Real Madrid's porous defence exposed in trip to Real Sociedad
The omens were good for the Real Madrid heading Sunday's match at Anoeta.
Real Sociedad had not got the better of the visitor in San Sebastian since 2004, when Valeri Karpin earned the hosts the narrowest of victories; seven wins and a draw had been gained in the interim. Even without Cristiano Ronaldo, who has found the net in the least three league meetings between the sides, a forward line of James Rodriguez, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale is a formidable prospect.
But a fairytale start for an under-fire Real soon turned into a familiar tale of defensive frailty as the home side recovered from a two-goal deficit to earn a perfectly executed 4-2 win. Real came out of the blocks with demonic fury, eager no doubt to silence their critics after an insipid display against Cordoba in the opening match of the season.
Sergio Ramos opened the scoring with five minutes played, rising unchallenged in the area to head past Enaut Zubikarai. The defender's 33rd goal for the club settled any early nerves and the visitor poured forward relentlessly. Bale added a sublime second, making a mug of Gorka Elustondo with a deft nutmeg before driving a low shot into the corner. Two minutes earlier, Ramos had rattled the bar with a stinging free-kick that Zubikarai could only admire. What the result might have been had it snuck in is anyone's guess.
With Toni Kroos and Luka Modric doing the bucket work, winning the ball three times in an overwhelming opening 10 minutes, it looked like being a long night for the hosts. Ancelotti opted to fit his men to his system, playing Isco behind James in a 4-3-3, with both given licence to roam.
As the match unfolded James drifted to the right in tandem with Modric, while Isco and Bale patrolled the left, allowing Real to inflict its five-man attack on Jagoba Arrasate's side when in possession.
Already two goals to the good, Kroos and Marcelo drew spectacular stops from Zubikarai, who also saved two with his eyes; Ramos and Marcelo's efforts missed the target by miracle alone.
But the home side had seen the weakness in Real's armour during the onslaught; with Dani Carvajal ordered to push up the field in support a vast expanse of green presented itself on Los Blancos right, one that Pepe and Ramos were unable to cover on their own -- something the Real vice-captain pointed out to his teammates but seemed inexplicably to escape the attention of Ancelotti and Fernando Hierro.
The warning sides were there, but it was the set-piece conundrum that again left Real with no answer. Inigo Martinez was the beneficiary when a corner was flicked on by Xabi Prieto, clearing the entire defence. Ramos was tasked with the far post but had switched off, allowing Martinez to thrash home from close range. It's a drum that has been beaten as mercilessly as Keith Moon's set in the heyday of The Who; Real's positioning at set pieces can't be explained.
The Txuriurdin's second came from the left flank, where Alberto de la Bella was given pretty much free reign. A whipped cross evaded the Real back four and David Zurutuza, unmarked, hammered a header past the helpless Iker Casillas.
Notice served, Ancelotti might have told Carvajal, who was hardly instrumental in Real's attacking forays in the first half, to hold his position or sacrifice Isco, who was left isolated with the focus of play had switched to the far side, luring Bale into a more central position. The Italian's substitutions often draw the ire of the Bernabeu and it was the case against Cordoba when defensive switches were made at 1-0 up.
In Anoeta, they would have been more than justified. With the bit between their teeth, Arrasate's side grew bolder after the break and Prieto, Esteban Granero, Imanol Agirretxe and substitute Sergio Canales set up camp in Real's half. Zurutuza and De la Bella doubled on Carvajal and it was this that led to the third goal: Prieto and Canales combined beautifully to carve through Real's left flank and the Sociedad captain laid a pass on a plate to Zurutuza. Carvajal, with too much to do on his own, found himself the wrong side of goal and couldn't prevent the inevitable. Carlos Vela added the fourth with a poacher's goal and only then did Ancelotti shuffle his pack, but it was far too late.
The introduction of Sami Khedira restored some order to Real's midfield, which had been pulled to shreds by the home side; Alvaro Arbeloa was also thrown into the fray to plug the gap on the right, but by then the damage had been done. Carvajal stalked from the field with a face like thunder and well he might. He had been left completely exposed.
Most coaches bemoan the international break but it comes at a perfect time for Ancelotti and his coaching staff. The majority of players may be away but at least the Italian can pull out the whiteboard and try to find the solution to a problem that needs a serious fix. The application of paper in this case is needed to cover the cracks in his defence, unless a last minute splurge in the transfer market is on the cards.
Real for too long has gambled on the devastation the forward line can cause. In Anoeta on Sunday night, the Txuriurdin laid bare the harsh truth that all the firepower in the world is no good if the weaknesses in a team's defence are so evident to their rivals. Real's next opponents are Atlético Madrid, the set-piece specialists; Ancelotti does not have long to shore up the breach.
Rob Train is a freelance writer who lives in Madrid, covers Real Madrid for ESPN and contributes to a number of other publications. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.