It's tough to shake the feeling that something just isn't right with Real Madrd at the moment. Los Blancos aren't playing up to their potential while struggling with a few annoying issues, but all of them are fixable. Their biggest problem might be the lack of time that they have to make those fixes, thanks to the ever-present suffocating pressure placed upon the Madrid squad and coaching staff by the media, their fans and their president.
So far this season, Madrid are 6-1-1 in league play and 2-0 in Champions League play. On the surface that's good -- it's a record anyone would love to have -- but they're a team that's getting by on the combination of luck, last-minute heroics and having not been tested in their Champions League group.
Madrid's two toughest league matches, away against Villarreal on Sept. 14 and home against Atlético Madrid on Sept. 28, produced a draw and a loss, respectively. You can spin those results all you want -- and Madrid supporters will -- but the fact remains that a more talented Los Blancos side failed to get victories over teams they are expected to beat.
The more troublesome results, though, are the various other league matches where Madrid squeaked by despite dominating the match: A season-opening home win against Real Betis that required an 86th-minute goal from Isco, an Aug. 26 win at Granada where Madrid couldn't pull away from a lesser opponent and a 2-1 win over Elche on Sept. 25 that was more about what the referee did to save Madrid than anything the team did themselves.
Then there was Saturday's win over Levante, where Madrid needed two goals in the dying minutes to escape with a win. Madrid should have won all of these games comfortably, but instead, they've had to scrape by with close results.
Looking at this team from the outside, Madrid feels like a group that doesn't really decide to start playing until they absolutely have to. They're one of the few teams in the world that can make late comebacks look easy against most teams, but no matter how good a team is, they can't rely on last-minute goals against everyone -- see Madrid's loss against Atletico Madrid.
So what exactly is going wrong?
There's not a specific answer but there are some factors contributing to the problems. Replacing Mesut Özil is near impossible, Luka Modric has been inconsistent this season, Gareth Bale's thigh muscle is not cooperating and Carlo Ancelotti can't seem to settle on a formation.
The thing is, while every one of those issues is extremely problematic, they're all fixable with time and patience. At nearly any other soccer team on the planet, management is willing to be patient with a new squad and give them plenty of time. At Real Madrid, time and patience are the stuff of myths.
Just as one does not simply walk into Mordor, one does not simply replace Mesut Özil. The German is a wizard on and off the ball, seamlessly flowing around the pitch making plays and improving everyone around him. Just look at Arsenal since his arrival.
Isco is playing in Özil's vacated place in the central attacking midfield role and, while he's an immense talent, he's not as far along in his growth as a player as Özil is. We've certainly seen flashes of brilliance from the young Spaniard, but this is a new challenge for him. There's every reason to believe he can develop into one of the best attacking midfielders in the game, but he's going to need time to work through some growing pains.
The other key missing element is Xabi Alonso, who remains sidelined recovering from offseason foot surgery. This issue is a bit strange because of the depth of options Madrid has in the central midfield. Luka Modric, Asier Illarramendi and Sami Khedira are all good players, though if you're going to really drill down to who is being tasked with replacing Alonso, it's Modric.
Modric has a more complete range of passing skills than Alonso and should theoretically fit better into a team that wants to attack quickly, which seems to be what Madrid are trying to do with their counter-attacking style. Modric doesn't have Alonso's experience and leadership cache, but that's not his fault. He's also a different player than Alonso and perhaps he's just still trying to figure out his role in Ancelotti's system. Once again, time and patience come into play as it really feels like Modric just needs time to work out the kinks with his teammates.
Then there's the 10,000-pound weight hanging around Madrid's neck in the form of Gareth Bale's thigh. Presumably, because of a lack of true preseason, Bale tried to push too hard too quickly and strained his leg muscle. It happens, but people tend to get antsy when the first month a world-record signing has with his new club is spent in the training room, rather than out on the pitch.
This problem also requires time and patience -- are you seeing a trend yet? -- especially since the limited minutes we saw from Bale against Villarreal were impressive. He scored a goal while making the team look better going forward on a consistent basis, doing everything that Madridistas expected from him.
Bale's absence has also thrown wrench in Carlo Ancelotti's tactical plans. We all know what he wants to do with Karim Benzema up front supported by Cristiano Ronaldo, Isco and Bale. That's a scary attack and one that will likely demolish more than a few La Liga opponents when they're all finally together and comfortable playing as a group.
Once again, time and patience.
Sadly, that's not something Real Madrid players and coaches are generally given. Florentino Perez's spending, combined with the downright absurd expectations placed upon the club by themselves, the media and fans, makes it a very difficult place to build a squad. Everyone wants instant results.
Despite the lackluster early results that Madrid has posted, an argument can be made that they're showing heart and winning games when it looks like the odds are against them. But this is Real Madrid. This is a super club. This is a team not just expected to win, but to win multiple trophies.
At some point, Ancelotti will figure out this roster. Bale will get healthy, Isco and Modric will settle into the system and we'll start getting the type of results everyone expects to see from Madrid. The only question is whether or not all those things will happen fast enough to appease the rabid media and fans that will continue to drown Madrid in a waterfall of pressure and expectation.
There's a long way to go this season and a lot of things can change for Madrid, but Perez and Madridistas have to be patient. Sadly, if things don't go according to plan against Juventus and Barcelona later this month, everyone's patience with Ancelotti and his squad will have run out.