Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tasting Each Other’s Own Medicine



It was an El Clasico: Real Madrid vs. Barcelona.
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One team, pressed, controlled possession and created chances, while the other one tried to keep up and with their first 2 opportunities to strike, scored 2 goals on the back of the super talents of their players. Which one was Real Madrid? Which one was Barcelona? In another world… or rather, in the world of last season… it would have been Barca who pressed all over the pitch, controlled the game and created one scoring chance after another and it would have been Madrid who did the other. But not last night.
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Results aside, it is clear to me that we are now in a new world.
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David Villa scored a goal that cannot be described in any other way except as ‘Golazo’ while Messi’s goal… well… was vintage Messi: nevermind that he probably wouldn’t have scored if Pepe didn’t slip.
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I will also disregard the ‘Villarato’ outrage that many are probably feeling in lieu of no penalty being awarded for Victor Valdes’ cheap tug on Ronaldo’s shin: we all know he’s a dickhead anyway. I also won’t make a meal out of it because Marcelo’s foul on Pedro minutes later was a penalty in my opinion too, so we’re even there. Both penalty culprits played monster games: Marcelo was a beast on defense while Valdes earned his salary last night: nevermind that Marcelo is a genuinely nice guy with a childlike penchant for playfulness while Valdes is a thug in a goalkeeper’s jersey (and now that he doesn’t have Unicef strewn in front of his shirt – it’s even that much more obvious).
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Here are some quick thoughts on last night’s proceedings:
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1.0  Tactics – Mourinho and the 4-2-3-1
Many in my opinion hand prematurely declared that Mourinho would abandon his most used formation last season, the 4-2-3-1 in favor of the trivote – especially in lieu of the latter’s (relative) success against Barca last season and the former’s catastrophic application in the first clasico.

It was actually my expectation that Coentrao would start ahead of Di Maria to allow us to go from the 4-2-3-1 to the 4-3-3 at the drop of a hat: Coentrao would only need to tuck into the center of midfield (to form a 4-3-3) or disengage from it and zip through the flanks (to form a 4-2-3-1) to achieve this. Perhaps this is something we’d see during the return leg at the Camp Nou? Instead it was Di Maria who started in a repeat of last season’s lineup during that ill-fated 5-0 at the Camp Nou. The result of course was very different.

Surprisingly the second half, even with the subs on, still turned out to be a 4-2-3-1 for us. Maybe Sahin availability would have changed this. Or Maybe not: maybe Mourinho genuinely believes that even when playing with only 2 pivots, this Mourinho-Madrid in its upgraded state can play and win with 2 pivots – even if it’s against Barca.

2.0  Key Players
2.1  Barca and their Absences
It was very timely that I managed to read an absolutely mind-blowing interview on the tactical mind of Chelsea’s Andre Villas-Boas hours before last night’s match: in it he describes many of his observations about tactics including on today’s Barcelona. And it was here where he outlined 2 key starting points of Barca’s attack: the fullbacks and ball-playing centerbacks
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Last night, Barca played with a lineup that was without its midfield linchpins Xavi and Busquets (replaced by Keita and the impressive Thiago) while its first choice defensive core of Puyol and Pique, both ball playing CBs, were replaced by a natural Left Back: Abidal and a mindless meathead Mascherano. Mourinho left Barca’s 2 Brazilian fullbacks, Adriano and Alves with no room to breathe. And with no ball-playing Centerbacks to initiate play, Barca drowned.
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They literally only managed this result on the back of the sheer unquestionable quality from Villa and Messi.
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2.2  Who is this Superstriker pretending to be Benzema?
This image captures what Benzema did last night: observe the 2 Barca CBs (Mascherano and  Abidal) dragged wide and WAY out of position to allow Ozil the open lane to shoot (Keita arrive to help too late)


Where was the pouty, lethargic, ball-watching snob that wears #9 for Real Madrid? His name was Benzema right? Coz that guy who in my opinion was the Real Madrid Man-of-the-Match who looked like Benzema and wore his shirt sure as hell isn’t the Benzema I knew. Enough with this BenzeCAT business.

Perhaps Marca’s BenzeMAN is the more appropriate nickname. Because if the version we were seeing the last 2 seasons was the footballing equivalent of Clark Kent, then last night’s version was BenzeMan. Benzema’s mobility, awareness and sharpness wreaked absolute havoc on the Barca defense. The first goal was the best example of this: with the Frenchman dragging Barca’s defenders wide with his run to carve it completely open for Ozil to pierce their heart.
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2.3  Barca’s Substitutions
Bit by bit, Barcelona began to introduce their ‘usual’ players into the game: Xavi, Pique and then Pedro. The first 2 substitutions were key as they began to become more comfortable with the ball and with the pressing from Madrid. Perhaps this was also fatigue from Madrid playing at such a high-tempo nearly all game long, but this was also I think due to the fact that a Ball-playing CB and their master of possession was on the pitch for them. I guess we’ll find out soon enough on Wednesday.
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2.4  Madrid’s Substitutions
For Real Madrid to play the 4-2-3-1 against Barca’s 4-3-3, perpetually conceding 3 vs. 2 central midfield advantage to Barca, they would need to play an all-action, high-octane, high-tempo game. And in last night’s match, Real Madrid’s superior fitness was there to see. Sustaining this for 90 minutes though might not be workable: Mourinho would have to either have to revert to his 4-3-3 or replenish his lineup with fresh legs.
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When Coentrao went in for Di Maria, I thought he would finally play a ‘convertible system’ with Coentrao functioning as the ‘switch’ between the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3. And then Callejon came on. It was a demonstration firstly, of his belief that his 4-2-3-1 system when applied at the high-tempo Madrid played last night, is good enough to beat Barca; and secondly: that Vanilla Joe Callejon was not Pedro Leon V2.0 – that Mou truly believed in him THAT much.
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Despite their decent performances however, in my opinion, Coentrao at CM is still a downgrade from Khedira (a monster game last night too from our German Panzer) and Callejon a downgrade from Di Maria.
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3.0  Return Leg Jitters
Last Night, the Bernabeu was up for it too

At the end of they day, it’s hard to look at this match and not feel letdown. To have played so well and have to go to the Camp Nou with Barcelona having 2 away goals is a bitter pill to swallow. This pill of course is extra bitter when we consider the fact last night’s team was not Barcelona’s A-Team (more like the B++ Team).
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By Wednesday, Barca might be capable of fielding a starting XI that would include the ball-playing CB they were missed so badly last night (Pique), a Central Midfielder that can guarantee their dominance of possession (Xavi Hernandez) and then some (Fabregas). Should Barca bring their ‘A-Team’, it will be interesting to see if the key tactics employed last night (high-pressing with particular focus on choking their full backs and cutting off their supply from a deep position) will work. And if they do work – to what extent? I’m actually skeptical they will work – or rather, work entirely.
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For this reason, I expect a more ‘typical’ game on Wednesday: more possession and control for Barcelona and Madrid chasing them off the ball for 90 minutes. For this reason, I continue to persist with the idea that Coentrao is a better guy to start the match over Di Maria (as great as he is): as this allows Mourinho to flick the switch between a 4-2-3-1, (which I expect to be less effective against a first-choice Barca squad), and the 4-3-3 at the drop of a hat.
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It is also still clear that fitness will continue to be a factor in these games. And for that reason, I still expect Real Madrid to have the advantage. It is this factor plus what is evidently a much higher level of cohesiveness in the way the team plays together that I believe Real Madrid have the advantage, 2 away goals for Barca or not. If we truly wish to see a full-strength Barcelona with their A-Game vs. the Real Madrid equivalent, then I suppose we will probably need to wait till December for that.
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And I suppose it’s the thought of a possible loss at the hands of a B++ Barca that scares and rattle many Madridisitas and explains the temptation for Madridistas and the players alike to think: “Shit, what do we have to do to beat these guys!?!” I’m pretty sure however, that Mourinho and perhaps the many optimists within the ranks of Madridisimo (including this one) would be rather choose to listen to that nasty little voice that’s now probably whispering in the heads of those from that cocky Catalan Club:
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“You still can’t beat us 11 on 11. You couldn’t beat us 11 on 11 LAST season when you had control of the game and you couldn’t beat us again last night when we had control of the game and you caught 2 lucky breaks against the run of play.”
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Is there reason to be anxious and fidgety for Wednesday’s match? Yes.
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I’d rather rub my hands with a naughty grin though.
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P.S. Starhub Singapore didn’t show the match on TV. You guys suck. (This article by the way was first published in Real Madrid Football Blog)

1 comment:

  1. Best Real Madrid blog, hands down.. post more often!

    ReplyDelete