Guest Post By Karl Matchett
A fact of life at Real Madrid is that no matter what part of the team is playing successfully and exciting the fans, another will still be criticised for underperformance, even if not strictly true. Rafael Benitez has only been in the job a matter of months but has already faced media column inches about his choice of playing Gareth Bale centrally, possible fall-outs with Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos and, most recently, playing negative football.
That last slight, brought up again by Laurent Blanc in the build-up to the Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain last week, was somewhat at odds with the bare facts of Real in La Liga this term: top of the league, unbeaten and with the most goals scored. Of course, the "defensive" perception comes from the other goals column in the league table, the conceded tally, where Real Madrid also have the best figures in Spain after allowing just three in nine games.
Any questions of playing defensively are, of course, fantasy. Sure, Real have sat back at times-the second half against Atletico Madrid springs to mind, while they also played deep at the weekend once ahead against 10-man Celta Vigo-but by and large they have looked to attack, dominate play and create chances for the front three or four players.
Where that plan has fallen down at times, with poor tempo and a lack of cohesion in transferring possession to creative threat, is with Real suffering a number of injuries all over the field. That has led to Real's midfield shape being altered, as well as the personnel, which has given a disconnect at times between the team's early season attacking patterns of play and those seen in the past few weeks. Defensive injuries to the likes of Sergio Ramos, Danilo and Pepe have also meant the back line has been shifted around plenty-and that's where Keylor Navas comes in.
Regardless of who has been in front of him, Real have relied heavily on their goalkeeper to pull off some spectacular saves at crucial moments in matches. They haven't defended particularly stringently, instead Madrid have allowed opposition forwards good chances on goal from the centre of the box a number of times. Almost inevitably, however, the Costa Rican has had an answer.
Fantastic saves against Atletico Madrid and Celta Vigo in big matches have been well highlighted, but there have also been timely and improbable interventions against the likes of Real Betis, Levante and Granada while the scoreline was balanced on a knife edge. Athletic Bilbao, too, found Navas almost totally impassable despite a number of close calls.
Penalty saves, reaction stops, full-length dives and running off his line to make brave blocks at close quarters; Navas has shown he has the full goalkeeping repertoire-and for those who remember him playing consistently to a high level with Levante two seasons ago, it's no real surprise. Even so, he has surpassed those levels this term so far for Real.
Right now, he's up there with Manuel Neuer and Gianluigi Buffon as the most in-form and able goalkeepers in world football.
Maintaining that form over a long run of games will of course dictate just how much Real Madrid are made to be relieved or regret that the summer swap deal, David de Gea for Navas, never went through-but certainly he has already dispelled any remaining doubts from last season that he could take over from Iker Casillas.
Nine clean sheets from 12 games in all competitions is a fantastic start to the year for Navas, who has a highlights reel this term, which eclipses that of Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale at the opposite end of the pitch. The stopper has already won Real points this term with his stunning saves, but for the team to really propel themselves forward over the coming months and be in the driving seat for trophies, it's the attack which needs to catch up with the defence for effectiveness.
Just don't mention that it's because Benitez is a defensive coach.