Monday, September 3, 2012

SuperCopa Tales (Real Madrid 2 – Barcelona 1: Real Madrid win Supercopa Espana 4-4 on Away Goals)



My apologies for posting my thoughts on the match too late – I’ve only managed 3 hours of sleep since the night of the match (until last night). But, even as the fanfare from our victory dies down in the wake of being drawn with the Champions of Germany, Netherlands and England in the Champions League, I continue to find myself waxing lyrical about last Wednesday’s (or in my case, Thursday early morning) match. Here are a few ‘tales’…
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Long Ball Fairy Tales
Barcelona and the tiki-taka Taliban have long decried the ‘English’ fascination with pace, power and its reluctant use of the ‘Long Ball’ – that ‘ol punt forward whacked aimlessly into the air with the half-intent of getting your Center Forward (usually built like a WWE Wrestler) to somehow maul his way towards reaching it. Madridistas have long decried this ‘uncultured’ practice too – often criticizing the likes of Raul Albiol for his tendency to aimlessly punt the ball forward. Liverpool, who purchased a 35m GBP striker last season for presumably such purposes and who are now joining the tiki-taka association, have loaned out said striker to Long Ball Merchants West Ham and are in the process of trying to curb midfielders Gerrard and Adam from their tendency to go for the ‘Hollywood pass’.
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When practiced with a bit of culture though, both in the means by which it is launched and the means by which it is received, the use of the longball is as elegant, and to me, arguably more heart-stopping. The same can be said for those long, raking, penetrative vertical passes Madridistas enjoyed so much from Guti from days of yore – they undoubtedly qualify as ‘Hollywood Passes.’ …And that’s why they’re called ‘Hollywood passes’: because they’re attractive, exciting and breathtaking – because they get you off your seat when you see them launched regardless of whether you’re in the stadium live, in a pub, in your living room, or on your bed, wife sleeping next to you, while watching it from a 4-inch window on your PC at 4:30 in the morning.
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The proper argument between the long pass and the short pass should always be centered on context. What’s best against a team sitting deep? Against a team right up on your face at midfield and breathing down your defense? Are you playing against giant wrestler types? Or midget technicians? Great coaches and managers are the ones who know how to use the right types of weapons to combat their varying types of opponents. In football, I take the choice between the long ball or the short ball as question of a match’s circumstances and the opponent and not as an issue of morality or ethics… or WORST of all: as a moral or ethical question in the name of aesthetics.
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The first 35 minutes of last Wednesday night, when we tore Barcelona a new asshole: was a tour de force performance to display such a belief. Real Madrid attacked, they attacked beautifully, they made Barcelona look like deer caught in the headlights using the sort of weapons (the long ball) that the tiki-taka Taliban decries as inappropriate for the sake of the game’s beauty.
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The substance however must lie in the sauce: it wasn’t born out of a philosophical discourse on why playing the long ball was morally better. It was simply because using it was the perfect weapon against Barca’s defense who had proven susceptible to balls played over their Centerbacks (they liked the ball on the ground). It was because our guys delivering those passes which travelled more than half the pitch, delivered those passes as beautifully as Xavi and Iniesta would do with their passes that travelled less than the quarter of the pitch. It was because of our guys (e.g. Cristiano Ronaldo) receiving those passes with such technical brilliance to get past their defenders. Real Madrid used the qualities that were diametrically opposite to what the tiki-taka Taliban established as the criteria for football beauty. We were Direct, Physical, Powerful, Fast and Relentless. But yes: Beautiful.
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A Tale of 2 Halves
My lone qualification to last night’s match was that it was once again a tale of 2 halves. The first half (or approx. the first 35 mins.) was a tale that teaches us the falseness of certain myths borne out of impressions taken out of context (tiki-taka vs. direct football, etc.). The second half then, turned out to be a potiential cautionary tale on urgency and initiative.
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Make no mistake about it: we almost lost the Supercup given the way by which we dealt with Barcelonain the 2nd half. The plan seemed clear to me: we had the lead and the advantage to win the tie and they had 10 men. We also didn’t seem to be in full fitness, which made playing them 150 mp/h impossible. So the plan was probably to play them on the counter. To do this effectively however, we needed to establish a line and hold it. What happened however was that we allowed our defensive line to sag deeper and deeper – creating the sort of disconnect that made it difficult for us to get the ball to our front players and allowing Barca’s passing game to begin clicking into gear. I know that we have world-class defenders and the best living goalkeeper on the planet – but playing in a manner that makes us THAT dependent on them is tantamount to playing with fire.
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Tito Vilanova was right to be proud of how his team attacked so well in the second half despite playing with only 10 men. We on the other hand, should count ourselves lucky they didn’t manage to score a goal. In a way, the match reminded me a lot of our second half performance against Bayern in last season’s CL semi-final during the second leg: a strong start where we looked like we were going to throttle them, but with a second half that had us smelling of fear of losing rather than the desire to win. I take our second half performance as a lesson not learned from our Bayern experience. It is the lone sour taste in my mouth following that match.
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A Tale of 2 Strikers
When asked about the rotation system of his strikers, Mourinho clarified that the use of Benzema and Higuain in matches was not merely down to a mindless ‘alternating system’ but based on the suitability of the players’ characteristics to the match conditions. It is thus noteworthy that Benzema started the first leg while Higuain the second. The reason behind this decision was made known prior to the match with Mourinho saying that he wanted us to score as soon as possible. I can thus surmise the 2 differing characteristics between Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema:
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Higuain is the more direct of the 2 strikers. Pipita, had his formative years in Madrid under the tutelage of Raul and Ruud Van Nistelrooy. RVN of course is the purest of strikers while Raul, having lost much of his pace in his latter years, relied mostly on his nose for goal to contribute, apart from his tireless running. It is thus not unusual that Pipita’s movements have been all about getting himself into goal-scoring positions – an art he has clearly learned from his 2 great masters. His natural style of play is about effort, graft and industry and less about technique or grace – he is the type of player who will likely be a striker for the entirety of his career. When he ages and loses his pace, I anticipate that his game will evolve into a combination of Raul and RVN in their latter years – using his ‘Banzai M%therf*cker!’ attitude to tirelessly throw himself at his opponents… but with the guile and cleverness of RVN. At his current age however, he has yet to fully master RVN’s ability to somehow freeze time in that split second goal-scoring opportunity to know precisely where to shoot: away from the keeper and into the net, instead of just merely getting it on target. The boy will learn and get even better. Let us not crucify him for failing to score every chance he got. He after all, only managed to miss the target once (hit the post), the rest were on target (just saved).
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Benzema on the other hand, is a far more technical player. Though he’s not a naturally pure #9, he’s been played both as a classic #9 and as a winger in a 4-3-3 while in Lyon– taking full advantage of his vast array of technical skills. Though a natural forward, his natural game is to drift deep and participate in the buildup of play – which is said to be the reason why Ronaldo prefers playing with him as the likelihood of CR receiving a pass from Benzema to score is far more likely than from Higuain. And while his naturally aloof personality has irritated Mourinho (who clearly loves Pipa’s ‘Banzai M%therF*cker!’ attitude!), it is this same aloofness than enables Benzema to keep cool and unfazed during the heated exchanges of a match where the goalscoring opportunities come.
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This comparison in interesting to me after seeing a tweet during the match where a Madridista fan had wished for a player with Benzema’s finishing and Pipita’s movement. You could also wish for a striker that combined Higuain’s fiery intensity in approaching the game and Benzema’s calm precision during goalscoring moments. The viewpoint however that deems either of the 2 as not being ‘Real Madrid class’ is in my opinon, absolute rubbish. My take on comparing the 2 in relation to the match is actually borne out of my opinion that perhaps Mourinho should have introduced Benzema in the match earlier to combat what was Barca’s strengthening grip on the match in the second half – where Benzema’s natural tendency to drop deep and participate in buildup play when in possession could have greatly helped.
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A Tale of 2 Attacking Midfielders
Last Wendesday night also turned out to be the debut of Luka Modric – a player whose arrival has sparked a multitude of questions as to where he will play. Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox makes an interesting point in his recent post – hypothesizing that Alex Song’s arrival signals Barcelona’s attempt to ‘Madrid-ify’ itself a bit and that Modric’s signing is Madrid’s attempt to ‘Barcelon-ify’ itself a bit. As such, the questions re: Modric should not be about pondering whether he is a ‘squad player’ or not. His addition to the Madrid midfield should be taken in a similar manner to the Benzema-Higuain case – that neither is really the backup and that they are used based on the characteristics of the opponent and the circumstances of each game.
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In the case of Modric – apart from being the long sought-after alternative to Xabi Alonso (who turns 31 this year), he’s also an alternative to Ozil. This is where it is perhaps worth looking to compare the 2.
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I remember once referring to Ozil as “a more consistent, less temperamental and far more mobile version of Guti”. I realize now that wasn’t a purely accurate statement. Apart from the sweet left foot and the amazing threaded through balls, Guti also was far more capable than Ozil in playing in a deeper midfield role and when ‘in the mood’, capable of dictating the tempo of the game. Ozil at his best functions as a marauding playmaker behind the striker/s looking to thread balls to them and has very little capability (at this point in his career) playing in a deeper position to dictate the tempo of the match or ‘run the offense’. His mobility with and without the ball and relatively good pace makes him perfectly suited to the advanced midfield role behind the striker/s but also with the capability to functioning as an ‘inside right’ or ‘inside left’ midfielder on the flanks.
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Similarly, someone has referred to Modric as a ‘right-footed Ozil’ – I also disagree. Though a natural attacking midfielder, he has managed to learn to become a ‘pivot’ in the physical premier league despite his small frame – where he played the ‘Xabi Alonso role’ at Spurs. He’s been played as a full-on attacking midfielder of course and has racked up an interesting stat: he has the most completed passes in the final third in the premier league yet was not among the EPL’s leaders in assists. Modric is less mobile compared to Ozil but having learned the pivot role at Spurs, he has learned to control the tempo of a game and do so at a more advanced position on the pitch. Last Wednesday, against Barca, in his less-than-10-minute cameo, Modric provided us with what we needed at that point: the ability to receive passes and neatly distribute at an advanced midfield position – increasing greatly Madrid’s ability to keep the ball in enemy territory without necessarily playing 100 mp/h. This ultimately is what I think Modric is for – to increase the team’s ability in playing possession-based football.
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Teams will not always succumb to our ‘Formula 1’ football. And because we’re not extremist-zealots in our style of football, having at our disposal, an alternative way of playing is always important.
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Awaken Madrid!
“It does not matter to me whether we win or not, what I want to know is whether the psychological profile that we showed against Getafe is just a temporary thing or the product of a psychological mind-set that has been building up. We can lose. The fundamental thing for me is to see what players I have got and what psychological profile they have."
-Jose Mourinho, before the 2nd leg of the SuperCup
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More than winning the Super Cup, what I really hope is that Madrid have re-awakened from their slumber. Whether it’s a question of fitness, motivation or concentration, last Wednesday might just be the type of match we needed to have to shaken everybody up to face the remaining 36 league matches. Last Wednesday was also the team’s FIRST WIN of the season – a reminder to the team of what it’s like to win and lift silverware. Let’s hope that that’s the only thing they remember from hereon in.


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