Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Alternate Possibilities (Mallorca 0 – RealMadrid 5)

Mallorca 0 – RealMadrid 5. A brace each from Pipita and Ronaldo with Callejon grabbing a late goal as a sub - Now that’s a scoreline from last season’s Real Madrid! The funny thing about last night however was the lineup didn’t function like the Real Madrid of last season: there was no dynamic duo (Ronaldo + Marcelo) on the left side tearing up Mallorca’s right flank and no German Tank in the midfield tearing their attacks apart and subtly knocking cracks onto their defense (Khedira).
.
.
Losing Automation and some answers to Critics
If there is one lesson Madridisimo has learned over the past 2 matches (the 2-0 win vs. Celta and 2-1 loss to Borussia), it’s that the team suffers from a lack of ‘automation’ not just when key players are missing, but also when supposedly ‘secondary’ players go missing. In fact, I’d argue that it is from the team’s ‘supporting cast’ where the seemingly automated playing system comes from – the very platform on which the likes of Ronaldo conduct their attacking show.
.
Anti-Madridista critics (many of them Cules) might be smirking at us at the moment telling us ‘well now you know what it’s like!’ over our fullback department becoming fully decimated as a means to compare to Barca having no Central Defenders. The comparison to me is not valid – because where Barca had only ONE layer of competent defenders, we had two: only for both layers of our wing defenders end up getting lost to injuries (as a side point, we saw what their ‘second layer’ of central defenders looked like last night in Fontas – and he was awful). Our means to cope has also resulted in further losses to our midfield department with Essien shuffling over to left back and thus unable to provide the midfield muscle that Khedira normally offers. Thus Madrid’s injury problem at fullback created a two-fold problem: less dynamism on attack in the flanks and lack of depth in the midfield muscle department.
.
Real Madrid were made to feel the full force of this two-fold effect last Wednesday at Dortmund where Essien’s lack of familiarity playing as a left back and Madrid’s lack of midfield muscle was exposed. Many Madridistas reacted by pointing the finger to Mourinho – criticizing his decision to opt for Essien at Left Back over the use of Nacho or Casado. I personally found many of the post-Dortmund criticism of Mourinho unfair and lacking in perspective. Mourinho made the decision to face Dortmund with a player whom he trusts with his own children (Essien) at left back and one of the best passing midfielders in the world to replace the injured Khedira in Germany: both decisions are hardly questionable. Had he opted to go with Nacho / Casado from the cantera and seen either of the 2 getting skinned by Marco Reus then we would have suffered not just a loss of 3 points in the CL but also the shattered confidence of 2 youngsters. Hindsight is always 20/20 vision – let’s remember that when we criticize.
.
.
Adapt and Adjust vs. Alternatives
Our usual 4-2-3-1 with our 'attacking superhighway' carved out by Ronaldo + Marcelo indicated with the red cones. This system is designed to allow both Ronaldo and Di Maria to drift diagonally inward to the center in the final third.

The first layer of thinking that many of us thought upon losing Marcelo, Coentrao and Arbeloa + Khedira to injuries was that the players needed to adapt and adjust to each other to play the familiar and incredibly effective 4-2-3-1 system that Mourinho had instituted upon his arrival. A bit of extra effort and razzle dazzle from Ronaldo who would be less supported by his stand-in left back, a bit more tackling from Alonso who lost his assistant Khedira and so forth… All these however were only measures to mitigate the impact of the injury losses through adaptation and adjustments.
.
What the team needs however is an ALTERNATIVE means of playing – and last Sunday, this was what we saw Mourinho attempt after his hand was forced by the loss of Khedira at Dortmund. The key players in this new way of playing would be Ramos, Ronaldo, Di Maria and above all, Luka Modric. Below are some of my key observations about the way we played Mallorca:
.
.
Alterations in Wing Play
Seeing Ronaldo and Di Maria switch wings was not unusual – but for the most part, our 2 wingers played as inverted wingers. The right-footed Ronaldo played on the left so he can cut in diagonally to shoot, like the left-footed Di Maria on the right. For Di Maria this situation also sees him drift to the center to help in pressing the opposing midfield. Once we factor in our attacking left-sided full backs (Marcelo / Coentrao) and a defensive-minded right back (Arbeloa), this will result in an asymmetrical system where the left side attacks and the right side is more conservative.
.
In our current situation however, the opposite has become true: with our attacking fullback now coming from the right side (Ramos). As a result, Ronaldo and Di Maria are found switching wings more frequently to allow Ronaldo to attack the opposing fullback with Ramos playing as a right-sided Marcelo. Di Maria on the other hand finds himself playing on the left side where his defensive application becomes useful in protecting Michael Essien (whose lack of mastery of the LB position was exposed at Dortmund). While sound in theory, the impact of the switching though seemingly small, might have a significant impact: as the left-footed Di Maria playing on the left might see him hugging the touchline more and looking more to cross than to drift diagonally into the middle. While for the goal-hungry Ronaldo, he will need to find more creative ways to get into scoring positions different apart his previously comfortable left-wing position.
.
.
Alterations in the Center
Real Madrid Formation at Mallorca (2012-10-28). Ronaldo and Di Maria played as true wingers for a seemingly larger part of the match (hugging the touchline) allowing the 3 creative passing midfielders space to 'create' that 'attacking superhighway' (marked by the red cones). Ronaldo and Di Maria (mostly Ronaldo) would then 'ghost' into this zone to streak forward when Madrid burst forward to attack many times combining with Pipita.
The biggest adjustment will of course come through the middle. With our midfield muscle man (Khedira) out and his supposed backup (Essien) filling up at Left Back, Mourinho has no choice but to put to use his vast arsenal of attacking midfield talent (which includes 3 world class 10s). Last Sunday, Mourinho embraced this reality and started with Modric alongside Xabi as a pivot with Ozil ahead of them. Once we factor in Ronaldo and Di Maria playing on switched wings and hugging the touchline more as true wingers (as we saw for majority of the second half) – the pitch opens up at the center for our 3 CMs (Alonso, Modric and Ozil) to operate. Of our 3 CMs, 2 are passing ‘pivots’ (Alonso and Modric) which means that it will be impossible to shut off our team’s passing outlets from deep. Also, of our 3 CMs, 2 are fully capable of making the killer goal-assist-pass (Modric and Ozil): multiplying our ability to create danger through these central positions. Consequently, the opening up of the center also allows our wingers to ‘ghost’ in to the center where they are not expected (while they are playing as true wingers) to make plays through the middle.
.
Madrid’s main adjustment will thus be to learn how to play THROUGH the middle: BOTH in counterattacking and in playing a possession-based game. It must be noted that ALL of last Sunday’s goals products of this method of play:
.
  • Di Maria playing on the left looping a ball for Pipita to make it 0-1
  • Higuain receiving the ball at the center and laying it for Ronaldo on the right side for 0-2
  • Ronaldo’s long, raking Guti-esque pass through the center for Pipita to make it 0-3
  • Modric evades a defender that results in Pipita sending his own long vertical pass to a racing Ronaldo (barging through the center) to make it 0-4.
  • Ozil is released and ‘crosses’ for Callejon to complete the manita.
.
It is of course easy to play like this against weaker sides: all that’s needed is for Modric, Alonso and to a certain extent: Di Maria + the fullbacks to establish an understanding of covering the pitch defensively – something that was clearly well accomplished last Sunday.
.
The true test will be if we can play such a system successfully against a team with a very good #10 or with the meanest, baddest, nastiest combo of physical midfield destroyers. This is what will make the ‘return leg’ of the Champions League vs. Dortmund very interesting: if Mourinho will not be playing this system merely as a reaction to injury but as a thought-out strategy from the very beginning. If we succeed: the world better watch out.
.
.
Plan A? Plan B? All of the Above.
Real Madrid's Stats from whoscored.com (in orange) - Our attacks last sunday were more balanced between the left and right flanks. They key stat however was that a big majority of our goalscoring opportunities came smashing right through the center
Mourinho’s Real Madrid has been praised by many. Much of that praise however has irritatingly come with the ‘ummm…. But they’re just a counter-attacking team’ comment. It’s become tiring for Madridistas to have to listen to such commentary from the zealots of the tiki-taka school of pass-turbation – many of whom blindly follow such ideals on the grounds of some obscure notion of ‘philosophy’.
.
Either by circumstance (injuries) or by design (a desire for a ‘Plan B’), the signs are there that Mourinho is beginning to (gasp!) tinker with this idea of a possession-based style of play through the middle: using his lateral players to create space that will enable the wealth of creative midfielders he has at his disposal to put their talents to use.
.
The successful use of this plan last Sunday night must not be interpreted that we can successfully do this against every team we face – at least not at this point in time. Let’s all admit that last Sunday’s Mallorca side were very off-colour from a Caparros-coached team. Refinements to the execution of this system need to be made especially with regards to coping with creative midfield players of an opponent and with the team's overall defensive solidity against more offensively potent sides.
.
But let’s call what we saw last Sunday as it was. It was a Real Madrid side that either by design or by circumstance, was attempting to marry the values of their relentless wing-play-based “formula 1 football” with a more possession-based style that used the ability of their creative midfielders to retain play at the center of the pitch. The result was 5 wonderfully scored goals in line with Madrid's brand of supersonic football but created differently and while using the team's wealth of creative talent at central midfield.
.
From our team’s ‘Plan A’ of carving out a thoroughfare on our left wing to allow our Ronaldo to open the opposing defense… last Sunday, we seemed to have developed a ‘Plan B’ where we used our Central Midfield assets to carve out that thoroughfare through the center of the pitch to attack. What happens to the football world then when Mourinho manages to fully figure out how to expand the team’s ‘attacking superhighway’ from Madrid’s narrow left flank all the way to the entire width of the pitch?
.
It’s not yet a reality, but if it does come off: then that would be a wonderful, beautiful alternate possibility. Madridisimo waits.

No comments:

Post a Comment