Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Madrid's Midfield - The Missing Link?

Original Article at can be found here

Johan Cruyff, looking on with frustration at Barcelona's failings against Betis, yesterday remarked that the blaugrana either won or lost games in midfield. It wasn't so much the defensive errors or any given forward's misfirings that did it, but rather a fine connection between the three lines.

Bernd Schuster, who watched his side rack up an impressive 3-1 win over Sevilla on Sunday, must have thought much the same. The blancos certainly looked the part in their central line, and were well worth their two-goal margin of victory. Of the four out-and-out midfielders taking
However, Madrid's recent record speaks for itself: they lack consistency. But this is especially true away from home - far more than it is on their own patch.
Home Comforts
Indeed, it is at the Bernabeu that Madrid's midfield really looks the part. This is for a variety of reasons.
First of all, there is no denying its inventive nature. Robinho made the team tick earlier in the season with his audacious runs and ability to bear a man, but even without him - as against Sevilla - the Bernabeu men can now call on the newly-uninjured Arjen Robben, and also Wesley Sneijder (who is increasingly drifting outwards), to create chances from out wide.
Then there's Guti in the middle, who needs little introduction, and the increasingly important input of Fernando Gago. Sneijder, too, is considered more of a central player despite his recent switches in the formation, and is capable of the killer ball himself.
Above all, there is plenty of movement, and against teams that sit back, this is absolutely deadly - and it's what wins matches.
On The Road
Away games, however, tell a different story.

The rest of the Liga - particularly since the New Year - often have a go against Madrid in front of their own fans. Whether it's down to pressure from their own supporters, or the manager feeling that Madrid are there for the taking, inventive players are often employed.

That goes some way to explaining why Madrid often struggle even against those outfits that by rights shouldn't trouble them. Recreativo put two past them because the likes of Carlos Martins were completely underwhelmed by the prospect of going forward against Baptista, Gago and even Diarra, and the Huelva men almost took a point for their troubles.

Even at home, one gets the feeling that Madrid were spared by the fact that Sevilla didn't employ a midfield playmaker, or at least ask one of their usual players to deputise as one. As is their usual tactic, they went with a hard-hitting duo of Keita and Poulsen in the middle. Neither is particularly famed for their attacking nous away from home, and as such Gago did not too often have to deal with being run at by a skilful player. This worked in their favour.

But in the earlier Liga fixture against the rojiblancos, either one or both of the central players was given a slightly more advanced role, and that's one that put Madrid - who in fact conceded early on to none other than Keita himself - in difficulty. That was with both Gago and Diarra playing, and Guti far (far, far...) ahead of them, signalling that there are some central weaknesses that must be addressed on the capital side's travels.

The Answer?

What, then, should be done?

If Madrid are to become a seriously consistent team next season, then the anwer perhaps lies more in a change of players than a change of tactics.

If you look at some of the other top midfield duos, you see that a "good cop, bad cop" dynamic sometimes plays out. Flamini, while not yet the finished article, is already marking himself out as the enforcer to Fabregas' playmaker, although the two can in fact sometimes overlap. The same goes for Gattuso and Pirlo (with Gattuso, in my estimation) actually having more range to his game than he's given credit for.)

At Madrid, Diarra was originally to be charged with the holding role, but received wisdom at the club is that he's not able to hit the heights expected of him. (Not that these expectations are easy to meet: former Madrid president Florentino Perez, of course, once famously deemed Claude Makelele incompetent in the, er, Makelele role.) With the Malian now out of favour, Gago has pretty much by default become the sitting-back midfielder.

This is not fair on the young Argentine. It's true that he came to the club with something of a defensive reputation, but he is not a "meaty" player in the Poulsen mould. He does what he can, but when faced with one inventive midfielder or two ambitious ones, he can often get swept away, rendering his other talents moot.

Sure, Gago could be replaced, but he looks to be one for the future, and has already progressed not only since his arrival at the club, but even during the current season. One feels that there is more to come from him, whereas the same cannot be said of the main two opponents for a central berth (assuming, as we must, that Sneijder is going to be employed in all sorts of positions.)

In short, if Madrid are to get the best of Gago - and the best results - they'll need to have someone tougher than Guti alongside him, at least away from home. Guti is indeed vital in that he can play the killer ball - he's hit something in the region of 14 assists already this season - but the frailties that he gives the side may in fact counterbalance such benefits.

But although this change is based more on personnel than strategy, it still draws inevitable comparisons with the days of 4-2-3-1 under Fabio Capello. This double-pivot was seen by the top brass as being too negative, not at all becoming of the Madrid way - and this among other things cost the Italian his job. (And it didn't work at Sevilla.) Schuster, or whoever succeeds him, daren't run the same risk.

The only solution, then, could be to find an all-round midfielder who is capable of tracking back, but also of playing the killer ball. Not quite box-to-box, but certainly someone who can get stuck in when the game calls for it. A Guti with balls on.

A mere handful of such players exist. Can Madrid land one?

from: Ewan Macdonald,

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