Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Explorations Back to Familiar Territory (Real Madrid 5 – Deportivo La Coruna 1)

A 5-1 Victory at the Santiago Bernabeu: Real Madrid played their now-familiar brand of ‘Formula 1’ football while Cristiano Ronaldo netted his first hat trick of the season to bring him even with Messi in the La Liga scoring charts. The familiar feeling I am enjoying at the moment (brought about by a Madrid win) is very similar to the comforting, energizing and feel-good buzz that my weekday morning coffee gives me. I feel soothed and prepped for the day’s challenges and feel that somehow the world is in order. I’m pretty sure that this is how many Madridistas feel today.
.
What’s notable however is that despite the ‘familiar’ result to last night’s game, Mourinho actually ringed in quite a few changes. These changes were likely made with 2 main things in mind:
 .
1.)    Squad rotation to prep the squad for the ‘big’ matches coming up, namely our next Champions League ‘Group of Death’ match at Amsterdam vs. Ajax and of course the El Clasico next weekend (which can see us cut down  Barca’s daunting lead down to 5, see it remain at 8 or worst: see it swell to 11 points).
2.)    A continuation of Mourinho’s shakeup of the team by rattling a few cages of the players just to make sure none of them are still in preseason mode.
.
.
Lineup Explorations
The perennial question asked over the entire summer re: the lineup has always been ‘who was the team’s backup RB?’ Before the signing of Essien, I once proposed that Sergio Ramos might be that guy – while allowing the generally-reliable Albiol and the bright young Varane time at CB. After confessing that Essien had failed a fitness test to play RB tonight, we saw Ramos shift back to his former RB position to give way to Varane at CB. The Frenchman had a pretty solid game (though he was partly culpable for Riki’s opening goal).
.
The most interesting change however was at midfield: where Mourinho and Madridisimo finally managed a glimpse of an Alonso-less Real Madrid midfield. Modric was asked to helm the ‘passing pivot’ role usually occupied by our Captain Red Beard alongside Khedira with Ozil ahead of them. It’s important to point out the importance of this ‘test’: not just to see how Modric will do playing the ball distributor’s role in the pivot, but also in a way to re-assure Ozil that Modric is not there just to take his playing time… that he and the Croat will be made to play together as well.
.
I would say that by and large, Modric didn’t do too badly in the pivot role – the same position he played at under Harry Redknapp at Spurs. We certainly had no misgivings of his ability to handle the physical advantage that other midfielders had over him when trying to tackle him – Luka has after all long since proven that he can do the deed ‘in a cold night at Stoke.’ Modric has demonstrated both in the Premiership and in La Liga that he can take a tackle (and a kick here and there) and that he is more than capable of wiggling, pirouetting and passing his way out of a crowd when harried. What I find missing though is that he doesn’t quite match Alonso’s limited yet at-times effective ‘defensive presence’. Despite his limited mobility, Alonso has to a certain extent, learned to use his large frame to bang bodies every now and then and has mastered the lunging tackle-pass: the one-footed lunging challenge for a ball that is also an attempt to poke the ball to a teammate which can start an offensive move. Thus the conclusion that I can draw from Modric’s outing in the ‘pivot’ is that: he is perhaps not suited to play the role for every game – as there will be those matches where the ability to physically challenge in midfield will be more important than ball distribution and possession. Last night however, he played the role relatively well – a fact not lost on the Bernabeu who applauded his performance warmly.
.
.
A Bull in a China Shop
Khedira and Abel Aguilar, in full battle for the ball
Khedira was in full 'Battle Mode' Last Night
.
Modric’s lack of a physical presence in midfield however was more than compensated against Depor by Sami Khedira. The horse-faced Tunisian-German was pretty much the proverbial ‘Bull in a China Shop’: he totally broke and tore through everything. Last night, Sami Khedira did perfectly what a Jose Mourinho Central Midfielder was supposed to do: outrun, outmuscle, outhustle and outwit the opposing midfield. Depor had absolutely no idea on how to deal with him. Without the ball, Khedira’s pressed and pounded Depor’s players into errors and into panicked-decisions. While in attack, his off-the ball runs rattled Depor’s midfield and defense, dragging many of them out of position and often giving Ozil and Modric panoramic views of the pitch to find teammates. Many of Modric’s, Pepe and Varane’s passes from deep found Khedira too – where the German would shuttle the ball forward deep into enemy territory to ‘hand if off’ to his attacking teammates.
.
It is clear that Real Madrid’s opponents plan their matches with strategies to contain Ronaldo (plus Marcelo), Ozil, Di Maria and Xabi Alonso. They however, probably never plan for what Khedira can do to them. Khedira’s performance was a massive spanner into Depor’s midfield and defensive organization. I will not argue with anyone who believes he was last night’s Man of the Match.
.
.
More Switching amongst the Front 3
ELECTRIC. Di Maria is another contender of MOTM last night
Another point to note was the seemingly more ‘malleable’ arrangement between the front 3: Ronaldo, Higuain and Di Maria. Higuain has been the subject of much criticism amongst Real Madrid fans for his profligacy in front of goal these past few games (nevermind that until last night, where Ronaldo scored 2 penalties, Pipita had been joint-top as our La Liga top scorer). Though I only managed to see highlights of the Trofeo Santiago Bernabeu match, it was interesting to see how seemingly effective he was in his old ‘right-sided wide forward’ role during the midweek friendly which saw him make some fine assists from that position. Last night, he frequently found himself in similar positions: creating danger by providing width, sending in dangerous crosses and rattling the Depor defense with his ‘unusual positioning’.
.
The flipside of Pipita’s drifting wide saw Di Maria on the left many times in his pre-Real Madrid position (he played left for Benfica). Di Maria was also absolutely superb last night: clearly in ‘rhythm’ (and he is a truly ‘rhythm player’) – his subtle feints and delays in movement allowed him to seamlessly slip past multiple defenders with his vast array of ball control and dribbling tricks. Despite all that however, his attacking wasn’t over-elaborate and was not stained by poor decision-making. It also deserves A LOT of mention that Di Maria, while electric in attack, also played doggedly relentless defense in pressing Depor.
.
.
Ricky Returns
I was pleasantly pleased to discover that the telecast of last night’s match showed Sky Sports UK’s coverage (with Gerry Armstrong at the Bernabeu and Guillem Balague & co. in the studio) instead of the dour generic English Commentary I’ve watched for the past several years. Balague had pointed out that Ozil was substituted following 2-3 telling offs by Mourinho for failing to track back during the first half. Aided by the fact that he earned a yellow card in the first half, Ozil was substituted for Kaka in the 2nd half to a warm ovation following his midweek hat trick.
.
Kaka didn’t set the stadium on fire but he nonetheless added a few nice touches to the game including a couple of half-chances at goal created by his (former?) bro-mance partner Cristiano. Following Sahin’s ‘naughty’ statements (of knowing where Kaka’s next move would be), the rumor mill has cranked up once again re: his possible destinations. Mourinho and Florentino are in a win-win situation given the circumstances: in the unlikely possibility that Kaka re-discovers hisMilanform, then Real Madrid will have itself THREE world class attacking midfielders. Whilst in the likely event that Kaka shows himself to be a more than decent player while still having the occasional ‘world class moment’, then the likelihood of finding a buyer for him (at the right price) in the winter transfer window also increases. In the meantime, neither Ozil, nor Kaka nor even Xabi Alonso can rest easy thinking that they’re a lock for their current places in the starting XI.
.
.
Explorations Back to Familiar Territory? Or a Jump into the Pit of Doom?
There are great positives in looking forward at this point. A midweek win at the Amsterdam ArenA (love how the 2nd ‘A’ is in uppercase on that one) can see us secure 6 precious points in our Champions League ‘Group of Death’ while City and Dortmund attempt to kill each other the process. Then an Oct. 7th win at the Camp Nou can see us cut down Barca’s lead to 5 ‘digestible points’. With Barca sputtering a bit as of late (have you guys seen Cesc’s embarrassingly ridiculous attempt of doing a ‘Busquets’ to get Medel sent off?) – we have the chance to find light at the end of the tunnel once again.
.
Getting 2 of the best results in the next 2 games will see us exploring the familiar territory of trophy hunting once again. Getting 2 of the worst results in the next 2 matches however would almost be a leap into the pit of doom. What’s next for Madrid? I can only hope that last night was a sign of things to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment