Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Lyon King




It's difficult to come up with an original title for this post, where all I can find myself buzzing about was this brilliantly captured phrase in today's column c/o AS' Mad Madridista Tomas Roncero.
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It's a bloody clever thing to call Benzema not just because of the fact that 1.) he's IS a former Olympique Lyonnais youth stalwart, or that 2.) we are about to face Lyon for the second leg of our Last 16 Champions league tie this Wednesday's - a game that I'm sure he is very keen to be part of. The other part of why it's brilliantly clever is that Benzema was after all the guy who the Madrid Press (or maybe Mourinho) wrongly (or rightly) referred to as the hunting cat (as compared to the more preferred hunting dog).
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Mourinho's Motivational Tactics
It is notable of course (and a fact not lost on the Madrid Press) that Mourinho has been able to get the best out of Benzema not by giving him a pat on the back and whispering to his ear and saying:
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"You're stuck with me and I'm stuck with you... let's just bloody try to make this thing work" - or something to that effect.
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Mourinho has instead decided to cook up a VERY public storm (including a spat with Director General Jorge Valdano) to bring in an additional striker that better fits his preferred mould (a more 'classic' #9). And while the rest of the world scratched their collective heads mulling the consequences of this transfer / loan move on the sulky Benzema's confidence, Mourinho non-chalantly dismissed the said concerns with his very simple (and true) explanation that the 2 strikers are not of the same type. Nevermind that it didn't take very long before we saw Adebayor send Benzema to the bench in a matter of a few games - including Benzema's supposed homecoming at the Stade Gerland.
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Somehow, the ex-Monaco man (Adebayor) and the ex-Lyon man (Benzema) really do look like they get along. It's unusual to acquire another striker to make your current one fit in better. It's worked so far though...
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What we have overlooked of course is that behind the scenes, there's been a lot of relationship-building going on in the squad behind the scenes. The arrival of Adebayor, brings yet another French-speaking player to the squad: resulting in a seemingly more calm Lassana Diarra (whom Adebayor describes as his 'brother') as well as an additional friend for the sulky Benzema (the 2 seem to genuinely get along). The outcome of course has been there for all to see.
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2 Braces in 3 games and now up to 19 goals for the season. So let's all call it as it is: This is looking like the Benzema at Lyon that had the world of football droolling over his potential. This is the Lyon King!
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Mourinho's 4-4-2
Mourinho, known in for his 4-3-3 in Chelsea that produced so many 1-0 scorelines, surprised us all 2 weekends ago in Racing Santander when he opted for an almost 'classic English' 4-4-2. 2 Strikers, 2 Central Midfielders and a man on each wing to pair up with the fullback. It was of course a massive success - prompting Mourinho to give it another try last Saturday against Hercules.
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It is interesting to note that in the era of the single striker system, there are actually still plenty of top level strikers (e.g. Rooney, Tevez, Dzeko, etc.) who are far more effective with a striker partner - and Benzema is one of them. It is now clear that he and Adebayor make a good pair. The Togolese striker at 6'3 is a towering presence at the box who can be deployed as a target man yet is still blessed with a good touch on the ball and also has impressive pace to boot. Benzema is happy of course to play behind him, make runs to open up space or go wide to help stretch the opposing defense. The other interesting point to note however is how both strikers' tendency to drop deep and help the midfield actually compensates for the 4-4-2's main weakness of conceding the numberical advantage to a team playing a 4-3-3/4-5-1/4-2-3-1.
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Along the flanks and in front of the midfielders, Ozil and Di Maria reprised their roles that saw them shape-shift Mourinho's 4-4-2, from a more 'traditional English' alignment - with the 2 playing along the flanks... to a Pellegrini/Luxemburgo-esque 4-2-2-2: as they tucked into the center of the pitch to help in the buildup play while allowing Marcelo and Arbeloa (vs. Hercules) / Ramos (vs. Racing) to provide width. Hybrid variants of this also occur or course (Di Maria on the wing with Ozil drifting inwards while a fullback provides width... or vice versa).
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Granero's recent emergence as a legitimate tactical option is wonderful news for Madridisimo
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It was at the center of midfield where the dramatic change took place between the team that faced Racing and the team that faced Hercules. Against Racing, Madrid were almost.... for the lack of a better way of calling it.... Barca-like: one touch passing, constant ball movement - resulting in a well-oiled attacking team. It was the stuff of daydreams. The culprit is of course the combination of Xabi Alonso and Esteban Granero feeding the in-form Ozil the ball for attacking plays. Granero, treated as a peripheral figure in the squad thus far this season, took his opportunity (in light of injuries to Khedira and Gago and Lass' suspension) to start with both hands. He's been singled out for praise too: from the likes of Mourinho, to Xabi Alonso. Last weekend however, with an eye towards tomorrow's big Champions League clash vs. Lyon, Xabi Alonso was rested in favor or Lassana Diarra - not only depriving Granero with 'dance partner' with whom to build up play with, but also laying the responsibility of ball distribution and 'play building' responsibilities squarely on the shoulders of the canterano. And it's not that Granero played the role poorly as to why Madrid wasn't as sparkling vs. Hercules (Champions League distractions aside) - it's simply because neither he, nor anyone I can imagine at the moment, can play the role of ball distributor and tempo-dictator (or 'conductor' to the more romantic) better than Xabi Alonso. That however isn't the main storyline of the midfield - the key story line now is that now, at this critical stage of the season, Mourinho has found yet another man in the squad to trust in El Pirata.
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The Key Plotlines: Post-Hercules, Racing & Malaga
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The Rise of the Lyon King
While it is easy to remember Karim Benzema as the 19-year old who scored 31 goals for Lyon, it is easy to forget that he left Lyon under a cloud of patchy form. Some say it was due to his modified role in the tactical system, while others chalk it down to his little battles with niggling injuries. Needless to say, while  he came to Madrid with expectations that matched his potential, these expectations however didn't quite fit in with his personality and level of maturity. His first phase in Madrid was characterized by his inability to produce both matches and on the training pitch. We, along with Mourinho will probably remember his second phase in Madrid for the added effort on the training pitch while still desperately waiting for the results to appear in actual matches. And now here we are this third phase - where we are finally seeing his efforts to improve both his workrate and his integration to the team yield results. Last Saturday's display showed us Benzema's newfound level of concentration (the first goal) as well as his sky high confidence (second goal). His recently-developed sense of camaraderie was also there to see as he looked to celebrate with Arbeloa (who assisted him for the first goal). All that's left for him to do is to look for a more appropriate celebration as his old, preferred 'sniper celebration' smacked of arrogance, whereas his current 'jumping twirl' celebration, while refreshingly childlike on one level - is actually kinda wimpy.

Benzema's old 'Sniper Goal Celebration' smacked of arrogance. His current 'Jumping Twirl Goal Celebration' though makes him look like a bloody fairy.
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So now that CR7's undoubted success is on track to be matched by Karim Benzema, thanks to the efforts of one Jose Mourinho, perhaps turning the thus-far-abject-failure that is Kaka back into the player he was at Milan isn't so out of reach.
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Mourinho's Newfound Dilemma 
From starting the season with a fixed 4-2-3-1 formation with a starting XI that essentially only relied on Arbeloa and Lass to give the team a slightly different look (Albiol was more like a contingency plan for injuries and suspensions). The current squad however has now proven itself capable of  a variety of tactical systems (from the now familiar 4-2-3-1, to the 4-4-2, to a 4-3-3 'Trivote' or even a 4-3-3 'Rombo'). The personell choices each give us a variety of tacital options too: Benzema or Adebayor or Both? CR7 + Di Maria, Ozil or all of the Above? A trivote with Xabi Alonso + Lass / Khedira / Granero? A back 4 with variations of Ramos / Pepe / Carvalho at the middle and of Ramos / Arbeloa / Marcelo at fullback.
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We've now reached a point where every personell variant of every tactical formation can give the team a totally new set of characteristics without necessarily resulting in a drop in quality. It's become a dream situation for the tactically-sophisticated Mourinho. Let us hope that this newfound dilemma can serve Mourinho in good stead.
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Some Late Thoughts on the Events of the Last Few Games:
Just when I thought that Mourinho has really crossed the line with his 'I'd never have gone to Malaga if Real Madrid fired me...' remark which intended or not, was very disrespectful to Manuel Pellegrini and to Malaga (a club, whose injection of cash and investment from new ownership has been a refreshing story for La Liga). - I never thought that it would be Pellegrini himself who would return such an ungentlemanly remark with a disgustingly unsporting coaching move. With his open admission that he essentially has his team 'lay down and die' at the Bernabeu by keeping the bulk of his best players out of the match. Despite the fact that watching a 7-0 in favor of Madrid is always enjoyable, I find it when teams deliberately choose to lay down and die. It defeats the purpose of sport and competition. And here I was hoping for good things for Malaga - Karma served them right 2 weekends ago with their last minute defeat at the hands of Osasuna.
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Apologies for falling off the radar this past week. I flew back to Manila last, last weekend and missed the 7-0 against Malaga and the 1-3 against Racing. My return to Singapore (and regular blogging) however was rudely interrupted by the flu - partially self-inflicted with my unhealthy decision to watch Arsenal's ill-fated attempt to push Barca off the Champions League catch up on Madrid's games on replay (the Malaga and Racing Game) in one night.
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4 comments:

  1. Only Mourinho is able to work with a guy like Karim in order to make him the great player he used to be in France.

    Benzema has been unfairly criticized by Spanish press and weeks ago was pshycologically broken, but Mourinho's efforts have managed to enable madridistas to enjoy his goals against Lyon.

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    http://mibufanda.blogspot.com

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  2. Hi Fran,

    I agree with you that Mourinho was the key reason behind Benzema's big improvement. Mourinho has always believed in his talent but only doubted that Benzema has the character to fulfill the potential of his talent.

    Another message within this story is aimed at the rest of us Madridistas: that we should learn patience. I was one of many who believed that Benzema was destined to be our 21st Century Anelka... and I'm happy to be proven wrong.

    I've added your site to the blogroll already btw... nice site!

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  3. love reading this article. I can tell you know alot about soccer. I could not agree with you more about benzema, he plays better with a striker next to him, weather that is adebayor or CR. even before he started in this scoring streak his best game CR was playing more as a CF then a RW.
    The other good thing about playing with 2 strikers is that you can use granero. Honestly i dont see a place for him when they play the 4-2-3-1 but when they have a 4-4-2 or even the 4-3-3 granero can be used and he has given good results offensively. he will learn how to play better defense as he ages but right now mou would rather use the same players even if they are getting tired then change the system to use the bench players like granero, canales.

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  4. Hi Mr. Anonymous, Glad you enjoyed the blog, do come back more frequently to share your thoughts.

    -While I do agree that Benzema does his best work in a 2-striker system, I also believe that he's got the characteristics to succeed in a single striker formation just like Pipita (who would at first look would seem to be only best for a 2-striker system). His improved workrate to create space with runs will be a big boost. He's also shed his 'I only like the ball played to my feet' mentality - allowing him to play off the shoulder of the last defender more effectively.

    As from Granero, I totally agree that he'd work really well in a 'Trivote' (4-3-3) aside from being a box-to-box CM in a 4-4-2 as we saw vs. Racing Santander. Mourinho thinks he's best at the tip of the diamond which would be the same as Ozil's 'fantasista' role in a 4-2-3-1... and though he's not as talented as Ozil, I totally believe he can succeed in that role too.

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