Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Recovery (Real Madrid 2 - Levante 0)



Kaushik, Ryan and I talked about last Sunday's win vs. Levante, rejoice over Modric and Ramos' return and ponder the Bernabeu's right to boo. The podcast can also be listened to / downloaded here:
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Ah, a win at last. I never thought I'd find myself saying that while referring to this Real Madrid, but here I am. We've lost to Athletic Bilbao and then a really embarrassing one to Schalke - a week before a Clasico. That's the absolute WORST way to 'prepare' for the game which may decide the fate of our league campaign. We needed a win really badly, not just because the night started with Barcelona ahead of us by 4 points on the table, but also because we needed that vital sense of self-belief that we are capable of winning at the Camp Nou.
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Physical Recovery
Sergio Ramos started and played the full 90 minutes. Luka Modric started and played more than 70. Toni Kroos on the other hand, did not play. All three went through some form of a recovery process. Whether it's to get themselves into up-to-par conditions in terms of match fitness after missing so many games (Ramos, Modric), or getting a rest (Kroos), Real Madrid are getting the much-needed physical recovery that's critical for the homestretch of the season. If there was ever a reason to have optimism in the face of the 2015's bad results, those reasons have always rested on the return of our key players who had gone down through injuries (Modric, Ramos, James) as well being able to find the opportunity to allow the team's 'over-played' members to recuperate from having too much mileage on their legs (Kroos). 
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Coming away with a win while resting Kroos in particular was very important. Kroos is not the most physically gifted player of the team, his game instead is an extremely cerebral and technical one. Rahul summed this up with a very astute observation (in a comment he made in last weekend's podcast): that the German seems to have a 'sixth sense' of knowing that a tackle is coming and where it's coming from. As fatigue sets in however, his ability to do this diminishes, and so does his other critical mental / cognitive faculties in reading the game, facilitating play, opening spaces for team mates and dictating the tempo of the game.
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Tactical Recovery
Last night, there was a noticeable drop in Real Madrid's level in terms of dictating the tempo of the game from the 'Kroos position', which was played by Lucas Silva. That drop however (also possibly due to the quality, or lack thereof of our opponents) wasn't too significant - and thus Real Madrid did not suffer too much in Kroos' absence. Because while Lucas did not have Kroos' considerable 'court vision', Lucas is not a 'ball stopper.' The momentum of the team's buildup play basically doesn't come to a halt when the ball is played to him, as he is capable of pinging it about even if it won't necessarily pierce the heart of the opponents' defense. It must also be noted that Lucas Silva also has an impressive passing range and offers an added layer of physicality to the center of the Madrid midfield. Finding an understudy to Kroos who isn't a ball stopper (like Illaramendi) is a big step forward for the club: it enables us to rest the German ahead of big matches without paying too steep tactical price.
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The best part of the night however for me as a Real Madrid fan, was seeing a short scrawny Croatian midfielder wearing #19 play. Madridisimo has greatly missed Luka Modric and it's easy to tell that the team plays at a much higher level with him on the pitch. Even in that disastrous performance midweek last week against Schalke, Real Madrid looked far better and far more balanced with Modric around. The really funny thing about Modric however is the team not only becomes considerably far better when pushing the ball forward to attack when he's around. Defensively, we are a far better side too with him - and this is a big surprise when we realize that the players who have recently been asked to fill the void he has left in his absence are players whom we all perceive to be more defensive than him (Khedira, Illaramendi and to a lesser extent, Lucas Silva).
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The key to Modric's success in his position is his very deep understanding of it, and the fact that he is comfortable in both the advanced areas and deeper positions of the pitch. This gives him the ability to know when to push up with / without the ball and when to sit back. This is in contrast to Khedira and Illara who are both more comfortable sitting deep and so when asked to perform the 'Modric role', either get lost at sea mindlessly wandering forward while leaving gaps behind without necessarily contributing significantly on attack (Khedira), so sitting so deep that his front 3 become isolated and become ineffective (Illaramendi). The troubling thing for the 2 however is that they also seem to be ineffective in ball recovery once its lost. This thus brings us to the ultimate curiosity re: Modric - that Modric is also better at performing the defensive requirements of his role as compared to his naturlly 'more defensive' substitutes (Khedira and Illara).
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Mental Recovery
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So only after he scores 2 goals does the Spanish Media start talking about Bale's extra hours in training to regain his form.
What was perhaps most encouraging for me last Sunday however was how Real Madrid did NOT start the game asleep. Within seconds from kickoff, the match's 'zone of play' almost immediately shifted to the final third of the pitch around Levante's goal, with possession, ball recovery and movement into space creating danger and scoring chances for Real Madrid.
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It must be said however, that if there was one Madridista whose game was characterized as a form of mental recovery, then it would have to be Gareth Bale. His first goal was an astute finish with his weaker right foot, an instinctive finish of great class. His second goal in my opinion was really more of a fluke. To me at least, the replays clearly show Bale attempting to GET OUT of the way from the ball's path upon Ronaldo's vicious strike. It deflected off his shin as he attempted to backpedal away from the path of the ball, and into the net. And just like for the first goal, Ronaldo's strike looked to be on target, but this time with a cannon-ball-like speed towards goal.
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For Gareth Bale however, I would also like to look at his performance not merely because he was able to get on the scoresheet and break the unpleasant streak of 8-9 games without a goal. Gareth Bale's performance on the night reminded me of the sort of performance we see from Chelsea's Eden Hazard: he's not the destroyer of worlds in the way that CR and Messi are, but he was most definitely the man who gave you the feeling that if his team was going to get on the scoresheet, that he was somehow going to be involved. This is the sort of performance we need to encourage from the Welshman: that if the goals and assists aren't necessarily coming, the constant effort and willingness to be an absolute pest on attack ought to be the minimum we should expect from him. With the benefit of hindsight, I would think that I'd still be praising his performance even if he did not score the goal.
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Recovering Ronaldo
In startling contrast to Bale however is our very own superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Much has been said about his performance and also his reactions during the game - some of which have shockingly earned him boos, whistles and white handkerchiefs. And let me just say that I'm deeply disappointed by the behavior of these spoiled fans. Many of them seem to have forgotten that if it weren't for Cristiano, we would be out of the Champions League by now.
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Ronaldo had a bad game, let's all admit that. Even he knows that, which in my opinion, explains his reactions on the night. Cristiano is lacking that final edge of sharpness: that final inch of precision in his game that would turn a touch into a goal and a flick into a perfectly-laid assist. Playing time and confidence and encouragement are the only antidotes to Ronaldo's current doldrums. This is not a player who spent the night before the match in a nightclub chugging booze. This is a player who spends every second of his existence to the perfection of his craft as a footballer. And on the days where things don't come off, fans like ourselves ought to rally behind him to offer him support, and lay down our brickbats.
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The most disappointing criticism of all in my opinion come from those who knock on Ronaldo by claiming that he isn't happy for Bale's success (at scoring 2 goals, both created by him). This is horseshit. Watch the replays again and one will realize that Ronaldo is pounding the floor NOT because Bale had slammed in the rebound of his acrobatic shot cleared off the line, and thus scored, but because he is upset with himself as to why his body was not able to contort itself to the perfect state in needed to be in to execute that magnificent attempt at a bicycle kick. Ronaldo is NOT unhappy over his teammates' success. He is unhappy because he is trying so hard to find his groove and is frustrated that he still can't manage to snap into it.
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Recovering The League
The Classic eleven Madrid
I'd feel pretty good about the chances of this Starting XI against Barca at the Camp Nou this weekend.
With the exception of James (who is replaced by the wonderful Isco), Real Madrid have completed the recovery of its team as it heads to the season's homestretch. Modric has the look of a man ready to play 90 minutes against Barcelona, and so does Ramos, following injuries to the 2. Kroos on the other hand got himself a much-needed rest while Bale got his much-needed goals.
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To tilt things further to our advantage: Barca have a midweek Champions League tie against Manchester City. Barcelona hold a 1 goal lead but have 2 away goals as they face a Manchester City side whose pride have been wounded by a weekend loss to Burnley. This is no dead rubber match. City have pride, survival and silverware at stake and can scare or damage Barca just as much as Schalke did with us.
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We on the other hand have a full week to recover. Let's us all hope that by the end of Sunday, the League has been recovered too.  

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Merengue Bites: Episode 26 - The BBC go 'Off the Air' Against Athletic Bilbao

It was a crappy Sunday evening. We lost to Athletic at the San Mames the night before, and Barca had just butchered Rayo Vallecano 6-1 to take a 1 point lead in the La Liga title Race... Rahul, Ryan and I tried to make sense of it all.
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You can also listen to the podcast here: 

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Hole in the Hole (Athletic Bilbao 1 - Real Madrid 0)

It's 9:43am on a Sunday morning, almost 7 full hours after Real Madrid's defeat at San Mames at the hands of Athletic Bilbao. It's incredibly depressing to realize that at exactly this time tomorrow, Barcelona will be league leaders. We've thrown away 5 points in 6 days, scoring only one goal - with ZERO scored in open play. That we conceded the goal in the first half of the first half is even more disturbing. For Real Madrid, if that's not a call for help, I don't know what is.
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The pattern of play has been all too familiar as well: Real Madrid are able to keep possession of the ball, have majority of it, but are unable to create enough clear cut chances. Athletic on the other hand, with their limited bouts of possession, are able to create adequate amounts on danger in the Real Madrid penalty box, one of which proved to be the fatal blow for us. 
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Are Real Madrid collapsing? Is this Carlos Queroz version 2.0 (for those who don't know / remember, the Carlos Queroz 'Galactico' Real Madrid went on a rampage during the first half of the season and then self-destructed with a freefall down the table during the second half of the season)?

Some have pointed to the BBC's lack of form: Cristiano Ronaldo does not look like himself, Bale looks like a 10m player, not a 100m one, and while one can say that if Benzema is the glue that holds them together, what he can produce without the 2 clicking, is sorely limited.
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A tweet that in my opinion sums up what's been wrong with the team.

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As I've thought deeper and deeper about the possible reasons for our disappointing performances, I'm coming closer and closer to the conclusion that there is something inherently wrong with the team's structure on the field as we've tried to compensate for the injuries of our key players on the pitch - particularly the midfield. As the disaster unfolded last night, a tweet caught my attention that summed the problem up: "The Front 3 are too far up on defense. Midfield too far back on offense. Zero Cohesion." 
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When I think about it, this problem of the 2 lines not being cohesive wasn't just last night's problem, but it's been the team's problem all this time since the loss of Modric. The subsequent loss of James on the other hand has made it even worse. Ronaldo's injury / drop in form adds to the problem but isn't a structural part of it. Bale's 'dip in form' though, is an outcome of this problem, not a source of it. Let me explain...
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Pre-Injury 2014-2015 Real Madrid
'Midfielder' is supposed to be Kroos. But the essence was simple. A dynamic 'triangular relationship' was created on each side of the pitch: CR-Marcelo-James on the left, and Bale-Carvajal-Modric on the right. The hub of each these 2 triangles was the Central Midfielder (Isco and Modric), whilst the hub that linked these 2 triangles together was Kroos.

With the losses of Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso in the offseason, Real Madrid managed to carry on with a similar system used by Ancelotti last season: a 4-3-3 which featured a deep-lying midfield playmaker (Kroos, whom Ancelotti very successfully adopted into Alonso's position), flanked by 2 Central Midfielders who pushed the ball forward to the front 3 when we had possession, whilst also linking up with our surging fullbacks. It took a while for James to figure it out, but once he did, things clicked.  
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The principle is quite simple though: a dynamic triangular relationship both in attack and on defense existed on each side of the pitch between the attacking winger, central midfielder and fullback. On the left, it was Cristiano, James and Marcelo while on the right, it was Bale, Modric and Carvajal. These 2 'triangles' had 2 hubs which connected them: Kroos at the base of the midfield triangle, and Benzema who connected everything up front.
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The success of the system however was dependent on a series of 'hubs' first is the Central Midfielder, who functioned as the 'hub' of each triangle (the second was Kroos, who has played at a pretty high level all through the season). On attack, the midfielder needed to push up and occupy part of the space normally occupied by a '10' in a 4-2-3-1 system. Whilst on defense, he needed to track back like a 'pivot' tasked to win the ball back immediately. James and Isco's (particularly last season) struggles with the role were more on the latter for obvious reasons (they were both natural '10's). Once thier adaptation was complete however, Real Madrid were off to the races, which included our record-run of consecutive victories. 
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Modric Goes Down
The loss of Modric to injury was a significant setback for the team. It forced Ancelotti to go for an Isco-Kroos-James midfield. The weakness of a Modric-less midfield was obvious though: Madrid's midfield became lightweight and thus more vulnerable to bigger, stronger and more physical sides. And while Isco is a fabulous player, his instincts as a '10' - to dribble the ball forward and beat opponents, was not exactly what the role called for, and occassonally slowed the build up of the team's passing rhythm. We did get by however through the players' sheer quality, allowing the streak to continue. We were also greatly helped by Isco's adaptation to the role as his confidence and form began to elevate. 
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Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel with James' Injury
Real Madrid may have had the quality to 'survive' and even thrive after losing 2/3 of its Champions League and Copa Del Rey-winning midfield. We may also have been able to survive losing the lone survivor of last season's midfield trio (Modric) with the rise of Isco. Losing 2 out of our 3 first choice midfielders THIS season however has had to mean scraping the bottom of the barrel. It meant trying Sami Khedira out whose fitness has been off for the last 2 season and whose mind is in vacation already (following the failure to extend his contract with the club) - and it also meant trying Asier Illaramendi out once again who has looked less and less convincing as the opportunities for him to prove himself have piled on. It also meant purchasing and trying Lucas Silva out in the Modric role with mixed results. 
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Last night's lineup vs. Athletic. There was a Big Hole 'in the hole' on the right side of the pitch. Illaramendi, Bale and Carvajal were instead just left to lumping crosses into the box.

Last night, Carlo Ancelotti tried to use (once again) Asier Illaramendi for the 'Modric role' and the outcome was a dud. Perhaps it is because the Basque is most comfortable sitting very deep. Illaramendi sat in line, or sometimes, even deeper than Toni Kroos in the Madrid midfield last night, creating a very unbalanced 4-3-3 for Real Madrid to play. 
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Mostly sitting in line with Kroos, many times deeper than the German, Illaramendi hardly occupied comfortably, much less attacked the space between Bale and Carvajal to function as the 'hub' of the 'triangle' on the right side of the pitch. It is the right side of this zone, referred to by many as 'the hole', which we didn't occupy effectively enough when on the attack with greatly reduced our ability to create. Thus in effect, with only Isco playing that space when we were on attack mode, there was a hole in the way we were trying to occupy and use that space referred to as 'the hole'. It also left Bale completely isolated, with only Carvajal to link up with on the right side of the pitch. In the end, the right-sided trio spent the entire night lumping mindless crosses into the box in the hopes of reaching  Ronaldo's head. Bale's most significant action of the night, a looping attempt at goal from the half-way line, came from the left side, which was where all the action was coming from as far as Real Madrid were concerned.
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Every promising move from Real Madrid came from the left side, with Isco doing his utmost as the hub of that left-sided triangle to play 1-2s with Marcelo and Ronaldo to create danger. On the right side however, there was hardly anything beyond what ultimately began to feel like mindless, irritating crosses.
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As the game wore on, with Athletic defending their lead, 2 solutions came to my ameteur-trying-to-be-a-tactician mind: The first was to swap Kroos and Illaramendi in their roles: let Illara sit in front of the 2 CBs, deep where he is comfortable, and allow Kroos (who used to be a #10!) occupy the Modric role, allowing him to push up and occupy the massive 'hole in the hole' which might have given Bale some support and given us a stronger presence in attack going forward. The second, was to play a 4-2-3-1: to let Kroos and Illaramendi both sit deep and allow Isco to push up and roam CENTRALLY to allow him to reach Bale as well. 
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Ancelotti instead decided to go for a 4-4-2: sending Jese on for Illaramendi, whilst leaving Madrid with a relatively lightweight midfield of Kroos and Isco. Ancelotti would later on send Silva in for Kroos, presumably to give the team an energetic pair of legs to support Isco who was in full-attack mode. Losing the numerical superiority at midfield however meant losing control of the game. In the final minutes, we were unable to put them under the sort of pressure needed to yield a goal and they were thus able to safely sail away with the 3 points.
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La Liga Hopes
Our La Liga hopes aren't dead yet. A win in El Clasico turns the tide back to our side, whilst Barca have to travel to the Sanchez Pizjuan to face Sevilla (us too), have to face Valencia at home (us too), a Catalan Derby and  a trip to the Calderon to face Atleti (week 37). Turning the tide however is no small matter. 
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Needless to say, talk of replacing Ancelotti, in my opinion is just plain stupid. There isn't a better coach in the sport at the moment who is more fit for the job at Real Madrid than the Italian, despite his imperfections. I would choose for the moment at least to ignore the fact that for a man with 3 European Cups, his league title trophy haul, is relatively small. But personality-wise he is the perfect fit for this team and all this talk of him not being hard enough on the team is utter rubbish. How many coaches can bring his team to league leadership with 2/3 of his midfield from the previous season replaced and during the current season, have yet another 2/3 of his midfield miss a serious number of games due to injury? 
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Being 1 point behind the league leaders after 26 matches is no big deal. Getting our heads right and the system right however, is the most important thing at this point. There's work to do, there are gaps to fill, and holes to plug. Ancelotti has 2 games to get it right. He should also remember to tell Kroos and Isco by the way, to watch out for those fouls and yellow cards. Both men are a yellow card away from missing the clasico. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Recovering (Schalke 0 - Real Madrid 2)

The boys got a much-needed injection of a positive vibe following last night's 2-0 win vs. Schalke at the Veltins Arena.
It's been a VERY LONG time since I've written about a Real Madrid game. To be honest though, it has felt just as long since I remember seeing Real Madrid play well enough to my absolute satisfaction. But what the hell, it's a long weekend here in Singapore, I missed last week's podcast, so what the heck right?
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Recovering from the Embarrassment at the Calderon.
If Depor at home in La Liga are a great side to use as a 'punching bag' (we didn't exactly punch the lights out of them last weekend), then Schalke away for the Champions League are a good 'next step' in our road to recovery from the humiliation at the Calderon.   
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They aren't some beast contender to win the Champions League (ala Bayern, Barca or Chelsea), yet they still possess the tools to punish you if you make the mistake of believing that you can sleepwalk through your match against them. They are 4th in the Bundesliga and can be fairly pegged to be at a similar level to Valencia, Villarreal or Sevilla in the Champions League - all of them teams who are capable of making us suffer, especially away from home. We can also factor in the Veltins Arena and their boisterous fans as another added 'level up', together with the residual German team hoodoo (most of which has been purged by last season's Champions League campaign). 
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Needless to say, despite the fact that it wasn't the 6-goal bashing that we delivered last season, considering our team's circumstances, it was nonetheless a test that we passed - or a test we passed with a pretty decent mark.
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Recovering Pepe
I'm conflicted about Nacho. When you isolate the plays involving him as he filled in for the absence of Pepe, it's hard to find fault. He's quick, alert, isn't sloppy with the ball and has his own ways for compensating for his lack of height (a pre-requisite nowadays to be a successful CB in the modern game). Having Pepe back in to pair with Varane however is a head-and shoulders level up for Real Madrid on defense.
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Chalk it up to experience, intimidation factor, or just plain quality, Pepe's presence was a welcome addition to the squad that brings confidence at the back (despite the occasional nervy moment). What's all the more important however is that somehow, Varane also plays better next to him. His presence not only levels up his specific position (taking the place of Nacho from the weekend) but also levels up Real Madrid's entire defense collectively.
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Lucas Silva's full debut (while awaiting the Recovery of Modric)
It was a good full debut for Lucas Silva. If this is the sort of performance we can expect from him, then I can say his purchase has been a very astute one.

The most notable name in last night's team sheet was that of Lucas Silva. After making his debut as a sub in last weekend's game, Carlo Ancelotti has finally decided that he was ready to make a full debut last night. And let's all admit it: even if it's 'just Schalke', getting your full debut in a Champions League last 16 tie against a German Team away from home is a pretty daunting proposition. 
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Let's all admit it: even though we kept winning towards late last year, the team has never been the same since the loss of Luka Modric. Modric brings defensive workrate and bite to the team TOGETHER with the ability to shuttle the ball forward vertically through his passing and mobility. A midfield of Kroos, James and Isco (playing for Modric) gives you some of the former, but sorely lacking in the latter.  When we are in possession, Isco in particular, gives us the incisiveness with his dazzling ability to dribble through multiple opponents, but he is no full-fledged central midfielder who can ping passes around to add momentum to Kroos' ball distribution. In effect, he adds something different from Modric - and while that may be a pretty good addition to the team's play, it's not as critical to the turning the team into 'beast mode' as Modric's style of play does. Without the ball, despite his much-improved workrate and willingness to track back and tackle, Isco is not quite as comfortable being in defensive mode as Modric either.
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Things have thus turned to shit for Real Madrid when we lost James. We are now without 2/3 of our first-choice midfield. And so I will say this: it doesn't matter if you're Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atleti, Bayern or Chelsea - if you lose 2 of your first choice central midfielders, you're team is going to be in for a massive drop in level of play with those losses. Thus, understandably, Ancelotti has to re-boot the entire midfield and has struggled to do so the last few months. He has essentially been scraping the bottom of the barrel: playing an Isco-Kroos-Illaramendi midfield, because they're the only ones left (even experimenting with Bale during the disastrous derby)! 
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If you've been watching Real Madrid play with the Isco-Kroos-Illaramendi midfield, then you wouldn't need to be a genius to see that Illaramendi isn't the man to play in Modric's place. It's notw becoming very very clear to me that he is a VERY poor man's Xabi Alonso. Also without the mobility, has a bit of the passing range, but without the ability to read the game as well as Alonso, and thus unable to make those one-touch long balls to advanced positions and dictate the tempo of play. In playing the Modric role, he has in my opinion, been a disaster. Essentially, he has been what basketball fans call a 'ball stopper': someone who kills his team's buildup momentum once he receives the ball. On attack, the 2 Central midfield roles on either side of Kroos require players to have the mobility to push the ball forward, the technical ability to keep possession and the momentum of the play to reach the front 3. Illaramendi mostly just receives the ball, and passes it backwards... or WORST of all: taps the ball with his foot 3-5 times, twists and turns as he's chased around by an opponent and then passes it backwards (or loses it) - totally sucking the momentum out of Madrid's buildup. In essence, Illara, despite his technical passing ability, lacks what Barca youth scouts like to call 'speed of thought'.
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In his full debut last night, Lucas Silva is not quite Modric who accelerates Madrid's momentum in possession, but Brazilian at least keeps the momentum going without killing it, pushing the ball forward, and can play the one touch pass when the circumstance dictates it. He was in essence, what I imagined Khedira would be like in a 4-3-3 without the injuries or the vacation-mode mentality. Without the ball, he displayed the physicality to throw himself about, winning and contesting balls but most importantly, offering the sort of mobility and muscle Madrid are sorely needing at the center of the park. If this is the sort of performance we can expect from Silva, at 14m for a 22-year old, to play the squad role of Illaramendi and Khedira, I'd say his acquisition has been an astute one for Real Madrid.
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Recovering Cristiano Ronaldo
The Cristiano Ronaldo we all want to see: Scoring and creating decisive goals for Real Madrid. 

It was not the sort of performance that earned him the Balon D' Or for the last 2 years, but Cristiano Ronaldo's 1-goal, 1-assist performance was a massive step towards making us remember him more for decisive moments on a football pitch in a Real Madrid uniform rather than ones in a Karaoke club in a silly hat.
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That his goal broke the deadlock and it was a vintage Ronaldo 'Beast' Mode goal (leaping like a Salmon) beyond multiple defenders to give Real Madrid the decisive lead was very critical. It wasn't one of those shit goals where we were up 3-0 (none of which was a CR goal) and someone wins a penalty for Ronaldo to score. The match had been a cagey affair up to that point until his moment of brilliance. Real Madrid needed that moment from Cristiano just as much as he needed it for himself. He would test Schalke's impressive goalkeeper just minutes later in what must have been his best Direct Free Kick attempt all season (despite having no goal to show for it). 
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It was a performance that merited the seriousness of Schalke's marking to open space for Marcelo to double the lead (with a beautiful goal) and nearly put the tie to bed. 
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Cristiano still lacks the explosiveness to blast past opponents in the manner that he did so casually no too long ago (now only Bale has that ability in the team, who by the way had another pretty good game last night). He tried more than a few times to knock the ball past an opponent and try to run past his marker to reach it - without success. Is it a matter of recovery (from a knock / injury)? or a matter of the jets having left him permanently due to father time? If the latter is the case, then Ancelotti must observe and accept it and so must Cristiano. This still does not worry me: Cristiano after all has another 5 years at least in his career as the world's best striker - and Ancelotti will need to re-shape the team once we all get to that point. 
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For the mean time however, it's great to see him back amongst the goals.
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Recovering
A telling moment for me from last night was Marcelo's touching hug with Carlo Ancelotti... and how the team collectively turned this very personal moment between the 2, into a group hug - a collective moment for the group. It speaks of what all of this means to the team. It speaks of the team's awareness of their collective burden and responsibility to recover from the doldrums suffered in the past several weeks - and the recognition of relief and feeling a sense of accomplishment and understanding that a significant step had been taken last night.
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Perhaps it was a reminder that the process of recovery cannot and probably should not be based on the simplistic notion just of blasting some poor team trying not to relegated by 6-7 goals - but that it is a gradual process. A process of healing from the mental scars and wounds suffered, a process of internalizing the shortcomings of the immediate past and learning from them, and a process of recovering the injured. Not just the physically injured and fatigued of course, but also those who have much recovery to do in terms of their intensity, focus and awareness.
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Make no mistake about it, the process isn't complete yet. Far from it. But last night might just have been a pretty significant step forward. And for now, that much is enough.
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p.s. A Happy Lunar New Year to all. Here's to a healthy and prosperous year of the goat!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Merengue Bites Episode 8 - The goals they are a flowin' edition

Kaushik, Ryan and I talked about Real Madrid's violent act of butchery at the Riazor over the weekend. Rahul missed out because he had to attend a wedding. He would later on say that had he known we were going to score 8, that he would have skipped the wedding. :)
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The podcast can also be downloaded here:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

In Need of Spinal Surgery (Real Madrid 5 – FC Basel 1)

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AS called it 'European Therapy', I on the other hand, think that the work which needs to be done ought to be something more along the lines of surgery.
It’s been 5 hours and I still can’t make up my mind: Did Real Madrid’s 5-1 win over Basel last night set a roadmap to recovery? Or was it a smoke and mirrors magic trick to deceive us into thinking that Real Madrid are not in crisis?
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Either way, it’s hard to imagine that Real Madrid raised La Decima only 7 (official matches ago). That beautifully fateful night in Lisbon seemed like it was a long time ago in light of the ‘crisis’ the club seems to be in at the moment (3 points from 3 La Liga games).
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In any case, I will leave it to others to decide / judge on whether Real Madrid are in crisis. What is clear to me however is that this season seems to be following the same pattern as last season: that the Real Madrid starts by beating ‘easier’ opponents (Cordoba, Basel, a Rakitic-less Sevilla) out of the sheer quality but suffers against tough, clever opponents who are unafraid to stand up to us. Last season, it was only in October, with the return of Xabi Alonso, where the team’s shape and style of play finally began to make sense and correspondingly gave us, the fans reason to believe that the team was going in the right direction.
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This season looks to be following the same pattern: a rough start in a struggle to figure out a tactical puzzle to fit the updated personnel pieces into a coherent style of play. Yes, yes, yes, it is outrageous to use this as a description to a Champions League-winning side – but it is what it is.
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Fundamentally, my assessment of the team is that it’s got a broken spine. Because while the team is world class along the flanks:  Marcelo/Coentrao + Carvajal at fullback, plus the glowing performance of Nacho at Right Back last night, together with Ronaldo and Bale at the wings (possibly with James as a backup in those wing positions, together with the much-anticipated return of Jese), right through the middle, the team is a tactical mess. From goalkeeper, to defense, to midfield, to attack, Carlo Ancelotti has much work to do.
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The ‘Back 3’ - Beat the Sacred Cows
Iker Casillas was the target of very audible boos and whistles all throughout last night’s game – an aftermath of the somewhat unfair blame placed on him from Tiago’s opening goal over the weekend. In my opinion, Iker was NOT at fault for any of Atletico’s goals. Both goals were conceded from shoddy defending. It is difficult however, to miss the fact that his confidence is at an all-time low. And for a goalkeeper whose assets are solely dependent on his confidence, this is fatal. His teammates know it too. At the Anoeta, Pepe and Ramos both chose to blitz the opposing wide player rather than hold their position in the middle to head / clear away the cross. The only logical explanation for this irrational decision of theirs is that they were too scared to deal with the incoming cross and thus instead chose to attempt to stop it from coming in the first place. If we were not bleeding points, then I would have no problem with this heroic attempt to restore Iker’s confidence. Having dropped six achievable points in the league though, I do think it’s time to let Keylor Navas have a try.
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Iker isn’t the only ‘Sacred Cow’ that needs to be whipped however. Pepe and Ramos also need to be jolted awake. The goals conceded last night, in the derby, and in the Supercopa were all classic examples of lapses in concentration from one or both Pepe and Ramos. We have the world’s best young Centerback on the bench – let him have a chance to show these complacent, sleepwalking fogies that their place in the starting XI isn’t guaranteed and that everyone needs to buck up.
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The Midfield – Trust Issues
I am most sympathetic to Ancelotti over what has happened to the midfield. Just as he thought he had the world’s best midfield (Kroos-Alonso-Modric), the rug gets pulled from beneath him (Alonso’s departure), leaving a gaping hole right through the epicenter of his team. No longer with the option of introducing a midfield utility man into the midfield (Khedira’s injury), Ancelotti is left with a question: Who does he trust more? Illaramendi? Or Kroos?
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I honestly find it a bit lazy when people simplistically believe that sending Illaramendi in to play the Alonso role is the solution to the midfield problem. While it is true that the Basque is more comfortable being the deepest in a midfield 3 and thus becomes the CBs last line of protection, Illara has yet to show us that he can be the team’s brain. Without the ability to dictate the tempo of the match, make passes that open up space for attacking players, or make those ‘armor-piercing’ long range passes, Real Madrid’s possession can easily become sterile if he fails to measure up.
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Toni Kroos possesses this ability. What he lacks is Xabi’s defensive positional sense and willingness to get his hands dirty with the requisite ball-winning responsibility that the ‘central pivot’ role demands. There are those who say that Kroos is too slow for the role, but since when was Xabi Alonso Usain Bolt?
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With the transfer window closed and Champions League under way, it is realistic to assume that bringing a ‘physical beast’ type of midfielder (e.g. Pogba, Vidal) even in January is a no-go. That will need to be a question for the next summer transfer window. Ancelotti’s only option now is to see who wins the race between Kroos and Illaramendi (who was given a run out last night) to play the Alonso role and successfully climb through the steep learning curve it requires. If Carletto is successful, we’ll have and answer by October (just like last season, where the answer was Alonso’s recovery). In the meantime, we’ll need to hope for more naïve opponents like Basel, who would be idiotic enough to give James, Modric and Kroos room to loop balls into space for Bale and Ronaldo to kill them with.
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The Striker Conundrum
The other end of Madrid’s spine is the team’s central striker. We’ve talked endlessly about how Benzema is the striker best suited to play with Ronaldo and Bale because of his unselfishness and the fact that he embraces his role as a ‘frontline facilitator.’ Having said all that however, 2 goals in 18 games (prior to last night). The BBC is NOT a one-way street. Benzema does not exist SOLELY to serve Ronaldo and Bale. Benzema himself ought to be capable of scoring on the multitude of chances (many of them on a silver platter) served up by Ronaldo and Bale to him. Getting on the scoresheet last night give him some momentary relief, hopefully for him, just enough for him to snap back into gear.
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Chicharito for me is not the answer. He is, in my opinion, a poor man’s Pippo Inzaghi. He can’t dribble through his opponents, can’t put in a defensive shift, can’t hold the ball up or be a target for an aerial ball. He is ‘only a goalscorer’ – which means that except for the times he scores, your team is effectively only playing with 10 men. He is thus perfectly suited to being a late game sub when you’re in need of a late goal. Chicharito is thus, to me, not someone who can be viewed as competition for Benzema.
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Real Madrid does however have a player, who likes to play as part of a front 3, can make the killer pass and is capable of scoring fantastic goals. He was in fact, the World Cup’s golden boot winner: step forward, 80-million man, and 2014 People Magazine Sexiest man in the world James Rodriguez (who opened his account with a poacher’s goal last night). I wish to be clear however that I’m not asking for Benzema to go to the bench – I would however, like to see Ancelotti give a Ronaldo-James-Bale front line a shot and in doing so, also allow Isco an opportunity to play as part of the midfield 3, where he has shown lots of improvement.  
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Not the time to push the panic button
All is not lost, there is still enough quality in this team for nights like last night. Ancelotti just needs to do more work to make the pieces fit together.
It’s early days and the time has not yet come to push the panic button. It can in fact be argued that had we won or drawn the derby Madrileno last weekend, things wouldn’t ‘feel’ so bad right now. Last night’s win might have been the equivalent to seeing the silhouette of the blueprint for the team to find itself once again. Either way, there is work to be done, and in Ancelotti’s case, some surgery to be performed.