Much of the debate over the supremacy of Barcelona or Real Madrid in recent years has focused on the quality of their respective forward lines. Barcelona had the MSN – Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar – while Real Madrid’s three-pronged attack consisted of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, aka the BBC.
Barcelona’s much-vaunted trio was disbanded this summer after Neymar’s departure for Paris Saint-Germain, and they no longer play with a recognised front three (which thankfully saves having to shoehorn Ousmane Dembélé’s name into an inelegant three-letter abbreviation).
This change, the result of a tactical shift under new manager Ernesto Valverde that was partly forced by the sale of Neymar and subsequent injury to Dembélé, has not led to any reduction in their goal output. They lead the way in La Liga with 26 goals so far, which is more or less in line with their strike rate last season when the prolific Brazilian was still at the club.
Real Madrid’s tridente, on the other hand, are all still with the club, but in truth the BBC is on the wane, both collectively and individually. In fact, there hasn’t been a single minute so far this season in which all three have been on the pitch at the same time in any competition.
There are various reasons why this is the case, particularly injuries, suspensions and a propensity to play in-form Isco behind a front two. But it’s fair to say that when available, none of those three men who have made Madrid such a potent attacking force over the past four seasons are currently living up to expectations.
They have each played in only five La Liga games out of nine so far this season, and between them have contributed only four of Real Madrid’s 18 league goals. That is just 22% of their total yield, a significant decrease on last season when the BBC were responsible for 44% of the champions’ goals.
This slowdown in production from their main men has given manager Zinedine Zidane something of a headache, and he’s had to rely on goals from the likes of Isco, Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos to fill the void.
But what has caused this decline in the one of the most feared attacking forces in world football? Well, all three men are struggling individually at the same time, and for different reasons.
Bale’s problem has been his fitness. He is out injured at the moment, and has had regular spells on the treatment table in recent times. When he has played, he has never been able to get back to full fitness before getting injured again. On top of this, he is unpopular with the fans over his perceived unwillingness to learn Spanish, and it doesn’t take much for the Madrid faithful to get on his back should he miss a chance or misplace a pass. Once back from injury, he’ll need to get a good run of games together to get back to peak fitness, but the demanding Bernabéu crowd will not show him any patience.
It’s been a similar story for Benzema lately. He has had a spell on the sidelines this season with a hamstring injury, but when available has seemed devoid of confidence, and has missed several high-profile chances. The crowd has now turned on him as well as Bale, and he became the subject of an unedifying difference of opinions between Zidane and Gary Lineker after he spurned two particularly good chances in last week’s Champions League draw with Tottenham. Zidane took Benzema out of the firing line by omitting him from the XI that faced Eibar on Sunday, but it might have been a good opportunity for the French striker to rebuild some confidence and regain the faith of the fans.
Ronaldo started that game against Eibar, but it really wasn’t his day. He tried hard, but it seemed as though nothing he attempted would come off. It was a game that rather summed up his frustrations in the league this season. He has scored five goals in his three Champions League games this term, but only once in his five La Liga matches. Although he has generally been playing pretty well, the fact that he has set such ludicrously high standards for himself over the years means that when those standards slip slightly, it sticks out. Of course he did miss the first four La Liga games of the season through suspension, and has struggled to hit his stride since. It could also be that age is catching up with him. He is still very fit, but will be 33 in February and even superhumans like Ronaldo are not immune to decline in form and fitness as they get older.
While none of the three is dead and buried yet, Zidane will be concerned that there is very little in the way of back-up for the BBC, and there will soon come a time when at least one of them needs to be replaced. Asensio and Isco can do a job in a more advanced role, but both are far more effective as attacking midfielders, while the omission of young forward Borja Mayoral from the squad to play Eibar despite Madrid’s striker shortage suggests that Zidane does not have total faith in him.
There must be moments when Zidane regrets letting Mariano and Álvaro Morata leave this summer, particularly as they have both been scoring freely for their new clubs.
Having missed out on the signing of Kylian Mbappé in the summer, the new talk of the town in Madrid is Harry Kane. Although there’s nothing to suggest that the Tottenham striker has any intention of leaving north London, a player of Kane’s quality and standing is exactly who they should be targeting to be Ronaldo’s long-term replacement.
Zidane has been phenomenally successful in his short time as manager, but he largely inherited his squad from his predecessors and is yet to undertake any significant movements in the transfer market. The way in which he manages the transition from the BBC to a new era will be a key moment in his reign, and for the future of Real Madrid as a whole.