Real Madrid have the type of pedigree in this competition that usually makes them one to avoid, but is that true this season? Let’s take a look at how they got here, how they’re doing in Spain, and whether their attack is still something to fear:
Real Madrid’s Path to the Quarter Finals
You’d be forgiven if you had forgotten the turmoil Real Madrid found themselves at the outset of this season’s Champion’s League group stage, but for a while it seemed as though the club, reportedly in financial distress, might fail to progress from the group stage for the first ever time in the (rebranded) competition’s history.
The giant club’s group did not initially look like a “group of death,” to bring out the old cliché: Real Madrid were in Group B with Borussia Monchengladbach, Shakhtar Donetsk and Internazionale.
It turned out to be tricky, though, as Los Blancos fell to a home defeat to Shakhtar before drawing away at Gladbach on the opening two matchdays before winning in two consecutive games against Inter — but then the giants lost again to Shaktar, meaning that Group B came down to the final day. Real went through at the top of the group with a win against Gladbach in the end, but that it was so close sent shockwaves through the club.
Their progression through the last round was quite a bit easier, as Zinedine Zidane’s men beat the few last seasons’ hipster side Atalanta home and away to progress 4-1 on aggregate.
Though last season was something of a disappointment by their standards, as Real Madrid exited the Champions League in the Round of 16 in 2019/20, their experience should not be underestimated: Los Blancos have reached at least the semifinals in the previous eight consecutive tournaments, and won the competition half of these, racking up four European Cups in the last decade. They have the most European Cup wins of any club (13), and seven of these wins came after the tournament rebrand in 1992.
We all remember the last time they won it.
Real Madrid won La Liga in 2019/20, securing the title with one game to go after the league returned after COVID-related delays. The club recorded 26 wins and secured a total of 87 points after finishing the previous two seasons in third behind Barcelona and Atlético Madrid.
Looking at their records in recent years it would be easy to say from afar that Zidane’s side is returning to their position of strength last held in the mid-2010s, as they last won the league in the 2016/17 season, but it’s unclear how much of this is down to Real Madrid’s better form and how much is due to other teams’ performances in La Liga — and their current league position isn’t exactly a “return to strength.”
Real Madrid currently sit in third place in La Liga behind league leaders Atlético Madrid and second-placed Barcelona, though their recent form within the league is nothing to scoff at (particularly given, you know, Liverpool’s own domestic form): Los Blancos last lost in La Liga on 30 January (losing 2-1 away to Levante), going seven games unbeaten (drawing two and winning five). They have lost just twice in La Liga since November, though the majority of their games have been close.
They have lost out in the domestic cups, however, which is unusual. They lost to rivals Atlético in the semi-finals of the Spanish Super Cup — perhaps not an “upset” so to speak — but were eliminated from the Copa Del Rey by third-tier Alcoyano — definitely a shock.
Digging Deeper into Real Madrid’s Form
So, how good are they?
Well, they’ve been scoring fewer and fewer goals per match over the last few seasons, dipping from a quite strong 2.3 goals per match in 2017/18 to the current rate of 1.7 per match — with the present season being the first time they’ve failed to score more than 1.9 goals per match during this period. Over the past three seasons they’ve created the same number of chances per match (7), suggesting that their creativity has been retained even if they fail to finish (indeed, their chance conversion rate has dipped to 24% this season off of a period high of 28% last season).
This season, they take 15 shots per match with an xG per shot of 0.13 — a value on the low end of good. This is important to know because the number of shots and their rate of conversion doesn’t mean as much if a team is peppering the opposition with a large number of low-value chances. They’re not doing that, even if they have room to improve in terms of chance quality (Liverpool take an average of 14 shots per game with an xG per shot value of 0.14, so ever-so-slightly better; picture in your head all the clear-cut chances we’ve missed this season paired with the seeming inability to create in some matches, and here we are).
Los Blancos have lost some of their marquee attacking talent in recent times, most notably with Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer to Juventus in 2018/19. Other big name players struggled to make an impact on the first team, with Gareth Bale and James Rodríguez both leaving the club this past summer with no great disappointment amongst Real Madrid fans.
The attack has not been bolstered with new additions to the level fans would have liked, with the promise of Eden Hazard, who arrived from Chelsea in 2019/20, suffering in both form and in injury: he has missed more days through injury in his two years at Real Madrid (362, three days off a full year) than he did over seven seasons at Chelsea (198).
In seven seasons at Chelsea, Eden Hazard missed 198 days through injury— Goal (@goal) March 15, 2021
In a season-and-a-half at Real Madrid, Eden Hazard has missed 362 days through injury/illness pic.twitter.com/IZsUWV57h6
Real Madrid’s strongest performers have been in defense, with Sergio Ramos (on limited minutes this season), Lucas Vazquez, and Casemeiro being their most standout performers over the season so far in terms of quality; centreback Raphael has played the most minutes this season (3,274, nearly 1,000 more than Ferland Mendy in second), and his performances have been sometimes uneven: he has been prone to error, and his poor performances tend to line up with the squad’s poor results.
Karim Benzema is the club’s top scorer, with 21 goals in all competitions (xG of 19). While this goal haul seems great, no one else in the squad has a double-digit goal tally: second-place is Casemeiro on six goals, followed by three players (Luka Modric, Vinicius Junior, and Sergio Ramos) on four goals each.
Mohamed Salah is on 25 goals for Liverpool, but he is joined by Sadio Mané (13) and Diogo Jota (10) in double-digits, and the latter has (I don’t know if you knew this?) missed quite some time with injury. Roberto Firmino is on seven goals, higher than Real Madrid’s second-highest scorer, but recipient of complaints about his production on Merseyside (deserved; his xG is 14).
What Does This Mean?
All this is to say that the underlying attacking metrics put Liverpool and Real Madrid relatively close, and both teams have suffered a notable dip (though Real Madrid’s is more gradual, whereas Liverpool’s is confined to this season only). We can take solace in the fact that our dip is perhaps more explainable as temporary — the injuries, yes, the injuries.
It’s also important that we are not over-reliant on one player, as the goals have been spread out through the Liverpool squad, and the attacking production has dipped furthest in alignment with the most disruption in defense and midfield. It’s quite possible that a settled defense and midfield might help Liverpool regain the consistency and danger in attack, even if the defense is not as good as their first choice back five would be.
Liverpool should be very much up for the “Mo Salah’s Shoulder Revenge Match,” and the numbers do delightfully suggest that a much-depleted Liverpool are closer to an even match to this iteration of Real Madrid than one might have thought, but a lot depends on the Reds finding their form — and the attitude that allows them to overcome the obstacles in their path.
It’s not the best draw for the Reds, but it’s a far cry from being the worst.
Statistics in this article via InStat.