Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Good Try


It was nice to see Diarra V1.0 on the pitch again. He grew into the game as the match wore on and put in a pretty good performance
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At the end of last Saturday’s match against Racing, Mourinho chose to talk about the Copa Del Rey instead of basking in the glory of the massacre of Racing Santander at the hands of his team. He declared that those who dared to fail at the task at hand would be branded as ‘dead to him’.
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Jose Mourinho however is not the first coach who talked up the importance of the Copa Del Rey. We’ve heard that script so many times before: harping about how a team like Real Madrid owes itself, its fans and its history to put in the effort to win the Cup… only to be humiliated at the hands of a third division team… to the likes of Real Union Irun and Alcorcon.
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Mourinho however truly was dead serious, putting on his quintessential ‘I know all about it face’ to the press… spouting out the much forgotten fact that the last time we won the Copa Del Rey, current Director for whatever Emilio Butragueno was still playing and scored one of the winning goals 17 years ago… and that it wasn’t normal for a club of Madrid’s stature to have failed to win it for so long. He was right too of course.
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But I suppose that’s the thing about Real Madrid and the Copa Del Rey. Judging from the glut of talent that we perpetually have in the squad, putting together a starting XI capable of beating a third division side would have been easy. As it stood, Real Madrid’s second XI would have looked like this:
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--------------- Dudek ---------------
--Lass - Albiol - Mateos - Arbeloa --
--------- Diarra - Granero ----------
Pedro Leon – Canales – Juan Carlos
------------ Benzema ---------------
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I’ve slotted Lass in at RB with Arbeloa at LB given the fact that Marcelo is the squad’s only true Left Back. To partner with the recently-promoted-from-Castilla Mateos, is Albiol – an automatic starter for us last season and all of a sudden, the poor guy hasn’t played a game all season following a summer without any playing time at the World Cup. Pedro Leon and Canales are would then be supplemented with Juan Carlos from Castilla at midfield with Benzema as the lone striker. It’s a lineup that’s easily good enough to beat a third division side, but it was clear that even this wouldn’t do for Mourinho.
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He instead chooses to go with Casillas in goal and equip his attack with the team’s best outfield player too:
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----------- Casillas -----------
- Ramos-Pepe-Albiol-Arbeloa -
------- Diarra – Granero -------
Pedro Leon – Canales – Ronaldo
---------- Benzema -------------
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The now-fit Ramos slotted in at RB (given Lass’ illness) while Pepe remained at the middle to partner with Albiol at the middle – while Marcelo was rested to give Arbeloa the LB spot. The Khedira-Xabi Alonso tandem of utility player and passer was replicated by Diarra and Granero behind Pedro Leon, playing as a true winger in Di Maria’s place, while Canales gave Ozil a ‘vacation’ to complement Cristiano Ronaldo who was kept in the starting XI in Mourinho’s hope that the Portuguese Winger’s pathological obsession to win would rub off on his teammates. The biggest talking point of all was of course Karim Benzema – who gave Higuain some much deserved-minutes to rest on the bench: it was to be his ‘trial’ to prove himself worthy of the badge on his shirt. The outcome of the match however was disappointing (but not the disaster that many are calling it). Had we taken a lead or get a 2 goal cushion, I’m pretty sure that we’d have seen Mateo come on or some other Castilla player.
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The match started off tentatively for Madrid, where the XI on the pitch reminded us quickly that this wasn’t the side that had scored 18 goals in their last 4 matches. Early pressing by Murcia kept us on the back foot with the play-it-safe Diarra repeatedly sending the ball back to his defenders. We did grow in to the game however as we started to find our feet at midfield with Diarra growing in stature as the game progressed and Granero showing some activity in the midfield to feed our front players. It wasn’t too long however before flashes of our dull draw to Levante began to flicker in my mind.
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There were no problems in keeping them at bay when Murcia came forward because of Diarra’s ball recovery, coupled with Pepe’s strong form and Albiol showing us all that he doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Our DM and defense ensured that Casillas was wrong not to bring a newspaper and a lounge chair with him to his goal to kill off boredom as the 90 minutes of the match wore on. The problem once again however was the front4 who began to look like the same front 4 that started the season and had everyone yawning.
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The challenge that is now being faced by this ‘second team’ after their debut is the same as that of the ‘first team’ when the season kick-started: how to get past the massed-up opposing defense into the goal. It took the first team a few weeks to work as a team in applying the key principles that facilitated a smooth offensive game:
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-Efficient and quick ball recovery at the opponents’ third of the pitch or at the very least, the midfield
-Quick exit of the ball from midfield to attack
-Constant off-the ball movement to create chaos and destroy the opponents’ team shape and marking system
-Interplay between the front 4 usually through inverted wingers while crosses from the outer edges of the pitch will come from the fullbacks.
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It’s taken about 5 games for the ‘first team’ to get the hang of it and when they did, the effects were devastating. The obstacles that this second unit is facing make it a bit complicated though:
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-Few in the world can match Xabi Alonso’s ability to think on the fly while spraying passes across the pitch near AND far.
-The Second Team play with Pedro Leon, a true winger who prefers to play beside the touchline to unleash crosses to a target man-type striker: a very different player from Benzema. If we had a Fernando Llorente in that box, we’d have scored 4 last Tuesday.
-Benzema ‘s work rate continues to be poor: very little pressing when we don’t have the ball and very few off-the-ball runs to free himself or his teammates.
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Running off the ball is a particularly critical for teams like Madrid who are expecting to win but are faced with teams usually content with a draw. For attacking players, this is where the team mentality becomes critical: off the ball runs regardless of whether one will receive the ball or not are critical because it opens up space for one’s other teammates as defenders are rendered confused and lose their shape and control over their marking systems. It takes effort and doesn’t always guarantee goals for everyone: this is the precise reason why Mourinho hailed Pipita in his explanation on why Benzema has had to warm the bench thus far: ‘Pipita runs, applies pressure, makes himself available, he assists, he scores goals…’ Benzema must wake up, learn and embrace this concept to open the field up for his teammates and find spaces for himself to score as well.
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Benzema wonders when it will all come good for him. We're all wondering the same thing too.
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He was supposed to be the star in this match but clearly wasted the golden opportunity to prove his credentials and his 35m Euro pricetag. Looking back, I can still remember at the disappointment I felt when we purchased Huntelaar because I thought that it effectively killed off our chances to get Benzema (whom I wanted in the team even moreso than David Villa). It’s hard to look back at those times and see what Benzema has done so far with his opportunity to become the world’s best striker. I shook my head in deep dissappoinment in unison with the majority of Madridisimo upon seeing Pipita come on for him at the 62’. It was essentially Mourinho saying ‘enough of this give-the-second-string-guys-a-chance… let’s win this thing now!’ In a squad where the greedy-for-attention Ronaldo and the greedy-for-goals Higuain are learning to get along, where Ozil’s unselfishness, and Di Maria’s has his manager imploring the Bernabeu’s 80,000 to applaud him for his selflessly effective and brilliant play… It is one Karim Benzema whose talent is being corrupted by his apathy and lethargy is fast becoming its biggest disappointment.
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In the end, it was 0-0. The result was disappointing indeed… but make no mistake about it, this was very different from the team that faced Alcorcon and the one that ultimately capitulated to Real Union Irun. This instead was a very similar side to the one held to blunt, goalless draws at Mallorca and Levante: a side lacking just that bit of sharpness but one that shouldn’t be faulted for the lack of trying… all except for one.

3 comments:

  1. The Benzema case indeed gets increasingly worrying. In the early season, I was optimistic but more and more I'm losing hope.

    I think the last hope to make something good out of him will be this Zidane project. They are of very similar backgrounds (French-Algerian), hopefully Zizou will be able to spark the fire inside Benzema and prove me wrong of losing hope on him.

    Zidane will help w/ other players, especially the AMs: Ozil & Canales. I am very excited at the prospect of that the fabulous Ozil will still improve immensely & Canales will be an equally dangerous player as Ozil.

    But I think Mou's main purpose of asking Zizou's help is on Benzema. My surmise is Mou really knows how immensely talented the kid is. But somehow he realizes his wealth of experience & psychological games that normally works... are simply not potent enough for the Benz case. Perhaps Mou realizes he needs to go to a deep personal level that he simply can't reach due to differences in backgrounds, drive, etc.

    So, Zizou is perhaps the last hope here. Beyond this, if by end of season there's still no improvement (I'm not asking for him being the great Benzema yet, but he must improve)... I think his salaries are far too expensive for a non-impact substitute player.

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  2. I agree with your analysis, Madridista Mac. It's all about the front 4 pressing, running off the ball and generally connecting among themselves. With a new front line (save for Cristiano) and an apathetic Benzema for striker, our attacking play was bound to suffer.

    Good point too, the fact that Pedro León wasn't playing as "inverted winger": that gave us more depth and better crosses -though nobody headed them-, but also less flexibility and interplay.

    The score? Again, I agree with you: disappointing, but far from a disaster. Still, I'm sure Mou will play it safe at the Bernabéu -he'll field basically our best 11.

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  3. Unlike in the mythology, this Hercules got ripped apart by the Hydra's biggest head. However, he did manage to cut off one of the Hydra's head (Ozil), until the newly grown head (Benzema) stroke back & killed him off.

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