he spends on the right wing. Asensio is left footed – what a left foot he has – so playing him on the left wing forces him to behave as a natural winger and makes him more inclined to cross. Playing Asensio as an inverted winger on the right will allow him to cut inside and use his left foot to shoot and provide through balls. However, making this adjustment is tricky because Gareth Bale – Real’s key attacker at the moment – usually inhabits the right wing.

For the case of Benzema, a fun solution may be available. Benzema has looked increasingly dangerous in the last two games against Levante and Viktoria Plzen by hugging the left wing even more than usual. Against Levante, Lopetegui outright played him as a left winger in the second half. While Benzema as a left winger should probably not be a long-term or regular solution, a front three of Benzema – Mariano – Bale might be an interesting bet for a team who are in desperate need of more goals.

With Ronaldo’s departure, Real Madrid lost the core of their offense, a player who provided 50+ goals and assists per season for almost a decade. Strangely enough, he was not replaced by a world-class striker who could guarantee even half of that output.

One could blame Real’s current chance creation woes on the form of their attacking trio (Bale-Benzema-Asensio) or Lopetegui not getting the players to execute his ideal game plan, but similar issues also happened under Ancelotti and Zidane. The difference being, of course, that Ronaldo’s insanely high productivity compensated for tactical issues or poor form of teammates.

Lopetegui might be fired for not getting the results expected from a club like Real Madrid, but the underlying problem that led to those results will remain. Searching for new attacking mechanisms and a new collective structure post-Ronaldo takes time and patience. Yet those are the most precious commodities in Real Madrid’s environment.


This article was co-authored by José Perez, Om Arvind and Sander IJtsma.

All data in this article was provided by 11tegen11.

José Pérez (31) writes and talks about anything football-related: players, tactics, analytics, the relationship between football and society. Whenever he is not working on high-power lasers, he tries to keep up with all big five European leagues, but focuses particularly on La Liga. Outside of Between the Posts, you can find him arguing with people and posting analyses on Twitter or answering questions on Quora. [ View all posts ]


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