Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Form and Space, Diamonds and Squares (Real Madrid 5 – Espanyol 0)

Kaka played like a 'Galactico' last Sunday
I am not shocked that Real Madrid won against Espanyol last Sunday. I’m shocked however that Madridmanaged to win so comfortably. This is after all the same Espanyol whose coach has been mooted by some as a possible replacement to Mourinho one day (a thought that was surely in the minds of some with the ‘convenient’ timing of AVB’s sacking at Chelseayesterday plus Mourinho’s house-hunting trip to Londonlast week). Or if you choose not to look through the Mourinho-might-leave angle… this is the same Espanyol that has proved to be a pain in the neck for Barca. In other words, the Periquitos were no slouches – so one has to wonder how it is they can get their asses handed to them in the manner that Real Madrid did. The 2 key factors I wish to point to as the reasons for this are Space and Form: and no, I’m not going to talk about architecture (what I do that for a living), I’m going to talk about Real Madrid (what I do as a hobby)….
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Form
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Higuain
Pipita at age 23 has now managed to tie Juanito's goalscoring record for Real Madrid. That's a surreal thought.
Pipita Higuain’s form has been subject to discussion plenty of times prior to the game: How fitting was it that our very own Kaushik’s wise words had put some perspective back into our perception of him. Despite the compelling analysis however, it was still hard (at least, for me) to ignore the fact that Pipita hadn’t scored since January. To me, his was a drop in form: from a team perspective, this was masked in a way by Benzema’s extraordinary state of grace. So when Benzema went down clutching his groin in Moscow, while Pipita was probably thinking that his chance to shine once again might have come, many of us were probably looking at the situation half-worried: and Pipita’s performance that night didn’t placate those worries either.
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Then of course is the undue outside influence: with the likes of Maradona weighing in on the career prospects of his son-in-law ‘Kun’ Aguero and how a move to Madrid would take his career to the next level: statements which I believe are related to the rumors linking Pipita to a part swap with Aguero in the summer. And while I will admit that Aguero is probably a better player talent-wise than Pipita, and that the 40m which teams like Chelsea are supposedly willing to spend for him is tempting, I would rather have Pipita in my team than Aguero or 40m in the bank (it’s not as if I’m going to enjoy that 40m for myself anyway). Maybe I’m being sentimental or maybe I’m just displaying a silly and blind sense of loyalty: the sort of loyalty that gets Athletic Bilbao fans to say that they’d rather have Fernando Llorente (one of their own) leading the line in attack for them rather than Cristiano or Messi – but then again, why should I even be ashamed of such loyalty to a player I consider a canterano?
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This was why I was delighted to read Mourinho’s declaration that ‘only a fool’ would want to sell Higuain. Clearly the boss was out to publicly pat Pipita on his back in a bid to resurrect the blood (goal)-thirsty animal that we all knew resided in him after it seemed that the very public scolding of the Argentine in Vallecas stadium might not do the job – and clearly it worked as we were all duly rewarded. Pipita scored 2 goals last Sunday and looked sharp doing so. It’s hard to imagine that he was that scrawny kid with funny front teeth who tried to imitate Peja Mijatovic’s ridiculous hairstyle once. If you think of the journey that Pipita has gone through with us, it’s hard not to be amazed: 5 years, 150 games. As a rookie, in the Bernabeu, also against Espanyol, he scored the winning goal in a 4-3 victory that had Ruud Van Nistelrooy holding up his jersey to the Bernabeu crowd as if to tell them ‘remember who he is.’ Oh yes I remember – and I’m pretty sure that Espanyol does too.
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Carvalho and Varane
Perhaps the 2 men whom we didn’t expect to be discussing with regards to form were Ricardo Carvalho and Raphael Varane. The performances of the 2 center backs could not have been more opposite. Carvalho had an absolute stinker of a game (which included a yellow card that rules him out of the Betis game) that had him on a receiving end of jeering from the Bernabeu crowd. For a player who turns 34 this May in search of a 2-year contract extension, he did himself absolutely no favors. Ricky was slow and was even the subject of Philippe Coutinho’s successful attempt to juggle the ball in the air to lose him. I totally understand the value placed on him by Mourinho as the trusted, grey-haired (not literally) figure on the pitch, but in lieu of his current state of match fitness (coming from injury), Carvalho is perhaps best introduced off the bench to secure a lead rather than as a starter: it is a fact made worse given that the 2 guys whose place in the starting XI are players Madrid fans have affection for: the Spanish Raul Albiol (whose lack of playing time looks to have cost him his place in the Spanish National Team) and Real Madrid’s Defensive Ace for the future: Raphael Varane.
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In contrast to Carvalho, Varane was absolutely wonderful, the impressiveness of his 90% passing completion rate was also matched by the fact that not a single Espanyol player managed to complete a dribble when faced against him. He was assured in the tackle, displayed great awareness and positioning and proved that he was not to be outpaced by any attacker even as Espanyol introduced the more mobile Sergio Garcia in the 2nd half. His performance last night has sparked quite a few thoughts in my mind re: Real Madrid’s defensive lineups – thoughts that I hope I can more eloquently elaborate on in a future post-season evaluation article of some sort.
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Space
I have no idea what Pochettino’s Perequitos were trying to do last night. Espanyol after all were the team who sought to choke the life out of Barcelona’s passing game: why did they choose not to do that last night? Jose Mourinho once again without Angel Di Maria, chose to play with Ronaldo, Kaka and Ozil behind Higuain: creating a narrow attacking 3 behind the lone striker: with Ronaldo on the left drifting inwards to allow Marcelo to motor forward and the naturally central and left-footed Ozil (double whammy) on the right, it was the perfect opportunity to turn the match into an orgy of bodies at the midfield and choke the life out of Madrid’s game – just as we saw against CSKA and Rayo. I don’t find that we played the ball with dizzyingly fast passes out of the defense, but the outcome was that our boys had plenty of space to operate in the midfield. And anyone who has been watching Real Madrid this season knows what happens to teams to giveMadrid’s MOVING midfield space: instant death.
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Sami Khedira
Sami Khedira has been scoring on AND off the pitch!
Last night also showed us how much we well and truly missed Sami Khedira. Outside of the comedic fact that he actually looks like a slightly-better-looking version of Borat (as my wife noticed - I proceeded to then show her what his girlfriend looked like), Sami Khedira’s display in midfield was a tour de force on the role of ‘Xabi’s Partner’: the Tunisian-German tank ran like a madman, sealed the gaps where they were, made himself available to receive passes when his teammates were in a positional bind and even made some Frank Lampard-esque offensive runs into the box to get himself into goal-scoring positions: one of which yielded a goal. I can only suspect that if he did actually possess Lampard’s finishing ability, that he might actually be capable of averaging 10-15 goals per season. Other than the fact that his high center of gravity makes him look like an awkward, gangly and clumsy, I find him to be a remarkable midfielder: that expands the space of play for the team in attack, and contracts the same space into an intolerable environment for the opposition when they have the ball. There are many who insist that Lass or Granero or Sahin would be best suited to the role of being Xabi Alonso’s partner: I say that the 3 all have plenty to learn from him.
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Kaka turns the ‘attacking diamond’ to a ‘magic square’
Our 'usual' 4-2-3-1 with a 'diamond' attacking 4 with Ozil on the right where he's not at his best (thus the red flag) and Kaka is sandwiched between the the opponents' 2 pivots, denying him the space that he needs to thrive.
There was perhaps no player who epitomized what I thought was the ‘Real Madrid Theme’ for last Sunday’s game (Form and Space) more so than Kaka. While I will always remain suspicious of the fact that Espanyol gave us plenty of room to operate at midfield, I must also give credit where it’s due: Kaka to me was last night’s Real Madrid Man of the Match. I suppose that the question of Kaka thriving in a game will now and forever always be haunted by the ‘was he given space?’ or ‘did he create space?’ debate. It’s difficult not to notice that last Sunday’s performance however was the sort of thing Florentino paid 67m Euros for: his dribbling and ball control was crisp and precise, his passing incisive and his runs completely unsettling across both midfield and defensive lines for Espanyol.
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I watched last Sunday’s match another 2 times just to try to pick apart what Kaka did differently against Espanyol that made him utterly devastating. The answer was simple: his use of space. The space afforded to him by the Espanyol midfield and defense was probably only 1/3 of what made him so effective: the other 2/3s of what made him play so well was his/Mourinho’s decision to allow him (Kaka) to ‘colonize’ the space that Ronaldo left behind once the ‘7’ pushed forward from his typically ‘Left Midfield’ position, to a ‘Left Forward’ position in attack.
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Without the ball, and during large chunks of time with the ball, Real Madrid’s shape would remain as a 4-2-3-1 (where the attacking 4 form a sort of ‘diamond’). But during many instances in the match, Ronaldo would then push forward, nearly aligned to Pipita (see first goal which is a classic interplay between 2 ‘forwards’) to become a second forward – and everytime Ronaldo did this, Kaka would then drift towards the left, but not necessarily to the touchline. By ‘colonizing’ part of this space vacated by Ronaldo, Kaka’s operating space increases and provides him with better passing alternatives with Ronaldo and Pipita in front of him, and Marcelo still motoring forward beside him along the left flank, not to mention Ozil to his right. This also means that he is not necessarily ‘sandwiched’ between the 2 Espanyol pivots who are tasked to ‘kill off’ the player in the ‘10’ role forMadridwith their 2 vs. 1 advantage. The realignment would then allow Ozil to also drift slightly to the center, where he too is more comfortable: turning Real Madrid’s 4-2-3-1 (with the diamond front 4) into the much-derided ‘magic square’: a 4-2-2-2 (with fullbacks, particularly Marcelo, bombing down the flank). Kaka nearly scores a goal in the first half from this position in the first half and duly creates Pipita’s first goal from this position as well, to mention quite some of many attacking sequences for the night.
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As Ronaldo vacates his original position on the left midfield (yellow cone) to push forward, so does Kaka (blue cone) and Ozil (red cone) to reform to a 4-2-2-2. It becomes 2 10s vs 2 pivots at midfield + Khedira's supporting runs from deep and flank support from our fullbacks. Kaka dominated the match thoroughly last Sunday by this decision to 'colonize' the space Ronaldo left behind once the '7' pushed forward
Mourinho seems to have completely abandoned what I generally regard as the silly idea to try to ‘make Ozil, play like Di Maria’ (i.e. force Ozil to play as a winger). This adjustment not only gifted Kaka with the space that he needs to thrive, but also multiplies the effect by giving Ozil opportunity to play his more preferred central role. The numbers game midfield tilts to Real Madrid’s advantage wholly once you consider that it’s our 2 10s (Ozil and Kaka) playing against 2 opposition pivots with Khedira making his supporting runs from deep (leaving Xabi Alonso with the manageable task of dealing with the opposing ‘10’ one on one) while fullbacks Marcelo and Arbeloa (more of the former) motor down the flanks to provide width.
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Last Sunday was the first time I’ve observed it – let’s see if we can see more of it over the coming matches while we await the return of Di Maria back to the side.
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Up Next…
A trip toSevilleis next up for us to face Real Betis before the Russians visit us for the return leg of the Champions League. If our boys keep their heads straight in the following matches, then there’s little doubt that we can keep up to turn what looked like a momentum-generating match from last weekend into Championship form towards season’s end. In the meantime, I’ll look forward to finding a few more interesting spaces and shapes from our men in white.

1 comment:

  1. its more of a 4-2-2-2 in defence and a 4-2-4 in attack. i love www.theirtactics.com, the articles are very well written which makes it easy to appreciate soccer tactics, thanx for recommending it!!

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