Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Overdrive and Cruise Control


Marcelo shows us what Real Madrid did to Zaragoza: Turn them upside down

Another La Liga game, another goalfest. Another Ronaldo Hat Trick. If no one paid attention to the fact that the team was sporting new away jerseys (I LOVE the Black Kit while the White Home kit has still failed to grow on me), and the energizer bunny with bleach-blonde hair (Coentrao) = the game might as well have been a continuation of last season’s La Liga Campaign. Well, wait a minute: it IS a continuation of last season.
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This is NOT Real Madrid Mourinho edition version 2.0. This is merely Real Madrid Mourinho edition SEASON 2.0. Same team, just plenty of upgrades.
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Sadly, the same cannot be said of Real Zaragoza. 10 new players – including one which the club spent 8m on (don’t remember who) while they became one of the clubs in question for not paying their players’ wages – resulting in being one of the protagonist clubs of the Liga strike. They are also one of the few La Liga sides who do NOT have a shirt sponsor (including Sevilla!) – a reflection of the sad state of La Liga’s financial affairs.
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So while Real Madrid’s mangling of Zaragoza made waking up at 2-4am a worthwhile experience for me, I went back to sleep pondering: the gap between Real Madrid + Barcelona vs. the rest of La Liga. Or was it a case of Zaragoza being THAT bad and Real Madrid becoming THAT good? It’s probably both. Last season’s encounter at La Romareda after all was a 1-3 for Madrid and it was Zaragoza who put our La Liga dreams to bed last season with their 2-3 smash-and-grab at the Bernabeu.
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Anyways, some further thoughts:
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1.0  Tactics
1.1  Formation and Team Shape
SIEGE MODE: Real Madrid looked like something of a 2-1-5-2 when we were on full-attack mode.
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Real Madrid lined up as a 4-2-3-1 with Coentrao replacing Khedira beside Xabi Alonso. This at least was how it looked like ON PAPER. In application, it looked more like a 4-1-4-1 with Xabi Alonso as the lone pivot. And when we were attacking full-on, it resembled something like a 2-1-5-2: The key feature of the system being Sergio Ramos bombing down the right flank as opposed to the more restrained role we saw from him last season. Last night, Real Madrid didn’t just ‘fight’ like a southpaw boxer (a leftie, with Ronaldo’s left-sided wing as the main weapon). We in fact, looked like a completely ambidextrous attacking force: coming in from left, right and center.
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The point to note about ending up with a single pivot with Coentrao (though it’s great to see an attacking variant in its application as we saw last night) is that we must be careful about doing this against other, more offensively-potent teams. Coentrao’s propensity to dart forward or suddenly disengage from his pivot position to go wide while definitely an effective destabilizer of opposing defenses, may turn out to be a weakness than can see Xabi Alonso drowned at the center of the pitch. Mourinho seems to offset this by getting Marcelo to switch into the middle – something I’m uncomfortable to see (though it may actually work).
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1.2  Overdrive vs. Cruise Control
Real Madrid, like in the Super Cup, once again came out of the traps playing a dizzyingly up-tempo brand of football. They were like a freight train on overdrive. And with attacks coming literally left (Marcelo+Ronaldo), right (Ramos+Di Maria) and Center (Ozil+Coentrao+Benzema): Zaragoza really did look like a deer caught in the headlights. The question is: did we flatten them enough when we were on overdrive? I counted our ‘uptempo’ phase in the first half and I figured it to be till about the 30th minute. We had scored 2 goals by then after creating a boatload of chances.
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In the second half, we came out of the traps once again with our high-tempo football (marked by Coentrao’s ‘running back’ breakaway dribble through the center which did not yield a goal). But, by the time Xabi Alonso scored from his ground-skimming missile at 64’, we were in Cruise Control. Another 3 goals followed soon after including a sweet, Milan-era-Kaka turn-and-strike.
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2 Goals playing on Overdrive. 4 Goals playing in ‘Cruise Control’ (i.e. similar to our pace of playing and attacking last season). The conclusion from this is NOT that playing in ‘cruise control’ is better but that there is still much work that needs to be done when we play on ‘overdrive’. Our boys may be able to create a frenetic attacking tempo that is nearly-impossible to defend, but it is perhaps this same frenetic tempo that frazzles their nerves in the final moments of attack which lead to poor finishing and decision-making during those split seconds prior to a potential “kill” (goal) (Di Maria’s first half miss at a wide open goal directly in front of him comes to mind). These are lessons which we learned from the Super Cup duel that we will have until December to refine and perfect.
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2.0  Player Performances
2.1  Ronaldo
3 Goals for Ronaldo. What else is new? He had some other great chances too, including 2-3 free kicks that were on target but were punched away. His decision making was much-improved, though I would doubt it would have been so had he not scored that early opening goal, which eliminated his obsession to get on the score sheet. After his 40-goal season, I can only hope that he can play this one without the anxiety to necessarily score goals as opposed to helping his team win in other ways.
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Many have highlighted the seeming enigma that he has always brought to Madrid that the team plays better together without him and plays with some form of anxiety for him to score if he’s on. It wasn’t so last night (like I said, maybe it was the early goal) - he looked for his teammates, and had only a couple of shoot-first-ask-questions-later moments. The best part was: he gave his teammates the credit for his Nth Hat Trick.
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2.2  Coentrao
This guy had TOO MUCH coffee before the game. If there would ever be a poster child for the brand of football of this Mourinho Season 2.0’s upgrades, it would have to be him. Last night, his tireless running and livewire act served as the catalyst for Real Madrid’s ‘Overdrive Mode’. I am still however skeptical of the soundness of him playing a full-on Central Midfield role: his tendency to run at the flanks (and leave Xabi Alonso alone in the middle) really needs to be curbed lest Madrid find an opponent who will delight at flooding the center of the pitch to smother and choke the life out of Xabi Alonso. Having said that, what makes him the poster child of this season’s tactical system upgrades is not only his ability to spark the team into playing that now-signtature frenetic uptempo game, but also his ability to give Real Madrid a wide array of tactical options on the pitch.
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2.3  Ozil
Ozil is seems to be fast-becoming one of the integral parts of the Madrid midfield, regardless of formation
In this Real Madrid Mourinho Edition Season 2.0 – one of the primary upgrades apart from the newfound tactical flexibility is the strengthening of the team’s spine… and this is where Ozil-in-Madrid season 2.0 comes in. We’ve talked endlessly about Xabi Alonso’s role as the pulse of Real Madrid’s offensive game and as the rock at the heart of its spine. Ozil on the other hand has been a ‘luxury’ in the Madrid midfield, having been kept out of the starting XI of last season’s ‘clasico series’. On the back of his performance during the preseason and in last night’s game though, it looks like Madrid’s ‘spine’ just got another integral component: Ozil. Playmakers in advanced positions usually have a much poorer pass completion rate due to the ‘risk’ of playing around more defenders and Ozil is no exception. His improvement however has been very noticeable: this season he is even more calm on the ball, displays superb awareness and seems to have improved his decision-making. His overall performance last night was in my opinion makes him a legitimate option for Real Madrid Man of the Match, Ronaldo Hat Trick or Not.
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2.4  Marcelo
While Coentrao’s forays into the Zaragoza box via the flanks or through the middle kept me on edge, particularly at the thought of having Marcelo cover for him, the Brazilian however gave me no reason to fret. He defended and attacked on the wing, covered in the middle when Coentrao ‘unhinged himself from position’, scored a goal and did a backflip to celebrate his goal. What else should we ask for from a Real Madrid left back?  
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2.5  The Subs
We’re now seeing the logic of Mourinho’s 20+3 system: 20 versatile, multi-functional outfield players and 3 Goalkeepers – 2 less players than the conventional 25 man squad we’ve seen pre-Mourinho. With quality to the last man on the squad, accounting for injuries and suspensions, every player then stands the chance to play significant minutes for the team. Last night, they were Callejon (who nearly scored), Kaka (who did) and Pipita, whose improved state of fitness was seen in his running the half the length of the pitch ending and his match fitness seen in the fluffed goalscoring chance.
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3.0  Keeping up with the Joneses
It was a weekend where Champions League aspirants both in England and in Spain showed their mettle on Saturday Night: with Liverpool handily beating Bolton 3-1 and Valencia pulling off an epic 4-3 comeback win against Racing Santander. Sunday night of course were for aspiring Champions: With both Manchester Teams mangling their North London opponents (5-1 for City over Spurs and 8-2 for United over Arsenal).  Real Madrid of course, duly obliged late in the day.
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What about those playing Monday night this weekend? Pretenders I say. (Ha!)
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4.0  Other La Liga News
What the hell happened to what was supposed to be the coming out party of Malaga? Maybe it wasn’t too bad that their much-anticipated encounter with Barca has been ‘postponed to a later date’. Or was it the weekend of the epic performances from the ex-Castilla strikers? Negredo grabbed 2 to undo Malaga, Soldado had a hat trick and heck, even Raul scored!
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It’s sad to see the ‘divorce’ between Diego Forlan and Atletico finally materialize. Best of luck to him at Inter (as they report). Atletico are trading one Europa-League-winning striker for another. Still not the same though… for their sake, let’s hope ‘it won’t be the same’ for other reasons this time around.
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(originally posted at Real Madrid Football blog here)
p.s. for those on twitter, you can follow me: @MadridistaMac

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Football and the Non Football


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There is much to talk about in lieu of the events from last Wednesday (Thursday 5am Singapore time). But rather than to write about the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I’d rather speak about the Football and the Non-Football. I do have to say though that it is sad that there’s more to talk about in terms of the latter.
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Here Goes:
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1.0   The Football
1.1   Personnel
1.1.1          Real Madrid
Jose Mourinho / Aitor Karanka revealed pre-match that there would be modifications made to the starting XI but wouldn’t reveal what / who the changes would be. Naturally, all of us expected that it would just HAVE to be Coentrao in for Di Maria as Marca ‘confirmed’. Coentrao did start, but on Left Back to replace Marcelo with Di Maria retaining his place in the starting XI. It’s relieving to know that under the Mourinho regime, ‘insiders’ are no longer leaking out team lineups to the Madrid press.
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Tactically, it seemed like a straight forward enough of a swap: a Left Back for a Left Back. It did seem to puzzle some people though: there were people on twitter calling it a 3-3-3-1 – which was plausible considering the fact that we were pressing Barca so high up on the pitch. Finding Coentrao in all sorts of positions on the attacking front later on however: I can only conclude that he was essentially carrying out his role as ‘the joker’.
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1.1.2          Barcelona
Many disagreed when I spoke about Barca fielding a B++ or rather, an A- team resulted in a drop in their quality in the first leg saying ‘it didn’t matter’. Last Wednesday, they proved that it did: Pique and Xavi started (Pedro too but it didn’t matter too much in my opinion) and they were much better in possession.
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Real Madrid failed to curtail Barca’s possession like they did in the first leg (a very uncomfortable 52% for Barca). Barcelona however still did not manage to dominate. Final match stats showed 60% possession for Barca (down from their supposed average of 68%). The results however are still very good for Real Madrid. It was a Barca A Team vs. a Real Madrid A Team. And despite Barca continuing to have possession, Real Madrid still looked the better team.
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1.2   Formation and Tactical System
There are a few key points to note tactically re: last Wednesday’s game. Firstly was the fact that Mourinho remained faithful to the 4-2-3-1. It’s official people: he is NOT going to migrate to a 4-3-3. Don’t get me wrong: I still believe that we will see the 4-3-3 for quite a number of games this season. The 4-2-3-1 however, will remain as the ‘base formation’ of the team.
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The key to its success was described perfectly by Sky Sports’ Graham Hunter in his Soccernet Article:
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I had had a briefing before the weekend from a good Real Madrid source that a huge percentage of Mourinho's preparation in preseason, across the U.S., China and England, had been based on pressing like hungry Rottweilers and counterattacking with chilling speed and efficacy. "

As discussed in my last RMFB Article, also with reference to the interview on Chelsea’s Andre Villas-Boas, Real Madrid’s effectiveness against Barca is not just about pressing or having the energy and the manpower to do so. The key has been in knowing how, knowing who and knowing when to press. Also equally important is that they know what to actually do with the ball once they win it: they no longer freak out at the sight of being blitzed by a pack of Barca players counter-pressing them once they win the ball back – they know where to knock the ball to and do so in a manner that puts them in a threatening attacking position almost immediately.
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Here’s the fun part: we were doing this with the ‘less-‘solid’ or ‘less-secure’ formation which is a 4-2-3-1 (2 CMs vs. their 3). What if we learn to do it with a trivote? An attacking trivote that is…
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1.3   Application Defects
Our failings on Defense and Attack cost us the endgame

I stated in the comments section of my previous post that I fully expect us to win the Super Copa. And I never hid under a ‘The Super Copa is a meaningless Trophy’-Security Blanket. I wanted us to win it badly and I fully expected us to do so as well. I said:
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If Barca win the Super Copa, they'll be happy to know that they can still nick it over RM even without being at full fitness and Madrid will know much more work there is to be done. “
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And now we know what we need to work on between now until December (assuming the strike doesn’t de-rail the scheduled Clasico):
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Firstly, while our pressing up the pitch has been a success, our defending when Barca manage to penetrate through has been woeful. Barca scored 5 goals in the 2 legs of the SuperCup. Villa’s was a Golazo that I can excuse Ramos for not rushing into to block. The rest however, if studied, could have been prevented. Iniesta’s goal was described perfectly comments section as ‘Ramos forgetting what an offside trap was’. ALL THREE of Messi’s goals however were a result of the same move: Messi going from deep and into our box, most of the time ‘ghosting in’. Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox might possibly have identified the problem. Might this be a role more suited for the pacier and more menacing Pepe?
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Secondly, much work needs to be done when we do create scoring chances. Real Madrid midfielders  and defenders seem to be ‘automatically’ aiming for the space behind Barca’s full backs once the ball is won – for Ronaldo, Benzema, Ozil and Di Maria to run to. It works too! The problem is with our attackers to when they get this opportunity in the final third. Alves had Ronaldo in his pocket last Wednesday. And once again, we failed in capitalizing on the chances galore created. You can create 20 chances against Almeria, score 4 goals and call it a blowout. Against Barca, if you create 11 chances and score with the same %, you lose titles.
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2.0   The Non-Football
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2.1   Believing Your Own Propaganda
Many Barca fans have been sniffing too much of that which stinks from the Propaganda Department of the Camp Nou. Here’s what it says:
2.1.1          Real Madrid is Evil
2.1.2          Barca’s recruitment policy has ALWAYS been about promoting from La Masia while Real Madrid’s is ONLY about Galacticos
2.1.3          Barca cares about “Values” while Real Madrid only care about Money
2.1.4          Barca’s Football is so beautiful that any team that plays otherwise is committing and act of immorality.

Real Madrid’s propaganda department have their own shit story to tell. But here’s the thing, I take much of it with more than a pinch of salt. I urge Madridistas and cules alike: do the same lest you become a pathetic zealot. Zeal is supposedly a virtue. Over-zealousness is an irritating trait. Zealots are dangerous.
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Let me make a confession: I actually used to liked Barca. Then I started to feel so-so about them. Today I dislike them – and I do so because of the overwhelmingly pontificating sense of importance and self righteousness that I get from their Directors, many of their fans and worst of all: their players. Clearly they’ve been sniffing too much of that crap (literally) from their propaganda department. Might this be the reason why I feel that my dislike for Barca can never match their hatred for Real Madrid?
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I cannot stand nor tolerate this idea of football as some form of morality.
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Italy, a nation of 4 Word Cup trophies and once home to the once-undisputed greatest league on the planet (the Serie A) have Catennacio as one of the pillars of their football. I’ve never heard anyone preach it.
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England, the inventors of the game, are worshippers of speed, pace, power and even brute strength. And today, as their Propaganda Artists brainwash the world on the superiority of their league, they make no claim on the moral authority of their football. The worst was merely from their fallen sexist-‘prophet’: “I’d like to see Barca do it in a Cold Night at Stoke”, he once challenged. Collectively, the world laughed.
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2.2   The Threshold of Physical Play
But maybe Barca should indeed try it out in a cold, rainy night in Stoke, I once suggested it (nevermind that they’d win 12-0). I was then preached upon by a Cule about the (moral) virtues of technical tiki-taka Spanish Football and La Liga. Funny, I always thought that La Liga and the XFL (Xenophobe Football League) played the same sport…?
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I use Andy Gray’s ‘Stoke Challenge’ to speak of one of the most reviled players in the Madrid lineup (in the eyes of the Cules): Pepe. Pepe has always been a footballer who played on the knife’s edge that defined the boundaries between the acceptable and intolerable when it comes to physical play. As a Madridista, I have to say that he has often crossed this line. In this Super Cup however, apart from his attempt to display his Taekwondo skills on Alves in the first leg, I do not find that he crossed the line. Body checks, partial clotheslines and such are things we see in physical leagues like the EPL, Bundesliga and some in South America. They are yellow card offenses of course and he duly got one in the second leg. He deserved one in the first leg too: but then again so did Valdes when he ‘allowed CR to run onto his arm’.
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It is not wrong to play physical football – even if it’s against teams that play tiki taka who have players of small build. On the back of Madrid’s play over the 2 legs of the Super Cup, it might  have been fair to brand the play of the likes of Ramos, Pepe and Khedira as ‘harsh’ or ‘very physical’ but it is certainly in my opinion too much to call it ‘dirty’ or ‘immoral’: words that are echoed by many Cules who suffer from  a ‘We Are Righteous Victims’-Complex.
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Many have said exaggeratedly that Real Madrid should be in the WWE over their physical play. I disagree – the WWE is an act: only Di(ve) Maria would qualify amongst Real Madrid’s players. I don’t think I can say the same about the other side.
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2.3   Losing Composure
We learned this past week that there is no such thing as a ‘meaningless’ clasico. This is the reason why it is common to see players lose their rag and completely lose the plot. Some Clasicos back (during Barca’s 2-6 at the Bernabeu if I can remember), Sergio Ramos made a ridiculous lunging tackle that earned a straight red. It was an act of immature petulance.
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Last Wednesday, with the score at 3-2 to Barca’s favor, instead of invoking Real Madrid’s ‘remontada spirit’, Marcelo pulled off a lunging, cynical and tackle on Cesc Fabregas to earn a straight red card. It was immature, it was petulant, it was vile, it was unacceptable. It was also very stupid: if he had only put his efforts into making it 3-3, we would have won an epic Clasico Super Copa. His tackle was cynical, violent, stupid and absolutely unacceptable.
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He must, if not in public, at least in private, apologize to Cesc Fabregas.
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2.4   Madness and Stupidity
2.4.1          Unnecessary Reactions
Cesc Fabregas was directly in front of Eduardo when the poor Croatian’s foot almost came off his leg from a bad tackle. Cesc was also Captain of Arsenal when teammate Aaron Ramsey’s leg was broken from a challenge similar to Marcelo’s (with that lethal trailing leg). In both cases, Arsenal’s bench did not pour out into the pitch in outrage like an uncivilized mob. Wenger was furious of course and the British media crucified the 2 defenders responsible for the tackles. No party however, has ‘ruined football’.
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What happened at the end of the Wednesday’s game was the equivalent of what they call in the NBA as a ‘bench-clearing’ incident. Pep Guardiola frantically and unsuccessfully trying to stop the Barca bench from rushing the pitch reminded me of Jeff Van Gundy nearly getting the shit kicked out of him in those NY Knicks – Miami Heat NBA brawls of the 90s: a move which I respect him deeply for.
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I would understand seeing Barca players surrounding the match officials in outrage if there was no red card. But the red card did come out. Immediately. There was no need to ‘invade the pitch.’ Is this a case of believing the ‘We are righteous Victims and I can’t stand it anymore’ script way too much once again?
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2.4.2          Racism
Racism is unacceptable. I am ashamed that it happened in the Bernabeu and I am outraged that it happened at the Camp Nou. Both Clubs must police their crowds to ban for life anyone caught involved in monkey chanting or any racist behavior.
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2.4.3          Deserving the Badge
Shame Mourinho, Shame!

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I was a skeptic when Jose Mourinho joined Real Madrid. Then I grew into loving him at Real Madrid. Then, on the back of his actions last Wednesday, I am ashamed, embarrassed and disgusted that such a man wears a Real Madrid Badge on his shirt. On his first ‘final’ as the most powerful manager in the history of the club, he has dishonored it with his immature playground petulance.
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The headline of the Sports Page in the newspaper (here in Singapore) today shows a picture of his ‘eye-gouge’ on Tito Vilanova. I’ve never been embarrassed to be a Madridista, not when we got eliminated from the CL or the CDR at the hands of those lousy teams, lost 5-0, 2-6 and all those titles to Barca – until last Wednesday.
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No form of verbal provocation (as some allege) can ever justify what he did.
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Mr. Mourinho, I do not ask that you behave as a role model. I only ask that you behave as the Manager of Real Madrid.
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Having made a faustian pact with Mourinho, I doubt Florentino Perez and / or Jose Angel Sanchez (the only 2 men more powerful than Mourinho) do much about it outside of firing him. Mr. Mourinho needs to grow up, grow some balls and make a public apology not just for what he did to Vilanova but also for his nonchalant reaction to the madness that ensued.
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3.0   2,540 Words
Real Madrid and Barcelona played 4 matches in 3 weeks early this year. There were 7 goals in total over the course of 390 minutes of mostly ugly football. Over 3 days this week, we played 2 matches, scored 9 goals through 180 minutes of mostly attractive football. Progress.
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In this article, I’ve written 966 words on ‘The Football’ and 1,379 words on ‘The Non-Football’. How sad is that?
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It was about 3 months between those Clasicos and this past week’s. It will be another 4 months before the next one comes up. Here’s to hoping that the next time I write something about the clasico that goes over 2,500 words – that it will be all about football.
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(originally posted on Real Madrid Football Blog)

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)

Monday, August 8, 2011

2011-08-07: La Liga Not-So-Weekly Podcast: Mid-Summer Dreams


We recorded this some time ago, but Mr. Walker from La Liga Weekly was "not himself" last week. Most of the stuff we talked about are still valid while some others no so. Either way, enjoy!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Fairytale Friendlies


Now THAT’s what a friendly’s supposed to be like!
Instead of a lone insane fan willing to charge a moving golf-cart, you get hoardes of fans putting a stop to the operations of a shopping mall as they trail not pretty boy Cristiano Ronaldo… but Jose Mourinho (who supposedly insisted that George Clooney would be the best man to play him in a biopic)
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Instead of solitary pictures with one Will Ferrell, you get 101 kids to run around the pitch with Benzema, Xabi Alonso and Co.
And of course, the best part: instead of waiting for a 3-goal blitz from Ronaldo within 15 minutes to get a 3-1 victory, we get ourselves an orgasmic 7-1 win.
Mourinho has had his pre-season: UCLA, serious training, tactical experiments, MLS, Mexican and European sparring partners with solid (*cough* boring *cough*), convincing wins.
Now Florentino is having his: a few billion asian fans going nuts for Real Madrid and letting Barca know how they feel about the Cules, setting up international relations with foreign football academies, sponsored events and of course… 7-1 goalscoring orgies.
All in one summer!
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Whoever said that Mourinho the Paragmatist and Perez the Social-Marketing Butterfly would never live comfortably together are probably changing their minds now.
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Seriously, though I do acknowledge the importance of serious ‘Mourinho Road Trips’ to develop team chemistry away from European paparazzi or Asian fans that come in Hoardes, I welcome Real Madrid’s return to this continent. It is after all high time for the merengues to show Asian Fans what quality football really is: beyond the we-are-so-awesome-because-we’re-from-England nonsense that we get from EPL teams or the stench of patronizing, self-congratulatory and self-righteous mumbo jumbo that come from teams that get professional diving classes from mammals of other species.
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The message is nice and simple:
“Hello. We are Real Madrid. Thanks for paying us millions to show up. And to express our thanks, here are our star players to score 7 goals of pure eye-candy for you to enjoy. Enjoy the show. You are all Welcome.”
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But beyond the entertainment on offer in last night’s matches, here are some thoughts on some key individuals from last night’s game:
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Benze-CAT
Benz in Boots? The Frenchman seems to have become much more ferocious that that
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I disagree with this whole notion that dogs are better hunter than cats. I also disagree that Benzema has transitioned into another species (dog). His aloof, quiet demeanor still makes him very much ‘cat-like’ – except this time, he’s no Garfield or Puss-in-Boots – he’s evolved instead into those cats you see on Nat Geo who take down wilder beasts for fun (The Lyon King?). Now capable of combining his exquisite technical ability with constant awareness, alertness and constant involvement: he is fast becoming the player we were all expecting to see when he joined us. It was all on show last night: always available to receive passes, aware of goalscoring chances for his teammates (e.g. Khedira’s goal), fully linked up and ready to finish his teammates’ attacking plays (see his first goal off CRon’s backheel pass), and with full confidence in his superb technical abilities (e.g. his second goal is a display both of audacity and impeccable finishing skill).
Higua-DOG
Benze-Cat has always been the more talented player. But Pipita till now has been the better player on the back of his workrate and the intangibles he brings to the team. One season after playing under Mourinho for Bezema while poor Pipita is on the sidelines with an injury and here we are: with Pipita looking like he will face an uphill battle to be the first choice striker. Over the last few games, Higua-DOG, with his string of missed sitters has looked more like Snoopy rather than the ravenous wolf that he used to be when healthy and in form. It’s been a disappointing few games for Pipita and his performance last night was summed up in his clumsy and lazy lunging tackle on a Guangzhou player that would have earned him an automatic red had they not been playing a friendly. It was sad to see him this way on a game where he wore the captain’s armband.
Ozil
I get it now: the 2 dots on top of the letter ‘O’ on his name symbolize his eyes. What vision – is it really because of those googly eyes (maybe he has better peripheral vision because of them)?. People compare him to Guti because of this (not the eyes, the vision). But Guti doesn’t have his pace and mobility. He doesn’t have Guti’s petulance either. And at age 23, he’s already way better than Guti. I am so going to get me an Ozil jersey this season.
Kaka
When I start wearing my Ozil shirt around, I’ll stop wearing my Kaka one. What’s happened to him? Did I jinx him when I praised his performance after the Galaxy game? He will have a preseason this time around and will have no ‘lack of fitness’ excuses to hide behind. If he ‘fails’ yet again, then I will hope to see a battle-tested Sergio Canales and/or Pablo Sarabia wearing Real Madrid’s ‘8’ next season as our second-choice fantasista.
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Vanilla Joe
For those who are too young to understand the Vanilla Ice reference, check out his one hit in the you tube video above and discover the inspiration behind his hairdo . When news broke that Callejon would be joining us this season, everyone thought he was coming back as transfer fodder… or as a replacement to our 10m Euro Ball Boy Pedro Leon. His role during these preseason games suggests that he will be more than a mannequin wearing Real Madrid’s #21 on the squad list. His performances also seem to hint that he won’t be the subject of another tirade from Mourinho that will include references to Zidane. Quick, direct and refreshingly effective: he seems like a legitimate substitute for Di Maria.
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Di Maria
I thought I had read a Mourinho interview revealing that he’s just gotten married but is spending his honeymoon in China with his teammates. I guess we all saw for ourselves how much pent up energy he had inside of him when he came in at 60’: we were supposed to see the game die down gradually until he put on his please-don’t-bench-me-Mou performance. El Fideo (The Noodle) as he’s called, showed his full array of attacking capability in the land of Rice and Noodles: leaving his defenders as a heap of twisted limbs as he scored a goal by pulling off the footbaling-equivalent of a basketball pump fake. This was of course after assisting Jesse with a cross that would have qualified him for ‘So You Think You Can Dance’. Jesse of course, just had to respond in kind by scoring with his shoulder.
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Oh what fun it was! Last night was the stuff of child-like football fairytales. There will be another one on Saturday to look forward to as well. After that, we’re off to war in the SuperCopa: no more fairytales, just epics.