Friday, April 24, 2015

88th Minute, Finally Getting a Win on the 8th Try

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It seems like a scene composed for an epic oil painting.
Orgasm. Catharsis. Nirvana.
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These were the words that I used to describe the sensations I felt at seeing Chicharito score last Wednesday's 88th minute goal and at hearing the referee blow the full time whistle that confirmed our entry to the Champions League Semi-finals, and sealed our first victory against Atletico Madrid in 7 matches.
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I once found myself describing the current La Liga landscape to my Premier League-supporting colleagues at work: For Real Madrid and Barcelona, the goal was to win the treble EVERY season. For Sevilla, Valencia (pre-Peter Lim), Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal: Europa League Minimum, hopefully a Copa Del Rey Final appearance but to at least have a shot at grabbing that last Champions League Spot. And for Atleti, or rather, the Diego Simeone Atleti: to challenge the big 2 for the league title (Champions League qualification as a minomum) and to win Copa Del Rey. But perhaps more importantly for Simeone's Atleti - to win the derbies against us... and if they can't win or even draw - to at the absolute very least, kick the shit out of us while trying.
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And in that regard, Diego Simeone's Atleti have been massively successful. After 6 winless games against them, a cloud seemed to have gathered above Real Madrid: it was as if the supernatural power that prevented them from beating us for more than 10 years not too long ago had changed sides and was now taking its grip over Real Madrid. 
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Last week, we didn't manage to beat them again. And though it was more ammunition for them to believe that the 'curse' had shifted fully onto us, our boys walked off the Calderon's turf believing that the curse had been broken. With Modric and James back in our midfield, not only were we unafraid of the physical brutality and the irritating gamesmanship they were capable of perpetrating, we actually beat them back into their own half, forcing them into a tiny little corner with only Jan Oblak there to save their skins. Our boys walked off the Calderon pitch with their heads held high, nodding in unison: 'we'll get you in the Bernabeu'. Until Benzema, Bale and Modric got hurt. And then the quivering began again (at least among fans like myself). 
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Carlo's Clever Move
Carlo Ancelotti however, was completely unshaken. 'Why worry about those who can't play? We should instead think about those who can." he said (I paraphrase). "I have the best squad in the world" he confidently said. It seemed like a statement meant to induce confidence at a time of uncertainty and worry over the loss of so many key players. Today, I now know that it was uttered in absolute self-confidence. 
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Carlo it turned out, had a clever little idea in his mind. While Madridisimo shook in fear, recalling Borussia Dortmund and Schalke at the thought of Illaramendi and Khedira taking up Modric's midfield place, Carlo pondered a series of facts: outside of Isco, he did not fully trust any of our midfielders completely beyond the first choice XI. He did however have an oversupply of world-class talent at CB. So he boldly decided to revisit his old idea of playing one of his CBs as a CM (he was vilified for it when he tried it in his first clasico). 
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His choice amongst the 3 was also as inspired as it was clever. Pepe could push the ball up on 'raids' forward (both offensively in runs with the ball that might remind some of the Brazilian Lucio and defensively in the manner Mourinho deployed him in the infamous 'trivote'), but we didn't need someone who could do so recklessly and risk defensive positioning. He needed someone who could hold his position, spray a few passes and bang bodies in the midfield. Occasionally, this player would also need to defend the right flank when Carvajal is caught upfield, and might even need to deliver a cross from the right flank should he find himself in that position while his team had the ball. Ramos, an ex-RB was the perfect choice. 
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This also had another knock-on effect: it gave us another tool to counter Atleti's favorite attacking weapon: the set piece. Having Ramos, Varane and Pepe all on the pitch meant there were more defenders on crosses and corners into our box. It also meant more targets for our attacking players to deliver crosses and corners to.  
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Make no mistake about it: Ramos is no Modric. His passes were mostly redundant sideways passes or back passes. He hardly penetrated the Atleti defense either. But thinking about it: how was that any different to what Illaramendi or Khedira could deliver for us in that role? Apart from set piece contributions, Ramos was also a bruiser - a meathead enforcer capable of trading blows and dirty tricks with Atleti's Dark Arts Masters - Arda Turan and his red card would tell you all about it. 
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JCC (James, Chicharito and Cristiano)
JCC doesn't have quite the same ring as BBC. The decision to push James to the front 3 whilst Isco took his midfield place was completely logical and is something that we've seen before. With Ronaldo's explosive pace seemingly gone however, large part of last Wednesday's game felt like it was in dire need of Gareth Bale. Without the Welshman however, our next best speed demon was Jese, and literally just minutes before we scored, I had tweeted my wish to see Ronaldo pushed on to become a full-fledged Center Forward and to have Jese replace Chicharito.
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But alas, Carlo's faith in that front 3 combination would pay off with the move that won us the tie: a 1-2 combination between CR and James - Ronaldo drawing 4-5 defenders, plus the goalkeeper's full attention, then a pass to Chicharito who scored his trademark late-game tap-in. 
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Ancelotti's Triumph
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Carlo Ancelotti was the undisputed winner in the battle between the 2 Madrid coaches last Wednesday
It was an absolute triiumph for Carlo Ancelotti. On defense, Varane headed away 32,871,239 Atletico Madrid deliveries to the box, At midfield, the Ramos gamble gave us solidity, and extra man on set pieces and a talismanic figure who not only kept Atleti's bullies away, he managed to get one of them (Turan) sent away too! Simeone waited for Carletto's boys to lose patience, lose their nerves and make a mistake to pounce on. They didn't. The boys embraced the virtue of patience Carlo preached. And as they did, Simeone found himself playing a waiting game for extra time and penalties, sinking deeper and deeper into defensive mode. By the time Chicharito scored, Simeone had 10 men, 3 used substitutes and a spent Mario Mandzukic as his only offensive weapon. 
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Our wily Italian coach, had backed their supposedly fearsome Argentine coach into a cul-de-sac he couldn't get himself out of. 
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There are only 2 hours to go for the Champions League Semi-final draw as I write this. There are no more draws that can be deemed easier than the other. We are in true European giant territory now - the place for everyone to be at their absolute best.
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We should not forget however that our hunt for La Liga resumes on Sunday as Barca play the Catalan Derby at Cornelia El Prat while we travel away to Vigo to face Luis Enrique's old charges, Celta. There will still be no Modric and no Bale. And just like last Wednesday, no room for error.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Arise Real Madrid, Arise! (Real Madrid 9 - Granada 1)


Kaushik and I talked with glee about Real Madrid's 9-1 win vs. Granada. You may also listen to/download the podcast here:

As a Real Madrid fan living in Singapore, I’ve had all sorts of meals watching my team play during ungodly hours: mostly ‘midnight snacks ’ for 2/3am kickoffs and unusually early breakfasts for 4-6am kickoffs and if I was lucky, dessert for 9-11 pm kickoffs. I have had, on occasion enjoyed a Real Madrid game over dinner (8-9pm kickoffs). I have however, never had caught a Real Madrid game BEFORE dinner. Last night was my first – watching the game between split-seconds of spoon feeding a toddler. It was a lunch time kickoff for Real Madrid, and I imagine the schedule of the match was a tricky one for their meal schedules too. So they decided to have Granada for Lunch.
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9-1. It was exactly the scoreline and the performance that our team needed following last matchday’s clasico loss. Nevermind that Granada were shit. Apart from fitness and fresh legs, what the team REALLY needed was a boost in confidence. And if a 9-1 win can’t give you a psychological shot-in-the-arm, then absolutely nothing will.
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Midfield – James is Back
They are now all asking who sits on the bench now that James is back. While this may be bad for one of the 2, this is NOT bad for the team - and we should all think on those terms at this point of the season
We received the news that James started training with the team following the Clasico. The sceptic in me thought of it as a PR stunt meant to revive the downtrodden morale of the Real Madrid faithful, but if it was serious, then it was great news. With a fully-fit squad, we can have at least 2-3 weapons off the bench when things soured for us. I had thus earmarked the 2 Champions League Derby games for us to see a fully-fit James Rodriguez: expecting to see a 30-minute cameo, followed by a 1 hour performance, before we finally see him play a full 90 minutes, hoping that he could hit peak form in time for the 2 derbies. I was thus expecting to see Lucas Silva play instead of the suspended Isco last night. It was instead a pleasant surprise to see James start.
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‘Simplicity’ was a word constantly used by my fellow Merengue Bites Podcaster Ryan to describe James’ play. It is however not a word we would normally associate with a player whose natural position is as a ‘10’. Players such as James normally have their team built around them and are relied upon to ‘elaborate’ the game in the final third to create scoring chances for their teammates.
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The ‘simplicity’ required to play a central midfield role in a 4-3-3 however, is a very difficult level to achieve. Deciding when to make a one-touch pass, to stop the ball and pass it again, to pass it backwards (to the holding player / a CB) to ‘recycle’ the ball, to run with it, to loop it over swarming defenders or to attempt to thread the ball ala Guti is a very tricky balance that very few Central Midfielders can do. Modric comes to mind, but beyond that, there are very few. And for a natural ‘10’, James seems to be quite a natural for the role as well.
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With him and Modric on either side of Kroos, a very natural fluid rhythm settles in to the team, making the play very fluid and keeping the momentum going. It brings our minds back to the 22-consecutive-match-winning team of the 2014-2015 Real Madrid. And I will admit that I haven’t realized how important he is to the team all this while. Maybe it’s because I’ve been blind to his 11 goals and 12 assists so far this season (across La Liga, CL, and CDR): that’s 23 goals he’s been directly involved in!
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The BBC starts broadcasting again!
Cristiano's BAAAACK!
Real Madrid fans have had genuine reason to be alarmed by the very dramatic dip in form across the board that has happened to our front 3. Benzema started 2015 with promise but tailed off as the year went on. Ronaldo was reportedly nursing some sort of knee ache (a fact that made us hold our breaths for a while when we saw him slam his knee onto the goalpost), which also went along with his post-Irina heartache. Gareth Bale on the other hand couldn’t make an obvious pass when an open teammate was clearly within reach, nor could he score on legitimate chances which last year’s Gareth Bale would have handily put away.
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Last night however, the BBC was back in full broadcast mode. The opener came from Gareth Bale, who pulled off a manoeuvre that had flashes of Raul and Emilio Butragueno’s goals running through my mind – nearly the last sort of players I’d ever find myself reminding me of Gareth Bale (who is more about pace and power rather than touch and finesse). Bale was in full service mode too: assisting goals and associating well with those around him.
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And while we all marvel that the technical brilliance of Karim Benzema yet again (who has ‘quietly’ amassed 21 goals and 10 assists in La Liga, CL and CDR – and we have 2 months to go in the season), everyone’s attention last night was on Cristiano Ronaldo.  Cristiano was finally back to his ‘usual’ self last night: unstoppable, irresistible and irrepressible. It was a classic case of Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s ‘Ketchup Theory’. Cristiano Ronaldo simply needed to un-choke the bottle. Last night, he completely shattered it. The key thing for me however was that many of the goals that Ronaldo scored last night were goals that the early-2015 CR7 would NOT have scored. His 5-goal burst is sure to give him that burst of confidence that he has sorely been missing these past few weeks / months, which will serve him in good stead as we head onto the business end of the season.
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30/30
Prior to the match, AS published a 30/30 campaign – a rallying call to repeat the accomplishment of Fabio Capello’s epic team that pipped Barca to the La Liga title for the first time in 5 years (?). It was an epic title run that I shall forever remember for little anecdotes like Ruud Van Nistelrooy holding up Gonzalo Higuain’s jersey to the Bernabeu crowd after an epic 4-3 win vs. Espanyol and Espanyol’s own Raul Tamudo torpedoing Barca’s title hopes with a late goal at Montujic. It was an improbable run of consecutive wins when all seemed lost until the title was won and Real Madrid fans the world over caused the Club’s official site to crash.
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As Barca struggle to 1-0 wins off improbable goals scored by their Center Backs towards this business end of the season, while our best players are regaining form and fitness, the time to get the momentum to build up has come. Real Madrid will not need to leave their city in the next 5 matches (until they visit Celta). It’s the perfect time to gain momentum (like last night), vanquish ghosts from the past (Atleti) and complete the resurrection that might just have begun this past Easter. 

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!