Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Merengue Bites Podcast: 2015-2016: Episode 3.

New Manager. New Optimism / Enthusiasm. It was a full crew as Ryan, Kaushik, Rahul and myself decided there was enough of a feel-good vibe within the club for us to get together to talk Real Madrid once again.
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The Podcast can also be downloaded / streamed here:

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sifting Through the Rubble (Real Madrid 0 - Barcelona 4)

It was hard to openly admit it coming into the match, but I have to now confess heading into this game that I truly believed we would lose last night's clasico. That we would be humiliated in the manner that we were however, was a totally different matter.
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Prior to last Saturday's clasico, Barcelona have been flying. With the odds stacked against them, they have overcome a transfer ban that has forced them to work with a depleted squad, they have overcome various injuries and suspensions (Pique) and more importantly, they have managed to keep racking up the wins and did so in glorious fashion (not just 'getting the 3 points') without the greatest player in their club's history. Just as the Bernabeu showed its class by giving Andres Iniesta an ovation last night (on the 10 year anniversary of Ronaldinho being given the same honor), we as Madridistas must tip our hats to Barcelona for that they have achieved. From their management, to their coaching, down to the players: their accomplishments given the obstacles that have been laid their way should be applauded, praised and congratulated by Madridisimo.
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Last Saturday's debacle however was not only the product of Barcelona playing some blindingly impressive football. It was also a product of a catastrophic failure of Real Madrid on multiple levels - from the management (President), the coaching and the players. There is a very understandable outburst of anger aimed particularly at Florentino Perez and Rafa Benitez at the moment as seen in the panoladas that started at a disturbingly early part of the match (who could blame the Bernabeu, the team was getting skinned alive from kickoff?). The 2 surely must take responsibility for last night. EVERYONE in the club however must collectively take responsibility and look at themselves in the mirror.
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Is this the Death Spiral of Florentino's 2nd Presidency?
The Infamous Panolada happened at the Bernabeu last Saturday. Is this the omen for the Death Spiral of Florentino's 2nd Presidency?
Florentino famously won trophies during the early years of his first presidency, doing so while amassing superstar talent which reinforced the club's reputation as the world's most glamorous football club. He also infamously fired a classy, level-headed and much-loved manager (both by fans and players) - Vicente Del Bosque, before the club went into a death spiral that led to Perez's own resignation.
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At the end of last season, Perez's 2nd presidency has essentially been marked by winning every trophy already: the Copa Del Rey, the La Liga Title (both won by Mourinho) and the elusive La Decima. Having completed, this 'cycle' of trophies, he then fired the man many consider the 'The Italian Del Bosque'. If we were to refer to the pattern of Perez's first presidency, this might be the beginning of the death spiral for his second presidency.
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Does Florentino Perez live in a bubble or not? The arguments in favor of Uncle Flo living in a bubble lies in his failure to see that the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti, a coach loved both by the players and fans. was just plainly, a stupid idea. The idea of him NOT living in a bubble is this: if the fans and players don't blame Ancelotti for last season's failures, then surely the eyes of blame would all be focused on him. Cynical a view as it may be, during bad times, having a wildly popular, respected and loved coach like Ancelotti would NOT be good for the president. It exposes what's wrong with the system (the fact that Florentino Perez and Jose Angel Sanchez, a construction magnate and a financial guru respectively, are the club's de facto Sporting Directors).
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In fairness to Florentino, this summer's transfer activity was not one spent obsessing mindlessly over a 'galactico'. His failed summer courtship of David De Gea was a clear attempt to address a problem position we had (anyone who tells me he knew Keylor was going to be at Iker Casillas's level circa 2000-2010 is lying). The re-acquisition of Casemiro from Porto has been an inspired decision whilst choosing to listen to Rafa's recommendation on Lucas Vasquez was wise as well. There are those who are crying foul over Danilo. The signing of the Brazilian to me was not to upgrade our Right Back position, but to prevent Barcelona from upgrading theirs.
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In my opinion, Florentino deserved the jeers, white handkerchiefs and calls for resignation. Those in my opinion however ought to be the end of his 'punishment' - I do not believe he deserves to fall on his sword for this. The public firestorm over last Saturday's embarrassment ought to be a sobering enough reminder to him, that the fans will not fall for his coach scapegoating tricks. That we know he's part of the problem.
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Rafa Benitez - from a Buffoon to a Coward
It's been 10 years since 'The Miracle of Istanbul'. Was that Rafa's peak and are we now riding his decline?
"I'd hire a Pole!" was the reply by a dear Madridista friend to my question to him of "who would you replace Rafa with?" in my response to his "Rafa out!"stance. That many Madridistas feel that a wooden stick would do a better job of coaching this team than Rafa Benitez is indicative of what a massive failure last Saturday was for him.
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Before last night, many Madrid fans perceived Rafa Benitez as a sub-Real Madrid standard manager who clumsily bundled his way into the Real Madrid job. It's been 10 years since 'The Miracle of Istanbul', whilst 'The Debacle of Napoli' is still fresh in all our minds. These days, we associate Rafa Benitez more as a buffoon who eats the plastic wrap of his sandwich more than as some form of tactical mastermind.
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The truth is that before last Saturday, I actually thought that Rafa was doing a relatively decent job. The team was winning despite a long list of injuries to key players (Modric, Bale, James, Benzema, Marcelo, Kovacic, Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Pepe, even Keylor Navas), whilst previously unheralded players were getting their chances and turning in some good performances (Kovacic, Casemiro, Vasquez, Nacho). The defense has looked pretty good too (perhaps partly helped by Keylor being absolutely brilliant). I also do not see his constant swopping of formations to be a bad thing either: having tried the 4-2-3-1, the 4-3-3 and even the 4-4-2. A new coach trying different systems to find the best fit for his ever-changing list of available players to me shows pro-activeness and open-mindedness.
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What I cannot stand however is cowardice. If Rafa believes in defensive football (or to use his term 'balance'), then he should own it. He should play the team he wants and in the way that he wants, not what he thinks others want. The team he should have fielded last Saturday should have been the team which he felt would give us the best possible chance of winning, NOT the team that he feels will get him the least amount of flak afterwards.
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Gareth Bale (injured), James (injured / flew in from South American Internationals), Benzema (injured / involved in a sextape+extortion scandal) had all hardly played leading up to last Saturday. Even if they were physically 100%, they were all not match fit for sure (which is why I am not going to criticize his decision to go with Danilo over Carvajal). That James, Bale and Benzema created chances or almost scored is a different matter. Instead, the likes of Casemiro, who was fit and on form was excluded.
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Why? Because Florentino pressured him to play the super star team? Because the fans would crucify him for being defensive by playing Casemiro? Because the team's 'senior players' supposedly confronted him and pressured him into 'attacking Barcelona'??? Rafa was a coward because he opted for what turned out to be this false notion of 'attacking' Barca even if he didn't believe in it deep down inside. He broke under the will and pressure of the whispers of those around him to field a team that was ideal personnel-wise or prepared tactics-wise to face Barcelona instead of the team which he knew in his heart of hearts would have done something more meaningful out there.
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Real Madrid were tactically a broken team. They gave Barcelona an ocean of space to operate and and do as they wished.
Real Madrid played as a broken team, with a sea of space for Barca's players to enjoy their passing and find their angles for Suarez and Neymar to rip our hearts out... and no one enjoyed this more than Andres Iniesta. On this false notion of intending to 'attack' Barcelona, the team hoped for a gun-slinging match like during the latter-Mourinho / early-Ancelotti era. Last Saturday was no cowboy-style gun-slinging duel: Madrid played like shadows chasing shadows.
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The ultimate and sad irony of it all is that the root Rafa's cowardice was his decision to pretend to be brave and 'attack' Barca with his superstar team - pretending to be someone he's not, and making decisions to avoid criticism in the coming days' post-match analysis, rather than making decisions to win. There is no cowardice in facing yourself and living up to who you are and owning your own actions. That is true bravery. And it is in that where Rafa failed us all last Saturday.
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The Players - From the Walking Wounded to the Sulking Sissies
We will never know if Sergio Ramos (who probably took another pain-killing injection on his shoulder to play) or Marcelo (who had to be subbed off the game) will pay a dear price for sacrificing / forcing themselves to play last Saturday. To be honest, it might not matter for the league campaign: with a 6 point advantage, Messi regaining fitness and the transfer ban being lifted on January, there is little to suggest that Barca will not run away to yet another league title. All I can do is applaud their bravery / stupidity for putting their injured bodies on the line for the cause.
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My beef with the players however have to be trained upon the 2 most expensive players in the history of the sport: Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
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This season, Rafa Benitez fulfilled Gareth Bale's wish of playing behind  the striker, as some sort of super mobile, super explosive '10', not in the Ozil mould (to feed balls for CR7 and Benzema to score), but to terrorize La Liga's slower and physically weaker defensive midfielders with his pace and power. We saw him play this role quite effectively at the beginning of the season (before he was injured). Against the slow-footed Sergi Busquets, Bale was supposed to have the same effect. As the man supposedly the target of any outlet balls from midfield or defense, his job was to drop deep (if necessary) and use his pace and explosiveness to overpower and blow by Barca's midfield line. Last Saturday however, he did NOT do this. He instead, together with Ronaldo, Benzema and James, waited for the ball to arrive to their side of the pitch, leaving the midfield and defense to suffer at the hands of Barca's midfield and front 3 who were enjoying a massive, ocean-sized space to operate and pass their way through our defense.
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Ronaldo's Wrong Road
By taking the 'right road', Ronaldo can put himself in a position to win the Ballon D'Or once again. If he takes the wrong road, he will find himself down the same road as Shevchenko, Torres, Owen and Kaka.
At age 30, Cristiano Ronaldo is at a crossroads in his career. He must choose between 2 roads. The first road is one that will lead to a glorious destiny: as the world's best '9'. He has all the physical tools to achieve this: strength, pace over a short stretch, mobility, the poacher's instinct, aerial power, the ability to shoot with both feet and above all, a greed for goals. To reach this point, Ronaldo must lock himself up in a room, and watch 12 hours of Karim Benzema playing: memorizing the Frenchman's intelligence at running, creating space, making himself available for passes to his teammates,  holding up the ball and various other skills that are expected of strikers. He must then edit out some of Benzema's reactions in the final third (which is to look to pass to Ronaldo) and replace them with his greed for goals. A 30-year old Cristiano Ronaldo who runs the channels, holds the ball up, creates space, etc. will score 60 goals/season for the next 2-3 seasons. Next, Ronaldo must also spend another 12 hours watching film of his former team mate, the recently-retired Raul. With even less pace, and even less strength and with almost zero aerial ability, Raul in his final 2-3 seasons at Madrid was still good for nearly 20 goals per season. Playing like that at age 33-37, Ronaldo would still be a guarantee for at least 30-40 goals a season at the highest level.
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The second road is a path that is now all too familiar to many of us: the sad fate of a player who has built his entire game on his pace and explosiveness but has lost it due to father time and/or injury. This was the sad road taken by the likes of Andriy Shevchenko, Fernando Torres, Michael Owen and more recently, CR7's former Real Madrid teammate, Kaka. For the strikers in particular, they have (d)evolved into 'mere' finishers - wandering around the penalty box, waiting for a ball they can stick their boot into for a shot at goal. It doesn't take long for managers to realize that such players are only of use if they score. And without their goals, their teams are effectively only playing with 10 men.
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Having played as the striker for the last few weeks due to Benzema's absence, I am dismayed to see Cristiano Ronaldo opt for the latter road. His participation in the build up of play has been next to none, and has spent most games jogging about disinterestedly, waiting for the ball to reach his space, where he seems to only be interested to finish an attacking move with a shot at goal. Beyond the goals, he offered little else. Last Saturday, Cristiano Ronaldo did nothing but sulk and curse his luck as up to 3 great scoring chances came calling with no goal to show for. He offered little beyond that.
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It is with these thoughts that I made my wife nearly spit her coffee out over breakfast this morning when I sullenly confessed to her that I have come to believe that Cristiano Ronaldo has now been surpassed by Luis Suarez and Neymar as Messi's only contender/s to the title of 'Best player in the world'. Yes, there you have it - I said it. And it is with this thinking that I find myself believing, that unless CR7 'changes his ways' and turns toward the other road, that Real Madrid must accept any 'stupid money offer' that many come this summer. Perhaps the 'lesser' French League can mask his decline whilst keep his glamorous reputation intact playing in the City of Light (Paris). Perhaps a return to the club and the city (Manchester) that made him a man can nudge Ronaldo to the right road. Either way, something has to give.
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Something Does Have to Give
My assessment of Rafa at the beginning of the season stands: his tactical approach (4-2-3-1) gives a natural place to our playing personnel (James, Isco and Bale) while his rotation policy can help allow us avoid last season's mistakes (Ancelotti's refusal to rotate the squad resulted in the team succumbing to fatigue late in the season). His personality however is a massive question mark to motivate a team of superstars and mega-egos and get them onboard to his methods.
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What we are seeing at the moment seems to show that his personality is having a very negative impact towards the team - a team so good in terms of talent, that the tactical system employed to use them matters far less compared to the need to keep them motivated and focused. Without having to make the readers read between the lines, this is my way of saying that I do not believe that the team or its performance will suffer if Rafa Benitez is sacked. Because of the team's dysfunctional chemistry thanks to the coach, it is essentially now playing merely on talent rather than tactics, or organization. As my good friend believes: "A bloody pole can coach this team better than him."
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The massive hurdle however is the institutional damage that Real Madrid will suffer over the firing of a newly-hired coach just months into the season. As it stands, I am not optimistic that we can win La Liga. Having said that, a season with a trophy is not yet out of the cards - but even then, with all this going on, I'm not sure even a trophy can stop us all from concluding that this has been one butt-fuck ugly season.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Tribute to an Artist


I recently had the privilege of 'meeting' an unbelievably talented artist by the name of Karl Maxwell.
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Get this: he HAND DRAWS these amazing works of football-inspired art. He recently sent me this beautiful Real Madrid piece which took him 500 - FIVE HUNDRED HOURS to do. All his work is hand drawn, numbered and signed.
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In a world of easy downloads, mindless fabrication and copy-catting, true artists and craftsemen like Karl are a rarity.
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Madridistas can/should buy his work in his website, his etsy page or his Bigcartel page. You can find him online through Twitter (@KMaxArt), Facebook (Karl Maxwell Art), Instagram (KMaxArt) and Pinterest (KMaxArt).

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Revisting Rafa's Dilemmas

For the past few matches, Real Madrid have been without 2 of our key attacking players: Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez. And though there is much left to be desired over our last 2 matches (0-0 to Malaga, and a doze-worthy 2-0 against Malmo last night), it's easy to fall into the wrong conclusions generated by a few superficial observations. 
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It's undeniable that following our 6-0 drubbing of Espanyol, things have been a tad dry from a goal scoring point of view (1-0 over Granada, 1-2 over Athletic Bilbao, 0-0 against Malaga and 0-2 over Malmo). Fingers have been pointing and whispers have been directed towards Cristiano Ronaldo and how his 5 goals in La Liga are a deception since they have come from a single game only. I on the other hand, personally believe that the fingers are pointed at the wrong people. We should be looking at Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez instead. We have been without Gareth Bale since the Granada game and the goals have dried up since. In his 4 appearances so far this season, Bale has scored 2 goals and dished out 3 assists - and we're not yet counting plays which include winning penalties or plays which he helps to create but isn't credited with a goal or assist for. So as surprising as it may seem to be, it's difficult not to come to a conclusion that Gareth Bale has become incredibly important to Rafa Benitez's system. 
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Rafa's Dilemma: System vs. Personnel
Like most managers, even the rotation-obsessed Rafa Benitez has an A-List and B-List of players in his squad. Having lost 2 of his prime A-listers however (Bale and James), Rafa Benitez has had a look at his bench and has found that he only has one remaining A-lister to deploy: Isco. 
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So against Granada, he did a very characteristically Rafa Benitez thing: he started Lucas Vasquez on the right side of a 4-2-3-1 to replace James while Isco played as a classic 10 - keeping his 4-2-3-1. It was a drab 1-0 win for us which clearly needed a re-look at his approach to squad management. 
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What is Rafa Benitez to do now that without Bale and James, and with only Isco as only the remainig 'A-lister' from the bench, he finds himself with more affinity to his B-List Central midfielders (Kovacic, Casemiro) than his attacking wingers (Jese, Cheryshev, Vasquez). What he ultimately decided to do after the Granada game, was a big surprise.
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Revisiting the 4-3-3
Real Madrid's lineup vs. Athletic Bilbao - A classic Ancelotti 4-3-3 formation. Stats and diagrams courtesy of whoscored.com
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It was thus a shock when against Bilbao, he took a different tact: shocking us all by going for a Carlo Ancelotti-esque 4-3-3: with a midfield trio of Kovacic-Kroos-Modric. He noted in a post-match interview later that he used 3 different formations throughout the match: 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1. The composition of the midfield was classic Real Madrid Ancelotti - with Kroos sitting deep center, flanked by Modric to his right, and his fellow Croatian Kovacic (who is proving to be an astute signing) on the left. The front line mostly played narrow with Cristiano drifting center lots of times in a bid to get into goal scoring positions, while Isco played on the right, looking also to drift closer to his operating comfort zone. The game was decided by Benzema, and did not see the sort of fluid, attacking brand of football that we associate with Benitez's predecessor.
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Against Malaga last weekend, Isco played as part of the midfield - but given his instincts as a '10' pushed up a lot more aggressively compared to Modric. Kroos carried on playing the same role he performed last year under Ancelotti. Stats and diagrams courtesy of whoscored.com
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Benitez seems to have been pleased with the outcome of the Athletic game too: repeating the approach last weekend in our home game vs. Malaga, this time with Isco as part of the midfield 3 and with Jese joining the front 3. It was a dissappointing 0-0 draw than saw us lose the lead we took during the last matchday. It was however still a game where we took a staggering 31 shots with Cristiano taking a whopping 14 of them. In the end, we can't call it a totally bad performance - given that the match turned into the annual Carlos Kameni-denying-Real-Madrid-3 points festival (as he has done so for many many years. 
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Last night's formation looked EVEN more Ancelotti-esque: with the 4-3-3 executthed to resemble a Carletto's 'Christmas Tree' (4-3-2-1) formation. The introduction of Lucas Vasquez and Dennis Cheryshev later in the game would made the team resemble a 4-3-3 more. Stats and diagrams courtesy of whoscored.com
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Last night's Champions League match vs. Malmo saw the same approach, with different personnel: with Casemiro was deployed as the pivot man (I really like the way he plays) in front of the defense with Kroos and Modric on either side of him. Isco, Ronaldo and Benzema would comprise the front 3 just as against Athletic Bilbao. What is interesting to notice however was that last night, Benzema and Isco spent so much time dropping deeper and centrally that the formation began looking more like Ancelotti's 'Christmas Tree' (4-3-2-1) - and it was only the late introductions of Cheryshev and Vasquez that re-formed the formation to look more like the 4-3-3 it was probably intended to be. 
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Personnel vs. System
I am not yet ready to participate in a debate re: the merits of opting for guys like Jese, Cheryshev and Vasquez, young Spanish players from the cantera, as opposed to our more expensive foreign recruits (who are just as young) such as Kovacic and Casemiro. Jese is after all yet to reach the levels he showed prior to his injury while Cheryshev hasn't been given the chance to showcase the player who was so important for Villarreal last season. Of our 3 young, newly-promoted canteranos, it has only been Vasquez who has shone in periodic moments to assist a few goals (2). What this tells me however is that in his dilemma of Personnel vs. System, Rafa is opting for the former - choosing to go with the players he trusts the most, and working out a system for them to fit in, rather than to shoehorn them into positions on the pitch unsuited to them. Rafa Benitez has always been a pragmatist in his football, but rarely at the expense of a pre-conceived tactical system / philosophy - that he is willing to be flexible about this is a pleasant surprise to me. 
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A Trip to the Calderon
A trip to the Calderon awaits us this weekend where there is speculation that Gareth Bale might be fit to play. If so, we should probably expect a 4-2-3-1. We all know however that tactics will not count for much in a Madrid derby. It won't matter whether we've used a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3. The winner will be the team that keeps their heads, avoids mistakes, and keeps the ice in their veins should the opportunity come to strike. We've seen Rafa tinker with his tactics and to a certain extent, we've also seen some of his man managing capabilities. This weekend however, we will see him tested in yet another facet of his capabilities as a manager. Carlo failed this test multiple times last season. Let's all hope that Rafa will do better. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Merengue Bites: Season 3 Episode 1

Rahul was on holiday in Keylor Navas Land, but Kaushik, Ryan and I got together anyway to talk Real Madrid in what will be our new monthly format. We talked about our first few matches and pondered on what has been a disastrous transfer market.
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The podcast can also be downloaded here:

Monday, August 31, 2015

Real Madrid Steak (Real Madrid 5 - Real Betis 0)



When the season started with an away trip to Sporting Gijon, I somehow had a sinking feeling that our season opener will end with a draw. Managers’ debut games tend to be underwhelming: Capello started with a draw, while Pellegrini and Mourinho probably did as well. I remember Ancelotti starting his career with a drab win over Villarreal with Gareth Bale scoring. So when Rafa Benitez debuted with a 0-0 at the Molinon, it wasn’t surprising to me. I spent the entire week last week quizzing my colleagues in the office who inquired about the result: “Didn’t you know??? Real Madrid are only going to have 38 points at the end of this La Liga season!” Before they could even figure out what I meant, I would finish off with “With Rafa Benitez, every game this season will be 0-0 or 1-1.” It was a good joke to get laughs from my friends. It’s no joke for a serious Real Madrid fan though.
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Steak and Rafa the Chef
One such Real Madrid fan was my good friend Nomz. While I was grappling with the shitty fact that despite paying more than $200 monthly (combined) for 2 cable TV subscriptions but can’t get a La Liga TV broadcast, Nomz eagerly watched the season opener and walked away with fury at how badly we played. “They were all shit!” he said.
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Like most Real Madrid fans, he was furious at where Rafa Benitez seemed to be taking us. Barcelona are unable to incorporate any of their new signings till January. They lost Neymar to Mumps, and lost Pique for 4 games for being potty-mouthed. If there was ever any time for us to race into a good head start in the La Liga race, it was now. But we were blowing it.
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Make no mistake about it, many of Rafa’s core tactical beliefs fit perfectly with Real Madrid: a 4-2-3-1 system that can take advantage of having 2 world-class #10s in our squad (James and Isco), and a rotation policy that can keep our squad players from getting disgruntled and our first choice players from burning out. He is however not known to be a great man manager and has a reputation to being tactically over-bearing - characteristics that have proven fatal for other coaches in Real Madrid’s past.
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Having been taken to Singapore’s best steak restaurant for a heavenly late-Friday meal, I saw it fit to compare Rafa Benitez to a chef as Nomz and I pondered Real Madrid’s tactics. With Valencia and Liverpool back in the day, Rafa had a few good ingredients to work with: a core of 5-7 great players surrounded by mostly mediocre players. Like a chef working with a limited pantry, Rafa configured his sides to maximize his best ingredients and mask the limitations of his mediocre ones to create a great dish.
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Real Madrid however (and THIS particular side especially) are different. Every member of our team #1-25, is a great player, a golden ingredient. If Real Madrid was a dish, it didn’t need to be covered in garnish, coated with unnecessary sauces, or artistically plated for the visual pleasure of a food blogger’s instagram account. If Real Madrid was a dish, it would have looked like and tasted like the steak that was served to me last Friday night.  A single slice of perfectly-cooked USDA grain-fed, 35-day old slice of Angus Beef on a warm plate. It had bit of a crunch on the outside, with a salty caramelized edge, cooked to a perfect medium-rare at the center: pink, juicy and it melted in your mouth after a single knife stroke on your plate. Gastronomic orgasm would follow after you washed it down with a sip of fine red wine.
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At our best with Ancelotti, we were that steak. Minimal tactical gimmicks: just 11 of the best players in the world doing their thing. For teams like ours, I fear managers like Rafa because he’s the sort to take a perfect slice of wagyu beef meant to become a steak, and put it into a meat processor to become a sausage or meat balls. We have to be fair to him though, 2 games isn’t enough to judge him.
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Wingers as #10s
Our 5-0 win last Saturday at home against Betis was the sort of result Rafa needed to put people at ease about his tactical intentions. We played the sort of football we expected from Real Madrid: starting the game with a mouth-watering series of 1-2 passes, pinging about across the pitch until James’ cross would find Bale’s head for the 1-0.
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The bone of contention between many pundits and Rafa Benitez at the moment is El Gordo’s decision to play Gareth Bale behind the striker, as a #10 - presumably to re-create his most successful spell at Tottenham where he was given a free role behind the striker. Those who watched those Spurs games would do well to remember though that despite Gareth Bale scoring 20+ goals that season, making him the Premier League’s best player, there were a few wrinkles that must not be over-looked. First was that many games Gareth Bale won for Spurs (mostly thanks to goals scored by him) were drab games that featured 1 or 2 moments of brilliance of Bale scoring goals similar to his second goal last saturday (where he races up the pitch with space in front of him to launch a missile at goal), second is that while at Spurs, there was no other player on the team who was remotely close to his level in terms of quality.
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At Real Madrid, winning the game 1-0 or 2-1 thanks to a moment like that from Gareth Bale is not good enough. Wins like last Saturday (5-0, with 3 different goal scorers) are par for the course. Also, at Real Madrid, every member of the squad is at the same league as him quality-wise. In fact, he’s not even among the team’s top 3, (even 5 players).
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We must also note that wingers being played as #10s is not a Rafa Benitez thing alone. Mourinho has been playing Hazard-Willian-Pedro behind Diego Costa at Chelsea (at the cost of Oscar), while Louis Van Gaal has been playing Adnan Januzaj and Memphis Depay behind the striker while shunting Juan Mata to the right wing at Manchester United. Have a look at the results of those 2 teams and you know you have something to worry about.
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I get that Rafa wants to liberate Gareth Bale from the shackles of being on the right wing. He was far too predictable there last season and was thus far from the 100m player we expect him to be. But we must not forget that James and Isco aren’t chopped liver either. the key to finding ways for Gareth Bale to succeed is to work out a system where the front 4 (including the striker) can swap places systematically to create tactical chaos for the opponent, but not for Madrid. Benzema is after all, comfortable with dropping deep while Ronaldo has now become a lethal 1-touch goalscorer (let’s not fuss too much about his goal drought - 2 consecutive hat tricks are coming soon when the law of the averages kicks in). James has had experience playing on the right, just like Bale.
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We saw signs of this last Saturday of course: with Benzema’s goal assisted by Bale from the right wing while James’ spectacular second goal was scored with him playing centrally. The substitutions offer promise as well: Isco entrance to the game pushed Ronaldo to the striker’s role where Isco managed to feed him a forward ball for a clear-cut goalscoring chance Adan managed to save. The key is for the formation not to be executed statically. CR, Bale, Benzema and James/Isco must have a system to swap places while in attack: giving each other turns to enjoy their favorite spots on the pitch while confusing their markers.
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Rotations and the Back line.
Credit must also be given to Benitez for his changes. At 4-0, he wasted no time in sending Isco in to rest the only-partially-fit Benzema and duly rested the midfield (Kroos and Modric) for their understudies (Casemiro + Kovacic) - the sort of substitutions we didn’t see enough of last season, which probably cost us dearly.
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I also have to admit seeing Carvajal relegated to the bench bothers me deeply. Danilo looked good, but there’s no reason for Carvajal to be rotting on the bench nonetheless. I’m counting on the coming international break to see Carvajal back in the starting XI as the Brazil NT duties tend to mean inter-continental flights which would mean it makes more sense for Carvajal to be starting our next league game.
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Props must also go to Keylor Navas for his performance last Saturday. I never fancied him in a Real Madrid shirt until last Saturday’s performance: which made me start asking myself “Maybe he is Real Madrid material.” Either way, tonight will be the final hours of the David De Gea saga for the next few months - and whether he comes or goes, I’ll be happy to not hear about it for a while.
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Meatballs
It’s too early to draw conclusions about Real Madrid version 2015-2016. There are reasons to be optimistic and reasons to despair. At the end of the day though, I have to say that starting your week with a 5-0 win in your head (plus those goals from James), is a great way to get going.
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Last night, I messaged Nomz: “Well it turned out to be a great result.”
He replied: “True that. But in reality, Betis sucked balls.”
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I suppose he meant Meat Balls. Either way, eating up those meat balls were great, but they are nothing compared to a great steak.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Coming to Terms

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I'm in shock.
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But contrary to the logical reason why a Madridista would be in shock, which is over sadness and grief of Iker moving on, my shock is because I do NOT feel that way. I started my weekend watching 'The Minions' with my son and ended it watching Federer duke it out with Djokovic in the Wimbledon final. I confess that as most of Madridisimo had enough tears over the weekend to mourn Iker's departure, his was a footnote to mine. 
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For people who follow the show Grey's Anatomy, perhaps I'm being like Amelia Shepherd, in the way she reacted to her brother's death (she spent the first months joking about it tastelessly and then almost suffered a nervous breakdown as it finally sank into her)... but not even I can promise that will happen. For all I know, maybe I've accepted for quite some time already that he needed to move on and this was merely a formality. For angry outsiders, they just might yell: 'Mourinhista! Mourinhista!' at me - they are free to do so. But here are my reflections on our saint. 
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Polarizing Figure
It's hard to imagine a guy like Iker Casillas ever becoming a polarizing figure in the way that he has become over the last several years. A look into his history and his character as a person shows nothing polarizing about him. He is an incredibly likeable and admirable man and player. How could you dislike a guy who comes from such humble beginnings, who works his way into the world's greatest football club and becomes that club and his country's greatest ever goalkeeper? But it happened - Iker Casillas became a source of a divide amongst Madridisimo. And as unbelievable as it seems, it was written in the stars many years ago.
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Ramon Calderon: The Economic Foundation
If I remember correctly, Iker's current contract was signed in the Ramon Calderon era. It was a 'lifetime contract' which was offered to the likes of him, Guti and Raul. My knowledge of the contract is sketchy, but the contract supposedly 'self-renews' itself upon the player completing a given number of the games for the season. What I was was not aware of however, was the pay packet that the contract supposedly comes with, which we now know to be a significant amount. Simply put, the amount and the terms of the contract did not take into account the possibility of the player's physical decline and performance on the pitch, and thus we are left to deal with a gap between how much he makes vs. how much he contributes on the pitch. 
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Those who have been following the saga of his departure know that the bone of contention between him and the club has always been the remaining amount of his contract. Many potential suitors fell by the wayside upon learning how much money they have to fork out for his services. Neither side can be blamed for the impasse: it is Iker's duty to himself and his family to get the best possible contract in the twilight of his footballing career, while Real Madrid has a wage structure to stand by on, as well as possible FFP compliance issues to deal with regarding the matter.
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But neither side are blameless on the matter either: can't Real Madrid, the richest club in the world just give this club legend his money as a good will 'retirement gift?' And as for Iker: I point my finger to the NBA's San Antonio Spurs where Tim Duncan and David West took massive paycuts for the team. Granted that the paycut they took is to join the Spurs and not to leave it - but a good will monetary gesture is due nonetheless. It goes both ways. In the end, Iker departs to Porto where part of his salary will be paid for by Real Madrid, an fair enough arrangement in my opinion.
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Florentino Perez and his celebrity-starved, money-making obssession maybe the easy target here, but let's look deeper. The root of the economic problem was one he inherited, he merely had to finish it off. It is however too simplistic to demonize him for doing his job of protecting the economic interest of the football club. He did not become a successful businessman by being stupid and sentimental with his own money, nor did he achieve Real Madrid's unparalleled economic success by being wasteful with money.
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Iker's Sporting Decline: A Call to Self-Admission
Every true Real Madrid fan knows what great football looks like. We know this having watched the Quita Del Buitre, Raul, Roberto Carlos, Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo, etc. And by the same token, every true Real Madrid fan also knows what a great goalkeeper is: we know this because we've seen Iker Casillas play. Though we admired more 'conventional' hulking goalkeepers like Buffon, Cech and Neuer, we mostly didn't give a shit because he had Iker - and we laughed our heads off anytime people wanted to compare someone with him (just like how we as Madridistas collectively chuckled at the suggestion that Victor Valdes was as good as him). Truly knowing what a great goalkeeper is because of Iker Casillas also means however, that we need to admit that the Iker Casillas that we saw over the last 3 years has not been a great example of what a great goalkeeper is.
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We must concede in our heart of hearts that the Iker Casillas we've been watching over the past couple of seasons, is not the same player who once created a forcefield around Real Madrid's goal many years ago, consistently for many many years. 
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Iker Casillas' virtues as a shot-stopper had always been dependent on his cat-quick reflexes, and equally cat-like agility - all rooted in his athleticism. Father time as they say however, is undefeated. And at age 34, Iker's athleticism and his ability to react has begun to decline. He does not have the physical characteristics to command the box the way the likes of Buffon and Cech do, and is thus unable to compensate for his declining physical abilities. Like many aging superstars, Iker is still capable of show flashes of his old self. He is however, not an outfield player. If it's still 0-0 at the 70th minute, it's logical to pull out your 34-year old striker who is having a stinker and can't convert his chances, and let a fresh young prospect try his luck. If you're down 2-0 however because your goalkeeper is having a stinker, subbing him out on the 70th minute probably won't make a difference. 
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I am not interested in sifting through the rubble of half-truths of whether Mourinho spotted or caused Iker's decline. I only know that he IS declining. And that it was time for Madrid to move on, just as how we've moved on from Bodo Illger, Santi Canizares and Cesar Sanchez before Iker. Iker Casillas will not be the last great goalkeeper for Real Madrid, though he might possibly be its greatest ever of all time.
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Iker's Shadow
There was always the option of keeping Iker around as a locker room presence, just as how we've seen Ryan Giggs gracefully transition from star player, to role player, to bench player, to part-player/part-coach to full-time coach. The difference however is the reaction to such transitions. There is no need to debate whether it was Iker, members of the media, his entourage, or just fans who raised a howl over his benching. We only know that his gargantuan shadow looms over any man between the sticks for Real Madrid not-named-Casillas. Just ask the excellent Diego Lopez. 
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The truth is that his history and his legend will always place a burden on anyone who chooses to follow him. Iker still believes that he deserves and expects to be #1 (nothing wrong with that). He believed it whilst competing against Adan, Lopez and Navas - and would have continued to do so against De Gea (if he were to come). Raul and Guti were reportedly told ready themselves to become squad players and reacted by opting for starring roles for Schalke and Besiktas respectively. At the end of the day, Iker chose the same path: and will be treated as royalty in Porto as he deserves, departing with the money which he has rightfully earned at Real Madrid. There is nothing wrong with this.
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The Manner of his Departure
Florentino Perez - a man obsessed with image and its positive projection for the club would have foreseen the impact of Iker's 'lonely' departure from the club. He knew that Madrid would be vilified for the manner by which Iker left - which is the reason why I truly believe he did not want Iker's farewell to happen in the simple, austere way it did. It is for this reason that he sent Raul and Guti off with much more pomp and ceremony: putting their trophies won on display in their farewell press conferences, getting their mentors to speak (Jorge Valdano, in Raul's case - or was it Butragueno), heart-wrenching videos and incredible tributes. And it is for this reason why after being vilified and demonized in the media for Iker's first farewell, that he's had to scramble to put together an awkward follow up
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It was widely reported that the stadium was being prepared for Iker's departure - that Perez was seeking Porto out to play the Trofeo De Santiago Bernabeu to honor Iker. And that all of this was supposedly turned down by Iker himself.
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I have too much respect for Iker to believe that he purposely chose this austere departure from Real Madrid to make Madrid look bad and ungrateful - to be criticized and vilified the world over... and for Madrid fans around the world to be humiliated by other club supporters by giving them bullets to criticize us with. His emotions were real: he shattered to leave Madrid. But his heart is not filled with the same bitterness and spite as that of his parents, or for that matter, as that of many of his die-hard supporters.  
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I would rather believe that Iker chose to leave in a manner that was true to who he was: a simple boy from Mostoles who never fussed about the glamour or gliteratti.
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Thank You
I'd like to end with some wise words from a Twitter Friend: 
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"It is possible to have wanted Iker Casillas replaced on a sporting level, while also respecting him." 
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I whole-heartedly agree with this. The time had indeed come for him to leave - perhaps it even came too late. As painful as it was to realize it, I had reached this conclusion some time ago and was more expectant and curious rather than anxious, angry and bitter about his departure. It was never going to be easy.
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I've openly told people that I am a Real Madrid fan today thanks to Zinedine Zidane. It has been 10 years since he retired, and in those 10 years, players like Kaka (Milan), Ronaldinho, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi have emerged possibly as greater players than him in the bigger scheme of things. Yet none have made my heart stop like Zidane. 
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Real Madrid will have many other great goalkeepers in the years and decades to come. None of them however will ever be greater than Iker Casillas. I say that with part objectivity and part sentimentality. 
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A Big Thanks Capi!