Saturday, June 7, 2008

Reflecting on Player Movements in the Calderon-Mijatovic Era. (Part 1)

Yes indeed we are the champions!
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And now that all the euphoria in me is starting to die down, I find myself pondering and reflecting on all that has gone in the past 2 seasons that have bourght us our first back to back title in a very long time.
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Fuck all those who say that Real didn’t deserve the win this year or that the title victory is not impressive as they reason that Barca were just poor. Let me point out that for the most part, for some reason, Real and Barca are hardly at the top of their game simultaneously. Historically, while one of them does well, the other for some reason, is going through some form of crisis, and this year is no different.
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With my pondering and reflecting, I found myself thinking of the ‘thematic’ of AS’s issue today…
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AS did a nice piece today featuring the personnel moves undertaken in the Calderon administration primarily with the much-maligned Pedja Mijatovic at the helm of player recruitment as the Sporting Director. I would say that for the most part, I do agree with the AS’s ‘conclusions’ to say that Mijatovic has indeed done a very good job of rebuilding the squad in the Post-Galactico era.
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Let’s have a look at the Major Moves in the past 2 years and my thoughts on them: (I’ll be posting them progressively):
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Arrival – Fernando Gago:
Gago came into Real Madrid with Emerson and Diarra having been confirmed as the first choice holding midfielders in Fabio Capello’s ‘Double Pivot’ system (4-2-3-1): that is a 4-5-1 system on defense that supposedly becomes a 4-3-3 when on attack. But with 2 holding players who specialize in intercepting, robbing balls, rough and tumble play and hacking off other players’ legs, that’s not really going to be an offensive team: even when you do have the ball. You can’t blame Capello: the last time Real won titles, we had Claude Makelele sweeping up all the rubbish before Zidane could work his magic, so it was logical for us to try to get one of these types of players again: thus Diarra and Emerson.
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I would say that the brilliance in getting Gago into the squad stems from a simple notion that Mijatovic (or Miguel Angel Portugal or whoever it is who made the decision) had: that even if it was unquestionable that Madrid needed a holding midfielder, they wanted one who had the supposed panache of a Real Madrid player. Makelele was never deemed to have been the ideal holding player among Real’s fans, but it was ‘The Prince’: Fernando Redondo. Madrid fans were never impressed by terrier-like defensive midfielders in the Gattuso, old: they were impressed however by tactically and positionally astute, technically proficient and elegant players.
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Gago was only 20 (I think) when he joined Real after impressing for Boca Juniors where he earned plaudits to become considered as the ‘next Fernando Redondo’. He is not a physically imposing or intimidating player, not great in the air, not known as a hard-tackling, ball-winning player. Instead, like Redondo, he’s great at positioning himself on the pitch, anticipating plays, intercepting balls and his best traits are his passing range, ball distribution and poise to keep the offensive momentum going even when he’s being swarmed by defenders. In the beginning, he seemed to be a bit lost at times, save for a few performances here and there where he has impressed. This season though, in the absence of Diarra for the African Cup of Nations, he has stepped in and played a pivotal role in the squad and played the holding role his way. It won’t be long before he’s one of the first names on the teamsheet for every match. Here’s the really nice part about it:: He’s only 22.
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Whether he will end up displacing Diarra from the starting lineup for good remains to be seen. But in Gago, we now have a mainstay holding midfield player who resembles one of the Bernabeu’s old heroes… and with Diarra (more on him later), Real have 2 different players of real class to pick from as each game needs.
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Arrival - Gonzalo ‘Pipita’ Higuain
He only scores the big ones. Perhaps that’s how I’ll start describing him. I had no idea who he was when he joined, only that he was a hot ‘prospect’ known for scoring a huge goal in a River Plate vs. Boca Juniors match (the Argentinean ‘El Clasico’)… that he was but a kid. That Capello thrust Gago right into the lineup upon joining was understandable… since Emerson had been hurt and he need d to make his double pivot work. What was odd to me however was how Higuain was also an almost-immediate trusted member in Capello’s rotation.
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Then the Madrid derby came along and he scored the goal that saved our cheeks on the day that Fernando Torres was able to finally score against RM. Then…of course, who could forget that goal vs. Espanyol in that 4-3 victory?
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He started out this past season scoring mostly garbage time goals. Midway through the season, he became the guy whom Phil Ball described as: “Where Higuain needs 10 chances to score 1 goal, RVN needs one chance to score 10.”
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That is until crunch time of the season started to roll by: consecutive goals off the bench scoring crucial goals, including the title winning volley versus Osasuna. RVN was onto something when he took this kid’s jersey and showed it to the fans in that Espanyol game: he is looking more and more like one of the future cornerstones for this Madrid side.
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Roncero is already calling him the re-incarnation of Juanito (his new hairdo seems to indicate that he's more keen to be likened to Mijatovic though, haha). If you ask me, it won’t be too long before Raul takes his final bow and Higuain, will take his place as Madrid’s ‘in-between/in-the-hole’ man up front. Now that the offseason is on, and talk is rife about Madrid getting a new striker as a band-aid should RVN be unavailable. With ‘El Pipita’ growing up and developing at this rate, maybe the need for that other striker won’t be as critical.

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