Real Madrid's disastrous 2015 a reversal from the previous year
On Dec. 20, 2014, Real Madrid easily defeated Argentina's San Lorenzo to win their fourth world title.
One year later, the memories of that final in the cold and inhospitable outskirts of the otherwise enchanting Moroccan city of Marrakesh, as well as those of the glorious months of November and December, feel almost like a dream.
Back then, that team won 22 consecutive matches, terrified most opponents and generated exaggerated praise about their position among the best Real Madrid squads ever.
In the 2014 calendar year, the Madridistas finished with four titles: Copa del Rey, Champions League, the European Supercup and the Club World Cup. Amazingly enough, the general feeling among fans and media was that the best was yet to come, that the squad had not yet reached its ceiling. The Undecima looked like a sure thing on the horizon, and with a four-point advantage, another La Liga title seemed all but guaranteed.
However, 2015 has finished well below what most Real Madrid fans expected. The wheels started to come off quite early, with the Copa del Rey elimination at the hands of Atletico Madrid in mid-January. The loss brought the added salt on the wound of seeing Fernando Torres score twice at the Bernabeu.
The brutal 4-0 La Liga defeat at the Vicente Calderon in the beginning of February painted an even more concerning picture: The team looked tired, disjointed and sorely missing the compass of the injured Luka Modric. Subsequent losses at Bilbao -- and especially at Barcelona -- meant the domestic campaign was over, as the Azulgrana took over the lead and never faltered again.
One concerning dynamic characterized most of the defeats at that point -- and this includes the Champions League elimination against Juventus in the semifinal round as well: This was an offensively gifted team that had serious difficulties scoring against top-level rivals while exerting merciless thrashings over minor opponents.
To give an example: Since January, whereas they destroyed Granada 9-1 and Getafe 7-3, Real Madrid scored eight goals in their seven matches against the top eight teams in La Liga.
Additionally, Real Madrird only lasted at a decent pace for the first 60 minutes. Once the midfield trio tired of covering the remarkable amount of space left behind by the defensively-challenged BBC (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo), the opposition enjoyed an easier final 30 minutes.
The clasico at the Camp Nou and the return leg against Juventus reflect this phenomenon perfectly. Under those conditions, a comeback win sounds quite unlikely, and that is why they rarely happened during those months.
The trophy-less season led Carlo Ancelotti to lose his job, and in came Rafael Benitez to fix what was broken. At the end of November, in the middle of a new crisis -- or is it the same one? -- president Florentino Perez explained this decision, stating: "Since January, the squad suffered from a constant deterioration. We chose Benitez because we trust he can steer the ship."
The coach had changed and a number of squad additions happened in the summer, which were aimed at correcting what hadn't worked over the first six months of 2015. More muscle in midfield with Casemiro, additional passing talent with Mateo Kovacic, a wing threat with Lucas Vazquez or a promising full-back in the form of Danilo meant that this team were significantly deeper than that of Ancelotti's side.
Benitez had a serious amount of physical and technical ability at his disposal and could play with several tactical formations depending on the rival or the availability of his 23-man squad.
That seemed to work for a few weeks at the beginning of the season. However, if we look at what has happened for the past couple of months, it does feel as though the same issues that led Ancelotti to lose his job are still unaddressed and painfully relevant for Real Madrid.
Just like last season, the team have continued destroying small rivals -- the recent 10-2 demolition of Rayo Vallecano is an excellent example -- but have failed to effectively compete against top-level teams.
In those matches -- such as the 1-0 defeat in Villarreal, the dismaying 4-0 clasico loss, or even the deceiving 1-0 win over Paris Saint-Germain at the Bernabeu -- the Madridistas struggle to generate clear scoring chances, and again seem unable to come from behind when required.
Even though the diagnostics and the measures taken to address the root causes of a terrible season appeared to go in the right direction, they have not been fully implemented. When available for top-level matches, Benitez has maintained the BBC up front.
As a result, any three-man midfield will suffer and likely lose the battle against comparable talent. The reinforcements have not had decent chances to prove their worth once the injury plague was over. And the squad looks physically and mentally incapable of winning a match once they have conceded first.
THE BEST OF ESPN FC
- Bell: Liverpool fans make themselves heard
- Cox: Leicester improving | Why Poch should stay
- Okwonga: Man United's market | City's title hopes
- Laurens: PSG's pre-UCL issues | Hertha's curse
- Highlights (U.S. only): Stuttgart 1-3 BVB
- FC TV: Champions League W2W4 | LVG wrong
- News | Transfer | Toe Poke | Fantasy | FC TV | Podcast | MLS
If you add an unforgivable Copa del Rey elimination due to the selection of an ineligible player -- Denis Cheryshev -- Real Madrid's 2015 could be called an annus horribilis for the club.
Unfortunately, the under-pressure coach seems unable of making his own decisions when picking the starting XI. While that happens, the president continues looking for a new manager in a market in which they don't abound.
Once you've employed four of the five potential candidates for the job -- and the fifth, named Josep Guardiola, would never coach your team -- it's safe to say Real aren't in a great position.
For Real Madrid, 2015 has been a complete reversal of 2014. The squad looks lost, the coach feels the heat and even the president suffers pressure due to the lack of results and embarrassing displays.
The most frustrating aspect of this situation for most Madridistas is that the ability is in the squad. It's only a question of managing an extremely rich pool of talent correctly. But the environment and the pressure to get immediate results does not help.
Ultimately, 2015 leaves plenty of question marks for the club. Not only the coach, but several players. And of course the management style of the president has presented serious doubts to most socios and supporters.
A few decisions shall be taken in January, but something should not be forgotten: At the end of the day, this comes down to the players, and they have the necessary talent to turn this season around.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.