Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Entire Machine Begins to Hum


At the beginning of the season, Jose Mourinho, as part of his I’m-not-Harry-Potter tone to condition the expectations of the Real Madrid faithful, said that this Real Madrid would hit their peak form on their second season, just as he did with Inter (winning the treble on his 2nd season). It was also with this as a ‘base starting point’ that explained his early season decision to establish a core starting XI and play them over and over and over again within his set system to get them familiarized with the ‘Mourinho way.’ This was also the reason why it took some time before the B-teamers started late in getting their playing time and of course, getting the hang of Mourinho’s system.
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I never thought I'd see the day in this 'era' that Real Madrid would get praised for attacking football and Barca would get criticized for being boring... much less from the EPL-centric Singapore Sports Media (click to enlarge)
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This B-team of course includes the likes of Lass, Granero, Arbeloa, Albiol and to a certain extent, Benzema (who became part of the A-Team by default). The additional members of this current B-Team would then include Kaka and Higuain due to their injuries. And as we constantly spoke at length early in the season about Madrid’s ‘squad advantage’ (i.e. having 25 men in the squad as opposed to Barca’s 18 plus of course the actual quality of the players in that squad) over Barca, we all wondered when Madrid would actually be able to cash in on this advantage. Last Saturday, it actually seems like Mourinho overshot his estimation on when the ‘second layer’ would be up to par with the ‘A-team’… in terms of fitness, match-fitness and tactical awareness of the ‘Mourinho way.’ Last Saturday, after the euphoria of the Copa Del Rey celebrations with the big Champions League Semi-Final matches (Games 3 and 4 in the ‘World Series against Barca) on the horizon, in contrast to Barca’s labored win against Osasuna, Real Madrid’s ‘B-Team’ put on a performance that finally had all of us thinking that this time Mourinho’s ENTIRE Machine has started hum.
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Madrid Were Lethal, But ALSO… Valencia  were Shit
3-6 was the final result. In the Mestalla, and no, this is not Madrid’s ‘home away from home’, this wasn’t the same ground that we saw last Wednesday with half the stands a sea of Real Madrid jerseys, with white-flag-plus-Spanish-flag-waving Madridisitas. This was Valencia’s Mestalla, a sea of Black-and-White-plus-Orange, venting out their traditional angst against Madrid. If anything, the Pasillo with which the Valencia players honored Real Madrid would have / should have been taken as a kind of ‘Trojan Horse’ (i.e. they ‘jump at Madrid’ at the ref’s whistle to start the game). The funny thing of course was how the match turned out: by early second half, it was already 0-5 to Madrid – all of them practically tap-ins: a testament to how truly lethal Real Madrid were.
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Let’s make no mistake about it though: in the first 60-70 minutes of the match, Valencia were shit. Unai Emery summed it up perfectly when he said that ‘the Pasilla lasted till the 60th minute’ where Valencia kept allowing us to just keep tearing them apart.
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But it’s not all the team’s fault: who told them to set their defensive line so high up anyway? (That would be you Unai) In a League where teams have begun to figure out Madrid as the team whose primary weapon was their blitzkrieg counters: and this was the reason why coaches have had their teams wait for Madrid rather than pushing down Madrid’s throats and rendering themselves vulnerable to our counter attacks.
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Mourinho’s Tactical Comfort Zone
As the starting lineups were announced about less than an hour before kickoff, I actually thought that Mourinho was opting for a Villarreal / Pellegrini-esque 4-4-2 which would in turn shift to a 4-2-2-2 with the attacking midfield combination of Kaka and Canales supporting the striking duo of Pipita and Benzema in a Brazilian ‘Magic-Square’ configuration while being supported on a ‘base’ of Granero and Lass. Once again, I was wrong.
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We looked like a 4-3-3 out there that sort of became an Ancelotti-AC Milan-eque Christmas Tree Formation (4-3-2-1):  a system Kaka is VERY familiar with.  (Red Arrows denote offensive runs)
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Mourinho went straight to his tactical comfort zone: his good old 4-3-3. Lass played the role of being the central anchorman / ball winner while Canales and Granero played as Carilleros. The headline feature of it all of course was the front 3 of Kaka, Benzema and Higuain: with the 3 interchanging constantly either with Kaka flourishing in the fantasista role between the 2 strikers to form a narrow ‘rombo’ or in an AC Milan-esque 4-3-2-1 with Kaka in his familiar role as one of the men behind the central striker with the other position being constantly interchanged between Benzema and Pipita. When in full flow, the combination of the front 3 could be devastating:  and that’s exactly what happened last Saturday.
Benzema was his menacing best and had a goal to show for it, while Pipita and Kaka had basketball-like stats: 3 goals and 2 assists for the recently-recovered Argentine (whose first goal surely had his ‘mentor’ Ruud Van Nistelrooy screaming at the TV: ‘I taught him that! That’s my boy!’) and the 2 goals and 2 assists for the just-turned 2nd-time father Kaka (his second goal was an absolute peach! congrats to him by the way on his newborn baby girl Isabelle – my wife loves the name).
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The performance of the front 3 gives Madridisimo absolute satisfaction on all levels: Firstly, it’s affirmation that Benzema has not lost his way despite his injury. For Pipita, it’s affirmation that that he’s still the Pipita we’ve all grown to love (he won an affectionate smack on the head from Mourinho when he was subbed out, as if to say ‘good to have you back’). And best of all for Kaka, it shows that all is not lost with him: that he can still turn on the jets (no ‘afterburners’ though) and give us glimpses of the player that had us all excited the day he held Real Madrid’s Jersey #8 with his name aloft in the Bernabeu. Above all, it gives Mourinho those additional reinforcements for the coming Champions League encounters just in case we might need alternatives to his preferred first choice front 3 (CR, Di Maria and Ozil, there’s Adebayor too)… and that much more for Guardiola to worry about.
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Granero vs. Lass
Marca have already 'declared' that Lass has won the place to be Khedira's replacement this Wednesday. On the back of last Saturday's performance, my vote goes to Granero though
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While all the goal action took most  people’s attention, I also had my eye on the midfield performances. Canales didn’t look like a lightweight and his runs and passing forward were pretty good (one wonders which club he’ll go to now that our usual La Liga farm team Getafe has gone Nouveau Riche). The key men in the middle to watch however were Granero and Lass. Given Khedira’s injury, it’s an intriguing question to see who gets the nod for Wednesday’s Champions League tie. While most have concluded that Lass should get the nod (e.g. Marca), I’d have to say that based on last Saturday’s performance, my vote would have to go to Granero. El Pirata’s performance last Saturday reminded me very much of the key ingredients of what Khedira offered: short neat passing, pressing and decent ball winning (albeit not to Lass’ level on the last one).  
Good News: We seem to be starting freak Barca Out
Pep Guardiola, the man whom Barca ‘moralists’ (I fucking hate it when they talk about themselves on moral terms – it’s bloody football you dicks!) like to parade as their moral compass / patron saint has started act out of character. It is not lost on me that he branded Benzema, Kaka and Pipita as ‘replacements’ in his pathetic attempt to turn them into malcontents (it’ll probably only work on Peter Lion). Even more hilarious is his attempt to ‘do a Mourinho’ i.e. talk about refereeing. He should perhaps leave this sort of thing to Victor Valdes, whose pathetic arrogance is more suited to such villainous tasks.
I much prefer Busquets’ level-headed assessment of their current up-and-coming matches. ‘Madrid are the worst team we can face at the moment’ he said.
He’s also right.

6 comments:

  1. Valencia were shit... but I've seen us many times losing against shitty teams after a hard week with difficult matches and celebrations.

    I'm satisfied because I saw we have a squad of 25 players, not only 11 as our rivals, and this, in that part of the season, is very important.

    Read you at

    http://mibufanda.blogspot.com

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  2. What makes me worry the most about the line up against Barcelona on the 1st leg UCL is the central defender. Right now we only have Albiol & Garay as Carvalho's replacement -- to partner w/ Ramos.

    I don't have much faith in Albiol. We saw how he conceded that penalty in the 1st clasico. Against Valencia, he showed again his recklessness... at least one of his challenges deserved a penalty for Valencia.

    I am not as worried about the loss of Khedira as the alternatives are still excellent. Albiol could be our chink in the armor... although certainly I hope not.

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  3. @Mou: Mourinho needs to assess the fitness levels of his players carefully. In the CDR Final, it was proven that the pressure from the midfield shielding the defense could not be sustained for 90 minutes. In that regard, we were lucky to win depsite failing to score in the 1st half.

    Without Carvalho, Mourinho will need to rely even more on his midfield to do a protect the Carvalho-less defense. Let's hope the attacking 3 can capitalize earlier this time to ensure that the game tilts in our favor in the early stages of the game.

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  4. Completely agree with you. Perhaps this will be the game that we will need our attacks to do brilliantly. While our midfield may be exhausted, theirs will also be. Many actually said in the game against Osasuna, Barcelona labored for the win. If this is the case, then they will be exhausted... perhaps to greater degree than us. Losing definitely contributes to mental exhaustion to a certain extent.

    And an interesting point to ask: given the way the CDR was played, who's more likely to get more exhausted? Naturally I would think that it's the pressuring team (Barcelona), but is this right?

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  5. @ Mou: I think in terms of style of play, in a Barca vs. Madrid game, Madrid would be more tired because Barca's style of play is for the 'ball to do the running'. Whereas Madrid's El Clasico approach is for our midfielders to be breathing down their necks (i.e. chasing them about)...

    Our advantage is that we have a deeper squad so in theory we have less 'accumulated mileage' from the past several games. There's also the morale issue that you talked about: 2 Saturdays ago, Barca were kicking themselves for what they believe was 'letting us off the hook' and last Wednesday, they were gutted at losing to us. In that sense perhaps they're more tired.

    But within the match: our style of play against them is in my opinion very physically taxing.

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