After dominating the Spanish league last season, defending champion Real Madrid was supposed to brush aside its lesser domestic rivals in this campaign and focus on winning a coveted 10th Champions League trophy.
But after losing its second league match 1-0 at Sevilla on Saturday, Madrid is reeling only two days before facing Manchester City in the Champions League.
Coach Jose Mourinho says he "doesn't have a team," forward Cristiano Ronaldo is "sad," and the entire club is wondering what has so quickly gone so wrong.
Through four rounds, Madrid has just one win to go with a draw and a pair of losses and already trails pacesetter Barcelona by eight points as it languishes in the middle of the standings.
Mourinho has to find a quick turnaround as Madrid plays English titleholder Manchester City on Tuesday in their Champions league opener, a game that it can ill afford to lose in a challenging group that includes German champion Borussia Dortmund and Dutch team Ajax.
"We didn't expect to have this start," said Madrid club spokesman and former star Emilio Butragueno. "[Eight points] are a lot of points. We have a very important game on Tuesday. It's critical."
In his first two seasons at Madrid, Mourinho rarely blamed his players for a bad result. But he has been openly critical of his squad from week one when it slipped to a home draw with Valencia.
After its loss at Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium on Saturday he was brutal in his judgment of his team's effort, saying that for many of his players "football is not a priority."
"I am worried because since the beginning of the season we have only played well in the Spanish Supercup [vs. Barcelona], but nothing else," said Mourinho, whose team hadn't dropped this many points until week 15 last season.
"More than being worried about the points, what worries me at this moment is that I don't have a team."
Madrid-friendly Spanish sports daily Marca's cover on Sunday read: "Eight points from Barca in week four, Mou declares a state of alarm in Madrid."
Barcelona, meanwhile, remained perfect through four games after Lionel Messi scored a brace to take his league-leading tally to six goals in its 4-1 rout at Getafe on Saturday.
"The gap [with Madrid] is surprising," said Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets on Sunday. "But there is still a long way to go."
Mourinho said Madrid's poor form predated Ronaldo's enigmatic comments two weeks ago that he wasn't happy with the Spanish club, sparking speculation that he was seeking a better contract or even a move to another team.
"This game wasn't very different from the other games," Mourinho said after the defeat in Seville. "Therefore I don't think it has any relation with the rumour of the last two weeks."
Either way, Ronaldo was key to Madrid's title fight last season with a club-record 46 league goals. So far this season he has scored two, both coming against the modest Granada at home when he showed his displeasure with the club by not celebrating his goals.
To Mourinho's chagrin, Madrid has proven to be particularly vulnerable on set pieces, despite having physical defenders like Sergio Ramos and Pepe along with imposing midfielders in Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso.
Madrid left Sevilla midfielder Piotr Trochowski unmarked to blast a corner kick into the top of the net two minutes into Saturday's match, and then failed to mount a comeback. In previous rounds, Madrid conceded goals off set pieces in its 1-1 draw with Valencia and its 2-1 loss at Getafe.
"The problem is the attitude from minute one," a perplexed Mourinho said. "We cannot work more on set pieces. Every player knows his role, the opponent he has to mark, the zone he has to cover, and yet we concede a goal just a minute into the game. It is an image of a team without focus or a willingness to suffer."
Ramos did not dare contradict his coach's opinion.
"[Mourinho] is the best at seeing football. It is true that the moment has arrived to look at what we can improve and what things we need to change," he said. "It is time to change our attitude."