Thursday, December 20, 2012

Merry Christmas Everyone!

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to Everyone out there!

How NOT to be a Champion (Real Madrid 2 – Espanyol 2)


If my memory serves me correctly, this is the first time I’ve seen my beloved Real Madrid pretty much lose La Liga in December (or even before that). There have been worse Real Madrid sides in the past – that’s for sure… but there hasn’t been a better Barca side than this one. And when you put the 2 side-by-side each other in a league competition, the chasm between the 2 just grows larger and larger. This is not just because of Barca’s greatness (see how they replied ‘tsss… come on’ to those who asked if Tiger Falcao’s Atleti could even put a dent on them), but also because of Real Madrid’s hemorrhaging. Real Madrid are not just hemorrhaging points and goals, more importantly, our beloved team’s championship material is also bleeding out.
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Sure, there were plenty of bright spots last night:
-Ronaldo scored playing as a pseudo-striker. Though he was listed on paper as the striker for the night, he interchanged positions to with Callejon and Ozil to play as a winger for many stretches of the match. Real Madrid, ended up shifting back and forth from a 4-2-3-1, to a 4-4-2, to a 4-2-2-2 because of this.  He was wrestled Greco-Roman Style during pretty much every corner, had his shirt tugged every time he tried to run with the ball but still managed a goal and an assist. He now ties Puksas’ Real Madrid goalscoring record.
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-Callejon was listed as a winger at the start of the game but played a lot of minutes up front as a striker and as mentioned in discussing Ronaldo above, often found himself playing alongside the Portuguese winger upfront as a striker duo. The stints of Callejon up front however reveal that he's really not suited for this position. His pace is useful when attempting to play off the shoulder of the last defender but that's pretty much the only trick in his book when playing that position. Vanilla Joe can finish, he's got pace and he's unselfish, but I just find that he's incapable of providing that all-important reference point which a striker needs to do.
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-Coentrao played quite well in my opinion. It was for me, the first time that Coentrao has managed to bring his play for his national team into his club. Last Sunday, he showcased his acceleration and aggressiveness on attack almost to a Marcelo level (which we don't normally see when he plays for Madrid) and his efforts were duly rewarded with a goal.
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Xabi Alonso and Khedira had plenty of good moments in the game too. Khedira looks to be showing more and more of the role he plays for the National Team into Madrid (just like Coentrao): he takes the ball forward more comfortably when receiving those 'exit balls' from teammates in a bind and links play forward. For Xabi, I found myself speaking to the television frequently last Sunday: "Wow!" "Nice Pass!" "What a pass" at Xabi's lovely raking vertical passes which seamlessly travel through the tiniest gaps between opposing players and onto our front 4.
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Ozil and Modric played well too if you  think about it. Ozil was his usual tricky, wily self: his crouching posture with that slightly lowered head (like a viper about to strike) with the ball is now very familiar - but still unreadable, as to whether he'll go left, right and as to where to who he will thread the ball to.  The Croatian on the other hand reminds me of Bayern's Toni Kroos in many ways: playing between the pivots and behind the striker but many times, sitting deeper than your usual #10, giving the midfield a stronger presence and often drawing one of the opposing pivots with him. Modric doesn't hesitate to go forward though and just like Ozil, he's an assist (or a shot) waiting to happen when between the lines.
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Mourinho's decision to sub Modric for the out-of-form Di Maria baffled me at first initially (I thought Modric was playing well and deserved his place on the pitch). But DI Maria's performance (he wasn't bad) and his added tactical function (width) clearly improved the team in the second half and was instrumental in creating many chances.
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It is here where I find myself puzzled. The tactics were ok, The player performances were generally good. But here we are needlessly dropping points again. It is because of this that I find the simplistic tendency of pointing fingers at specific players or at the manager's tactics to be a very superficial way of perceiving the situation, nevermind mindlessly calling for the signing / sale of certain players. It's a team problem.  It is a problem with the team's mental / psychological mindset that has, as mentioned above, resulted in the hemorrhaging of the team's championship character: the team has forgotten how to be a champion. Last Sunday's performance was a display of all the symptoms that the team had UNLEARNED the necessary lessons on being a Champion.
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SYMPTOM #1 - Fail to win at home vs. an out-of-form bottom side
Imperfection is a human quality. As such, it's understandable to see hiccups. Football teams are no different... even champion football sides. As such, though it's disappointing to drop points to places like the Ciutat De Valencia (Levante), Sanchez Pizjuan (Sevilla) or the Reyno De Navarre (Osasuna), there remains an iota of 'understandable-ness' to it. Certain grounds are really tough places to play in. Heck, even the pre-relegation Riazor (Depor) was deemed to be a cursed ground for Real Madrid. Playing at home however against such sides is a totally different thing altogether. Espanyol are a struggling team: they sell their best players every year and rely on loan opportunities and are now starting to prematurely promote youth teamers just to make up squad numbers.  They are struggling to the point where they have had to sack their coach and are now just learning the ropes under ex-Atleti coach Aguirre. We didn't play them at their home base at the heart of Catalunya (Barcelona) - we played them on our turf. Champion teams will occasionally struggle against spirited bottom sides when playing away in front of their voracious crowd support... but Champion teams are supposed to beat such teams when playing at home, if not wipe the floor with these bottom teams.
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SYMPTOM #2 - Amateur Night on Defense
I watched the first half of Liverpool vs. Aston Villa on Saturday Night. Liverpool started the match dominating it, keeping possession on the ball and going forward with dangerous intent only to be sucker punched on the counter against the run of play thanks to the brilliance of Benteke (who score the first and assisted Villa's second). For Real Madrid on Sunday, it was the pony-tailed ex-La Roja striker Sergio Garcia who would torment us, always looking for the slightest drop in concentration or error to exploit. our defenders and midfielders are particularly guilty of this. Liverpool are a side with a new manager learning a brand new system languishing in 12th place in the Premier League. Real Madrid have been under Mourinho for 3 seasons now, won the league title last season and is not a side 'under construction'. It's embarrassing to be comparing ourselves to them but look at us! The comparison (which is an insult) is clearly deserved! Let's not even talk about Espanyol's second goal - sides who concede goals like that normally get relegated.
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SYMPTOM #3 - Fail to Capitalize on Chances Created
Call it luck, call it form. Call it whatever you want. Real Madrid created enough chances to win last Saturday Night but didn't capitalize on enough of them to win. I will insult Real Madrid once again by making yet another comparison to Liverpool: apart from the #7 (Suarez for Liverpool and Ronaldo for us), there aren't enough alternative goal scorers on the team. Part of what made us La Liga champions last season was that our 'tridente' of Ronaldo, Benzema and Higuain were all amongst the top scorers in La Liga (in contrast to Barca's Messi-dependencia).  This season, Barca solved their goalscoring problem by having Messi score even more (at least twice in every game), while on our side, while Ronaldo's scoring numbers are still great, Higuain and Benzema are injured and we are relying on defenders (e,.g. Coentrao) to score. Except if he's Messi, a team with only one legitimate reliable goal-scorer is not going to win you a league title.
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SYMPTOM #4 - Downshift while the Opponent is on the Back Foot
For a while there, I genuinely thought that the team was going to showcase its championship credentials last Saturday night. After getting sucker-punched early in the first half, Real Madrid equalized just at the stroke of halftime, dealing a massive psychological blow to Espanyol. Then at 48' we take the 2-1 lead, completely shattering Espanyol - undoing all the great work they did so far. What followed was an exciting sequence of Real Madrid's brand of Formula 1 football - dazzling wing play, one touch vertical attacking sequences and so forth. For a while, you thought that last season's Real Madrid was going to turn up with their message to the opponent under such circumstances: "So, you dare to score on us!? F%ck You!" Then Bam! 5 goals right down their throat and game over. That wasn't what happened last Saturday though - Real Madrid said their line, threatened Espanyol with a host of goalscoring chances... and then.... they downshifted, allowed the fast pace of the game (that favored them SO MUCH) to ebb away and complacently allowed time to tick away, contented with a one goal lead. Everyone knows what followed.
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SYMPTOM #5 - Put a Remontada to Waste
What followed was that we put a Remontada to waste. There's a sense of inevitability that comes with Championship-winning sides (like how we were last season), that makes opponents feel like there is no way to stop you once you've turned it on and you're going for your opponents' throat. Real Madrid are a team who boasts that 'remontada legacy'. We're supposed to be the team that makes other sides feel powerless once we decide that we want to take something from them... that even after taking a few (or many) hits, it is still never a guarantee for an opponent that they can walk away with what they've taken from us. Last Saturday, we didn't live up to that. Last Real Madrid's performance was that of a poser's: a display of muscle-flexing, posturing, but without the ability to follow through on the threat that we made.
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AS' Alfredo Relano preferred to look at Mourinho's decision to turn up at the post-match press conference as an act of discourtesy. Having read what he said after the match however, I found Mourinho's statements revealing of how deflated he felt ("I have never been in a situation like this, to lose so many points and take the team so far from their objectives"). Let's call it what it is already: Real Madrid's objectives now will be to try to finish 2nd (to avoid having to go through early qualification rounds for CL), and go for the 2 cups: (CDR and CL). Many have mentioned that our last 2 Champions League triumphs came on the back of failed La Liga seasons. Last season's winners Chelsea also had a miserable League campaign last season. I personally consider such matters to be circumstantial: because the key to all of this is the team's mental edge which is clearly bleeding away. I am not keen go into conspiracy theories about the Portuguese vs. Spanish faction soap opera theory, or Ronaldo's sadness or even speculation on Mourinho's future (he after all received a very strong show of public support from Florentino last week). We do all know however (as I'm sure he also knows himself) that an issue such as mental edge is well and truly part of his job scope. Maybe he should sell someone, maybe he should take them for a BBQ again, maybe he needs to take the boys to Vegas, maybe he needs to lock them all into a torture chamber.
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Whatever he does, the key to all this is very simple: to teach the boys individually and collectively what they've clearly all forgotten... how to be Champions again.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Stick Shift Driving (Real Valladolid 2 - Real Madrid 3)

What a dissappointing weekend for for the Filipino sporting fan. I write this now merely hours after seeing Manny Pacquiao literally swallow straight right-handed punch to his chin c/o Juan Manuel Marquez in a loss that pretty much marks the watershed moment in the Pacman's career that spells its end or depending on how he plays his cards, spells the beginning of its end. And just last night, hours before Real Madrid's match at the Zorilla, the Philippine national football team only managed a 0-0 against Singapore at home soil in the semi-final of the ASEAN Football Championships (Suzuki Cup) with the return leg this Wednesday here in Singapore. Thankfully, Real Madrid spared me from going 0/3 last night.
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Same Old Virus
The Sky Sports UK guys who were doing the commentary during the broadcast of last night's match, were calling in the old cliches: They were saying that Real Madrid were vulnerable last night because they said firstly, we were playing away from home, and secondly, we were playing on the back of a midweek Champions League match. "But I thought they played second stringers midweek vs. Ajax?" my wife asked me when I cited the Sky commentators' explanations for Madrid's shoddy set piece defending. If your wife who doesn't follow football closely enough can see through the mindlessness of some of the punditry that's going on, then something's really wrong with some of them (apart from the fact that I have a wonderfully insightful spouse). Putting aside the theories of Gerry Armstrong & co., I can only come to the same conclusion that many Madridistas have known all along: that our team is not yet fully cured of our 'Dead Ball Virus'. Both goals which were scored by Manucho featured some ridiculous defending by our CBs and Alonso who were all rested midweek vs. Ajax. This is particularly worrying for a team whose aspirations for silverware are pretty much hinged in cup competitions where away goals you concede tend to bite you in the ass. The inability of Mourinho, his coaching staff and the players to kill off this 'deadball disease' is a disturbing sign as it is very easy to imagine getting dumped out of the CDR or the CL over dumbass goals conceded in that manner.
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Finding the Bright Spots
It's not difficult though to find the bright spotS in last night's match. Apart from enjoying myself as a witness to these moments, I also felt a bit of poetic justice being rendered upon those who made many out-of-perspective remarks re: the likes of Ozil, Callejon and of course, Mourinho. It's totally understandable to be upset at the fact that we conceded 2 goals off set pieces the way we did, or by the fact that we actually allowed ourselves to go behind as a result of those 2 goals... but to win despite being under such difficult circumstances is important. Make no mistake about it: Valladolid played well: their set pieces were spot on, and were very compact when they didn't have the ball with their defensive and midfield lines close to each other and sitting deep to effectively prevent us rom building our attacks which generally require 'build up space' to gather momentum. Real Madrid also benefitted from the injury of Patrick Ebert who was doing very well until he needed to be subbed off. Performances like last night's by teams like Valladolid put the Liga De Mierda 'Shit League' descriptions of La Liga literally to shit as it showcases that small teams in La Liga are completely capable of putting together impressive physical, tactical and technical performances to frustrate the likes of Madrid and Barca (it will happen soon enough this season) into mistakes and make them vulnerable.
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It is in moments like last night where championship character has to show itself in teams. Where simply having more talented players is far from enough to win the 3 points. Amateurish-loss-of-concetration-to-concede-goals aside, having the stomach to recover from an early deficit is a critical quality for a championship side, nevermind 2 deficits. It's also important to note that the team has been out of its comfort zone for majority of this campaign - given the many games we've seen makeshift defenses (no Marcelo), makeshift midfields (no Khedira) and even the loss of options upfront (no Higuain): and this is what makes last night's 'double remontada' important and filled with the feel-good factor that it has: because the team didn't come back merely by just playing with more intensity - they did so playing out of their comfort zone, without having the familiar players in their familiar positions doing the things we see usually see them do. The second goal (Ozil's first for the night) comes to mind as the play leading up to the goal looked more like it was out of a  Barcelona playbook - little space to run, tight passing, lots of 1-2 exchanges within a sea of Valladolid defenders' legs between highly technical players and a goal where the scorer literally 'passes' the ball into the goal. It was a reflection of the positive qualities of Madrid that shone last night, capable of reinventing itself to meet the demands of the occasion, with players who step up (Ozil, with 2 goals last night has now scored 5 goals in his last 7 games) when the usual suspects (Ronaldo) are shackled.
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Stick Shift Driving
Credit for last night's success must go to the very-talked-about Jose Mourinho. He has of course come under fire from many Madridistas for his exuberant and controversial ways. But shockingly, criticism of his tactics has also come with some even making statements (which in my opinion are ridiculous!) that he's slipping tactically or that his substitutions are all useless. My reply to those statements is simple: managers will make changes when they feel those changes are necessary - sometimes they come off, sometimes they don't. The outcomes of those changes however are not solely down the tactical nature of those changes - sometimes they're counteracted by the opponent, or sometimes the players on the pitch were unable to execute the plan... heck sometimes the plan actually works but just doesn't produce the goal/s. The bottom-line about such matters however is this:  Managers who have tactical nous in the game are plenty. Managers who have tactical nous and with the right dosage of boldness however are rare. Or perhaps it's not just about boldness?... but rather, the ability to know when to go another gear higher and when to downshift. Mourinho's performance as a coach last night, was a tour de force in this regard.
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After Halftime: it looks exactly like Mourinho's usual preferred XI - except with Callejon playing for Marcelo
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The First 'Up Shift' (4-2-3-1 with Callejon as LB) or a 3-5-2? Mourinho started with his familiar 4-2-3-1 with Nacho where Marcelo normally is and with Callejon given a start ahead of Di Maria both as a reward to Vanilla Joe for his impressive showing against Ajax and as a stern message to Di Maria that he has been piss poor these past several matches. With the score at 2-2 after halftime though, one would have thought that Mourinho would have had his boys stay with their current system to see if it was possible to get that game clinching goal with his current system. Instead, veering away from his reputation as a 'safety-first' tactician, Mourinho instead opted to send in Di Maria... for Nacho(!), pushing Callejon from his role as an attacking wide midfielder to (gasp!) left back. I was honestly trying to see if Mourinho had actually opted for a back 3, but alas, it genuinely looked like a 4-2-3-1 with Callejon at left back in what I can only interpret as Mourinho's attempt to have Callejon attempt to interpret Marcelo's role. It might have seemed to be a nutty idea, but the truth is that having the pacy, aggressive, but disciplined-and-hard-working Callejon as an attacking fullback wasn't as 'wild' an idea as it seemed to be.
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Another Gear Higher: Alonso plays as a ball-playing CB while Modric, with his playmaker's mentality offers another goal-assist threat from deep. It actually also somewhat looks like a 3-4-1-2.
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The Next 'Up Shift' (4-2-3-1 with Alonso as CB) or a 3-5-2? At 62' and still without a goal to get the lead, Mourinho cranked it up offensively another gear, sending in Luka Modric for Arbeloa - pushing Ramos to the right with Alonso and Pepe as Centerbacks with Alonso presumably playing a similar role to Busquets at Barca when dropping deep to be part of the Central Defensive Line, playing the role of ball-playing CB, to allow Modric to be the midfield distributor. This change is also significant particularly in light of Modric's performance midweek vs. Ajax (I managed to see a late replay): because even as the Croatian was playing as a pivot, he still has the mentality of a playmaker (keen to deliver the goal-assist) rather than the ball distributor (ala Xabi). Thus, the change also provides Mourinho's men a player capable of delivering killer pass from deep: a useful tool against a compact defense sitting deep. Madrid's far more offensive posture as a result of this substitution not only produced the winning goal (Ozil's free kick) but also one disallowed despite being a perfectly valid goal (Ramos was NOT offside).
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Downshift Mode: 4-2-3-1 with Varane on for Benzema, goes to RB, Ronaldo pushes as the lone striker, Ozil plays as an 'inside right', Modric pushes up as the '10' and Alonso slots back into his familiar pivot role.
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Downshift With the lead secure, Mourinho made his final change, 'closing the shop' by sending in Varane (for Benzema) to play RB thus allowing Ramos to revert back to his familiar place alongside Pepe. Ronaldo then pushed up to play as the lead striker with Di Maria (Left), Modric (10) and Ozil (Right) behind him - right back to a more defensively oriented 4-2-3-1 to keep secure.
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Making use of each substitution and putting each one to great effect, I can only imagine that it was the sort of performance by a coach that is shown in coaching clinics and in workshops on tactics. All of that of course would also not be possible without Mourinho having the right pieces on the pitch on the first place: namely Ronaldo (who plays both as winger and striker), Ozil (who can play as a wide midfielder apart from the '10'), Ramos (who plays as RB and CB) and of course, Callejon - who tactically speaking, was the key to it all. It would have been easy for the 'experiment' to blow up in Mou's face had Calleti playing at LB been exploited, but it was a combination of the team's overall play as well as Vanilla Joe's combination of work rate + defensive accountability that made it all work.
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It may well likely be that when I wake up tomorrow, Barcelona will right back to being ahead of us by 11 points and Atleti by 5 with Messi having finally matched or broken Torpedo Muller's goalscoring record (I honestly don't care), but I'd rather look at our team an point to the team's achievements last night. Yes we defended like school children for many parts of the game, but we came back. Twice. And won. And did so playing waaaaaay out of our comfort zone - both for the players and the manager. Perhaps in the big picture, we might not be able to overhaul that 11 point lead, but looking at last night's match just from the rectangular panel of my television alone, I can say that I'm happy and proud with what my team did out there last night.

Action and Reaction (Manchester City 1 - Real Madrid 1)

Having been able to eke out a 1-1 draw at the Etihad stadium, together with Borussia Dortmund's 1-4 trouncing of Ajax, Real Madrid booked their ticket to the last 16 of the Champions League. First place in the 'group of death' or rather 'group of champions' did not go to us as many had expected, but the milestone is one to look at for us Madridistas as something positive. I'll admit though that I'm trying really hard to overlook the fact that we have failed to win in the Champions League in the last 3 matches.
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The Madrid press, together with Mourinho (who celebrated his 100th Champions League match as a manager) are once again irritatingly deflecting all attention towards last night's refereeing decisions: referring to the numerous times where fouls on Ronaldo weren't called and of course the penalty that was awarded to Manchester City to tie the game. People seem to forget that penalties are awarded for such incidents (even if we deem them to be 'soft') and that Real Madrid also have themselves to blame for their failure to put the game to bed with a 2nd or 3rd goal. Having said that, it must be noted Real Madrid played generally well and must be given due credit for their performance last night which clearly deserved more than a single point. The point re: the performance of Real Madrid becomes important for the simple fact that the match featured an interesting Action-and-Reaction sequence with regards to tactics - and that Real Madrid played in a manner that showcased the futility of Mancini's plan to foil us tactically.
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Man City Goes with 3 at the Back (3-3-2-2 vs. 4-2-3-1)
My notes during the early part of the first half: The Tactical Matchup at the beginning of the match: Man City's 3-5-2 vs. Real Madrid's 4-2-3-1. City's defense had a considerable numerical advantage in anticipation for Ronaldo + Di Maria. Their execution however was poor.

The first meeting of the 2 sides saw Real Madrid successfully mauling the English club over our team's extensive use of its attacking resources on the flanks. Roberto Mancini's  statements praising Ronaldo before the match, coupled with his decision to opt for 3 (or 5) at the back last night was the surest sign that he was wary of the threat offered by Ronaldo + Di Maria. With 3 (or 5) at the back, the key protagonists in the match for Mancini were his wingbacks (Maicon & Kolarov) and how they could manage to simultaneously threaten Madrid and ensure that there is always a spare man when defending. The numbers game in defending would have been simpler: If Ronaldo AND Coentrao would attack on Madrid's right, the idea was to allow Maicon to pick up Coentrao's run while Ronaldo (with presumed support from Benzema) would be covered 3 vs. 2 by City's CBs. The tactical plan seemed very sound indeed. But alas, it's success would have to depend on how well City's players could execute the plan - and therein lay the problem.
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A look at the match's opening goal by Benzema however was a blatantly clear sign that all best laid plans are meaningless if they're not executed properly: Di Maria was given all the time and space in the world to serve up a tasty cross for Benzema to half-volley home behind a sleepwalking Maicon. Real Madrid would make mincemeat of Man City's defensive strategy many more times during the early stages of the first half with Ronaldo once again being the protagonist serving up Sami Khedira twice. How strange it is to find Manchester City thoroughly prepare a defensive plan to protect the flanks against Madrid only to see those very same flanks torn open due to the defensive ineptitude of their own players? Real Madrid's countered dangerously forward with menacing vertical runs and passes, many times along the very same flank positions Man City were supposedly protecting. It is in this regard where we must give a tremendous amount of credit for Ronaldo as well: he may have not scored, but he surely put City's back to the wall
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Credit must also go to Mourinho for making the right choice of picking Modric to start the game instead of Ozil. Though both are essentially playmakers, the Croatian tends to play deeper and was thus always in front of Toure. Having Ozil on the pitch (who tends to play much higher) would have allowed Toure to push forward and support Silva and Nasri more to put pressure on Alonso + Khedira. Khedira was once again the attacking surprise package - with his rampaging runs from deep catching City by surprise many times.
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Switching to a Back 4 and playing more Through the Center
Man City changes to a back 4 in the final third of the first half. Kolarov would be replaced by Javi Garcia (who would take his place at the center of the pitch) and allow Nasri and Silva to play as twin playmakers behind Aguero and Dzeko.

Mancini's '3/5 at the back' plan though sound in theory was left utterly in shambles thanks to his team's poor execution. Thus, being in need of a goal, he switched his formation on-the-fly without substitutions in the latter stages of the first half: going to a back 4 with Zabaleta at LB. the result was an asymmetrical 4-4-2 with Silva on the right drifting inwards and Kolarov pushing up as a true-blue wide midfielder. The formation gave City a stronger presence in the middle and allowed them to take control of the game more. It didn't take long however, before Madrid regained their bearings once again and snap into the dangerous counter attacking mode that threatened City once again. And at the start of the second half, Mancini would send RM Castilla graduate Javi Garcia in for Kolarov - turning them into a full-fledged 4-2-2-2 with Toure + Garcia at the middle with Silva and Nasri as midfield schemers playing behind 2 strikers. At this point I had one thought: Mourinho had finally managed to push Mancini into a situation that the Portuguese favors - with City playing a narrow possession-based game that allowed our wingers space to hit them on the counter. Mourinho would later on send Callejon on for Modric to confront Mancini's narrow 4-4-2 (4-2-2-2) with his own wide 4-4-2 with Callejon on the left, Di Maria on the right and Ronaldo + Benzema up front.
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It didn't happen though. To their credit, City kept the ball well and was able to successfully use their 'midfield platform' (comprised of their 2 hulking midfielders Toure and Garcia) for Silva to operate. Edin 'Don't-call-me-a-super-sub' Dzeko, who is built like a classic #9, showcased his mobility and drifted wide several times to send some tasty crosses in which weren't converted into goals. Madrid on the other hand continued to threaten on the break: in the second half however, Di Maria had a very poor game. El fideo would finish the game with a paltry 51% pass completion rate.
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The internet now allows us to freeze time and capture moments of people being such dickheads.
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The Real Madrid hero for me however would be (surprise!) Ronaldo. He bitched and moaned over calls which didn't go his way much to the amusement of the City fans. Ronaldo also failed to score last night. It was Ronaldo however who personified the kind of lethal threat on the counter which Mourinho envisioned his team to pose once the onus to score fell to of Man City. It was the sort of performance that would surely have pleased a coach even if it would fail to do so for a casual fan who merely judges players by the number of goals they scored. I'm also pleased to see him attempting chips over the keeper over his low-power shots (which tend to be deflected given certain game situations). His chip over Hart last night was just a yard away from crossing the goal before being cleared by Nastasic. Ronaldo also successfully 'led the line' as the lone striker in a 4-4-1 formation after Arbeloa's sending off and even managed to give the Sky Blues many nervy moments during our counter-attacking opportunities.
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Other Anecdotes
-How about that wonder-save by Casillas eh? That was a moment right out of the Iker-when-he-was-21 scrapbook.
-I honestly thought Varane would play as CB when he was sent in - instead he played as a RB. Albiol played as a 3rd CB when he came on. Mourinho will take comfort in the fact that Madrid has finally pulled off a rearguard action successfully in an away match against a top team in European competition - it might just prove to be the sort of experience our team needs once we go to the last 16 and beyond.
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Prospects
Mourinho has pointed to the curious fact that his 2 Champions League trophies were won from campaigns that started with only a 2nd place berth from the group stage. Interestingly, in both instances, his teams came in 2nd to Spanish Teams (Madrid and Barca respectively). One of the interesting points for me however will be the implication of having a 2nd place seeding on the elimination ties. Holding a second seed will mean that the ties will be played at the Bernabeu first and the away leg will be played after. This might actually be the sort of situation that favors the cautious Mourinho more given his propensity to opt to 'defend' a lead during the tie once its gained - and in a situation where the second leg is at home, the fear of conceding an away goal later in the tie tends to work against a team with Mourinho's mentality (e.g. what happened against Bayern). I would like to think that playing the first leg in the Bernabeu will naturally force Madrid to play more aggressively in the first leg while the urgency to win and secure the tie with an away goal in the second leg might work better psychologically for our team.
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Another point to consider as well is that for Mourinho's past 2 CL campaigns with Madrid, apart from Bayern and Barca, our opponents have not necessarily been the cream of Europe's crop. This campaign however has seen us face up against elite teams in the early stages and seems to promise more of the same (in lieu of our 2nd seeding) for the next phase of the competition. Thus, it doesn't just become about making victory sweeter, but also about conditioning the team mentally, physically and tactically for the competition.
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The campaign's focus will shift back to La Liga on Saturday away to Betis. The next pair of midweek games are now essentially dead rubbers (at home vs. Alcoyano in the CDR and Ajax in the CL): time for Mourinho to prep the likes of Mssrs. Varane, Callejon,  Rodriguez (Jose & Jesse) and Morata for those. And as for Mssrs. Pepe and Ramos, maybe it's time prepare contemplating Mr. Falcao's impending visit to the Bernabeu too.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Water Polo and the Cantera Games (Levante 1 - Real Madrid 2)

David Navarro is a thug. Thankfully, neither the pitch nor Levante's extensive practice of Football's 'Dark Arts' got in the way of getting 3 points tonight for us.

For some odd TV scheduling reason, by the time I switched the TV on at 4:30am this morning to watch Levante-Real Madrid, Atletico vs Getafe was still on (82’). By the time the TV coverage of last night’s Levante-Real Madrid match started, the match was already at 7’ and the FIRST picture of the match that showed on TV was Ronaldo’s sporting that ugly blackeye. ‘Holy F%ck’ I said to myself: not even 10 minutes into the game, and already Levante are sticking it to our boys with their elbows, punches and kicks. At that point in time, I had not yet seen the replay that showed David Navarro’s UFC-style elbow maneuver on Ronaldo.
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If my memory serves me right, Real Madrid have failed to win at Levante for the past 2 seasons, which was why I looked at this game as one that was far from a being a secure 3 points, regardless of our injury situation. Levante after all are a team who make no bones about using the game's 'dark arts' to full effect in order to get the results they need. This is why I am aghast at the reactions of certain Levante players who are putting on this show of outrage over what happened last night. 'We wuz robbed' they say. Robbed??? You guys almost cracked Ronaldo's skull open you dipshits! Their players' reactions I must say smacked of being sore losers: after going through a game whose conditions favored their 'style' more than ours, it was Mourinho's men who came out on top for the simple fact that it was Real Madrid who adjusted better to the appalling pitch conditions. Even as I rant here about how Barca would surely throw a bitch fit if they had to play through such conditions, I too have to say that it was an embarrassment for a top-tier football match to be allowed to be played under such conditions. How can a professional Football League even make a claim to among the best (if not the best) football leagues in the world if a match between its defending champion and one of its representatives in continental competition can hardly even be called a football match? The Ciudad de Valencia Stadium's pitch resembled a swimming pool given how it allowed the ball to move. They might as well have asked both teams to play water polo last night.
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Pool Games
The winner of last night's match was also clearly the team that managed to adjust best to the fact that the match's farcical conditions had degraded to a water polo match - and that was the surprise. Who knew that in a match about rough-and-tumble tactics and long balls, that Real Madrid could manage 2-goals and win against Levante? Needless to say, some Real Madrid players adjusted to the match conditions better than others.
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For Real Madrid, it would be the our 2 midfielders: Xabi Alonso and Michael Essien, both of whom have seen their fair share of 'A Cold Night in Stoke'-type of battles from the Premiership who excelled. Xabi Alonso won practically every 50-50 ball and made some fantastic long balls that created lots of danger at the Levante box (I'll chalk up his missed penalty which he blasted right through the middle as wanting to take a 'risk-free' shot). For Essien, his strength, power and tidiness in possession helped Madrid take control of the game. Indeed, the 2 played as if they missed those water-logged pitches in lower league division teams in England whom they'd visit in their cup runs - not to mention the wet rainy conditions they frequently had to train under during their weekdays in England. Our first goal would be scored by Ronaldo (another Premier League veteran), who despite reportedly having lost vision on both eyes form Navarro's elbow, still knew where the goal was and had the presence of mind to control and bounce the ball off his thigh before striking it home - fully knowing that allowing the ball to make contact with the ground could see the scoring chance go up in smoke. It must be noted though that despite being declared as Real Madrid's designated '9' for the night, Ronaldo hardly played there - spending most of his 45-minute spell playing off Callejon, who pretty much functioned as the team's '9' for most of the night until Morata came on. i also felt that Vanilla Jose Callejon's tireless running, coupled by the simplicity of his game (no elaborate dribbling or risky passing attempts) was indeed very useful out there on Levante's 'water polo pitch'.
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Unlike our midfielders, Ronaldo and Callejon, Real Madrid still had a few players who failed in adjusting to the match conditions. The most guilty culprit of all was Angel Di Maria. Mourinho did praise him after the game - that praise in my opinion however is only deserved for his effort and his live wire performance. When it came to the actual goods however, Di Maria's propensity to make the wrong decision on-the-fly was made worse by his inability to alter this approach to the game with the circumstances: Di Maria continued attempting those through-passes and found many of his balls intercepted, he attempted too many dribbling manuevers that didn't come off (also thanks to the pitch conditions) and worst of all, he made an unnecessarily cheeky attempt to chip the goalkeeper on the break and fail. His miss would cost dearly with Levante finding an equalizer. The Madrid player however who had an absolute stinker was Raul Albiol. Jose Mourinho brought him on as a sub in the second half as the bottom tip of a diamond midfield to bring security to the back. He did the opposite: committing countless errors that required some great saves from Iker to erase.
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Canterano Questions
A Cantera Hero is born: We all knew Morata was special and we were all waiting for validation of it for the past few seasons. We all got it last night. We're proud of you Alvarito!

The man of the night last night (or perhaps 'boy' of the night?) as Alvaro Morata. Needing a goal after Levante's equalizer, I had tweeted that perhaps Mou ought to send Kaka in for Ozil to bring some fresh legs onto the match (given how the soggy pitch would have been surely energy-sapping especially for the low-stamina Ozil) and to send Morata in for Callejon in order to give Real Madrid a target man out there for them to knock those long balls and dead balls. Many had in fact commented that Mourinho sent him on too late (he only had 8 minutes). It was Morata though who scored the cathartic game-winner for us with his first touch of the ball last night.
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It's of course now impossible not to talk about what happened last night without talking about Real Madrid's 'Canterano Question' in light of Mourinho's public 'confrontation' with Alberto Toril. There now 2 main questions that I wish to answer in this regard. The first question in my opinion is the most important one of all:
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What Now for Morata?
Despite having been awarded a professional contract by Mourinho, it is my understanding that there is a maximum number of games that Morata is allowed to appear for the first team before he is made ineligible for Real Madrid Castilla. Where then does he go in light of the now-undeniable evidence (we knew he had the goods to play for the first team but there wasn't that blatant evidence until last night) that he is first team material... that letting him slip would be like letting our last true gem, Juan Mata slip away. Part of this question also goes to Jose Mourinho who has 2 world-class strikers at his disposal with neither of them fit. Does Mourinho formally take Morata away from Castilla? And if he does, is it good for the young Morientes-doppelganger to be playing behind 2 world-class strikers?
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Pre-season reports show Morata being considered by Mourinho as a Cristiano Ronaldo substitute (as if Cristiano really ever gets substituted) in light of his successful deployment on the left wing last season. His height and undeniable history as a successful '9' though means that he is also a legitimate backup to Benzema and Higuain and can play the 'Adebayor' role for the team: the specialist target man who can be brought on in specific instances of a match like last night where his skills are best suited (just as a way to get young Alvaro started). My opinion on the matter is that we should let circumstances dictate the course of action. Taking Morata from Castilla just for the sake of it might see this young gem pegged back in the pecking order with little chance to play. Leaving him in Castilla on the other hand would mean that the first team would be denied the use of such a wonderful talent in times of need and also deprive him of the chance to make the jump. In my opinion, Mourinho should continue to call him up for games where he is needed and be kept as a sub in games where Mourinho has an available striker. He should however, not consider the 'quota' when deciding whether to use or not to use Morata for the match: if the match needs young Alvaro, then send him in and let the chips fall where they may: if Morata exceeds the limit of appearances that sees him cross the threshold to become a full time first team player - then so be it.
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Exciting times for La Fabrica. RMFB's Twitter handler (Kaushik?) commented that last night's events reminded him of Raul. I replied back saying that Morata reminded me much more of Raul's BFF Morientes. His reply summed it up wonderfully: the style of play was clearly Morientes, the narrative however was all Raul. At this point in time, I can honestly say that there isn't a player out there whom I crave to see a Real Madrid shirt. In my opinion, the team has reached is peak in terms of quality, personnel-wise - it must now take the next step to blood our young talents from La Fabrica and mix them with its young world class talent to construct the Real Madrid of Madridismo's dreams.
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Fifty Shades of Real Madrid Grey
"In Real Madrid's case, perhaps more than Barcelona's, you must also remember that the Madridistas' secret dream is to repeat the events of the mid-1980s, and forge a side from local stone with the same qualities as the mythical "Quinta del Buitre", the vulture squadron led by Emilio Butragueno and his local buddies (although one of the five, Miguel Pardeza, was from Huelva). This legacy haunts the club in many ways, and forces them to pretend that, in some not-so-distant future, the galacticos will return to their planets and the reserve side will supply a never-ending batch of spunky local youngsters, all up for the cause like Raul (who was actually brought up at Atletico, but never mind) and Michel, to quote just two. This truth is an ironic one, given the post-millennial notion that Barcelona is the cantera (youth set-up) and Madrid the cartera(wallet), when the reality of Barcelona's traditional mind-set was that of their cosmopolitanism, as opposed to Madrid's paternalistic Spanish outlook. You'd have to ask an older culé now what they think of all this. Famous Catalans have of course been present throughout the club's history, but it is only recently that the club has started to make a public virtue of this, probably to draw attention to Madrid's own lack of a youth policy. It's a touchy subject, and I'll leave it there."
-Phil Ball breaks the myth of Laporta's 'Barca-Cantera, Madrid-Cartera' propaganda and raises a few questions of for Real Madrid to ponder. Full article here:
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We must remember that even before Morata's performance last night, a media war has been going on between Mourinho and Castilla Coach Alberto Toril supported by many Spanish Pundits. To me, the matter is a 'grey area' - because while I think that Mourinho's points are correct (I'll explain below), I question his motives.
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Mourinho is in my opinion correct to say that he is NOT the culprit Real Madrid's disappointing treatment of its cantera. Indeed it was not he who let the likes Etoo, Negredo, Soldado, Mata and Borja Valero leave the club and show the world that Real Madrid missed out. Granero did leave under Mou's watch - but El Pirata himself said that Mourinho didn't want him to leave. We should also not forget that last night's goal-scoring debutate hero Morata credits Mourinho for the chance he was afforded. Perhaps its because we remember Mourinho's Chelsea core as its current 'old guard' despite the fact that the core of that team (Terry, Lampard, Essien, Robben, the 2 Coles, Drogba) were all about the same age as Ozil, Di Maria & Khedira when he arrived / brought them in. Perhaps it was because apart from a few pieces in their squad, the core of Mourinho's treble-winning Inter was comprised of more 'senior players.' Either way, I do find that tagging Mou as anti-Cantera is unfair.
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i also find Mourinho's gripes re: the Cantera to be valid. I agree with him that Real Madrid Castilla should prioritize the development of young players over league placing objectives. Mourinho is right: if a Castilla player reaches the age of 23 / 24 (the age Ozil / Di Maria / Khedira joined us), they are likely no longer going to make the Real Madrid first team and instead promising teenagers like Jose Rodriguez should be prioritized in terms of playing time and be given more than bit parts. He's also right that Castilla, Real Madrid C and even the juvenil sides ought to be playing the same system as the first team to allow the seamless transition of players from one level to another - and that any candidates for the first team should be played in the position they are being eyed for in the first team. Heck, even Barca horn tooters share this opinion.
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Having said that, it's also fitting to discuss all of this after seeing the kind of physical beating our first team just went through at Levante. Physical play, a bag full of dirty tricks and shit pitches: these are the sort of teams that populate the Segunda A. These are the sort of teams that also eat teenage 'puppies' for breakfast - especially if those pups are wearing uniforms with a Real Madrid badge on their chests. And with keeping the team within the Segunda A important, striking a balance between winning and staying in segunda A and developing the team's young talent is imperative. This is where the communication factor across the various levels of the club football program becomes important... something that Real Madrid seem to be really lacking at the moment.
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Despite Mourinho's very valid points however, it's hard to keep him off the grey areas given certain points:
1.) Why does he need to air it out in a public forum?
2.) The timing of this statements seems clearly aimed to take attention off Madrid's failure to beat Borussia Dortmund over 2 games
3.) Is he trying to get Toril fired? In favor of another one of his buddies (or Jorge Mendes clients?)
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Thus, though the footballing logic behind his rants are clear and are more than valid, it's also difficult to get around what over motives he might have over the ruckus that he has raised over the Cantera. Regardless of all this though, I do think that it's fair to say that Jose Mourinho is no enemy of the Cantera and that he in fact should be given some credit, even just a bit. This to me isn't a case of black and white, but a murky territory with various shades of grey.
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Happy Deepavali
Finally, I'd like to end this post by wishing all our Indian Readers a Happy Deepavali!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Breaking Mirrors (Real Madrid 2 – Borussia Dortmund 2)

Bah! Those Germans! We still can’t beat them and I’m worried sick about the prospect of meeting a German Side once the group stages are over. Bayern, our European Bette Noir, are sure to bash through beyond the group stages while rivals Schalke and Dortmund who both managed draws (against Arsenal and us respectively) remain group leaders. Real Madrid fans need not hang their heads (too much) in disappointment. Like many of  you, I expected a win and not a draw or even a possible loss. And now that I am writing about the match 4 hours after the match has ended, having allowed some of the emotion to drain away, looking back at the match with a higher level of rationality allows me to conclude that it wasn’t too bad of an outcome considering the circumstances and that though we looked like a second-class side in the first half, the boys redeemed themselves in the second half.
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The First Half – Mirror Image Games
 My notes during the first half of the match. Borussia's CMs and fullbacks would double team our wingers - opening up the center for Ozil. Trouble was that Ozil's supposed dance partner, Higuain, was nursing an injury.
The first half unfolded in a manner that showed us all that Borussia had Real Madrid figured out… or rather, this current injury-depleted Real Madrid. Borussia’s play has many striking qualities that are remarkably similar to Real Madrid: they play a 4-2-3-1 have a well-oiled midfield to press and circulate the ball and of course, have great players on the flanks (wingers and attacking fullbacks) to support a strong lone central striker. Using a combination of their midfield, fullbacks and even wingers, their general strategy has been to press opponents into mistakes and losing the ball and use direct (and/or counter-attacking) play to create chances from the flanks to score. Sound Familiar? Indeed, Dortmund’s 2 goals were scored off swift counter attacks that might as well have been taken from Mourinho’s Real Madrid playbook. It was as if Dortmund was a mirror image of Madrid, albeit a more menacing and dangerous version during the first half.
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In any case, Real Madrid pretty much do the same thing – that is, when their fullbacks are fit (Marcelo / Coentrao) and are in their preferred positions (Arbeloa). Without the ideal fullback situation, Real Madrid were without their ‘Magic Juice’ while Dortmund had theirs. So the first half was to me essentially a story of Borussia Dortmund making Real Madrid taste its own medicine and Real Madrid unable to make Borussia taste theirs because it was without its fullbacks – and this was what made me curiously irritated.
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Over the past few matches, particularly against Mallorca, Real Madrid seemed not just to be looking for ways to allow Luka Modric to learn Madrid’s ‘pivot’ role, but also in doing so, allow Madrid to develop a means of attacking through the middle. Seeing Mourinho start Modric alongside Alonso last night brought that to mind. Madrid’s play however suggested otherwise and it played right into the hands of Dortmund’s defensive strategy.
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Throughout the first half, Real Madrid’s continually attempted to attack through the flanks via Ronaldo and Di Maria and mostly without fullback support. Jurgen Klopp had a very clear strategy to deal with this – he had both his pivots ‘enclose’ our wingers to the touchline when they had the ball, forcing them to face pressure both from the opposing fullback (Picsczek / Schmelzer) and the opposing pivot (Kehl / Gundogan). Without their usual fullback support (Marcelo / Coentrao on the left and Arbeloa on the right) who would normally race along the touchline, Ronaldo and Di Maria were repeatedly forced to either lose the ball or pass vertically backwards to Arbeloa / Ramos. Thus, I found myself constantly yelling at the television: “Play through the middle! Come on!”
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Because what Klopp’s defensive strategy did, was open up the pitch at the center where Ozil in particular could operate and link up with Higuain. Indeed, I found that the most promising attacking moments for Madrid was when Ozil had the ball behind the striker with a considerable amount of space around him to operate, leaving him free to make a pass to what was supposed to be a mobile Higuain. Higuain however was nursing some form of muscular injury that had him lumbering about in the pitch, offering little for Ozil to work with. A look at who we had on the bench had me scratching me head: no strikers left, sending in Callejon to play on the wing with Ronaldo as a striker will have Klopp free up one of his pivot men from doubling up on Calleti thinking that one fullback to face him is enough. Thus as the referee blew the halftime whistle, I was thinking that perhaps Mou can send in Kaka to play as a striker for Ozil to link up with – the Brazilian after all, had the height, strength, mobility and finishing capability to fulfill that role. Mourinho however, had a more radical idea in mind.
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Second Half – Mourinho shatters the Mirror
Soccernet Gamecast's diagram showing the average positions of the players on the pitch. When you remove Higuain (20) and Modric (19), it looks like we played a 4-2-2-2. And with Kaka (8) on for Arbeloa (17), it looked like we played a 3-2-4-1 with Kaka as the lone striker
Substituting Essien in for Modric and Callejon for the injured Higuain, I thought that Mourinho had opted to revert to a more conventional 4-2-3-1 with a midfield muscle man (Essien) assisting Alonso with 'Vanilla Joe' Callejon taking up a place on the flanks to push Ronaldo up as the lone striker. The change he opted for was far more radical. Mourinho solidified his midfield (Alonso + Essien) and allowed this 'platform' as a base for the much-reviled 'Magic Square' formation (4-2-2-2): with Ronaldo, Callejon, Ozil and Di Maria taking turns as attacking midfielders and strikers. Callejon would make an instant impact with several great scoring chances - including one which was debatably called offside.
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Playing with a stronger sense of purpose (presumably following a tongue-lashing from Mou during halftime), Madrid dominated the second half and seized the initiative from Dortmund: forcing them on the backfoot. And now unable to 'mirror' us on defense because of the natural chaos / flexibility that the 4-2-2-2 affords its front 4 players, Borussia's marking system for our players came unstuck. It was no longer possible for them to mark our front 4 without disrupting their team shape and this increased Real Madrid's superiority in the match. No goal though.
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Mourinho's last roll of the dice would be to go with 3 at the back: not too bad of a risk when you consider that we had 2 of the world's most athletic and pacy CBs (Ramos and Pepe) together with the composed and positionally astute Varane. It looks like a 3-2-4-1: with Callejon, Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria behind Kaka as the lone striker when seen from Soccernet's Gamecast, but it also resembled a 3-5-2 (3-2-3-2): with Callejon, Ozil and Di Maria behind bromance partners Ronaldo and Kaka. Regardless of what it actually was, it was an undoubtedly bold move from Mourinho which paid off with Ozil scoring a goal from a Free Kick (thankfully Ronaldo let him take the shot - which was perfectly suited to his left foot).
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Chaos Theory
Last night, we managed to see a great tactical maneuver by Jose Mourinho. I've seen more than a few remarks in the comments section at RMFB criticizing Mourinho's substitutions as if to say that Mou was incapable of making important substitutions to change the course of a match to Madrid's favor - some thing which honestly pissed me off as they were remarks that smacked of lacking in perspective. Last night was not the first time that Mourinho rolled the dice in favor of an attacking strategy and seen his changes bear fruit. Granted that such gambles don't always come off, last night was one of those classic moments where Mou clearly spotted what our opponents were onto and reacted brilliantly by ringing in the changes to turn the match around. I have to say that what made last night's tactical change even more exciting was that Mourinho opted for a solution that was less about structure and more about chaos (ruining Klopp's marking system).
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Experimental Horizons
More tactical experimentation will surely continue for Mourinho's Madrid in light of Pipita's injury. After the match, Mourinho openly admitted to being blindsided by the injury woes for his strikers to explain why Morata was excluded from last night's match (he played 90 minutes last Sunday for Castilla). Short on Fullbacks, short on strikers - our team will be in for more experiments coming on the horizon. We should expect Mourinho to be doing more lineup and tactical shuffling in the coming matches. The truth is with the team out of its personnel and tactical comfort zone, our matches stand to be more unpredictable - both in good ways and in bad. I can only suppose that at this point, we can take comfort from the fact that we have a coach who seems to know what he's doing.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Replacements (Real Madrid 4 – Real Zaragoza 0)

For the mean time, the likes of Modric and Essien are playing like replacements that circumstances have forced upon us. Soon enough though, I genuinely believe that they will multiply Real Madrid's playing capabilities considerably.

Another Real Madrid match, another goalfest – a 0-5 win against Mallorca last weekend, a 1-4 win against 3rd division Alcoyano midweek and now a 4-0 win at home vs. Real Zaragoza. It really does seem like the team is snapping back into gear, right? NOT! Let’s not be deceived by the score-line folks as the proof is always in the play, and not in the scoreline. Let's also be honest about it: the 4-0 scoreline was not a fair reflection of what transpired on the pitch out there last night.
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Last night, Real Madrid continued to soldier on with its makeshift lineup. Alvaro Arbeloa did return earlier than expected from his injury (he was expected to be gone for a month) and he slotted in at left back – freeing up Michael Essien to join Luka Modric at the center of midfield. Arbeloa’s return was just as nice too, given that Xabi Alonso was suspended for last night’s match. The pairing of Modric with Essien then would prompt a discussion at midfield very much different from the one I explored after last weekend’s match. It wasn’t going to be about the idea of having passing midfield pivots – but about how the pairing of Modric and Essien fared in their attempt to replicate the functionality provided by Alonso + Khedira.
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The Alonso-Khedira partnership at the center of the pitch has developed as one of the Real Madrid’s most critical tactical components (if not it’s most critical one). Alonso was the team’s deep-lying ball distributor – able to use his seemingly limitless passing range to reach his teammates all over the pitch: from Khedira who would normally be standing next to him, to Ozil in front, back to the Center Backs, further laterally to the fullbacks and even all the way forward to the front 4. Khedira on the other hand is Alonso’s wingman. The German’s tireless running is both an offensive and a defensive feature of his game. In attack, Sami makes himself constantly available to Alonso as a possible means of ‘exiting’ the ball when our ’14’ is under pressure by ensuring that a passing angle / channel is always open between the 2. This attacking relationship has not only functioned well (making it more difficult opposing teams to simply mark Alonso) but has also blossomed (we are now seeing Sami bring the ball forward to dangerous positions). On the flipside, on defense, Khedira offers his considerable lung, leg and physical power in pressing, anticipation and tackling.
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Last night - playing with 'replacement' midfielders, I was reminded of the funny 2000 movie 'The Replacements' (starring Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman), where a player lockout in the NFL forces a coach and an American Football Team's management to hire replacement players. The story of course sees the ragtag bunch achieve some success but not without the usual share of comical antics. In the case of Real Madrid, it would be injuries and suspensions that would force Mourinho's hand to opt for his replacements. And given the scoreline, I suppose one can assume that there was a bit of success there - albeit not without the usual head-scratching moments.
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Last night’s combo of Modric and Essien at midfield was clearly an attempt to replicate this relationship. Modric, who had learned to play deep under Redknapp’s Spurs and keep up with the physical demands of the role (especially in the Premier League) played the Alonso role last night. Essien on the other hand was tasked to play the ‘Khedira role’ – the latter is a far more interesting arrangement in my opinion because I consider Khedira’s role in Mourinho’s Madrid as Mou’s attempt to re-create that insatiable combination of physical power, tireless workrate, and dynamism that embodied Essien at his peak in Chelsea. In short, with regards to Essien, I found it both bizarre and interesting that we had Essien playing the ‘Khedira role’ whose inspiration was Chelsea's ‘Essien role’ in the first place.
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Modric and Essien’s rendition of their pivot role in their night out on the Real Madrid’s starting XI was slightly different to that of Alonso + Khedira. A likely implication of his more limited passing range and his natural tendency as a ‘10’, Modric played at a more advanced position both when compared to Alonso and relative to the positioning of Michael Essien. What Modric adds to the role is an additional goal-assist threat from the pivot when compared to Alonso. Alonso’s game is much more about facilitating play and keeping the circulation of the ball perpetual especially to the key parts of the pitch rather than directly creating the goal-scoring opportunity. Modric on the other hand, will likely never be able to fully temper his natural predisposition to attempt to carve out the scoring opportunity himself. We saw a few enticing looping balls from deep for Ronaldo and Di Maria to run down last night.  It might take a bit of time, but I don't see why it can't be a possibility for us to see Ronaldo, Di Maria, Benzema or Higuain managing to get on the end of these types of balls from Modric to create / score goals.
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Made in Argentina
Despite the new midfield arrangement though, our goals would come through more familiar if not more conventional means. Both first half goals were scored by the team's 2 much-criticized Argentines. Gonzalo Higuain, who has been criticized for his 'poor conversion rate' opened the scoring last night by slamming the ball into the net following Albiol's thundering header (not a bad game too for El Chori). For those who sneer at Pipita's scoring proficiency, please consider the following stats: 7 goals in 10 La Liga games with 2 assists. Angel Di Maria scored the second goal from the right after getting on the end of a diagonal thru-ball and attempting 3 shots (the first blocked, the second saved, the third time a charm) before managing to score. Both goals conceded were reflective of how badly Real Zaragoza played in the early exchanges of the game, particularly on defense. Having said that, we must not discount the fact that both Argentines are in good form and are reminding us all of why they play for our club - the form of players will always go through peaks and valleys and I find that we are always too quick to judge them dismissively without considering what they bring to the overall scheme of things. One day Falcao might find himself in a goalscoring funk and Peter Crouch just might explode with a 30 goal season - should we sell Pipita then and approach Stoke City for Mr. Abby Clancy? Beware of fads and trends people.
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Without the benefit of a 'running mate' on the left wing for Ronaldo, the team will need to become more 'balanced' in its attack in these 'Left Back-less' months: and finding goalscorers and chance creators in the other parts of the pitch are important. Having an extra goal-assist threat in the middle (Modric) will mean that our forwards are in for better service - and Pipita's and Benzema's form (2 goals midweek) are positive signs. Having an attacking right back (Ramos,) will also mean more chances for Di Maria. And on both accounts, our boys are responding.
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The 'Donut Match' Disease
Last night's performance was met with criticism from no less than Jose Mourinho himself: "It was not our best game today. We can and we must play better."
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It was a match that I would personally like to refer to as a 'donut match': empty at the center with the substance on the sides with our best play coming at the beginning and at the end of the match (where our 2 midfielders would find the back of the net). Our team's performance in the first half was an intriguing display of how our 'replacement' midfielders attempted to shoehorn themselves into the team and interpret their assigned roles. As mentioned, there were a few bright spots which culminated in the 2 Argentine goals. What followed however was a 'Lost in Space' performance that saw Real Madrid sleepwalk through the match and even allow Zaragoza glimpses of brightness to get back into the game (forcing Casillas to a couple of good saves).
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It's a disturbing observation to make - the entire team, particularly the midfield 'switching off' after gaining a 2 goal lead. By the second half, our midfield was completely overrun (affirming my donut metaphor once again): Zaragoza moved and roamed freely into our half with almost zero resistance from our midfielders. It's in this regard, it's worth noting that Mourinho criticized the team's performance as a whole (see quote above), yet still chose to praise Modric:
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"I really like Luka Modric since he joined. He works well, and he has adapted very well... Playing in the Premier League, and playing in the Spanish league are very different, and playing for Tottenham is as well very different than playing for Real Madrid. But he is a great player, and he is adapting very well."
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Perhaps this was his attempt to build up the Croatian's confidence? Though Modric has learned to cope with the physical demands of being a central midfielder from Tottenham, his role there has pretty much remained as a creator with minimal defensive responsibilities. At Madrid however, whether playing as a substitute or as partner to Xabi Alonso, Modric must learn and accept that his role will come with considerable defensive responsibilities. No, we are not asking him to morph into Nigel De Jong - but just to be able to at least mirror Alonso's fair-but-certainly-not-minute contributions on defense. Pundits in the Premier League love talking about the adaptation process non-Premier League players will need to go through particularly referring to the pace and physicality of the English game. On the flipside, last night was a display on the adaptation process that Essien and Modric will need to make in the Spanish League where play has less pace, but players are more technical and move the ball about with a better sense of tactical intuition. Brute force, physical power and the ability be on the receiving end of physical play will need to make way for improvements in reading the game and anticipation. Essien in particular fell short in this regard - often found merely reacting directly as play unfolded in front of him and thus ending up always a step behind in the play (his second half performance reminded me a lot of Lass' 'headless chicken' routine).
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Alonso looks to be back on Tuesday vs. Dortmund, but not Khedira. This means that we can continue to expect Modric or Essien playing the pivot for Madrid - thus making these improvement to their play very critical. Dortmund will be happy to make us pay dearly if we allow their midfield to overrun ours even if we are playing at home on Tuesday.
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Positives and Negatives
All in all, last night's match was one of positives and negatives. It wasn't just about the doom and gloom of having a porous midfield of 'replacements' struggling to come to terms with their roles for our team. It was also about our boys finding their scoring boots. The seemingly ill-timed teething process for Modric and Essien also has its positives and negatives. Rather than be allowed to take his sweet time (and allow questions from the media to creep in on why Modric isn't playing enough) to master their roles on the training pitch, circumstances (injuries and suspensions) are now forcing the 2 midfielders to learn on the job in actual matches at an accelerated pace. With 1 (semi-understandable) loss at Dortmund, this 'teething process' hasn't come at a stiff price on our standings given our 13-1 aggregate score in the last 3 matches (vs. Mallorca, Alcoyano and Zaragoza) which have all ended in wins.
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For the mean time, I'm opting to take all of these as temporary hiccups and hopefully exchange them for seeing our team peak at just the right time in the season. And  hopefully when that happens, there will no longer be such a thing as 'replacements' in this team anymore.

Alternate Possibilities (Mallorca 0 – RealMadrid 5)

Mallorca 0 – RealMadrid 5. A brace each from Pipita and Ronaldo with Callejon grabbing a late goal as a sub - Now that’s a scoreline from last season’s Real Madrid! The funny thing about last night however was the lineup didn’t function like the Real Madrid of last season: there was no dynamic duo (Ronaldo + Marcelo) on the left side tearing up Mallorca’s right flank and no German Tank in the midfield tearing their attacks apart and subtly knocking cracks onto their defense (Khedira).
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Losing Automation and some answers to Critics
If there is one lesson Madridisimo has learned over the past 2 matches (the 2-0 win vs. Celta and 2-1 loss to Borussia), it’s that the team suffers from a lack of ‘automation’ not just when key players are missing, but also when supposedly ‘secondary’ players go missing. In fact, I’d argue that it is from the team’s ‘supporting cast’ where the seemingly automated playing system comes from – the very platform on which the likes of Ronaldo conduct their attacking show.
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Anti-Madridista critics (many of them Cules) might be smirking at us at the moment telling us ‘well now you know what it’s like!’ over our fullback department becoming fully decimated as a means to compare to Barca having no Central Defenders. The comparison to me is not valid – because where Barca had only ONE layer of competent defenders, we had two: only for both layers of our wing defenders end up getting lost to injuries (as a side point, we saw what their ‘second layer’ of central defenders looked like last night in Fontas – and he was awful). Our means to cope has also resulted in further losses to our midfield department with Essien shuffling over to left back and thus unable to provide the midfield muscle that Khedira normally offers. Thus Madrid’s injury problem at fullback created a two-fold problem: less dynamism on attack in the flanks and lack of depth in the midfield muscle department.
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Real Madrid were made to feel the full force of this two-fold effect last Wednesday at Dortmund where Essien’s lack of familiarity playing as a left back and Madrid’s lack of midfield muscle was exposed. Many Madridistas reacted by pointing the finger to Mourinho – criticizing his decision to opt for Essien at Left Back over the use of Nacho or Casado. I personally found many of the post-Dortmund criticism of Mourinho unfair and lacking in perspective. Mourinho made the decision to face Dortmund with a player whom he trusts with his own children (Essien) at left back and one of the best passing midfielders in the world to replace the injured Khedira in Germany: both decisions are hardly questionable. Had he opted to go with Nacho / Casado from the cantera and seen either of the 2 getting skinned by Marco Reus then we would have suffered not just a loss of 3 points in the CL but also the shattered confidence of 2 youngsters. Hindsight is always 20/20 vision – let’s remember that when we criticize.
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Adapt and Adjust vs. Alternatives
Our usual 4-2-3-1 with our 'attacking superhighway' carved out by Ronaldo + Marcelo indicated with the red cones. This system is designed to allow both Ronaldo and Di Maria to drift diagonally inward to the center in the final third.

The first layer of thinking that many of us thought upon losing Marcelo, Coentrao and Arbeloa + Khedira to injuries was that the players needed to adapt and adjust to each other to play the familiar and incredibly effective 4-2-3-1 system that Mourinho had instituted upon his arrival. A bit of extra effort and razzle dazzle from Ronaldo who would be less supported by his stand-in left back, a bit more tackling from Alonso who lost his assistant Khedira and so forth… All these however were only measures to mitigate the impact of the injury losses through adaptation and adjustments.
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What the team needs however is an ALTERNATIVE means of playing – and last Sunday, this was what we saw Mourinho attempt after his hand was forced by the loss of Khedira at Dortmund. The key players in this new way of playing would be Ramos, Ronaldo, Di Maria and above all, Luka Modric. Below are some of my key observations about the way we played Mallorca:
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Alterations in Wing Play
Seeing Ronaldo and Di Maria switch wings was not unusual – but for the most part, our 2 wingers played as inverted wingers. The right-footed Ronaldo played on the left so he can cut in diagonally to shoot, like the left-footed Di Maria on the right. For Di Maria this situation also sees him drift to the center to help in pressing the opposing midfield. Once we factor in our attacking left-sided full backs (Marcelo / Coentrao) and a defensive-minded right back (Arbeloa), this will result in an asymmetrical system where the left side attacks and the right side is more conservative.
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In our current situation however, the opposite has become true: with our attacking fullback now coming from the right side (Ramos). As a result, Ronaldo and Di Maria are found switching wings more frequently to allow Ronaldo to attack the opposing fullback with Ramos playing as a right-sided Marcelo. Di Maria on the other hand finds himself playing on the left side where his defensive application becomes useful in protecting Michael Essien (whose lack of mastery of the LB position was exposed at Dortmund). While sound in theory, the impact of the switching though seemingly small, might have a significant impact: as the left-footed Di Maria playing on the left might see him hugging the touchline more and looking more to cross than to drift diagonally into the middle. While for the goal-hungry Ronaldo, he will need to find more creative ways to get into scoring positions different apart his previously comfortable left-wing position.
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Alterations in the Center
Real Madrid Formation at Mallorca (2012-10-28). Ronaldo and Di Maria played as true wingers for a seemingly larger part of the match (hugging the touchline) allowing the 3 creative passing midfielders space to 'create' that 'attacking superhighway' (marked by the red cones). Ronaldo and Di Maria (mostly Ronaldo) would then 'ghost' into this zone to streak forward when Madrid burst forward to attack many times combining with Pipita.
The biggest adjustment will of course come through the middle. With our midfield muscle man (Khedira) out and his supposed backup (Essien) filling up at Left Back, Mourinho has no choice but to put to use his vast arsenal of attacking midfield talent (which includes 3 world class 10s). Last Sunday, Mourinho embraced this reality and started with Modric alongside Xabi as a pivot with Ozil ahead of them. Once we factor in Ronaldo and Di Maria playing on switched wings and hugging the touchline more as true wingers (as we saw for majority of the second half) – the pitch opens up at the center for our 3 CMs (Alonso, Modric and Ozil) to operate. Of our 3 CMs, 2 are passing ‘pivots’ (Alonso and Modric) which means that it will be impossible to shut off our team’s passing outlets from deep. Also, of our 3 CMs, 2 are fully capable of making the killer goal-assist-pass (Modric and Ozil): multiplying our ability to create danger through these central positions. Consequently, the opening up of the center also allows our wingers to ‘ghost’ in to the center where they are not expected (while they are playing as true wingers) to make plays through the middle.
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Madrid’s main adjustment will thus be to learn how to play THROUGH the middle: BOTH in counterattacking and in playing a possession-based game. It must be noted that ALL of last Sunday’s goals products of this method of play:
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  • Di Maria playing on the left looping a ball for Pipita to make it 0-1
  • Higuain receiving the ball at the center and laying it for Ronaldo on the right side for 0-2
  • Ronaldo’s long, raking Guti-esque pass through the center for Pipita to make it 0-3
  • Modric evades a defender that results in Pipita sending his own long vertical pass to a racing Ronaldo (barging through the center) to make it 0-4.
  • Ozil is released and ‘crosses’ for Callejon to complete the manita.
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It is of course easy to play like this against weaker sides: all that’s needed is for Modric, Alonso and to a certain extent: Di Maria + the fullbacks to establish an understanding of covering the pitch defensively – something that was clearly well accomplished last Sunday.
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The true test will be if we can play such a system successfully against a team with a very good #10 or with the meanest, baddest, nastiest combo of physical midfield destroyers. This is what will make the ‘return leg’ of the Champions League vs. Dortmund very interesting: if Mourinho will not be playing this system merely as a reaction to injury but as a thought-out strategy from the very beginning. If we succeed: the world better watch out.
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Plan A? Plan B? All of the Above.
Real Madrid's Stats from whoscored.com (in orange) - Our attacks last sunday were more balanced between the left and right flanks. They key stat however was that a big majority of our goalscoring opportunities came smashing right through the center
Mourinho’s Real Madrid has been praised by many. Much of that praise however has irritatingly come with the ‘ummm…. But they’re just a counter-attacking team’ comment. It’s become tiring for Madridistas to have to listen to such commentary from the zealots of the tiki-taka school of pass-turbation – many of whom blindly follow such ideals on the grounds of some obscure notion of ‘philosophy’.
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Either by circumstance (injuries) or by design (a desire for a ‘Plan B’), the signs are there that Mourinho is beginning to (gasp!) tinker with this idea of a possession-based style of play through the middle: using his lateral players to create space that will enable the wealth of creative midfielders he has at his disposal to put their talents to use.
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The successful use of this plan last Sunday night must not be interpreted that we can successfully do this against every team we face – at least not at this point in time. Let’s all admit that last Sunday’s Mallorca side were very off-colour from a Caparros-coached team. Refinements to the execution of this system need to be made especially with regards to coping with creative midfield players of an opponent and with the team's overall defensive solidity against more offensively potent sides.
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But let’s call what we saw last Sunday as it was. It was a Real Madrid side that either by design or by circumstance, was attempting to marry the values of their relentless wing-play-based “formula 1 football” with a more possession-based style that used the ability of their creative midfielders to retain play at the center of the pitch. The result was 5 wonderfully scored goals in line with Madrid's brand of supersonic football but created differently and while using the team's wealth of creative talent at central midfield.
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From our team’s ‘Plan A’ of carving out a thoroughfare on our left wing to allow our Ronaldo to open the opposing defense… last Sunday, we seemed to have developed a ‘Plan B’ where we used our Central Midfield assets to carve out that thoroughfare through the center of the pitch to attack. What happens to the football world then when Mourinho manages to fully figure out how to expand the team’s ‘attacking superhighway’ from Madrid’s narrow left flank all the way to the entire width of the pitch?
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It’s not yet a reality, but if it does come off: then that would be a wonderful, beautiful alternate possibility. Madridisimo waits.