Thursday, July 23, 2009

First Impressions

Benz: Total Class. Top Notch-goal.

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So there we go, the much anticipated first appearance and performance of the ‘Florenteam’… well, half of it at least (with 2 out of the 4 ‘new signings, namely Kaka and Raul Albiol absent). As the English Press harp about how Cristiano Ronaldo had flopped in his debut, I am more keen to just provide point format thoughts on the team’s first match after a grueling week characterized by 3x a day training sessions for a team that had just wrapped up their offseason holidays.
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-Pellegrini played each half with almost a completely different XI: with only Dudek playing the entire match and Lass Diarra extending up to the hour mark. I thought that he should’ve given Antonio Adan a run out at goal to test himself and give himself a chance to win the chance to be the team’s 2nd keeper.
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-In both halves, Pellegrini gave us a glimpse of his preferred style of play: a 4-2-2-2 or a lop-sided 4-4-2. The 2 Central Midfielders (Lass & Gago) held the position at midfield while 2 attacking midfielders roamed freely upfront with the forwards as the 2 fullbacks were allowed to further surge forward to provide width. Cristiano played as winger in the first half with Guti drifting inward to a free attacking midfield role.
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- Lass showed the type of play that won plaudits amongst Real Madrid fans, with his relentless pit bull-mode style of play in the midfield. Gago also played like that of the previous season: misplaced passes, uncertain possession & lost-boy positioning.
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-Guti, playing in what will likely be Kaka’s position didn’t play with enough mobility in his role, making what was supposed to be a dynamic position of a drifting/roving attacking midfielder seem like a stationary one: resulting in Pellegrini’s 4-4-2 looking like a 4-3-3.
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-CR96 showed some tricks and flicks but seemed timid and not keen to dominate play and chose instead to get on with the general team game plan. A smart move by my reckoning despite the harsh criticism from the press. In my opinion, his game was also greatly diminished by the unusually small size of the pitch.
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-Higuain also seemed to suffer from the small size of the pitch as the crowded center gave him no space to move. I still say he should be an undisputed starter. Raul was sluggish, static and proved why he should be on the bench. All in all, the first half front line didn’t play well.
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-On defense, Pepe looked sharp. Metzelder was mediocre, Torres, not bad while it remains clear that no one gave Marcelo lessons on playing defense. How he can come to be our left back of the future is a big mystery to me.
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-In the second half, Pellegrini introduced Negredo & Benzema upfront, Van Der Vaart, Sneijder, Parejo & Tebar at midfield while Salgado, Heinze, Garay & Drenthe comprised the back 4.
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-The defense was woeful. Garay was ok. Salgado was embarrassingly booked for diving (in a friendly match!) while Drenthe helped a lot in opening up the field surging on the left wing when released only to constantly disappoint with his dreadful crossing.
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-The midfield during the 2nd half was impressive. Tebar looked solid and didn’t seem to show any type of nerviness you could expect from a Canterano on his debut. Sneijder seemed mediocre to me though, which is why some of the praises he received puzzle me
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-It was Van Der Vaart who surprised me, as he seemed to be playing with a lot of gusto which included a spectacular bicycle kick that was unfortunately saved by the keeper. Cheers to him for making life for those of us who believe he should go harder.
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-Parejo was quite impressive for me too. Not only did he seem comfortable with the ball, his passing was also quite meaningful in the starting of plays to attack. He seemed also effective playing both in the middle beside Lass / Tebar and on the wings where he managed to put in some good crosses.
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-Negredo’s performance for me was a letdown as I had kept hoping that he would be able to prove himself in these games to earn a spot in the squad in what I truly believe is a role as the first striker off the bench (ahead of Raul & RVN). He didn’t contribute much though.
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-It was however Karim Benzema who impressed the most. It was a pleasant surprise for me to see him dropping deep into midfield to ‘retrieve the ball from his defense and be an absolute pain in the ass to the opposing defense. His first shot at goal from outside the area was struck with amazing power from what seemed like a standstill position. He tested the keeper quite a few times and eventually won the match with a superb piece of ball control from a long pass, bringing it down, faking a shot before calmly poking it home… all the while being harangued by 3 defenders. We are all hoping Pellegirini told himself ‘Uhrrm… I think this guy should be starting instead.’
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All in all, I think it’s too early to come to conclusions. We have however seen pretty much the ideas that Pellegrini wants to instill: his almost wingless 4-4-2: a fixed central midfield insistently keeping its shape at the center of the park, attacking midfielders with no fixed wingers (perhaps the natural midfield width would come from players with ‘natural wing instincts’ like CR96 and Robben), allowing them to drift inwards to create plays freely with their front line counterparts. Width would then come from the fullbacks (as especially seen in the 2nd half where the Dutchmen Sneijder and Van Der Vaart were able to freely drift inwards to allow Drenthe and Salgado to bomb on from the wings).
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Possession of the ball and control of the match and the pace of the game seemed to be a focus of the new system. It remains to be seen however if we are looking at a system that can generate the kind of aesthetically pleasing touch football that Arsenal produces on their best days, or if we will merely replicate the mindless, pointless and snail-paced horizontal passing that we saw during the worst days of Schuster and sometimes Capello.
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We’ll probably get a much clearer idea of what this Real Madrid will be like during the Peace cup and onto the US tour and soon after once the Kaka and the Spanish internationals are back from their breaks. Until then, I’m relegated to staying here, my ass on my seat, eagerly awaiting our next match this weekend.

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