Sunday, May 8, 2011

From Fortress Defenders to Road Warriors

Ozil DESTROYED Sevilla Last Night
Last night, Real Madrid made their annual trip to the Sanchez Pizjuan to face Sevilla. It was a match that has been, based on recent history, fraught with plenty of danger: not just danger of dropping points (we’ve lost quite a bit in those parts these past several years), but also the danger of embarrassment. From the Sevilla during the days of Juande Ramos, to the likes of Manolo Jimenez, the trips to Seville’s Art Deco Red-and-White Stadium have normally been a source of trepidation for the players and the fans alike. Well… that was till last night.

Real Madrid seems to be going through some bizarre alteration in terms of their form. We started out the season on the wave of Jose Mourinho’s 2,000-year old unbeaten run at home – turning the Bernabeu into a fortress (100% record in the Bernabeu)… to the ominous sign of losing to Sporting at home… to falling flat on our faces in the last weeks at home (1-1 to Barca in La Liga, the now-infamous 0-2 to Barca in the Champions League and 2-3 to Zaragoza). As we finish the season however, we have now managed to massacre La Liga’s European Football Aspirants with an aggregate scoreline of 12-5. 3-6 at Valencia’s Mestalla some weeks back and 2-6 at the Sanchez Pizjuan last night.
And before we Madridistas get all gripped by the hype which goalfest massacres tend to do to us, let us be reminded of the simple fact that both in Valencia and last night in Seville, the teams we faced were just absolutely dreadful. Last night’s Sevilla team bore absolutely no resemblance to the wonderful UEFA Cup and Copa Del Rey teams of the past few years. Last night’s Sanchez Pizjuan too, with their limp constant waving of Sevilla flags but unusually subdued atmosphere was no longer the same ground that made every Madridista worry at the thought of their team heading there.
Unai Emery called it ‘A Paseo till the 60th minute…’ at the Mestalla and Gregorio Manzano could only manage to shrug and say ‘We must apologize to our fans…’ Much has been expected from Sevilla this season most especially in lieu of Manzano’s accomplishments last season at Mallorca. This season however, based on the performance of his Sevilla, it’s looking more and more like Gregorio Manzano is the La Liga equivalent of Roy Hodgson (i.e. best suited smaller clubs battling survival or carrying out fairy tale cup campaigns).
Having said that, we should of course still give credit where it’s due. Sevilla were terrible but Madrid was awesome and there were a few key points to note as to why that was so.

Personnel / Team Selection
Real Madrid reverted back to their familiar 4-2-3-1 formation with the match starting out with a few interesting personnel changes. Carvalho was suspended for the match, which essentially resulted in Ramos slotting into that left sided Centerback position while Arbeloa slotted in at Right Back. At midfield, Lass took his place beside Xabi Alonso in place of Khedira. The Frenchman has performed his role superbly thus far in the absence of our German midfield horse – playing as the Madridista of the match during our ill-fated return leg at the Camp Nou midweek. It was up front however where we saw the most interesting of team choices: particularly the use of Kaka in the ‘10’ role that he prefers – pushing Ozil to his less-preferred right sided role at midfield (in place of the suspended Di Maria) – a role which he would interchange with Ronaldo who took up his familiar place on the left side. Up front, Benzema would get the nod over Adebayor and Pipita in the lone striker role.
We’ve seen Mourinho play a variety of systems over the course of the season but it’s clear that perhaps the ‘default setting’ would be the 4-2-3-1: with the 2 pivots combining the functions to direct play (Xabi Alonso) and win the ball (Lass). Last night, this approach was adequate to nullify Sevilla as we saw Madrid cruise through the game with the bulk of possession (60+%). It’s also worth mentioning that as of late, even during the doomed home game vs. Zaragoza that Real Madrid’s buildup play when in possession has improved drastically. Last night was no different.
Kaka’s involvement in the team’s buildup play has improved and his increased confidence level is beginning to show tremendously despite the fact that he’s still not 100% - as confirmed by his early
2nd half substitution.
Ozil vs. Di Maria ON THE RIGHT SIDE – a Comparison
Ozil’s move from his preferred fantasista position to the right side gave Madrid a slightly different look:

Di Maria on the right, deployed as an ‘inverted winger’ on the right side gives us certain characteristics:
1.)    An additional man to press the opposing team when we don’t have the ball. His presence also helps us when there is a talented winger to watch out for as he also helps track this additional wing threat
2.)    A more ‘direct’ and vertical player when we have the ball where he uses his pace and trickery to knife through the opposing defense. When this doesn’t come off, Madridistas would then collectively rant at the lack of a ‘final product’ from him as his decision-making can be questionable. When it does come off however , he produces moments of absolute brilliance
Ozil on the right side on the other hand, offers us something a bit more different:
3.)    When we don’t have the ball, his natural tendency to drift to the middle will gives us a third central midfielder reshaping the team into a sort of trivote that helps give us stronger presence in the middle
4.)    When in possession, though less vertical compared to Di Maria, does a far better job in keeping the ball even when under pressure without having to resort to dribbling acrobatics to wiggle himself free of anyone pressing him. He also gives Madrid an added passing dimension in the final third of the pitch which benefits the likes of Ronaldo, Kaka and Benzema.
It is worthwhile to note that last night’s Sevilla did not have Jesus Navas or Perrotti on the wings to stretch our team across the pitch: making the moving of Ozil to Di Maria’s place even more comfortable for us. This was of course affirmed by our staggering numbers of possession: a Barca-like 60+%. Our bug-eyed German playmaker had some pretty sick stats to justify a Man-of-the-Match performance too… He had 3 assists, each one very different: the first from a dead-accurate corner for Ramos to head in, the second was a touch pass on a 1-2 with Kaka for the Brazilian’s signature curling shot from the outside and the last was a Sneijder-like looping pass for Ronaldo. Ozil was also involved in 2 other goals: making him ‘culpable’ for 5/6 of Madrid’s goals. He finished the match with a very compelling stat too: his 8 assists to Ronaldo are the most from one player to another particular player in La Liga this season. Ozil is that player in Real Madrid who either makes that killer assist or makes the pass that leads to the assist. Next season, they should give the man the ’10 ‘ jersey.  
Other Key / Interesting Points in the Match:
There have been some other key points to the match which I find to be significantly noticeable. And even though these points will not necessarily translate into additional silverware for the season (as the CL and La Liga are both goners), they are however very pleasant premonitions for the future:
5.)    A Less-Selfish Ronaldo. CR7 seems to trust his teammates more and is far less of a ball hog these days. He seems more pen to participating in the buildup play and somehow no longer plays like he feels that he should be the man to cap off every attacking play with a goal for himself. Notice how he spearheaded a counter attack in the first half and opted to release the ball to Ozil instead of taking the shot himself. It didn’t lead to a goal as Ozil’s return pass didn’t manage to reach him (a pass to the streaking Kaka on the right side might have done the job, I don’t think he saw Kaka though). Karma duly rewarded him with 4 goals then: 1 from Pepe’s knockdown of the ball which he duly scored, another a poacher’s goal from a Sevilla mistake, the 3rd from an Ozil vertical pass and the 4th a tap-in from a Benzema cross: all team goals. None of that me-against-the-world-wannabe-superhero crap. Cristiano has now beaten his previous record for goals in a season (42  during his Manchester United Days) and leapfrogged Messi in the Pichichi charts. We await a response from little Leo tonight.
6.)    A solid Karim Benzema performance. Benzema being a prime signing of Florentino last season meant that people were always gonna expect him to be the French-incarnation of Ronaldo (the Brazilian) and was always  (unfairly) measured by the goals he could or couldn’t score. He eventually turned the corner though with his explosion of goals this 2011 only to be injured. And now that he is starting to inch his way back into the team, the question was always gonna be: would he still be only measured by his goals? Last night he did everything but score: he pressed the midfield, he threw himself into the air at crosses, he played as a lone striker, and a right-sided attacker from midfield. He assisted a goal too. He deserves credit for that.
7.)    What’s up with Adebayor getting minutes (over Pipita no less)? Mourinho trying to find out if he’s worth 16m and his astronomical wages? We all know for a fact that Mourinho wants a target man as one of his strikers and there aren’t many in the market at the moment. And while Morata looks to be up for a promotion to the first team at the moment, I cannot imagine the young canterano being relied upon in that role should we find ourselves under the cosh next season in a critical game. Perhaps this is a talking point for another blog post.
8.)    Albiol as a Defensive Midfielder. When Mourinho pulled Xabi Alonso out of the match, I thought that he had gone bonkers and decided to play with a Diamond midfield (Albiol and Pepe at CB, Ramos at RB, Arbeloa at LB, Lass-Ozil-Ronaldo-Marcelo in the Diamond with Benzema and Adebayor up front). Instead, he deploys Albiol as a Defensive Midfielder. I’ve read that he’s played that role in the past and this was perhaps some kind of experiment. I hated it.
9.)    Finally, Mourinho has decided to continue on with his media snub in light of his UEFA suspension. I have to say that I quite like this ‘media snub’ – Aitor Karanka’s understated-ness has been refreshing and I’m loving the fact that we’re talking about football after football matches and not the crap that tends to come with it.
Next up for us is Getafe. Now that they’ve become ‘Team Dubai’ and will likely become Manchester City-esque noveau-riche wannabes instead of Real Madrid’s de facto farm team, I hope to see Real Madrid break their recent poor form at home with another goalfest. Another 6 goals please…?

P.s. I'd also like to make a shoutout to all the Filipinos out there today who are celebrating Manny Pacquiao winning yet again in convincing and dominating fashion over 'Sugar' Shane Mosley. 'Sugar' wasn't so sweet today though - running scared from the Pac-Man all match long.
Also, this post also appears on the newly-launched Real Madrid Football Blog. I'll be participating in the discussions there and in here wherever you guys decide to comment :)

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