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).

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Ex-Galacticos vs. The Galaxy (Part 1): Jersey Numbers and then Some…

Ah here they are again at last: Real Madrid matches. Nevermind that they’re only friendlies. For die-hard Madridistas like myself, there are never enough of them… and though fatherhood has helped a lot with the Real Madrid withdrawal symptoms, they never go away permanently. Last Sunday morning (Saturday evening LA time I think), Real Madrid played their first pre-season match against the LA Galaxy who were in the middle of their season.
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My Little Madridsita
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The boys in white had ridiculous tans. I blame either the California sun for this or Cristiano Ronaldo’s metrosexual-tendencies-on-steroids becoming a pervading influence on the entire team (they were in Hollywood after all). As this will be my first post in a long time, forgive the rust. It didn’t help of course that the game coincided with my ‘shift’ to take care of my nearly 2-month old little Madridista during the time the game was showing online (I HATE the Singapore Cable TV networks’ coverage of this football preseason thus far). And since there was no Ronaldo, Ozil, Benzema or Xabi Alonso on show in the first half, he wasn’t too keen on watching (I had to carry him, walking about a few rounds around the apartment to keep him from getting bored – resulting in me missing out on patches of on-the-pitch action).
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I’ve got a couple of thoughts on the tactics used for the match which I’ll post sometime this week. Some of these thoughts of course will overlap with my thoughts on individual players and their respective performances. Anyway, here goes:
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Pre-season Jersey Numbers aren’t usually the ‘final’ rubber-stamped jersey numbers for the season but they’re a pretty good indication on what will be rubber stamped on the backs of the players’ jerseys come the season. Someone at RMFB was asking why there were no names on the jerseys… well, this is because it’s somewhat ‘protocol’ for friendlies. Either way, let’s go through some notable performances from the boys yesterday:
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6 – Sami Khedira. So Sami’s finally taken the ‘6’, left out by Diarra and Adebayor. One would have thought this’d be a good number for Lass too, but being that he’s waiting for someone to pay 18m Euros for him in Madrid, Sami then took the number and looked good in it – it was as I remember also his number for the German National team.
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7 – Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo is as close to Hollywood as you would get to a European Footballer (Becks after all is ALREADY in Hollywood). The fans went nuts when they saw him get up to warm up and totally went bonkers when a moment that got me yelling ‘Pass it you F%cking ball hog!’ ended with a ‘Bloody F#ck. What a Goal!’. As the fans and Ronaldo’s teammates went nuts, for me, it ended with ‘Can you please watch your mouth when you’re with the baby!’ from the wife.
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8 – Kaka. He looked fit, he looked lively, he asked for the ball, he took defenders on (and almost had them fall on their own ankles, backpedalling to keep up) and created some fabulous goalscoring opportunities (including the opening goal). Mourinho spoke about wanting to get the old Kaka back – maybe he wasn’t just talking out of his ass when he said that.
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10 – Ozil. Boy did our google-eyed Martian playmaker look a nice fit for the ‘10’ (I’ve got him wearing it on my PSP already hahaha). With Man-Ci-Ni of Man-Ci-Ty expressing his desire for Aguero as a replacement to Argentine-Copa-America-Sacrificial-Lamb Tevez, perhaps Ozil’s comment that the ’10’ is waiting for Aguero won’t come true. His neat interplaying with Ronaldo in the second half was a nice sight to see again and one that befits a fantasista wearing Real Madrid’s ‘10’.
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11 – Granero. ‘Barn’ or ‘Grain Dealer’ (Google Translate’s names for him) played in the ‘Alonso role’ at the heart of the midfield alongside Khedira. Maybe it’s because we were playing an MLS side on ‘friendly mode’… or maybe he just had a really good game. Maybe not. Maybe he’s just really that good and for the first time in a long time, we saw the Granero that we all wanted to see: kept the passing patterns of the team well-oiled and logical (i.e. no mindless passing over and over back to the defense ala Lady Gago). He even got everyone to piss off the ball because he wanted to take the Free Kick late in the first half.
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15 – Fabio Coentrao. Coentrao took the ‘15’ which Drenthe will hopefully never wear again. It’s interesting to compare the current and former ‘15’ of Real Madrid. The former (Drenthe) came to Madrid as a PROSPECT at the cost of 14m supposedly as some sort of athletic phenomenon whose position on the pitch we never quite knew at that time. We pretty much ‘settled’ it as him being either a Left Back or a Left-Sided midfielder: he is still neither. Seriously, if Real Madrid can’t find a club who will take him (or whom he will take), perhaps we can find a Reggae band or a Hip Hop Group who will?
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The current 15 (Coentrao) on the other hand, has come as a ridiculously over-priced player (30m including Garay) for a supposedly a position we’re already covered nicely for: Left Back. On the back of yesterday’s performance however, it’s clear that he’s more than that. Playing the first half as part of the 3-man attack between the lone-striker and the double pivot, he interchanged positions constantly with Callejon and Kaka creating absolute mayhem in the LA midfield and defense. In the second half, he played as a ‘pivot’ alongside Xabi Alonso too, but occasionally making ‘raids’ forward that continued to befuddle the Galaxy. He was as comfortable in those multiple roles as a surfer dude with his bleach-blonde hairdo in California.
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30m for a Left Back is indeed too much. 30m for a Left Back / Left-or-Right-Winger / Attacking Midfielder / Central Midfielder… now that’s a thought. Looking back to Royston Drenthe, the prospect whose athleticism and physical gifts many marveled at some years back, perhaps this was what was envisioned of him. On the back of yesterday’s performance, Fabio Coentrao fulfilled the role that many perhaps hoped Drenthe would fill: an amazingly fit, all-action player who could play almost everywhere: a true Mourinho player.
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Just a thought: Coentrao is the 2nd Benfica player in consecutive seasons whom we signed and had many balking at the price. Last year it was Di Maria: he’s not so overpriced at 25m Euros now. And to put things perhaps further into context (or maybe out of it): in the AXL (Almighty Xenophobe League), Liverpool signed 27-year old Stewart Downing for 20 GBP (23m Euros), they truly believe wholeheartedly that with this super critical signing, they can make FIFTH place in the AXL.
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19 – Raphael Varane. Just as Coentrao seems to be the man to accomplish the unfulfilled role envisioned for Drenthe, Varane seems to be the man envisioned to do the same for Garay: that of a ‘trainee’ centerback who can one day grow into grand-daddy Carvalho’s boots. Varane and Garay make for a very interesting comparison. It wasn’t too long ago where we found a Racing Santander starlet who looked like having the goods to play for a us… and Barca supposedly wanted him too! (No, I’m not talking about Sergio Canales YET) A Centerback, who might be able to play DM too who took nasty free kicks and was also a penalty specialist (even scoring 2 daggers against us). We bought him for 10m (same price as Canales). We loaned him out for one year to Racing to let him keep getting first team experience (like we plan to now with Canales) and when he finally joins us, we realize that perhaps he’s not Real Madrid-Starting XI-calibre after all.
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Here’s the difference: Garay, now at a point wherein we know he’s never going to be a first choice Centerback for Real Madrid after all those years of him being a ‘prospect’ is now 24. If Garay was truly going to be good enough to be a starting XI player for Real Madrid, we’d have known by now – especially during the Pellegrini season where he played alongside Albiol. He never gave me that ‘Ah…yes… he’s a Real Madrid player’ moment during the times he played (I remember feeling that way about Pepe once I saw him play fully fit). As of now, there are 2 players who are of this ‘tenure track’ at Madrid: the 20-year-old Canales and Varane at 18 years of age. Both at around 10million each: we will find out if they will either become the Spanish Ozil or French Pique or if they will turn out to be the Spanish Gago or the French Garay.
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Over the last few years, Madrid spent money on a series of promising youth prospects: 13m for Higuain, 6m for Marcelo, 20m for Gago, 10m for Garay and 14m for Drenthe. That’s 63m Euros. Today, I value Higuain at 35m, Marcelo at 25m, Gago for 8, Garay for 8, Drenthe for 3 = 79m (a difference of +16m). On the same principle, even if only one of Canales and Varane turn out to fulfill their perceived potential, we stand to gain a ‘profit’. If both live true to their perceived potential over the next couple of years, then we can let Carvalho and even Kaka to retire in grace.
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So is Callejon our new Pop-star in the team post-Lady Gago? What should we call him? JoeCal? Vanilla Merengue?

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21 – Jose Callejon. He took Pedro Leon’s ‘21’. Hmmm… #21 playing on the flanks for Madrid: anyone remember the well-loved and classy Santi Solari? He was no Galactico but played more than competently alongside them as starter and sub for many years. Here’s to hoping Callejon (or ‘Alley’ or ‘Lane’ as Google Translate likes to call him) doing the same without having to get shafted out of the club by a mindless Galactico policy like Santi did.
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Suggestion to the Marketing Executives of the club: First, get a SUPER lucrative endorsement deal with a hairgel company: can you imagine the pile of cash the club stands to earn with CRon and JoeCal endorsing those? Next idea: manufacture and sell Callejon-hairstyle wigs at the club shop: you guys will make a killing.
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29 – Joselu. Unlike some of my co-RMFB writers, I’m not a diehard cantera fan. I embrace the fact that Real Madrid is not just the club of Madrid or Spain, but it is the club of the World. On that basis, I am a believer that only the absolute best players that can be put together to form a TEAM are to play with for my beloved Merengues. Thus, I’m not naïve enough to believe that the best 25 players of the world can be put together and be called a Real Madrid squad. I believe in a realistic balance of players to assemble the best team.
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Here’s where my opinion on the Cantera come in: IF there are cantera players that are truly good enough to play for Real Madrid’s first team, then they should. Canteranos in my humble opinion are to play for Real Madrid if they are deemed good enough, not because they are canteranos. On that basis, I mourn the fact that the managements of the past were too stupid to recognize the talents of world-class canteranos who were once amongst us (I speak of Etoo, Cambiasso, Borja Valero and Mata among others)… or enact strategies that would have allowed us to hold on to them for long enough us to hold onto them till they reached their true level.
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The return of Callejon (supposedly at the request of Mourinho) and the presence of the likes of Arbeloa and Granero, both Canternos deemed important to the squad though not necessarily as starters is a return to the cantera direction that I favor. I would imagine though that Etoo and perhaps Borja or even Cambiasso would be good enough to start even in this Real Madrid. It is on this basis that I believe that the 3rd striker of Real Madrid should be a Canterano.
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When a youngster like Joselu would have the audacity to pull a Robinho-esque maneuver on David Beckham (run on the left flank and then turn to the right to shoot between his legs) and succeed, it tells you that there are resources there that we may not necessarily be tapping fully into. If Mourinho wants a real #9 Target Man, I’d rather we let Alvaro Morata be that guy even if we can manage to land Adebayor on the cheap with a paycut.
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More thoughts on yesterday's game on Part 2. Thoughts on Tactics up next...

Saturday, July 16, 2011

2011-07-14: La Liga Weekly Podcast

The Pod is back! Here, Corey, Kevin and I begin our preview of La Liga's offseason moves during the offseason.