Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Morning After


Just this week, in a podcast we never got to post Managing Madrid’s Gabe Lezra asked me a question: “Imagine this: Barcelona wins, Real Madrid loses, the lead has been cut to 3. It’s the morning of December 11th – how are you feeling?” I no longer remember what answer I gave, but here I am today in exactly the same question.
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The answer now that I’m here: “Like Shit.”
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I also did say before the matchIf we lose, it will be a time of reflection and analysis of what went wrong and what we can to win in the next encounter.”
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Before I go to that part however, I’d like to congratulate FC Barcelona and Pep Guardiola (and by extension, the cules): for a very well-played game, superbly clever application of tactical adjustments and the character to overcome going 0-1 down away from home and at the hands of their bitterest rivals. I woke up at 5am in the morning today to catch the match without the slightest inkling that I would say such a thing, but here I am doing so now, because quite frankly, it’s clear that Barca were the better team of the night: Madrid were inferior and neither the performances of the players this morning nor were tactics employed by Mou and his coaching team were successful in bridging the gap (you could have said that during the 4 clasicos at the end of last season with Mourinho’s 4-3-3 with Pepe, but not this morning). Having said that, Barca were not as superior as their arrogant president (who called it a ‘bano’) or the Mullah of Barca’s Football Taliban Xavi whodescribed themselves as ‘muy superiores’. It’s the arrogance of idiots such as these that makes being a graceful loser so difficult. I’ll try anyway.
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Whatever Happened to Carpe Diem?
I'll never forget the day Reggie Miller introduced the word "Choker" into my Sporting Linggo. He was talking about the likes of you this morning Cris
Whatever happened to ‘Seizing the Day’??? It was right there – the game was there to be won and still we failed! Many might be cursing the fates for the second goal we conceded but heck, they also handed us the dream start to the game. And while their second goal was indeed flukey and borne of sheer luck, while our first goal was a product of our deliberate application of our tactics, going a goal up in 22 seconds for such a match will always bear the fingerprint of good fortune. And when destiny deals you with such a good start, you’d best reach out and grab the opportunity with both hands – that’s what Champions do. And that’s what we did NOT do. If there was a game whose circumstances allowed us best to demonstrate our suitability as Champions, it was this one. Sad to say, we came up short – thank God for half of the season still being there for us to ‘grow up’ in this respect.
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One eventually might be able to argue that their second goal was a product (albeit an indirect one) of Pep’s brilliant in-game tactical adjustments (more on that later).
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“…Putting the ‘luck aspect’ aside, this has now reached a point wherein the winner will be decided by the mental toughness of the players and coaching staff of each team: will we have the level of concentration required to score on the chances we create? Can we keep ourselves defensively-focused for 90+ minutes? These are all the little details that are derived from mental toughness, poise and focus…”
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It is with the quote from my Carpe Diem Post above where I’d like to call out Cristiano Ronaldo. You choked big time brother – big time. Had he scored on that golden chance to make it 2-0 in the first half, we would’ve probably walked away with at least a point. And what about those free kicks in the second half – all of them well within scoring range. Worst of all, what about the wasted free header that would have brought us level at 2-2. What’s the point of scoring all these hat tricks against the Osasunas of the world if you can’t score on such golden chances that your teammates who have conspired with the fates to create for you against THE Barcelona… or rather THIS Barcelona? Barca was there for the taking: Cristiano the sword was in your hands. Why you chose to knock them with the butt of that sword rather than put them through its blade, I have no idea. If you suffer from some sort of lack for bloodlust when facing the Blaugrana then what the hell are you doing wearing a Real Madrid shirt?
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Cristiano Ronaldo – you cost us 96 million Euros. NINETY SIX MILLION Fucking Euros!
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Tactics: Losing the Midfield Numbers Game
Mourinho stuck to a 4-2-3-1 pretty much all game (I photoshopped out the positions of the subs) (image from Soccernet's Gamecast)

I’ve been asked many times on my opinion in the who’s-the-better-coach debate between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. And almost always, before the guy asking me has even finished his question, I’ve already given my answer: Jose Mourinho – hands down. As much as I appreciate the fact that Pep Guardiola has taken what is already an amazingly effective (and for the most part, attractive) way to play and upgraded it SEVERAL notches higher, I remain skeptical that such a system can ever be implemented anywhere outside Barca. And even if you say it can be done, he hasn’t proven it yet. Mourinho on the other hand, has taken 3 VERY different teams (Porto, Chelsea and Inter) and have taken them to the top. For this reason, I rate Mourinho ahead of Pep.
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Last night however, Pep totally outfoxed Mourinho. I also said that formations would not matter so much (whether we would decide to play a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3): they did – I was dead wrong. Mourinho started the game with a 4-2-3-1 to face Pep’s 4-3-3: conceding a 2 vs. 3 disadvantage in Central Midfield numbers from the get-go. Nevermind, if we press them high and press them well, it wouldn’t matter anyway just like in the Super Cup (which was decided by Messi): and as long as we kept the midget in check, we’ll be alright (to be fair to Mou, Messi wasn’t as decisive this morning even though he assisted their first goal): Benzema’s opening goal was confirmation of that. Ozil’s early first half involvement was a sign of that too. I also took Khedira’s presence on the bench as a sign that Mourinho had taken fatigue into consideration: that Lass / Coentrao can come off in the second half if tired and a very competent pair of fresh workhorse legs would continue the midfield pressing battle. Pep however, undid all that without so much as even a substitution.
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Barca on the other hand, started as a 4-3-3 but 'morphed' into something of a 4-4-2-cum-3-1-4-2. It was killing our midfield but Mourinho never responded to it.

Starting with Cesc as a ‘false 9’ with Messi and Alexis on the wings of his 4-3-3: his 4-3-3 was essentially ‘convertible’ into a 4-4-2 when Cesc is asked to drop deep: turning their 3 vs. 2 central midfield advantage into a 4 vs. 2 (with Messi and Alexis as the ‘strikers’). This would then be further compounded by Alves pushing up at Right Midfield (to seal off Marcelo’s runs to support CR, while Puyol would move to RB) and allowing Busquets to be a sort of hybrid DM-cum-CB. It would turn out to become a sort of 3-1-4-2: and however which way you wish to count it up, that’s a CONSTANT TWO-man Barca numbers advantage at the middle of the pitch against us. It essentially choked our midfield to death. Lass had a pretty good game but it was VERY far from enough.
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Mourinho could have countered it by sending in Khedira to reduce their man advantage and give us that pair of energetic fresh legs. Instead, he insisted for the by-then ineffective Ozil to continue and waited for Lass to be booked before sending Khedira in: an indication to me that Mourinho either a.) insisted on believing that we could still have won with our dying midfield or b.) didn’t fully realize at the time what Pep was doing to us. I didn’t necessarily agree with the substitutions either: while there was logic to sending Pipita in to add firepower when we needed a goal, Di Maria, who looked really bright in the game and seemed to be a real potential creator for that needed goal. Our attack seemed to lose even more of its edge without him too.
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All throughout the game, from the middle of the first half to the end of the match: Pep’s substitutions had been all about gaining the advantage in midfield numbers while Mourinho sent in players, not to battle Pep in the critical warzone, but send troops on the wrong zone of the pitch (Pipita, Kaka).
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In a match where Mourinho came in without his mind games, where he stepped into the dugout to coach a match where his true capabilities as a tactician were supposed to guide us to victory – he too fell short. Yes ladies and gentlemen: our great Jose Mourinho choked too.
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Character
One of the things I hate the most about many talented Sports Teams is the lack of ‘character’, the lack of ‘championship material’: that knack for automatically knowing to rise above the occasion, to become a better team than the sum of your parts suggests. Most of all, I speak of that quality to make things happen when it really counts. Today, at the absolute highest level, we have failed miserably in that test of our championship mettle.
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 There will be 23 more La Liga matches and then a few more from the Copa Del Rey and the Champions League to go for the rest of the season. Many of these matches are the kind where we probably to expect to romp through, others will be tricky, while a select few will be tests of character. Of the 23 remaining La Liga matches however, there is but 1 remaining La Liga match left that will once again be the measure of our championship material. Yes folks,Barcelonahave become the measure to true excellence in football and we’ve only got one remaining chance left this season to test ourselves against them. If this team truly wants to earn its rightful place in the football world, then it must begin counting the days for the next encounter – they should in fact pray to the football Gods that we meet them in battle once again in the Champions League or the Copa Del Rey. Times and defeats like this are not cues to cower or shudder in fear: these are moments for Madridisimo to bang their fists on the table to demand another go.
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We will be irritating, We will be stubborn… and We will not stop.
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Until the football Gods deem us deserving of the opportunity to face them in the Champions League or the Copa Del Rey, our next clasico will be on the 22nd of April 2012 (or that weekend at least). But today, on the 11th of December 2011 – we go back to work: back to the chalkboard for Mourinho and his men, back to the training pitch for the boys and hopefully, back to winning for the team. Time to lick the wounds, time purge the sadness, time to learn again… most importantly, it’s also time to start looking for the champion in them.
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It’s somewhere in there. All we need is for Madridisimo to continue believing.

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