Monday, October 31, 2011

Back to Binary Code

Mourinho has plenty of reasons to be happy given how his Ramos-Pepe Central Defensive Partnership has fared.
So we’re back to Binary Code scorelines once again. After goalfests in the Champions League and against our La Liga rivals, we’re back to clawing our way to victory again. Not that I mind – as I am a believer that there is a need for the team to suffer on their way to victory every now and then. After all, a team that has little ‘practice’ suffering their way to 3 points is likely fated to meet heartbreak should they encounter the oddball situation of meeting another team or a situation that requires a bit of hardship. This suffering of course is even more worth it when we look back at the rest of La Liga’s results: Levante’s spaceship has finally landed with their loss to Osasuna – while the Cules, despite their Manita against Mallorca are now a point below us at second place. We’re now leaders! Now all we need to do is to keep piling the points on -especially as the cules struggle with injuries, fatigue and possibly form issues. If we can head into the December clasico with a comfy lead (at least 4 points), it will allows us the advantage of playing without fear of losing and only the objective of winning. Win that, and they face their annual January fitness blues (recovering from the club world Cup) further behind us and that just might be the cushion we need to win La Liga.
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Tactics and Personnel – Premises
A Diagram of Real Madrid's 'Basic' Game Plan in their 4-2-3-1
Real Sociedad coach Philippe Monanier was heavily criticized by the people at AS for his tactics last Saturday, calling him cowardly and lacking in ambition. This of course was because we were expecting a Real Sociedad who would come at us with the flair, creativity and gusto of Xabi Prieto and Antoine Griezman (some of us were probably even curious if they’ve parked a ‘promo car’ for Griezman to celebrate in should they manage to score). It didn’t turn out that way of course. Instead, Montanier showed us that he has been doing his homework over the last few weeks.
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Since the start of the Mourinho era at Real Madrid, we’ve seen the team evolve and constantly improve on their style of play and expand on the array of weapons which they can unleash on the opponents. Mourinho was true to form with his organization of the back and the midfield:
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1.)    4 ‘Defenders’ and typically one of the fullbacks with the license to unhinge himself to join the attack leaving the remaining defenders to realign more than competently as a ‘back 3’ – i.e. Marcelo bombing forward while Ramos, Pepe and Carvalho can re-align to form a back 3 (even with Arbeloa at RB, we’re still ok0.
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2.)    2 ‘Pivots’: one of whom is a ball distributor and another is his assistant / bodyguard (Xabi Alonso + Khedira / Lass)
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3.)    3 Attaking Midfielders: One with the license to play as a striker if he so chooses (CR), a playmaker (Ozil / Kaka) and another who is to drop deeper to assist the 2 pivots (Di Maria) in pressing and ball-winning.
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4.)    1 striker: mobile, technical and can drop deep to help in buildup play, combine with Ronaldo and have the killer instinct to finish every half-chance that comes: i.e. ‘Benguain’ as that creepy Marca cover mentioned
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The premise has always been simple:
5.)    Provoke them to come to at least the halfway line
6.)    Win the ball
7.)    Blitz them with goals.
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The problem has always been though that teams figure out soon enough that without 5.) then the rest pretty much will get stuck. Experienced coaches will also know that if Real Madrid don’t manage to score within the 1st 20-25 mins (ESPECIALLY at the Bernabeu), then they will get restless and start losing their nerve. That’s the difference between Madrid and Barca = because tiki taka is so engrained in them, they fully expect to have 70-75% possession for the entire game and are fully willing to keep trying and trying for 85-90 mins. to pass you to death until they get that goal. Where Barca are happy to keep beating you with a club till you pass out, Madrid on the other hand is out to get you to open up yourself so they can stab you in the chest. That’s what we saw vs. Levante and Racing and what we did NOT see against the rest of the teams who have been the subject of our goalfest maulings. Clearly Montanier has  been watching and learning.
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So last Saturday, he unapologetically set his team up to defend = with FIVE (5) defenders spread across the pitch and a neat bank of 4 in front of it with Arsenal loanee Carlos Vela on his own. Sitting on the bench was their firestarter Antoine Griezman. The plan was very simple and clear as soon as you saw them line up on the pitch:
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8.)    Sit Deep and Defend
9.)    FrustrateMadridand Deny them an early goal
10.)      WhenMadridbegin losing their nerve and stamina, send Griezman in to see if he can ambushMadrid.
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The plan was simple too but it also was based on a premise whose importance was so vital: that Real Madrid fails to score early. It didn’t happen of course as by the 10th minute, Real Madrid was up 0-1 thanks to Pipita’s goal. They expected of course for Real Madrid to go for a second, continuing to cede possession and territory to our boys in the hopes of nicking one back. For large parts of the first half, Real Madrid looked likeBarcelona, swinging the ball side to side, back and forth and finding an occasional opening to threaten the goal, but failing to make it 2-0. Ultimately, there were no goals to follow – not even after Griezman was introduced into the game (and causedMadrid quite a few problems).
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Mourinho rotated his squad last Saturday: Coentrao played for Marcelo at Left Back: assisting Pipita for the match-winning goal. There was little else though, the Portuguese Surfer Dude will need to put in some work to cultivate the Batman-and-Robin tandem that CR and Marcelo have developed on the left. Lass played in lieu of Khedira and the outcome was once again a less slickMadridmidfield. Ozil on the other hand, played as the ‘10’ with Kaka on the bench – a move that I felt was suited to facing a La Real side that had set themselves up defensively given the German’s penchant for making incisive passes through crowds of massed-up defenders. .
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Binary Code – Ones
Today, as
Gonzalo Higuain, currently the best goalscorer amongst Europe's Top Leagues.
With his goal last Sautday, Gonzalo Higuain became the best goalscorer in all of Europe’s big leagues. It’s a phenomenal accomplishment for him especially in light of his doctor’s confessions that his injury almost ended his career. The finish was a page torn of Raul’s highlight reel too: using 2 of his teammates as ‘offside decoys’ to receive a pass from deep (also check out his opening goal vs.Malaga) and poking it just over the ’keeper to score.
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I find it particularly telling that he celebrated his goal firstly with Coentrao (who assisted him) but also with Marcelo (who was on the bench): both Portuguese and both of whom are allegedly in the rival Portuguese-speaking clique of the group – further dispelling the rumors of clique war in the dressing room.
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Binary Code – Zeros
Another game, another clean sheet: the common denominator seems to be the partnership of Ramos and Pepe at Centerback. On paper (or a video game), the combination of having the 2 pairing up at CBs seems a great idea: both are strong, powerful in the air, are physical beasts and have the pace to cover lots of ground and keep up with the nastiest tricksters with the ball. A closer look at the 2 however, reveals plenty to worry about: both are red cards waiting to happen, and neither of the 2 are calm nor great in reading the game. The fates however have still conspired for us to see the pairing together and it’s been a pleasant coincidence to see this pairing coincide with a purple patch for the Real Madrid defense: 1 goal conceded in 6 games – stat that even a cantenaccio side would be proud of.
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The Anoeta Factor
The La Real’s Anoeta Stadium is a pain in the ass place to play in (I can’t believe the bastards were booing and whistling Xabi Alonso though!). It’s been rightly pointed out that Barca too have had difficulties there too. Real Sociedad are no slouches and last Satuday, their coach proved to us that they’re not naïve either. 70% possession in favor of Real Madrid or not, the game turned out to be a dogfight: with Sociedad frustrating us constantly in our bid to secure the game with a 2-goal  lead while keeping us at bay and on our toes should their chance come (made more apparent when Griezman was sent into the fray). It was the sort of hard-fought dog-fight that Mourinho relished and appreciated from a foe.
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Perhaps the remaining worry left is the physical toll our current schedule is taking on the team: a fact also confessed to by Mourinho in his post-match comments:
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"In the last few minutes, we managed to play with fatigue… "I changed four players and I am pleased by the response of my team," he enthused. "We have now finished a very difficult month and a very difficult week in which we also beat Malaga and Villarreal."
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It doesn’t get easier too – we head into the witches’ lair (OlympiqueLyonnais’ Stade De Gerland) on Wednesday. Fatigue or no fatigue, there will be plenty of demons to purge over there.
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And even if that turns out to be a Binary Code scoreline, I’ll be fine with that too just as long as the one comes after the zero ( OL 0 -1 RM).
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*A Side Note*: Some Jackass said that Cristiano Ronaldo would struggle at the Bundesliga as if to allege that La Liga is some league for ballerinas. Last I checked, there's a certain ex-Real Madrid winger in their best team over there who if not for his injuries was considered to be the best thing in Germany since Beer, Benzes and BMWs - player who would probably not make the starting lineup in today's Real Madrid or Barca.
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Ok, ok, ok - I'll just chalk it up to Oktoberfest - it's clear some people have been enjoying their beer waaaaay too much.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

2011-10-18: Real Madrid 4 - Olympique Lyonnais 0

From Witches to Bitches

Karim Benzema: our very own 'Mr. Champions League

As I watched the UEFA officials crack open the balls to show who our Champions League ‘Groupmates’ would be during this stage of the competition a few months ago, the sight of Olympique Lyonnais’ logo turning up made me groan ‘them again!?!?’ This voice of displeasure that seemed to reek of boredom at having to face them again however was also my indirect way of feigning concern and a slight bit of fear at having to face our Champions League bogey team. At no point in time whatsoever, not even during their glory days to their Back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-(I dunno how long it goes) Ligue 1 titles, were they ever as good as us – but for some odd reason, they had our number. At the Bernabeu, we could play well and score goals but still wind up with only 1 point during the group stages. Same thing if we met them in the last 16. And at the Gerland – they owned us. It is as if these witches from Lyon had cast a spell upon us that our boys would turn into squealing mice everytime we faced them. We were always goners when faced with Les Gones (yes, pun intended).
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And though last season’s liberating victory vs. Lyon vanquished many of those ghosts, they psychological tick of not winning at the Gerland still bothered me: as if our 3-0 in the return leg at home meant less after we’ve scored that valuable away goal at the Gerland and allowed us to come into the game with an away goal and a massive psychological advantage. It’s as if the curse from these witches have not yet been fully banished.
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While I expected a win, predicting a 2-0 or a 3-0, I did not expect us to win so convincingly. La Liga Weekly’s Kevin Walker even doubted my 3-0 prediction (listen to the podcast below). Either way, this is a welcome development for the team – playing our first 2 games so well after an international break: a stark contrast to our performances after the first international break of the season.
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Last night, Lyon visited us again and we duly showed that all that crap was well and truly behind us. With a 4-0 scoreline, 60+% possession, a boatload of chances for us, and the fates even seemingly intervening in their attacks (e.g. Gomis’ disallowed goal + Gourcuff’s shot that hit Gomis instead of going into the goal after Iker’s punching save): it finally seemed to be that the Witches of Lyon suddenly realized that their spells no longer work on us. They seemed short on ideas, ambition and the will to fight: as demonstrated in what seemed like the 10 minutes they gave Sergio Ramos to chest the ball down, wait for it to reach his preferred height before smashing it into the net to make it 4-0. We OWNED them last night.
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Last night, with Witches of Lyon became the Bitches of the Bernabeu. And I do NOT mean this insultingly or offensively: I only say it with the satisfaction (more like relief) of being able to witness what I did last night after all those years that brought me to equate facing Lyon with heartache and heartbreak.
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Tactics and Personnel

The Portuguese coach led his 100th in European competition since inciciara his career on the bench in 2000.
What the hell was Mou wearing last night? Is he trying to imitate Pep?"
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Jose Mourinho’s squad rotation strategy seems to have worked to perfection:
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1.)    Allow La Liga goal-master Gonzalo Higuain to ride his streak to play vs. Betis and kill them with a Hat Trick – and then allow Karim Benzema to face his old team for a bit of sentimental value but more importantly, capitalize on the Frenchman’s knack for scoring goals in the Champions League. Pipita of course would make an appearance off the bench and nearly added to Real Madrid’s goal tally if it were not for a few unlucky bounces.
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2.)    Allow summer contract rebel Lass Diarra (excluded from the France NT during the international break) to integrate himself better into the team and using his fitness and work in training to play vs. Betis. And then, allow Sami Khedira to start vs. Lyon to show all his doubters what a stable Real Madrid midfield looks like. The goal scored is of course just the cherry on the Sunday
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3.)    Allow Brazilian Backstreet Boy Kaka (excluded from the Brazil NT during the international break) to continue his run of form, improved fitness and work in training to play vs. Betis (we were duly rewarded with a great performance and a goal). And then, ‘reward’ Di-Maria’s great off-the-bench cameo with a start after a rest (following his South American sojourn with the Argentina NT). Kaka of course also came off the bench (to a rousing ovation) for Ozil who is normally not a 90 minutes player.
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My only criticism of Mourinho’s rotation policy is his insistence to play the 30-year old (?) Xabi Alonso for 90 minutes every game. And while I know that Nuri Sahin’s return is around the corner (if rumors are to be believed that he will get a run out this weekend against Malaga), we also have a certain Esteban Granero available on the bench who can do a job in the Basque’s position. The fact that Kaka has now found his feet also makes it even harder, if not impossible for El Pirata to play in the ‘10’ role, where he can also play.
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Tactically, the presence of Di Maria on the Right Side also meant that we had 2 wingers (albeit inverted) to stretch the play wide just as Ryan Chase advised us to do during his Q & A – a function we wouldn’t have as much of had Kaka and Ozil played together with CR behind Benzema.
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Player Performances
Mourinho was probably correct in his backhanded slap at the press when he said that the Higuain vs. Benzema debate was one for the press and not for him. He’s very right as well when he said that with players like the 2, among his ‘6 bullets’ (according to Marca, they are, Ronaldo, Benzema, Kaka, Higuain, Di Maria and Ozil), discussions re: starters and subs are actually irrelevant.
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It’s hard however to ignore how truly good Benzema was for us last night: scoring a goal and serving one on a platter for Khedira, a member of the shoot-it-straight-at-the-goalkeeper school of thinking when it comes to taking shots at goal. Benzema looked lively and menacing throughout the game and keptLyon’s defenders constantly guessing what his next move would be: as he was just as likely to make a potentially-fatal-for-the-defense pass as he was to take a shot on goal. Testament to his livewire act was how he was uncharacteristically the successful target of several long balls from deep from Xabi Alonso.
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The other player also worth a mention is Sami Khedira. I have no idea how to explain why or how his presence stabilizes Real Madrid’s midfield: but that’s exactly what happens when he’s on the pitch. I would imagine that his interception, ball recovery, tackling numbers, etc. wouldn’t be much different to those of Lass, Coentrao or Pepe’s if they played in that role beside Alonso. In terms of his positioning to join the attack or stay deep, he’s also probably in-between Coentrao (who bombs forward like crazy) or Lass (who generally stays deep except when he has his wanna-be-Zidane moments where he dribbles the ball up the pitch). But for whatever reason, the level of control we had at midfield last night with Khedira vs. those nights with Lass or with Coentrao was profoundly different in a very good way. For whatever essential but ‘invisible’ things he does in midfield, I’m very happy to see him score and be duly rewarded in a very ‘visible’ manner for what he did out there last night... that is apart from the fact that Xabi Alonso dished out a sick 126 passes last night.
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To the Witches’ Lair
Stade De Gerland: The Witches' Lair
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Real Madrid will have themselves a belated Halloween Celebration this year when they visit the Stade de Gerland on November 2. Jose Mourinho, our Dark Wizard-cum-Sith Lord will be with the team too and must along with his assistant coaches and Zidane, adequately motivate the boys on the task at hand: WIN (not draw, WIN!) and secure our place in the last 16. Our men-in-white (they will probably be wearing Red in that game) must remember that they faced a Lyonside with a half-fit Gourcuff and an absent-due-to-injuries Lisandro Lopez. If available and fit, both are fully capable of taking us back to the days when WE were the Bitches of the Gerland.
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Until that game, the players must brace for that game and look to it with humility and the willingness to leave their skins on the pitch to leave the Gerland with nothing less than a win.
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Only when that happens, will I be able to say ‘Them Again!?!?’ the next time we’re asked to face Lyon in the Champions League without feigning fear or trepidation – and really mean it.
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2011-10-15: Real Madrid 4 - Real Betis 1

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!

Friday, October 14, 2011

2011-10-10: La Liga Weekly Podcast

In the news yesterday, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez put pen to paper on a 5-year deal with Manchester United. This was after an supposed explosion of reports in the press linking him to Real Madrid.
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I absolutely hate it when agents use Real Madrid to spook clubs into signing their players into big money contracts. Chicharito is a good player, good striker, but last I checked we had Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema in our squad: both of whom are waaaay better than Hernandez: regardless of what the myopic English press would have you believe.
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In any case, here is last week's podcast. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Of Mousetraps and Ketchup Bottles

I don’t get it.
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Racing and Levante did it EXACTLY the same way. Wait for Madrid in your own half. Defend deep. Frustrate them. And with a bit of cleverness and luck, through a quick counter, or a set piece: you just might nick that goal that gives you a point – or 3.
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Espanyol instead, chose to do it EXACTLY the same way as Ajax and Rayo. Control the ball, caress it. Ping it about: show Real Madrid who’s in control. And within a matter of seconds: Kaka, Ronaldo and Ozil WILL murder you.
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Why did Espanyol choose to try to be Ajax or Rayo rather than Levante or Racing? I have no idea. I don’t get it. I only know that I enjoyed myself quite a bit watching it all unfold.
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Real Madrid is the world’s best, most fabulously-designed, attractive-to-watch, extravagant and ridiculously-expensive footballing equivalent to the mousetrap. Cross a line enough times and in mere split second, SNAP! You’re dead. Last night’s game at the Cornelia El Prat wasn’t much different. Madrid didn’t really boss the game: the tried, but couldn’t manage to. Espanyol did a good job of gaining control of the game: enabling them to cross the line, that line more than a few times… and they duly got punished for it. 4 goals. 4 daggers. Thank You and Good Night. Thanks for having us over.
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Team Selection
Jose Mourinho seems to be playing games with all of us with his team selection. After not picking Albiol for a few key games where first-choice centerbacks (Pepe + Carvalho) are unavailable. Varane instead got the nod to start much to the surprise of many.    This of course got the conspiracy theorists a buzz.  Maybe they were on to something…or maybe Mourinho just had some form of squad rotation system in his mind that none of us at this point can understand.  The other surprise of the night was also Sergio Ramos starting at CB with Arbeloa playing at RB given Varane’s performances during the last few game. The midfield was also a bit of a mystery: with Lass starting ahead of Khedira despite the German’s availability. 
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The choices were pretty much obvious upfront given Di Maria’s suspension.  Despite the sentimental speculation that Vanilla Joe (Jose Callejon) would get the starting nod due to his history as an ex-Espanyol player, Jose Mourinho opted to further entertain the media with the Kaka-Ozil partnership.   Ditto for Ronaldo and Pipita – Benzema was after all injured.
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Player Performances
The defense did reasonably well.  One could complain that we missed Carvalho’s passing capabilities from defense.  But then again, if you don’t have control of the game, what do you need a ball-playing CB for?  I’ve always said that Arbeloa for Ramos at RB in Mourinho’s system (where there is less attacking on the right side) represents no drop in quality for Real Madrid.  And as for Ramos, I belong to the school of thinking that he is a far more suitable CB than he is an RB. 
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Meanwhile at midfield, once again, the Xabi Alonso + Lass partnership fails to control the midfield.  AS’ passing stats this morning showed decent numbers for Lass, but I’m not inclined to only look at the numbers.  What remains critical however, was Xabi Alonso’s ability to pick out the right passes with a single touch to his teammates the moment some form of control of the ball was gained. 
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The key plot line of last night’s story however, was how Madrid happily allowed control of the ball and the game go to Espanyol and were equally happy to get just those few chances in the game.  Nothing personified this more than our opening goal where a single touch from Kaka puts Ronaldo on his way to feeding Pipita for the opening goal.  Many have spoken about how we managed to tear Ajax open in a matter of mere seconds mid-week.  I’m pretty sure however, that if we were to measure the amount of time it took Kaka to ping that ball to Ronaldo all the way up to the goal scored by Higuain, that you might find the time it took to score the goal comparable to the one we scored versus Ajax mid-week.
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The Ketchup Bottle Breaks
Espanyol - Real Madrid
Welcome Back Pipita!
How fitting is it that this also happens to be the weekend where Ruud van Nistelrooy finally manages to score for Malaga: he of the now-famous ketchup bottle metaphor. If we were to conclude that by scoring his first La Liga goal for Malaga, RVN has finally managed to open his “ketchup bottle,” then I suppose  Pipita has managed to smash his.  All three of Higuain’s goals were full demonstration of a shockingly improved level of fitness and confidence.  After all, it wasn’t too long ago where we saw him run the entire length of the pitch to find himself one-on-one with the goalkeeper, only to blast it WAAAAY out.  The opening goal fed to him by Ronaldo was taken with 2 touches of the ball and aimed at the top corner: none of that fire-it-at-the-goalkeeper crap that we all know we usually see from a non-match-fit Higuain.  Kudos would also have to go to Alvaro Arbeloa for attempting and succeeding a very successful Xabi Alonso impression: delivering a long vertical raking pass that travelled almost three-quarters of the pitch to find Pipita for his and Real Madrid’s second.    And since we started this discussion on strikers talking about RVN, what poetic justice it was to see Pipita imitating his mentor, using his predatory striker’s instincts to capitalize on Espanyol’s defending error to earn the right to keep the game ball last night.
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Perhaps the other surprise of last night was that we did not see Cristiano Ronaldo attempt a bicycle kick especially after we saw Julio Baptista knock a beautiful one in last Saturday.  Instead, we saw him deliver two fabulous assists including Vanilla Joe’s first goal as a Real Madrid player in La Liga.  Callejon’s decision to not celebrate the goal and gesture to the crowd to ask for forgiveness was also a touching detail.
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Outside of Barca’s continued dominance of La Liga (once again they are top of the table), I find that this La Liga season thus far has been about ex-Real Madrid strikers: Negredo and Soldado leading their teams with their goal-scoring exploits for Sevilla and Valencia, respectively as well as RVN + Baptista’s exploits last Saturday.  Last night, I just had to wonder whether post-Levante + Racing, would Real Madrid’s current strikers follow suit?
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Three goals from Pipita + one goal from Callejon with no discussions regarding Kaka + Ozil + Xabi later, we have a broken ketchup bottle for an answer to that simple question.