Monday, September 24, 2012

Train Wreck (Sevilla 1 – Real Madrid 0)

On a weekend where Castilla graduates who have found their way to the Premier League gave a good account of themselves (Granero for QPR and Javi Garcia for Man City) – the ‘mothership’ crashed and burned in Seville. It was as abject a performance as I can remember from a Real Madrid squad – let alone a Jose Mourinho one. We started the season pondering the Valencia and the Getafe matches as ones which might have reflected a less-than-ideal state of the squad’s fitness: a reasoning I questioned (given that Barca, who have a 100% record, have had the same preseason as us). Jose Mourinho offered up a much more logical theory prior to the second leg of the Supercup – questioning the ‘psychological profile’ of the team. Are they focused? And even more importantly – are they still hungry? Now, I am once again finding myself asking the same question.
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Time of Mind Games
Jose Mourinho teams traditionally do NOT have reputations as ones whose achilles heel is the dead ball. That was never the case with Porto, Chelsea, Inter or the last 2 seasons’ Real Madrid (save for a few instances). This season however, out of 4 league matches played, we’ve lost twice and drawn once – and each and every one of these points have been lost on set piece goals. A big chunk of success behind set piece defending is always down to concentration and focus: the ability to stick to the planned marking assignments and be aware of variations which the opponent might throw at you. I once called the conceding of goals to set pieces as a disease. It’s clear to me now however, that this is merely a symptom – one of a team whose lack of focus and concentration is likely due to a drop in motivation / hunger / desire – and THAT is the disease. There, I said it. This to me, is not an issue of whether or not our defenders, midfielders, fullbacks, wingers or strikers are good enough (to think so when considering the fact that this is a squad that scored a 100+ points last season would be naïve) – they are. The problem is that, in essence, they all show the profile of a team who thinks that their mission has been accomplished. Trouble with that is that it was accomplished last season.
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It is interesting to note that this happens to be the season that sees 3 of Mourinho’s assistants are all in manager’s roles in Premiership Clubs (AVB at Spurs, Rogers at Liverpool and Clarke at West Brom). All 3 are known for their tactical acumen but all reportedly do not have Mourinho’s man management skills. This of course is the sort of man-management cabability that gets a 30-goal/season striker to play right midfield / right back (Eto’o), have one of the baddest players on the planet sob like a girl at your departure (Materazzi) or have one of your players creepily refer to you as his ‘daddy’ (Essien). Mourinho, unlike Alex Ferguson (who’s known for his ‘hairdryer’ treatment) employs beyond the usual carrot-and-stick methods to keep his players motivated, sharp and with the adequate amount of tension and edge to compete at the highest level. Conspiracy theories, public feuds with officials and opposing players and managers, and even eye-gouging are methods that he will employ to achieve that critical balance between calmness and being wound up tight enough to compete with an absolute edge.
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He’s found out however that at Real Madrid, the preferred method as he achieved last season, was less controversy and to just allow the world’s clear favoritism of Barcelona over Madrid as a means to get his team revved up. But what happens when the world doesn’t fancy Barca to be that much better than Madrid anymore? – and that in fact, that Real Madrid may have actually figured Barca out already? How does he put back that chip on his players’ shoulders after last season? Carrot? Stick? Controversy? Only he knows… and we can only wait and hope it works.
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Argie-Bargie
Another aspect of the game I wish to highlight was the inappropriate behavior of Higuain and Di Maria. Pipita, along with Fernando Navarro, were given the match’s first yellow cards in the 6th minute. Navarro got it for his foul, which was made with absolutely no intent to get the ball (clearly a yellow card offense). Higuain on the other hand, was lucky to escape with only a yellow following what was clearly a retaliatory kick-out at Navarro. Di Maria’s behavior however, was more deplorable: following a foul by Rakitic to stop Angel from receiving the ball, the Argentine, lunged at the Croat with what was clearly an attempt to punch. It was so obvious on TV as his motion to have a swing at Rakitic was completely opposite to the momentum of his body as he was falling down. He was lucky to escape without a card in that incident, much less a red one with a lengthy suspension. Both Argentines (Higuain and Di Maria) were deplorable in their actions and absolutely deserve punishment. If the league won’t do it, then I certainly hope that they get an internal punishment from the club for such actions.
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Tasting Our Own Medicine?
Mentality issues aside, it must be said that Michel showed some good tactical savvy last night. I shall stop ridiculing his coaching ability as a result thereof. Starting with Trochowski (a natural CM) on the left side, his game plan was to press our midfield (particularly Xabi Alonso) to choke it off. Trochowski drifting inward to the middle left Khedira and Xabi Alonso in a 2 vs. 2 battle against Trochowski and Rakitic. Ozil on the other hand, was left to deal with their 2 pivots with the ineffective Di Maria.
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What was interesting of course however is how Sevilla seemed to realize that they had the right-sided Andalucian Cristiano Ronaldo in the form of Jesus Navas. Their plan, much like Real Madrid’s, was to funnel the balls they’ve won at midfield through their relentless pressing onto their attacking winger who opened the match up for them. Navas fulfilled this role wonderfully with his very own Brazilian fullback as his ‘wingman’ – Cicinho. Cicinho however, might not exactly be Sevilla’s right-sided equivalent to Marcelo given how this namesake of a past Real Madrid RB managed to stay composed while facing Ronaldo while defending, giving few opportunities for CR to exploit.
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As the match progressed, I began wondering if Cristiano’s off-the-pitch Lover’s Quarrel with Marcelo was in fact true – given how little they combined in the match. My post match thoughts however lead me to believe that the theory would have been moot and academic given how Navas’ presence and his ability to exploit the space left behind by Marcelo was the perfect deterrent for Ronaldo to raid Sevilla’s right flank with the accompaniment of his usual ‘side kick’. I thus find myself wondering if Coentrao, who could probably balance the role of supporting Ronaldo in attack every now and then while watching out for Navas’ forays would have been the better choice at left back. Alas, he wasn’t even on the bench as I can only suspect that he was being ‘reserved’ for Tuesday night’s encounter with Man City.
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The second half was slightly better for Madrid – with Modric on for Ozil. Modric settled in nicely to the conditions of the match and offered Real Madrid another passing option to spray the ball laterally and forwards as Sevilla’s midfield now had to deal with 2 ball distributors in Madrid’s midfield. And even with Mourinho taking his risk once again of going with 3 at the back and with 2 strikers, there would be no end product.
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Wreck
Train Wreck. Ship Wreck. Shit Wreck – call it whatever you want! It’s a bloody fucking mess. 4 league games, only 1 win with ZERO games among the 4 league games that can remotely be classified as having been played well. Losing to bad calls, funny inexplicable bounces of the ball, falling short on luck or getting sucker punched after playing well are all acceptable forms of losing for a Real Madrid fan. Losing because the team is unfocused over what clearly seems to be a lack of hunger however, is a totally different thing. I’m pissed off and disgusted. What else is left to say?

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