Monday, October 17, 2011

Blasphemy, Argies, (Goalscoring) Orgies and Other Sins


It Was Yet Another Explosion of Goals from Pipita
Finally Club Football is Back! Is it because I’m not European or South American that I just don’t enjoy these qualifiers or friendlies? I sensed that the Bernabeu crowd last Saturday felt the same way too - because it was a packed Bernabeu last Saturday! It was an early kickoff: 12 midnight Singapore time meant 6pm Madrid time (compared to the usual 8 or 9pm timing of their matches). The Bernabeu had a nice sunset glow in the background just before kickoff and it was full too! Not blue patches of empty seats in the stadium! Who said RM supporters in Madrid would never accept an early kick off time?
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*Note on the Side*: Come to think of it, as a supporter in Asia, same time zone as big market viewers like Beijing or Hong Kong, a 12mn kickoff is an acceptable ‘compromise’ for me. The match ends at 2am, an hour later than my usual sleeping time – and on a Saturday where I can afford to wake up later the next day too.
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Betis’ Green – Go! Go! Go! Mentality
For old-school followers of La Liga, it was great to have Real Betis back in the Bernabeu too – without that punk Lopera running it. It was as if their descent into the Segunda A was a sort of cleansing process for them. Now they’re back, ambitious and hungry – and they certainly showed it. Pepe Mel looked very much up for it too - I thought he looked quite dapper in his suit and Green Tie – a contrast to notorious under-dresser because-I’m-from-Barca-and-I’m-hip Pep G. and other La Liga coaches who looked like they wore their grandfathers’ suits (Mel and Unai Emery should start some sort of La Liga coaches’ fashion club). The Betico boys started the game well too: they showed ambition and courage. They didn’t try to frustrate us by sitting deep to park the bus: they did so by swarming our midfielders and converting our lost possessions into gutsy counter attacks. They had quite a few Madrid supporters on twitter ranting about losing control of the midfield too.
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I did feel this wasn’t the case though. As by the 35’, Real Madrid had 62% possession of the ball. ‘Control’ of the midfield just didn’t seem that apparent when you have such ballsy opposition perpetually breathing down your neck. Betis’ approach last Saturday, despite having little possession reminded me not of a team ‘being defensive’ – they clearly wanted to play attacking football but were just prevented by our control of possession. For this, they must be praised.
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It was a sad detail however to see their 17-year old wonderkid Verdillo go down to injury in the 20’ – the kid embodied Betis’ game in the early exchanges: energy, positive intent and courage. Kudos to Sergio Ramos who paid the kid a visit after the game to cheer him up – a gesture that’s even more compelling when you consider the fact that Ramos is Ex-Sevilla. I’m glad to see that our defender once so famous for his ability to rack up bookings for bad tackles can display such great sportsmanship during this Real Madrid-are-Villains era. Clearly someone is learning how to be Real Madrid captain one day.
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Tactics and Personnel
We started with a 4-2-3-1 on paper. But the players' natural movements or maybe instructions from Mourinho  modified our shape
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Real Madrid lined up with their familiar 4-2-3-1 last Saturday. This time though, instead of surrounding the ‘10’ (usually) Ozil with 2 wide men (Ronaldo and Di Maria), Mourinho once against combined Ozil and Kaka in that line of 3 behind the striker. It was a repeat of Real Madrid’s personnel alignment from the games before the international break but it also seemed a logical selection given the fitness situation of the squad members: Kaka did not participate in the international friendly circuit with Brazil and trained with the remaining non-internationals (and was duly praised by Mou for his efforts in training and even presented as an example for the youngsters to follow) while Ozil played his matches in Europe as opposed to Di Maria who flew in from his games in South America (I think). Ditto for Ronaldo who was going to play as long as he was fit: besides, why deny him the opportunity to celebrate his 100th game as a Madridista at the Bernabeu (against a team where his chances of scoring and leading his team to victory would be much higher than say, Lyon in the CL)?
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The selection of both Ozil and Kaka reminded me of the hilarious Kaka-vs.-Ozil debate in the comments section at one of my older posts. Maybe they didn’t read my Tale of 2 10s from the Rayo Review? My response to it was that I find that Kaka and Ozil though both 10s, are very different types of fantasistas. Kaka is more a mixture between a CF and uses his pace and acceleration more: making him very suited to the counter-attacking run-and-gun fast break game. Whereas Ozil is more a mix between a CM and an AM: mobile, reasonably pacy but with a knack and a preference to allow the ball to travel with his passing: making him more suited for slower games with tighter, defenses. Though both can still be effective playing in the flanks using their respective skills (Kaka’s pace and Ozil’s passing), playing in the flanks reduces their effectiveness as both are comfortable IN THE MIDDLE.
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Last Saturday, I also observed Cristiano doing his usual thing of streaking forward from his wing position on the left side – he seemed to do this to a greater extent: finding himself alongside Pipita to form a front 2. The outcome of this made Real Madrid look to me like a team that goes from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-2-2-2: with Ronaldo and Pipita up front using their pace/mobility to play off the shoulder of the last defender, and with Kaka and Ozil playing as twin playmakers playing narrow by cutting diagonally inside. Xabi Alonso and Lass would be the midfield platform while the fullbacks providing width. It did help that the gungho Marcelo who motored the left side like a true Brazilian fullback was backed up by 2 very fast and mobile CBs in Pepe and Ramos. Arbeloa though unspectacular, is one who can be relied on to give reasonable width from the right without compromising defensive integrity. The system worked too: with our first 2 goals created by Ronaldo: who served Pipita an assist on a silver platter for the first goal and the second to Kaka, latching on to a Ronaldo pass with a late run into the box to make it 2-0 (a move that reminds me a lot of the countless goals scored by a late-run into the box by Frank Lampard at Chelsea).
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*Note on the Side*: The 4-2-2-2 or the ‘Magic Square’ as some call it is the stuff of fantasies: few have made it work to win titles though, at least in Europe. Probably a more conservative variant of the Brazilian 4-2-4, most of its proponents happen to be South Americans: Pellegrini has made it the chief tactical staple at Villarreal where it was successful but not enough to win titles. For Madrid, our last experiment with this formation was with Vanderlei Luxemburgo – and it ended in disaster. The much vaunted 2006 Brazil WC team also failed spectacularly with this formation: as their 2 overweight (and lazy) strikers (Ronaldo + Adriano) and their twin 10s (Kaka and Ronaldinho) faltered.
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In many situations last saturday, we resembled a 4-2-2-2. It was effective too. I'm skeptical about its consistent usability on a consistent basis though
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The potential for its use for Madrid however gives us reason to be optimistic. Pipita and CR are no Adriano + R9. Both are high-workrate players who will have no qualms closing down defenders especially if it will give them the chance to poach for goals. Kaka and Ozil on the other hand give us 2 very different types of playmakers. Ditto for the CMs. The weakness of the system has always been from the fullbacks: with twin 10s make the attack narrow and predictable, it’s up to the fullbacks to provide width to stretch defenses wide – it is also them however who provides the opponent with the openings to counter with the acres of space they leave behind when they bomb forward. In Brazil 2006: the world had discovered how much Roberto Carlos and Cafu have aged. For today’s Real Madrid, the world may yet discover how positionally naïve Marcelo can be (Coentrao is the other alternative of course). Arbeloa at RB though much less offensively dynamic has thus far been solid and positionally aware (even moreso than Ramos). At the end of the day, should Mourinho choose this system, he must devise coping mechanisms should his fullbacks be caught out: via a combination of maneuvers from his CMs or CBs which can all also be dangerous. Last Saturday however, it worked out for us.
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Argies and Orgies
The goal-scoring orgy that started in the first parts of the second half would of course continue even as Kaka was subbed out to an ovation from the Bernabeu. He would be replaced by Angel Di Maria. The 4-2-3-1-cum-4-2-2-2 would become like our usual 4-2-3-1 but the Argie goal-scoring orgy would continue. Facing a Real Betis side who were probably tired and demoralized (after playing pretty ok for 45 mins. only to be suddenly throttled with 2 goals), Di Maria twice executed his best imitation of Mesut Ozil: weaving 2 passes from deep towards for his Albiceleste teammate to complete the hat trick – the connection / momentum between the 2 (perhaps including Messi) from the international break continues.
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Blasphemy
Pipita will need buy a house just for his Game Balls at the rate he's going. He can probably share one with Cristiano
When a player or even a striker for that matter, scores 3 goals in 4 games, some would describe him as being ‘on fire’. Last Saturday, Pipita told us this was wrong. 3 HAT TRICKS in 4 Games: Now that’s a player on fire.
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I’ve said it quite a few times already and was probably ignored in all those occasions when I said that Pipita was Raul’s heir. Yesterday, they were all saying it (if you can still manage to find those AS editorials from yesterday). Pipita does not have the talent or the physical abilities of a true superstar player. When compared to Argentina’s current batch of attacking footballing talent that include Messi, Aguero, Tevez, Lavezzi or even Milito, Pipita’s talents are average at best. His individual qualities in terms of pace, passing, creating goalscoring chances, etc. are 7/10 across the board at best. But once you consider the intangibles he brings into the table though (or what I like to call his ‘Banza MotherF%cker!’ attitude), he becomes a 9/10 player = just like Raul.
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For a player who started out at Real Madrid who as Corey described, ‘Couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn’ with that ridiculous ‘Mijatovic hairstyle' during his second season – he seemed to have the makings of one of the several dozen young players Madrid buys at an overpriced rate only to become a dud. Here we are instead talking about finally finding Raul’s heir. All graft, industry and fight = he is a fitting contrast to Cristiano’s villanous flashiness, Kaka’s humble elegance, Ozil’s graceful precision, Di Maria’s manic Razzle-Dazzle and Benzema’s subdued-yet-obvious-class.
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But just as Pipita’s graft, industry and fighting spirit reminds us of Raul, his cleverness in positioning, and his knack for being at the right place at the right time also reminds us of yet another Real Madrid striker, his mentor: Ruud Van Nistelrooy. How else can you explain his development from being a player who ‘couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn’ to one who scored THAT third goal last Saturday (flashback to Butragueno) and THAT fourth goal (flashback to Raul)? Call it blasphemy but it’s as if the football Gods have given us an omen: just as Butragueno’s torch was carried on by Raul – last Saturday, it really did look like Pipita is Real Madrid’s new attacking torchbearer.
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I’ve always thought so anyway.
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The Cures of Les Gones? Finally Gone?
A familiar foe, Olympic Lyonnais, visits us tomorrow night. And while our advancing past them in last season’s Champions League Last 16 has vanquished many ghosts, perhaps it’s time for us to prove that it wasn’t a one-off. While I continue to have full confidence in the team proving that the Les Gones curse is finally gone from the Bernabeu (only a win will satisfy me as they’ve denied us victory at home way too many times), I continue to worry about their magic spell on us at the Gerland. It will be Mourinho’s first game back from his European suspension. And having been able to split the minutes between his players who could all be starters, there’s much to look forward to, to see who makes the XI that takes the field against the French Side tomorrow. Viva LeMadrid!

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