Luckless Madrid aren't in crisis, but Zidane must address slow start
There was a curious sense of inevitability as Real Betis' Tony Sanabria steered a last-gasp diving header beyond Keylor Navas.
The Paraguayan's 94th-minute finish becomes the latest winning goal ever scored by a visiting team at the Bernabeu, pipping Lionel Messi's dramatic winner in El Clasico last season by two minutes. The goal did not come from an isolated attacking foray, but a precision-engineered 20-pass move in which 10 players touched the ball in a 71-second spell of uninterrupted possession.
Real Betis displayed admirable organisation and tactical clarity in their 1-0 victory, while Madrid failed to lace their dominance with the incision necessary to break down a stodgy defence. On the way to the capital city, Betis manager Quique Setien passed the time on the train by playing chess against his goalkeeping coach, Jon Pascua Ibarrola. It proved a fitting activity in the lead up to a match in which the 58-year-old Setien had his opposite number checkmated and unable to conjure a goal for the first time in 74 matches.
"We had 26 or 27 chances," mused Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane, "and in the end it [the ball] did not want to go in."
Zidane's point, while a simple one, carries some weight. It is often forgotten that in a low-scoring sport such as football, luck plays a significant part in determining results. Evenly split across their three home matches in La Liga, Madrid have an expected goals (xG) tally of around 9.5, compared to 2.5 for their opponents. This is indicative that the poor run of form -- not since the 1995-96 season have Madrid failed to win any of their first three home matches -- is due to a combination of profligate finishing and good goalkeeping rather than a systemic flaw in the team.
In short, Zidane should make subtle tweaks rather than drastic changes in order to add fluency and precision to Madrid's play at the Bernabeu.
That said, the Frenchman should not be totally absolved of blame for the defeat to Betis. While the "it just wasn't our day" exoneration holds true to an extent, a first La Liga defeat since 2011 to a team other than Barcelona or Atletico Madrid warrants deeper scrutiny. An absence of luck and questionable managerial decisions are not mutually exclusive, and thus the inclusion of Cristiano Ronaldo and the withdrawal of Luka Modric fall under the spotlight.
Zidane handed Ronaldo his first start of the season in La Liga following the conclusion of his five-match ban. The Portuguese protagonist did not benefit from a full preseason, as his holiday was extended following Portugal's run to the semifinals of the Confederations Cup. Ronaldo's display of petulance in the Spanish Super Cup then limited him to sporadic game time with Madrid in the opening weeks of the season.
The 32-year-old's lack of sharpness was evident as he dashed around the Bernabeu wielding a banjo but unable to find the barn door. Just two of Ronaldo's 12 shots were on target.
Given Madrid's fine attacking performance in the victory over Real Sociedad, Ronaldo's return to action seems both rushed and counterintuitive. A place on the bench -- with the ability to come on and give his teammates and the fans a lift -- would have been a better option.
Additionally, Zidane's decision to withdraw Modric with 20 minutes remaining was misjudged. There was a certain symbolism to the image of 12 white shirts on the pitch for a brief spell, with Modric unaware that the fourth official's board had displayed his number in red.
The Croatian flaunted his repertoire of intelligent passing and movement, and appeared to be the Madrid player most likely to pick the lock in the Betis defence. The introduction of Borja Mayoral in his place brought about confusion rather than invigoration.
"Zidane fixed the team as if it were a pizza," scathed Orfeo Suarez in El Mundo. "He piled up strikers in the same way that you throw ingredients on the dough."
Real Madrid now find themselves seven points behind La Liga pace-setters Barcelona. It is an undeniably large gap. Only once -- in 2002-03 -- have Madrid recovered from a seven-point deficit to win the league. Yet the gap is surmountable, and the inauspicious start to the season should not be presented as a crisis.
"These days when people say you have to run, work, fight, compete, I ask my players to think," explained Setien after the final whistle. If the Madrid players follow that sage advice -- and blend it with the tranquility that Zidane regularly speaks of -- the fine margins that determine victory or defeat will begin to fall in their favour.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93