Monday, September 24, 2012

Now THAT was Champions League Football! (Real Madrid 3 - Manchester City 2)


It all worked out for Mourinho tonight. Essien and Varane played well, he outcoached Mancini, his players gave him the performance he wanted and of course: he won.
Now THAT was Real Madrid football!
.
I normally catch about 2 hours of sleep after waking up to see a Champions League match at 2:45am – but I’m just too amped with adrenaline right now to sleep so I might as well start writing, right?
Real Madrid’s win against Manchester City tonight was just the sort of thing we needed to see from this club, and the sort of performance that the players needed to put on for the fans, their coach and above all, themselves. The match itself was the perfect advertising on what Champions League football is all about: the 2 Champions of the 2 best Leagues in the world going toe to toe, blow by blow in what was an amazing spectacle of football. The match was complete with a tactical chess match, plenty of goals, heart-stopping excitement, stomach-turning emotions and of course, a wonderfully hysterical ending (wonderful for Madridistas at least). .
.
First Half Tactics – Mancini Drives his team into Mourinho’s Trivote ‘Wall’
My first attempt at taking notes in the match with an ipad. In the first half, Toure was covered by Essien, Silva had to sandwich through Marcelo and Alonso. Nasri was taken care of by Arbeloa. And even then, both RM fullbacks still managed to bomb forward to pin back Man City's own fullbacks. Javi Garcia would also slip between the 2 CBs to become a 3rd CB when they were in 'park the bus' mode.
We knew Mourinho would ring in the changes to the squad – but who knew that he practically tore apart the team that has played our 4 horrible La Liga matches. Mourinho’s starting XI and tactical approach very much reminded me of his Chelsea team: a 4-3-3 with inverted wingers (Ronaldo and Di Maria) and 3 ‘pivots’ featuring 2 powerful midfielders (Essien and Khedira with Xabi Alonso as the ‘passing fulcrum’ of the team) with fullbacks steaming up and down but with the appropriate dose of caution.
.
Mancini’s Man City started with caution: they looked like they were using a formation that could switch between a 4-3-3, a 4-5-1 and a 5-4-1. His back 4 consisted of Maicon (an intent to attack?), Kompany, Nastasic (like Mourinho, he allowed a youngster play such an important match) and Clichy. The midfield started with ex-Real Madrid player Javi Garcia sitting at its base in front of the Defense with Toure and Barry. Further forward was David Silva and Nasri (both attacking midfielders who drifted inwards) sandwiching Tevez. In principle, Silva and Nasri were supposed to push forward to become a 4-3-3 in attack, and retreat back to become a 4-5-1 on defense. Their 4-5-1 however also had a ‘park the bus’ feature with Javi Garcia dropping deep to become a 3rd CB to turn them into a 5-4-1.
.
With Mourinho leaving 205m Euros of talent (most of them attackers) on the bench, it was clear that both managers planned to play cautiously and at least in Mourinho’s case, gradually dial up the degree of offensive potency of the team. Had Real Madrid managed to get a lead with their ‘trivote’, I’d have completely imagined Mourinho sticking to the lineup until the points were on the board – but alas the football Gods wanted to be entertained.
.
I must say however that Mancini’s first half tactics played right into the hands of Mourinho. Having watched Man City play live at the Etihad, Mou is acutely aware of the fact that the Sky Blues’ most potent weapon was their use of Yaya Toure to charge up the pitch like as a ‘midfield battering ram’ (as opposed to the more traditional use of a ‘battering ram striker’). Mourinho’s answer to this was to use his very own bruising African Midfielder to keep theirs at bay: his very own ‘son’ Michael Essien. Essien stayed goalside of Toure during his 60-minute spell on the pitch and mostly kept the Ivorian from becoming that ‘raging midfield bull’ (a funny metaphor considering the fact that Essien is called ‘The Bison’) which has torn so many Premier League defenses apart. With Essien around, Khedira was also given license roam (like his role for Germany) and duly kept Gareth Barry from supporting his fullback (Clichy) busy. Khedira’s performance in the first half must be praised for his effective high intensity pressing, efficient ball recovery, his constant availability for ‘exit balls’ and his incisive runs with and without the ball. In front, Silva and Nasri’s natural tendency as 10s to drift inward would lead them straight into intersections patrolled by a combination of Madrid’s fullbacks, Center Backs and midfield trivote (Nasri making way for Kolarov, who is a naturally wide player helped them spread the pitch a bit). In effect, Man City going forward looked like they were all funneling into narrow zone on the pitch right into Madrid’s trivote and getting choked up. And as Madrid pushed their midfield and defensive line higher, City got more and more compressed into their own half, and eventually into their own third.
.
Another problem for City was that while Mourinho clearly scouted them, Mancini didn’t return the favor: packing the center might be an appropriate tactic against Barca – but for Madrid, the action is always around the flanks. With support from fullbacks who didn’t fear wingers exploiting space behind them (as Silva and Nasri wanted to be in the center), both Ronaldo and Di Maria (who played exceptionally well tonight) were able to abuse Maicon and Clichy respectively. They even switched wings every now and then just to allow each other to have the chance to abuse both City fullbacks on the night. It was only a crying shame that for all of Madrid’s attacking verve in the first half, instead of going up by as 3 or even 4 goals, it would end still 0-0 at halftime. .
.
Second Half Tactics: Mancini declares Open War on the Channels and Loses
Marcelo had a 'superhighway' all clear for him to bash through in the second half because of Mancini's bizarre 3-5-2 / 5-3-2 lineup. This allowed the Brazilian to score a goal and combine well with Ronaldo in the game. 2 of our 3 goals came from our left flank.
Man City’s narrow-ness continued in the second half that saw Marcelo join Ronaldo’s attacking party even more frequently – allowing the Brazilian the chance to have 2 long range ‘practice shots’ at Joe Hart’s goal. When Mancini decided to make a change, he sent in Edin Dzeko for Silva, turning them into something like Italy’s Euro 2012 3-5-2-cum-5-3-2: Barry and Garcia were their ‘pivots’, while Kolarov tucked deeper in: presumably as a means to cope with Ronaldo and Di Maria killing them on the flanks. Up front, they finally had Toure as an attacking midfielder ‘battering ram’ behind in the ‘Pirlo role’ not as a passer / distributor, but as a surging midfielder. The 2 forward players (Silva and Tevez, later Tevez and Dzeko) worked the ‘channels’ presumably to exploit the space left by Madrid’s fullbacks much like Cassano and Balotelli did in the Euros. It was a ‘declaration’ of open war on the channel: an invitation to ‘thowdown’... and taunt to Madrid inviting us into a brawl.
.
Once ‘open war’ had been declared on the channels by Mancini, Mourinho duly accepted the challenge and changed the lineup to feature all 3 of the team’s best passing and creative midfielders (Alonso, Ozil and Modric): there would no longer be a singular passing fulcrum (Alonso), but 3 equally proficient creative players spraying passes horizontally to our fullbacks, diagonally to our wingers or vertically to the striker. Garcia and Barry could no longer just gang up on our 1 or 2 passing midfielders.
.
Mancini’s plan seemed to work though: with Pepe’s defensive error in an advanced position (marking Tevez working the channels) allowing Toure to barrel through to feed Dzeko for the opening goal. The flipside of their lineup however, provided with Marcelo a ‘super highway’ (see diagram) on the left flank to fly through and combine with Ronaldo. And having been given the chance at a few ‘practice shots’ earlier, he was adequately warmed up to make it 1-1 (where his shot was practically uncontested outside the Man City box) just minutes after Dzeko’s goal.
.
I would chalk up both second goals to errors. Kolarov’s free kick goal was borne out of Xabi Alonso’s epic fail at clearing a simple looping ball (he missed it totally) and Iker completely misreading its flight (it would have been a routine save). Benzema’s equalizer on the other hand was also a moment of weakness to the typically-solid Kompany (who had a bad game), allowing himself to be turned by the Frenchman’s maneuver to create his superb goal.
.
Ronaldo's not-too-sad goal celebration was just like Mourinho's (see photo above). Once again, Ronaldo delivered in the clutch for us.
It must be noted that as the teams went toe-to-toe with each other, Marcelo relentlessly barrelled through the left side uncontested: allowing him the sort of combinations with Ronaldo which made Real Madrid so dangerous. The very channels that Mancini wanted to attack became the very place from where his team’s demise resulted from: the winning goal from Madrid would come from there too. Ronaldo would deliver once again in the clutch for us.Maybe he realized that Zabaleta was the only remaining Man City fullback that he hadn’t abused yet? Like in the closing minutes of a basketball game, Ronaldo had the ball one and one with against his marker, and provoke the poor Argentine to fatally show him a path into the penalty box for the winning shot. His goal was simultaneously orgasmic and cathartic and reminded us all why football is such a beautiful game. 
.
Vindication for Mourinho
Mourinho’s celebration was almost identical to that of his compatriot’s. In one night, he had gambled with a lineup, played a clever tactical game, accepted Mancini’s ‘open war’ challenge and won. His decision to bench Ramos in favor of Varane did not backfire (the Frenchman has never had a bad game yet in a Madrid uniform). Essien did well too. The trivote to start the match was clearly good enough to win it (if not for Hart’s first half heroics). And of course, he rolled the dice in a full-on end-to-end frontal assault against Man City and won. Above all, his team showed the sort of character and fighting spirit FOR NINETY MINUTES that we had been yearning to see since August. No one can deny that Real Madrid deserved victory tonight. Not even City.
.
Waiting for a Call
A friend of mine who is a Man City fan called me last Monday cheekily taunting me over Real Madrid’s bad start to the season. He said he looked forward to seeing his Man City beat my Madrid and that he’d call me to talk about the game today already assuming they’d win. I’m still waiting for his call.

1 comment:

  1. Slowly it seems more insights are coming to light on the now famous I am sad wish to leave episode between cristino Real Madrid.This is so famous and a Good Madrid.

    ReplyDelete