Sunday, September 25, 2011

Assumptions and Risks


Pipita Scored and Kaka had another good game. Great Signs
‘Assumptions are the mother of all Fuckups!’ – I once heard my brother (who’s an associate Regional Director of a Fortune 500 Company) scold one of his subordinates. Filipinos have a similar adage: ‘Maraming Namatay sa Maling Akala’ (Many have died from the wrong assumptions), I was often told when I was young. Last night, the wrong assumptions nearly created the Fuck-up that nearly killed us.
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Last night, Real Madrid looked like it was about to turn its slump into the beginnings of a crisis when seconds into the match, we had carelessly allowed Rayo Vallecano’s Michu to score the opening goal. The goal was the culmination of a move which started from a bad pass by Lass – shades of Roberto Carlos’ error that gifted Roy Makaay and Bayern Munich a place in the Champions League Quarter Finals some years ago (during THAT epic Capello season). But while both goals were borne of poor concentration… (sleep walking to start the match again?) The bigger issue at hand for me was how we seemed to start last night’s match with what in my opinion was the wrong understanding (or assumption) of/about Rayo Vallecano.
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Rayo are a newly promoted side and therefore, like those bottom teams who come to the Bernabeu, they would line themselves up in 2 neat banks for 4, sit deep, park the bus and wait for us… That seemed to be the assumption that the team started the game with which led to the spectacular fuck-up that was their first goal: instead of quickly running back to their side to protect their goal (as what many may have thought), they instead blitzed us – intercepting Lass’ lazy pass and turning it into a goal. Sigh, if only they read Guillem Balague’s match preview (who said “Rayo are very brave. I don`t think they`ll drop deep. I think they`ll pressure high and see what happens.).
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The team continued to look like a deer caught in the headlights as Rayo continued their pressing game on our defense: several times choking the outlet to our midfield: something made worse by the absence of Ricardo Carvalho, our ball-playing Centerback (all of a sudden, I was missing him!). It was to be like this for the first 20-30 minutes of the match – and as the boos and whistles began to come down from the stands of the Bernabeu, that sinking feeling … and that 6-letter ‘C-Word’ started to creep into my head: Crisis.
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And as many have spoken about Marcelo being Real Madrid’s weakest defender (despite his clear improvements), no team thus far has been able to exploit this despite the idea seemingly a solid one on paper. There are 2 reasons for this: 1.) Madrid’s attacks come mostly from the left side (using the Marcelo + CR combo), prompting teams to perceive Madrid’s left flank as a defensive concern rather than an attacking target and 2.) Marcelo’s ‘Dad’: Ricardo Carvalho. Our Portuguese grand-daddy defender has always looked out for Marcelo either by covering for the Brazilian himself or marshalling the defense or defensive midfield to provide him with cover. Last night, with guts and without Carvalho, Rayo Vallecano became the first team that capitalized on Marcelo’s defensive frailties: attacking Madrid through Marcelo’s flank and managing to find inroads into our defense.
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Rotations
I do not come from the school of thinking that criticizes squad rotation. In fact, given the depth of our squad, I’m all for it. Squad rotation keeps the morale of the players for the entire squad up and it also equally distributes the fatigue factor amongst the players. For this reason, I am not inclined to jump onto the shortcut conclusion that the reason for our early struggles was Mourinho’s decision to rotate his squad. The defense, though missing Carvalho, looked ok to me: I though Albiol (who finally got a game!) and Varane looked good. Ditto for Ramos at RB too. Lass played instead of Khedira as Alonso’s midfield partner, presumably to rest the German for Tuesday’s Ajax game while Kaka, who is beginning to show signs of life got the nod to start. This might actually be the season where Mourinho finally gets to recover Kaka. The Brazilian’s confidence is starting to come back: the hesitation to ‘turn the jets on’ is no longer there and the performances are becoming more and more consistently positive. Mourinho has after all, revealed to the press about speaking to Ozil about our google-eyed playmaker’s dip in form the last 2 games. We’re up for a healthy dose of in-squad competition for places here: and with both men being generally nice guys, I genuinely think this competition should remain healthy.
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Mourinho’s Move: Realization or Risk?
Mourinho's Response to going down 0-1 while being put on the back foot was to play a 4-1-4-1 with Kaka and Ozil as 'twin playmakers'. With the 2 on the pitch both playing their favored positions, our counter attacks became murderous.
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It was on the 28th minute when Mourinho made his bold move: replacing Lass with Ozil: and converting team shape from a 4-2-3-1 with 2 pivots (Xabi Alonso + Lass) and a single ‘10’ (Kaka) into a 4-1-4-1 with a single pivot (Alonso) and 2 ‘10s’ (Kaka and Ozil). I have 2 theories as to what Mourinho was thinking here:
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1.) ‘Fuck it! I NEED to win, let’s attack, gain the lead, then ‘close shop’ later on to kill the match’ or…
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2.)‘These guys (Rayo) are actually attacking us! Hey! That’s a good thing! Let’s provoke them into coming more at us and murder them with our favorite weapon: our blitzkrieg counter-atttack!’
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Whatever it was the prompted Mourinho to make his first half gamble. It worked out brilliantly for us. His post-match statements would reveal he was probably thinking the former (1. above) when he made his decision to play with a  4-1-4-1:
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“It hurt to replace Lass, but the team needed it…. Things get even harder when you're losing 1-0 as soon as the game starts, but character shines through in difficult situations and the team reacted. We had 20 to 25 difficult minutes on the pitch, but we changed, took risks, reacted well and took the lead by half-time.
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A tale of 2 10s
Benzema's Goal was Vintage Ozil. 
"Kaka and Ozil played closer to the goal…We didn't have a true number '10' on the pitch, but there were three excellent playmakers out there… We started pulling off more efforts. It's a shame I had to replace Kaka when we were down to ten men because he was giving a very good performance… Kaka and Ozil have to be prepared both physically and mentally to adapt to play closer to midfield. It isn't easy for them to do this for 90 minutes. It's risky… They have to be fit and aware that Xabi Alonso can't play alone in midfield for 90 minutes. They both responded very well. They created ball movement and covered Rayo's exits. They played well. It was a situation of risk but they transformed it into a positive scenario for the team."
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Mourinho’s statements above pretty much explains every clearly the on-the-fly adjustments he made to fit his 2 10s, Kaka and Ozil onto the pitch while:
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1.) Ensuring that they didn’t get into each other’s way
2.) Ensuring that Xabi Alonso wouldn’t be shipwrecked on his own at the CM position. (Apart from the help given to him by Kaka and Ozil, the defenders also did superbly to help Xabi Alonso out).
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Kaka and Ozil are both 10s – just different types. Though both are technically impeccable players, they represent 2 contrasting types of ‘fantasistas’. Kaka’s primary weapon is his verticality: a deadly dose of acceleration directness. In Milan, he murdered defenses regularly with these 2 weapons as their explosive counter attacks caught opposing defenses back-pedaling. His final ball wasn’t bad, but Kaka also had a nasty long range curling shot that killed many a goalkeeper. These qualities were best demonstrated in 2 instances: first when he switched his afterburners on and found Ronaldo with a great pass to make it 1-1 and another in the second half where his run into the box forced a Rayo defender into conceding a penalty.
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Ozil on the other hand, while gifted with a good dose of pace, isn’t blessed with Kaka’s ability to explode and accelerate. What Ozil lacks in explosive vertical foot speed with or without the ball (compared to Kaka) however, he makes up with his close-quarter dribbling and ball-control abilities that can allow him to maneuver out of tight spaces when swarmed with defenders (moreso than Kaka) – he’s made quite a few players look like idiots with this skill too. And while he too can fire a nasty shot from distance, they also aren’t quite like the heat-seeking missiles we’ve seen the best Kaka fire. This of course is not his primary weapon, his weapon of choice of course is his Guti-esque ability to pick out lethal defense-piercing passes to his teammates (as we saw in his exquisite pass for Benzema’s goal). Ozil also has more qualities of an all-around midfielder as his passing game isn’t just for the final ball but also for build-up play.
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I suppose that the best analogy I can think of is for Basketball: where Kaka is more like a player suited to a fast-breaking run-and-gun style with his burst of pace, passing skills on the break and finishing, Ozil is more adaptable to a slower game where his knack for providing the killer pass in a crowd. In that sense – the 2 men are capable of complementing each other. It is merely a matter of selecting an overall tactical scheme that can allow for their respective abilities to thrive and safeguard the overall solidity of the team. We’ve seen Mourinho try them both out in a 4-2-3-1 system with 1 of the 2 playing in the wings: suitable to neither to the 2. Last night was the first time we saw them working together AT THE CENTER – the result however was wonderful to watch. Before we get euphoric over this possibility however, we must all remind ourselves that it’s unlikely Mourinho will play with this system from start to finish given the risks that  he himself has talked about.
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Scoring from Deadball Situations
I've seen forwards make heel flicks to score goals but not 191cm. 18 Year Old CBs... until last night!
Since Cristiano arrived at Real Madrid, we’ve only learned to score from Free Kicks one way: from his Free Kicks. It was thus refreshing to see Ronaldo finally relent to Xabi Alonso to do things differently, allowing our Basque Pass Master to deliver a tasty ball for Ramos to knock into the goal. It was Pipita who managed to poach the goal as Ramos was barely allowed to make contact with the ball by his Marker. The set piece goal of the night had to come from Raphael Varane though: who executed a heel flick from an Ozil corner to put it past Gimenez. What a goal! Impressive with his defensive duties vs. Racing, he showed us another dimension to his game last night: becoming a constant aerial threat in set pieces even before his goal. At age 18, and with his projected growth level: Did Real Madrid manage to finally manage find a CB that can be a fixture for us for more than a decade?
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Before last night’s victory, we’ve only managed 1 goal from our last 3 games (Dinamo, Levante & Racing) and a total for 4 points. Last night was 3 points and 6 goals on the board for us.
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Let’s hope that last night’s victory has allowed the team to finally re-discover their mojo: because the season is young and there are many more assumptions to make and risks to take.

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