Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Ex-Galacticos vs. The Galaxy (Part 2): The Joker Card

If Real Madrid were a deck of cards, new signing Fabio Coentrao would be the Joker
There has been much speculation on what Mourinho’s Madrid was going to look like for the 2011-2012 season. Many had speculated that Mourinho was just about to return to the use of the Trivote (the 4-3-3) at Real Madrid. There were a few good reasons to believe this of course:
1.)    The 4-3-3 was his formation of choice at Chelsea and at Porto
2.)    It is currently the only known tactical formula in Mourinho’s Madrid arsenal that has been successful against Barca.
3.)    The emergence of Pepe as a legitimate midfield option (with Ramos more than capable as a first-choice CB and Arbeloa more than a capable first choice RB)
4.)    The acquisition of Raphael Varane: a Centerback capable of playing at midfield who can likely be trained/developed to fit this role ala Pepe
5.)    The acquisition of Nuri Sahin who when placed alongside Xabi Alonso and Khedira can form a fearsome midfield triumvirate which can be the cornerstone of such a system.
BUT we might of course have forgotten that Mourinho did once upon a time insist that when he was talking about hunting with cats and dogs, he was referring to his double-pivot (the dog which is more suited to ‘hunting’ i.e. attacking) and his trivote (the cat). What we saw in last Sunday’s match however was a glimpse on the ‘evolutionary possibilities’ of the Double Pivot which we saw last season.
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Real Madrid’s 4-2-3-1 version 2010-2011: Mourinho’s ‘Rotating Double Pivot’
THE 'ROTATING PIVOT': Though the shape looks like your regular 4-2-3-1,  last season's formation actually 'rotated' clockwise when we went on the offensive most of the time. Yellow Arrows indicate player movement
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The main interesting point that characterized Mourinho’s 2010-11 double pivot was how he embraced the qualities of the players he had at his disposal to create his brand of the 4-2-3-1. By this I refer to his decision to embrace the idea of Marcelo as a true weapon as an attacking Left Back when most of us had concluded that he was just totally incapable of the defensive responsibilities that the position required: something made even more apparent with his successful deployment as a full-fledged left-sided midfielder under Juande Ramos. But I am very much reminded of how Maicon was deployed so dangerously on the right side of Mourinho’s Inter while a more ‘conservative’ left back was used. The reverse was true for his Chelsea where CASHley Cole was used as the attacking-motor-on-the-left while more conservative rightback options were utilized on the other side.
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The 4-2-3-1 becomes somewhat like a 3-5-2 when the 'rotation' is executed. The 2 'Levers' of the team to execute this are Xabi Alonso (from deep) and Ozil (from an advanced position)
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This was the starting point of what I like refer to was Mourinho’s ‘rotating double pivot’: as the system which looks like a 4-2-3-1 on defense but would ‘rotate’ clockwise to become something of a 3-5-2 when the team is on attack (an observation pointed out to me in one of the comments at RMFB – I think it was Andres). This is executed to allow Ronaldo in his favored left-sided attacking position (without necessarily being a true-blue striker) while being supported by Marcelo whose runs prevent Ronaldo from being double or triple-teamed when he makes his attacking runs. At the center, the striker would then make runs veering towards the flank, creating space for Ronaldo – a role Pipita performed exceptionally well. On the right flank, we a saw much more restrained Sergio Ramos (there were less of those rampaging runs on the right hand side) allowing 3 defenders to protect Iker. Di Maria’s willingness to make runs and press the opponent at midfield or even track back on the right side kept the balance too.
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The team shape was like a gear that either ‘swung’ or ‘rotated’ right or left to attack left (via Ronaldo + Marcelo) or to a lesser extent, the right (Di Maria + Ramos): much like a Southpaw Boxer whose killer punch would usually come from the left (Ronaldo). To facilitate all this of course was the engine at the heart of it all which is where Ozil and Xabi Alonso comes in. Xabi would be the man holding onto the gears with his passing that normally would swing play to either the left or right side with his forward balls to the flanks. The beauty of it all of course was the fact that he had Ozil to make passes to as well – who could also be the man that funneled passes diagonally to Ronaldo or to a lesser extent, Di Maria… directly to the striker. This allowed the ‘swinging’ motion of the team shape to either come from an advanced position (Ozil) or a deeper one (Xabi Alonso).
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The outcome was there for all of us to see: a boatload of goals including 40 La Liga Goals for the main weapon in our arsenal: the ‘left hook’ = Ronaldo. It has to be noted of course that the system we used when we played the 4-2-3-1 last season was not solely based on this system: we also did see the more ‘traditional’ variant of the 4-2-3-1 with Ronaldo and Di Maria interchanging wings to play as true wingers rather than inverted ones. For the most part however, I do find that we used the ‘rotating pivot’ system far more frequently.
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Real Madrid’s 4-2-3-1 version 2011-2012: Upgraded Rotation Features + ‘Retractable Function’
When news broke that Real Madrid had managed to land Nuri Sahin, we all applauded because we knew that we got ourselves a young midfielder who can be viewed both as Xabi Alonso’s long-term heir and his partner – allowing the team yet another man who can hold onto the gears of the ‘rotating pivot’ like Xabi Alonso.
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When news broke that Real Madrid has decided to bring back Jose Callejon, we all knew that he was to be Peter Lion’s ‘replacement’ and that he would take his place as a substitute to Ronaldo and Di Maria to play the role of ‘dagger’ in this system.
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Varane was to be a replacement for Garay (see Part 1 of this article).
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What truly befuddled us was why we had to spend 30m on Fabio Coentrao, a Left Back, when we already have Marcelo in that role. Based on what we saw last Sunday, we now know that Mourinho didn’t just buy a left back, he bought what in a deck of cards would be the ‘joker’. Apart from giving us adequate backup for Marcelo to ensure that our ‘rotating pivot’ would function regardless of injury or suspension to Marcelo (which we lose when Arbeloa plays at LB), it also pushes Arbeloa to the right side as Ramos’ backup. The right side is, if you will, Madrid’s more ‘conservative’ side, with both Ramos and Arbeloa capable in that role of providing width nominally as a right back, but more importantly, play as a sort of hybrid Centerback-Right Back in this ‘rotating double pivot’ system.
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Last Sunday’s game gave us a glimpse of what the next step might be for Mourinho’s ‘rotating double pivot’: I found that there would be 2 main additional ‘functions’ to this double pivot:
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Additional Feature #1: Upgraded ‘Rotation Features’
THE JOKER COMES INTO PLAY: With Coentrao and Marcelo on the Left, Real Madrid have interchangeable players on the left wing who can then further interchange places with the front 3 attacking midfielders. It's a matchup nightmare for the opposing team.
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The first notable observation for the Galaxy Game was that Mourinho started with a FIRST CHOICE DEFENSE (Casillas, Ramos, Pepe, Carvalho, Marcelo) and a SECOND CHOICE MIDFIELD + ATTACK (Khedira, Granero, Callejon, Kaka, Coentrao, Joselu) – an observation not lost on smurfette in the comments section during the liveblog. This basically resulted in Ronaldo being on the bench and Coentrao starting on CRon’s spot on the left side of the 3 attacking midfield positions between the CMs and the Striker. 

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Now here’s the question I’d ask if I was defending the Marcelo+Coentrao flank for the Galaxy: who’s the leftback? Marcelo or Coentrao? Both players are proven at both the Left Back and Left Midfield position that they can interchange at will and cause absolute mayhem and confusion. That’s the First Degree of these ‘Rotation Upgrades’.
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Next: what happens if this supposed Left Back-Left Winger-Left Whatever (Marcelo OR Coentrao) decide to surge forward and then LATERALLY INTERCHANGE positions with the other front 3 attacking midfielders? This was exactly what Coentrao did: surging forward and then interchanging positions with the now-seemingly-rejuvenated Kaka early in the first half: confusing the opposing right back who all of a sudden had to face the Brazilian one-on-one on Madrid’s left flank as Coentrao in turn moved into Kaka’s position behind Joselu, before ghosting into the box to befuddle the Galaxy CBs. By the time Kaka laid the ball perfectly to the path of Callejon for the opening goal, the Galaxy’s Juninho would be caught on replays ball-watching as he himself was probably watching Madrid’s left flank wondering if Coentrao and Kaka would perform this magic switcheroo trick once again. They didn’t. But with the defense completely baffled: Callejon (a.k.a. ‘Alley’ or ‘Lane’ according to Google Translate) had an open ‘Lane’ to run into (pun intended) Kaka’s pass for the opening goal.
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Next: late in the first half, Coentrao was trying this switcheroo trick again: this time involving Callejon. Imagine the application of this to the extreme:
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Step 1: Let Coentrao/Marcelo = A, Let Kaka = B, Let Callejon = C
Step 2: Consider the permutations of the attacking 3 combo behind the striker: A-B-C, A-C-B, B-A-C, B-C-A, C-A-B, C-B-A.
Step 3: Consider the fact that ‘A’ is actually a choice between 2 players further interchanging the LB and LM Positions (Coentrao and Marcelo)
Step 4: Repeat in a coordinated manner over the course of 90 mins.
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If you were defending this: wouldn’t you go nuts? I know I would.
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Additional Feature #2: ‘Retractable Function’
Coentrao comes from deep and unsettles the opposing midfield. A quick swap in position between him and the '10' who is likely marked by the opposing DM or CB would likely drag them out of position and carve open the opposing defense.
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During the second half, Mourinho then reversed his lineup: SECOND CHOICE DEFENSE (Adan, Arbeloa, Albiol, Varane, Nacho – I think) and SEMI-FIRST CHOICE MIDFIELD + ATTACK (Xabi Alonso, Coentrao, Ronaldo, Ozil, Callejon – I think and Benzema). It still looked like a 4-2-3-1 to me but this time with Coentrao as Xabi Alonso’s partner at midfield.
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The key feature was of course how Coentrao would, from his deeper midfield position break out towards the opposing goal: disrupting the marking system of the opposing defense as he goes on these ‘raids’. The team shape would then ‘retract’ back to its original 4-2-3-1 shape once he snaps back into position beside Alonso. Having played for only about half an hour in the second half, we didn’t get to see too much of this possible additional feature to the system as the game downshifted a couple of gears after Ronaldo and Benzema’s goals. A thought that came to mind though was the scenario of having a midfielder like Sahin or Granero in the ‘10’ position of the 4-2-3-1 with Coentrao sitting beside Xabi Alonso. The team shape can then alter when the Portuguese ‘Joker Card’ can surge forward and interchange with Sahin / Granero (both of whom can play comfortably at the heart of midfield as well) to play the ‘10’ position when he makes his raids: dragging opposing DMs or even CBs way out of position to open things up for us on attack.
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And just as every deck of playing cards have 2 Jokers: so does Mourinho’s current squad. Because aside from the 30m-Euro ex-Benfica Jack…err… Joker-of-all-trades (Coentrao), Mourinho also happens to have enlisted yet another player who can play both wing positions, both fullback positions and can play as a Central or Defensive or Attacking Midfielder. He too had most of us scratching our heads over his signing: his name is Hamit Altintop. He came for free too. So if you think about it: that’s 30m Euros for the price of 2 ‘Jokers’.
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A Little Disclaimer
The obervations / theories mentioned above are based on my observations / interpretations of how we played last Sunday. It has to be noted that the game was a friendly = the sort of game that is perfect for tactical experiments. I do suppose however that that’s the thing about experiments: sometimes the results can be exciting. And if those results turn out to be really applicable, then I guess there’s plenty to reasons for Madridismo to rub their hands and smile.
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p.s. Can you guys even imagine what tactical variants these ‘Jokers’ can do on a trivote? Here’s to hoping we get the last laugh come June next year. (Yes = pun intended).

2 comments:

  1. I have never enjoyed an article like this in months, thank you. I totally agree that we should rub our hands and smile because so far it looks like all the pieces are finding their place on Mourinho's tactical-chess-kill-all board.

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  2. One of the best articles I have rea in months, beautiful observations.

    ReplyDelete