Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Beautiful Taste of Victory


I went back to work the next day with 30 mins. of sleep but I didn't feel like it at all. Victory does wonderful things to you.

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It was the day before I was to meet one of our dreaded clients at work… something that usually meant a night spent at the office making sure that everything we were to show him had to be beyond impeccable. I finished my work just in time to be able to leave the office at about 2am – and home by 2:30am. The match would be at 3:30am Singapore time, so the question for me was: should I take a cat nap? The answer as an empahtic ‘…and risk oversleeping!?!?!? hell no!’ The outcome justified every second spent without sleep.
Mourinho and the Cup
Mourinho had always been very clear about how he was going to treat the Copa Del Rey: he was dead serious about winning it. The tournament in which the likes of Schuster and Pellegrini used to satisfy potentially disgruntled second-stringers within the squad: at the price of the club’s overall morale following 2 exits care of 2 3rd division sides.
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This season, Mourinho has been clearly in it to win it: perhaps looking at the Copa Del Rey in a similar manner to the Carling Cup: as an apparatus to condition the club, its players and fans that winning is at the heart of it all. Nevermind  that we’re facing the likes of Murcia and Levante, he perhaps said, let’s send in Casillas and Crisitano to wipe the floor with them.  And in doing so, here we are, having finally been able to raise a trophy long missed in the trophy halls of the Bernabeu… a trophy we can actually have around for Sergio Ramos to drop into the path of a bus for it to run over: to the amusement of the world.
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Tactics – The Triangle Moves Forward, and Changes its ‘Moving Parts’
The key talking point for me however in this game would have to be the tactics employed by Mourinho in this game that turned out to be magnificently successful. The first Clasico last Saturday was remembered for Mourinho’s decision to move Pepe from the center of defense to the heart of the midfield in a 4-3-3: shifting away from his familiar 4-2-3-1.

Mourinho’s Midfield Triangle Version 1.0 (used in ‘Game 1’ i.e. El Clasico in La Liga)
Against Barca last Saturday, Pepe sat in the middle was the only man making 'defensive raids'. (Red Lines denote Offensive Runs, Blue arrows denote Defensive Runs)
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The key feature of Pepe’s role was not just in the fact that he played as a defensive midfielder: it was that he was employed in a role described by Sid Lowe as a ‘defensive raider’. Set up in front of the 2 Central Defenders, it was Pepe who would surge forward, using his pace to snap at Xavi and Iniesta, to disrupt the momentum-generating passing sequences which would normally generate Barca’s offense. In this role, he was also able to track Messi’s moves to drop deep from his ‘9’ position to become a ‘false 9’.  Xabi Alonso and Khedira were then employed in almost fixed positions, ready to ‘receive’ Xavi or Iniesta after Pepe’s ‘raids’ would result in either of the 2 midfielders ‘ferried to them’ to force 2 vs. 1 situations which nullified Barca’s momentum-generating passing game from their vaunted midfield.
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The outcome of the ‘Game 1’ version (or version 1.0) of Mourinho’s ‘Midfield Triangle’ resulted however in a situation where the key central position of the midfield (the ideal ‘passing platform) was taken up by Pepe with Xabi Alonso (who uses his passing) and Khedira (more of a runner and utility man) used on the other points of the midfield to link up with the front 3. The outcome was a more imbalanced Madrid when going forward.
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The front 3 also needed a bit of adjustment as it was only Di Maria who had the real inclination  to press the Barca midfield when we didn’t have possession. Ronaldo and Benzema focused their pressing more on Barca’s defense. Going forward, we also all discovered that while we enjoyed Di Maria’s ‘help defense’ so much when we didn’t have the ball, we also found him a bit frustrating with his lack of ability to keep possession when he had the ball – something Ozil showed us all he could do wonderfully when he came on as a sub.
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Mourinho’s Midfield Triangle Version 2.0
Last Wednesday, Mourinho made adjustments to his midfield triangle that clearly shocked Barcelona. It shocked Barca so much that they almost lost the Copa Del Rey in the first half of the Final.
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Last Wednesday's CDR Final Formation: 2 Offensive AND Defensive 'Carilleros' (Pepe & Khedira) with the midfield line in a more advanced position. Ozil also helped press in the midfield while Ronaldo was superb as a '9'. (Red arrows show offensive runs, Blue arrows show defensive runs)
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The midfield configuration was the same but with 4 main twists:
1.)    Pepe switched positions with Xabi Alonso, allowing the Basque midfielder to be once again the positional and passing fulcrum of the team.
2.)    This time there would be TWO MEN FUNCTIONING AS DEFENSIVE CARILLEROS: Deployed in more advanced positions were Pepe and Khedira who were BOTH used as ‘raiders’: tasked to cut off the Busquets-Xavi Link (Pepe) and the Busquets-Iniesta Link (Khedira). Xabi Alonso would then be tasked to ‘receive’ any leftovers who managed to get through.
3.)    The entire midfield ‘line’ was moved up by about 10 meters: right about smack on the halfway line – killing off the ‘oxygen buildup’ for Barca’s midfield buildup before it could even begin.
4.)    The 2 ‘defensive carilleros’ were also much more effective as attacking options with the zone of play advanced closer to the Barca goal: resulting in Pique + Mascherano having to worry not just about Ronaldo, Di Maria and Ozil, but also the runs being made by Pepe and Khedira.
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(Sidetrack thought: I remember Ramos being used in a similar role as Pepe in our loss to Sporting during the dying minutes of the game where we desperately, albeit unsuccessfully tried to tie the game with a goal: with Ramos used as a kind of attacking midfield target man)
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On attack, Mourinho  made changes too:
5.)    Cristiano played as a ‘9’. It seemed like a trick when Mourinho said he would play with a ‘9’ before the game only to start with all his ‘9s’: Adebayor, Benzema and Higuain on the bench. Upon seeing the starting XI, I thought he would deploy a narrow ‘rombo’ (with Ozil between CR and Di Maria but dropping deeper between the midfield at attacking line) – I assumed wrongly as CR7 played as a classic ‘9’: with his back to the goal. He did so very well while still offered himself as a target for on-the-ground through balls by playing off the shoulder of the last defender as well. Last Wednesday, Ronaldo played like the best version of Drogba and the best version of Fernando Torres PUT TOGETHER.
6.)    This also meant that Mourinho would be able to defend with 9 men when Real didn’t have the ball as the formation would become a 4-1-4-1 with Di Maria tracking Alves (what a duel they had! With Di Maria winning of course having been able to ‘launch the winning cross’) and Ozil helping the midfield: allowing Madrid an extra man to press on Barca’s midfield.
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The outcome of Mourinho’s tactical ploys resulted in Barca’s ‘little midfield midgets’ (Xavi and Iniesta), perpetually surrounded by Madrid’s ‘Beasts’ (Pepe and Khedira) with 2 men to spare (Ozil and Xabi Alonso). And with Di Maria nullifying Alves, there was only Messi dropping deep to worry about. Messi was allowed to do that of course… but with the key battleground closer to Barca’s goal than Madrid’s, it also meant that he was further away from the guys he wanted to link with (Villa and Pedro).
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Cristiano was superb as '9' last Wednesday
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As the battle in the first half waged on, I went from praying that we don’t concede a goal to praying we would score. We didn’t though and we paid the price in the second half.
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Having them by the scruff of the neck but not letting them pay the ultimate price for it was always going to haunt us. And that’s what Barca did to us in the second half. A fired up Barca tore through what was a visibly mentally and physically tired Madrid squad (who were probably kicking themselves for failing to score in the first half). We almost paid the ultimate price for it were it not for our new Captain Iker Casillas who stood up to be counted and put on that forcefield on the Madrid goal just for long enough for his team to get it together again.
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By the 75th minute, Madrid had taken the sting off Barca again but were without the teeth to threaten up front. I began to think about waiting it out for penalties as I saw the likes of Adebayor, Granero and Kaka warming up (Penalty takers, I thought).
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When the ref blew the whistle that confirmed we’d be playing extra time, I found myself laughing at the Dirty Tackle’s twitter comment re: the on-the-pitch huddle team talk being voraciously led by Mourinho in the Madrid side (he said that this will surely tun up in the Spanish Version of 'Any Given Sunday' hahaha). The other squad players also seemed to be signaling to the Madrid-side of the crowd to keep the noise down so they could hear their master. Who knew that all he probably said was ‘Cristiano and Adebayor attack! Di Maria, try to help them if you’re not too tired, the rest of you DEFEND!’. Hahaha.
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That’s how it pretty much went in the first half of extra time – Barca, clearly tiring out trying to have a go at a re-formed Madrid midfield and defense while Ronaldo and Adebayor getting hoof-up service to try to break through the space left behind by Barca.
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Things would work out soon enough: Marcelo wins the ball and plays a nifty Barcelona-like 1-2 play ending with a through ball to Di Maria, who stamps his seal of victory in his personal duel with Alves with the Title-winning cross. And it just had to be Cristiano, the man they said who disappears in the biggest games, the man who they said couldn’t score against Barca (who needed a penalty to do it) – who finally pierces Barca’s heart. 
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And let me say this to the cules who are still in denial: Victor Valdes wouldn’t have been able to save that. Madridisimo would’ve wanted him to be the guy who would helplessly flail his arms at the air in that helpless attempt to block the shot – because it would’ve given Cristiano the chance to walk up to him and say ‘… now that’s in color! Even in HD and 3D!’
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The game was pretty much over after the goal I’d have to say. Barca’s Plan B after all is in Milan (Ibra) – no one to cross the ball into if he’s not in there (a thought shared by Sid Lowe who was doing the play-by-play commentary of the telecast I was watching and Serie A weekly's Kevin Walker with whom I was tweeting with during the match).
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We’re not Laughing YET.
Cristiano Ronaldo had a stunningly and shockingly sober (even a slightly poetic one) assessment of the matchups before the games rolled along “He who laughs last, laughs the loudest” he said – surprisingly stark contrast to Victor Valdes’ disgustingly arrogant: “The last time Madrid beat us was in the days of Black and White.”
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I’m happy with Mourinho’s sober reaction as well as from the majority of the players and the club staff. Even Pepe, whom replays showed was given a scolding by Arbeloa for his reaction to Cristiano’s goal has come forward with an apology for his reaction. I’m happy to know that there aren’t any buses rolling around Madrid as of yet making a meal out of this win. I’m happy to be a humble winner and I’m happy to know that the club has so far been the same.
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There are 2 Clasicos remaining and the prize is the chance to meet Raul or Sir Alex in Wembley for the biggest trophy of them all. Sandwiched between them are 2 La Liga games. I can only hope Osasuna and Real Sociedad have learned enough things from our last 2 games with Barca to give them a few clues on how to get to the Cules – or to REALLY tire them out at least.

3 comments:

  1. U have made a very good analysis my friend!! If u want another source of reference u can have a look at this site:

    http://www.zonalmarking.net/2011/04/21/real-madrid-1-0-barcelona-copa-del-rey-tactics/

    Now its turning to the last 2 el Classicos and if we want to get pass Barca i think the game on Bernabeu will decide the tie. We need at lest 2 goals difference in order to get through!

    P.S: and Im from Viet Nam 3 hours to ur country :D

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Joe, I'm a huge fan of Zonal Marking's Michael Cox too! :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. That was a fantastic read. You just found a new subscriber to you blog.

    ReplyDelete