Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Reflecting on Player Movements in the Calderon-Mijatovic Era Part 6



Arrival – Roberto Soldado (back from loan from Osasuna)
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Before the Calderon-Mijatovic era, my memories of Roberto Soldado were about his goal scoring prowess while he was still at Real Madrid Castilla and his substitute appearances every so often in the first team. I remember seeing him score a crucial goal against a Greek Team (don’t remember who it was) in the Champions League. Then…. We sent him off to Osasuna…. Where he scored 13 goals (I think), which was enough for us to want him back… Only for Schuster to chuck him to the far end of the bench.
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There are a few crucial factors at play here: and it’s not the fact that Raul and Ruud are the unquestionable starting strikers. That’s elementary. It’s the general rotation scheme which Schuster had. His priority for the bench seemed to indicate a few things. Firstly, that he wanted Baptista ‘in the loop.’ As such, ‘The Beast’ was played as a striker / 2nd striker off the bench almost as much as he has played at midfield: minutes that could’ve been Soldado’s. Secondly, there’s the issue of Saviola as well… and later on Higuain, who started the season as the supposed substitute for the right side of midfield but then later on evolved as a striking option (he started slow, but his flurry of goals off the bench late in the season handed us the title much faster). Lastly, was the premature (or ‘scheduled’) end to Real Madrid’s Copa Del Rey Ambitions, a tournament which was supposedly his to showcase his abilities.
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I’m happy that this guy has chosen to be a gentleman in this difficult situation. I think Madrid owe him a good destination to move on to. Hopefully however, that people haven’t forgotten his 13 goal haul in Osasuna 2 seasons ago… all that extra cash will be needed by the club as we find ourselves once again pursuing another ‘galactico.’
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Promoted from the Youth Team – Miguel Torres
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If Miguel Torres can accept his role in this current team, then I believe that he will be able to manage a good long-enough stay at the club. And it will not be a Soldado-like situation. It’s very clear to everyone, and I’m sure it’s clear to him too, that he is the substitute of someone whom many believe is/ can be the best Right Back in the world: Sergio Ramos.
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Torres can go forward to cross balls in reasonably well (he assisted 2 goals for RVN last season, playing as a left back), can play decent defense, and best of all can play both as a right back and a left back, supposedly, he can even play center back. The bottom line is that he can be that utility defensive player off the bench for Madrid. Further down the line, offers will come for him to join another team to be a starter and he must decide: a guaranteed started in another (likely to be mid-table) team? Or as that utility defensive player for his boyhood club which also happens to be the biggest and greatest in the world?
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Considering the circumstances by which he arrived (filling in for injury and suspension gaps in the Capello-era), he has emerged as a comfortable squad player for the club. His value, though not explicit, is clear. I’m hoping he stays for many years and further develops. There’s no reason to believe he won’t.

Reflecting on Player Movements in the Calderon-Mijatovic Era Part 5



Arrival – Fabio Cannavaro
I for one am not quite convinced with Canna given the performances which he has tuned in while playing for Madrid. He struggled a lot in his first year, period. All the explanations are there: fatigue from playing a full season, then the World Cup, adaptation to the Spanish Game, adaptation to Real’s ‘offensive-minded’ system (under Capello!), etc. Bottom line is that we conceded a pile of goals and he almost now has a full deck of red and yellow cards to show for at the end of the season. He’s played better this season, though I won’t say that he’s been that rock in the defense.
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Cannavaro brought a few things to the table however: leadership, maturity, poise under pressure and a willingness to contribute to the cultivation of team spirit in a team filled with egos and distractions. I would say that he’s been instrumental in the development of the tightly-knit team that we now have today.
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He’ll be heading off to Napoli (his pre-retirement destination) by the end of next season… hopefully he rides off into the sunset with Madrid’s 10th. Either way, it’s still nice to have one of Italy’s finest be part of our team.


Arrival – Julio Baptista (Back from loan from Arsenal)
I’ve always been baffled by Baptista. He’s scored a ton of goals for Sevilla… which eventually took him to Madrid, where he found himself battling for an attacking midfielder / second striker’s position that was adequately filled up by Zidane and Raul already. So what’s the deal? Perez’s screwed up transfer policy is what it is!

Thus far, Baptista’s struck me as a kind of ‘poor man’s Frank Lampard.’ He won’t stun you with technical displays in ball handling or defense-splitting passes or even great fundamental link play. Ditto for his ability to boss the midfield, despite his ‘beastly’ size. What Baptista can do however, is score goals from midfield. He’s clearly not had the chance to do that of course.... since he alternates as a starter who gets substituded, a sub or a benchwarmer. He’s been one of those players whose role you can’t really figure out.

I get the feeling however, that talent-wise, he’s one of those in-betweeners. He can either be A.) a fundamental player in a mediocre / slightly-above mediocre team or…. B.) Be a squad player in a ‘World Power’ club. His talks with the media last season told us that he’s happy and keen to play in a ‘B’ situation. I think that this is the quandary that he will be facing for the rest of his career.

Offers have come in for him already… and he seems to be one of those players who can fetch a good price in the transfer market. Schuster has resisted from selling him thus far…. But something tells me that further down the line…. That question of that kind of player he wants to be will pop up… and when the answer becomes different, that’s another good commodity that can fetch a good price in the transfer market.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Reflecting on Player Movements in the Calderon-Mijatovic Era Part 4



Arrival – Mahamadou Diarra
Real’s website welcomed him by calling him an all-terrain vehicle. Simply put, in Diarra RM were able to finally have that player who can do all the dirty work to allow the creative players to flourish. Many (myself included) had simple-mindedly believed that RM had finally found the replacement for Claude Makelele.
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Diarra robs balls, intercepts, makes basic plays to distribute the ball and in many ways acts like a rudder to the team as it moves forward. Oftentimes, I’ve seen him step on the ball and somehow acts as the negative force that kept the team at bay from mindlessly surging forward (of course this didn’t work most of the time, but I appreciated the intent nevertheless). He tackles hard and is helpful in winning the ball in the air as well. And let’s not forget that though the 2nd goal vs. Mallorca is officially counted as an own goal, it was Diarra who created the goal.
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He will never play tiki-taka (though there were a few times late in the season where he showed flashes of that ability), which is why for some reason, some of the fans don’t appreciate him. I hypothesize that it’s a cultural thing for the Spanish not to like this kind of player, but the truth is Real needed him. He’s won consecutive titles with Lyon (5, I think) and 2 consecutive league titles now with Real Madrid. Certain people might argue that he’s just been lucky… I say he’s made his own luck. And RM are lucky to have him.
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Arrival - Marcelo
It’s a bit too much to be 18 and be labeled as the ‘next Roberto Carlos.’ You’re only 18 and already compared to the greatest left back of all time. Something was definitely off with that description. There are a few similarities though: he’s Brazilian, attack-minded and has great pace. Most of all, he can’t defend.
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Nobody will probably remember calling Roberto Carlos a lousy defender in his heyday. While he was able to conveniently blame his defensive lapses on his age (though the fact that Heirro watching his back had more to do with this) towards the end of his Madrid career.
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Marcelo however has been outed as a bad defender from the very beginning. His performances have been inconsistent not only in the level of his play but also in the characteristics of what he has brought to the game. We’ve seen him make those surging runs on the left flank early on in the season, but as the season wore on and it became clear that Madrid was most dangerous through the left (coz of Robinho & Robben), he then pulled back and decided that he wanted to try some of the tricks he’s supposedly learned from Cannavaro. The results have been varied.
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All in all, one can’t fault his signing, as he came on a winter break youth buying spree of RM which included Higuain and Gago to the team as well. Only time will tell if it was ever a good idea to bring him into the team, the upside is that given his age, he has plenty of time to develop…. And/or Madrid has plenty of time to look for a buyer.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Reflecting on Player Movements in the Calderon-Mijatovic Era (Part 3)

Arrival – Arjen Robben
My cousin is among many who have called him the ‘glass man’. 36 million euros I would say I too much money for a guy who has spent the bulk of the past season on the injury list. Considering that Robinho was already the ‘holder’ of the Left Flank in attack and that we had already purchase Royston Drenthe at the time we bought him, I would say that it was pretty clear that his purchase was a political one: for Calderon to be able to show face to say that he is ‘on his way to fulfill his electoral promises.’
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What actually happened during the season turned out to be different: After beginning the season in blistering form, Robinho got hurt and mysteriously took a long time to ‘recover’ (we’re really not sure if he slacked or if his injury was just that bad). Drenthe on the other hand, turned out to be not really ready. And just when the Robinho-Drenthe situation had turned RM’s strength into a weakness, in comes Robben to fill in the gap and fill in very well, having just recovered from his injury.
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Bringing, glimpses of his form from his Chelsea days, Robben has come in with his lighting displays along the wings, slicing up defenses with his mazy dribbling and crossing. By the end of the season, he has appeared on a significant amount of highlight reels for RM’s past season: creating chances, assisting & scoring crucial goals (even with his head!).
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At the end of the day however, we can only really say that Robben’s acquisition has been a good one based on the actual number of games that he’s appeared in. Because if all we’re going to get from him for the rest of his stay in RM is a rendition of ‘Glass Man’, then those 36 million euros would have been money not well spent.
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Arrival – Gabriel Heinze
Roberto Carlos’ legend status in RM folklore that allowed him to be known as the best left back in the world was partly secured by then Captain Fernendo Hierro (with partner Helguera during better days): the old captain was able to cover the empty spaces he left as he charged forward to trouble defense with his pace, crossing ability and cannonball shot. Post-Hierro however, people has just branded R. Carlos as reckless and old as the gaps he left were left exposed and was tuned into madrid’s clear weakness for other teams.
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Thus, coming in, Gabby Heinze, has proven to be just the kind of medicine that the Real Madrid back 4 needed: an experienced and hard-nosed, defensive-minded DEFENDER, albeit left-sided one, who would be more keen to hack a few legs off of his opponents rather than mindlessly race forward to leave his back exposed. He is the perfect polar opposite to the baby Roberto Carlos-esque (albeit in much more naïve sense) Marcelo in the left back spot. Then of course there is his versatility to plug himself to the middle to fill in for an injured or suspended Cannavaro or Pepe (ditto for Metzelder).
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At times this season (e.g. El Clasico at the Camp Nou), Heinze has been brilliant (on defense!), locking down the left side, filling in the gaps and being an intimidating force to La Liga attackers who haven’t encountered such a rugged character waiting for them at the Madrid goal. When he was on at left back, Madrid no longer had 2 players aimlessly overlapping on the left side with acres of space behind them.
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On other times though, he was just plain atrocious (e.g. his screw ups against Roma), where one wonders what his value would be if his defense is off and he’s unable to offer anything on offense. Time will be the real judge of Heinze’s stint at RM: where we will find out if his blunders of the past season are but indications of his adjustment period to the Spanish game or if they are telling us all that the ‘Gringo’s’ time at the top level is coming to a close.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Reflecting on Player Movements in the Calderon-Mijatovic Era (Part 2)


Arrival – Pepe
When I found out that RM had blown 30 million Euros on a centerback I’d never even heard of, memories of Jonathan Woodgate (who turned out to be half-decent) and Walter Samuel (a pretty good CB who for some reason couldn’t fit in with RM) rushed through my head. Initial impressions of him revealed that he was: Tall, Wide-bodied, Agile, Good in the air and Ugly: he has the makings of a great center back (LOL!)
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But seriously, I think the RM-world witnessed his coming out party in Real’s 1-0 win in this past seasosn’s first El Clasico at the Camp Nou. He’s quick and agile, very mobile and can cut up a potentially dangerous situation even before it can materialize. He’s also great in the air, able to head away potentially dangerous crosses coming in to threaten the Madrid box, I think that it won’t be long before we can see him get on the end of a free kcik or a corner kick to get us a few goals…. Something to look forward to for next season.
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This past season, we’ve also seen him make some very impressively menacing runs up front to carry the ball to his midfield. He’s had a few low points of course: being injured for a large chunk of the season and getting himself sent off in the Roma match, which eventually cost the team dearly.
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All in all, somehow, along with Diarra + Gago, I think that Real Madrid might have found these critical pieces to serve as the base of the spine for the team: the holding midfield role left by Redondo / Makelele and the center of the Defense that was never the same after Hierro left, which somehow Pepe is beginning to fill in.

Arrival – Wesley Sneijder
He took Beck’s #23 jersey as well as his role as the team’s free kick taker and started the season with a bang. Opening with the winning goal in the Madrid derby as well as a superb all around performance against Villarreal at the El Madrigal Sadium… he literally took us by storm. He’s as capable of firing from long distances as he is in providing the final ball, shoots with both legs, a dead-ball specialist, a great passer and basically just a big ball of energy to spark the midfield. He’s finished the season with 9 goals and 7 assists. He’s only 23 and has been called by former teammate and former RM youth system product as RM’s best signing since Zidane.
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To top it all off, I think he also brings a great attitude to the team. He’s had a bit of a slump towards the middle of the season which saw him benched. No fuss, no complaints, no controversial statements to the press, just hard work which saw him back in the starting XI where we all saw hm regain the form which he started the season with. Unquestionably a great signing for the team.

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.