Thursday, November 8, 2012

Breaking Mirrors (Real Madrid 2 – Borussia Dortmund 2)

Bah! Those Germans! We still can’t beat them and I’m worried sick about the prospect of meeting a German Side once the group stages are over. Bayern, our European Bette Noir, are sure to bash through beyond the group stages while rivals Schalke and Dortmund who both managed draws (against Arsenal and us respectively) remain group leaders. Real Madrid fans need not hang their heads (too much) in disappointment. Like many of  you, I expected a win and not a draw or even a possible loss. And now that I am writing about the match 4 hours after the match has ended, having allowed some of the emotion to drain away, looking back at the match with a higher level of rationality allows me to conclude that it wasn’t too bad of an outcome considering the circumstances and that though we looked like a second-class side in the first half, the boys redeemed themselves in the second half.
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The First Half – Mirror Image Games
 My notes during the first half of the match. Borussia's CMs and fullbacks would double team our wingers - opening up the center for Ozil. Trouble was that Ozil's supposed dance partner, Higuain, was nursing an injury.
The first half unfolded in a manner that showed us all that Borussia had Real Madrid figured out… or rather, this current injury-depleted Real Madrid. Borussia’s play has many striking qualities that are remarkably similar to Real Madrid: they play a 4-2-3-1 have a well-oiled midfield to press and circulate the ball and of course, have great players on the flanks (wingers and attacking fullbacks) to support a strong lone central striker. Using a combination of their midfield, fullbacks and even wingers, their general strategy has been to press opponents into mistakes and losing the ball and use direct (and/or counter-attacking) play to create chances from the flanks to score. Sound Familiar? Indeed, Dortmund’s 2 goals were scored off swift counter attacks that might as well have been taken from Mourinho’s Real Madrid playbook. It was as if Dortmund was a mirror image of Madrid, albeit a more menacing and dangerous version during the first half.
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In any case, Real Madrid pretty much do the same thing – that is, when their fullbacks are fit (Marcelo / Coentrao) and are in their preferred positions (Arbeloa). Without the ideal fullback situation, Real Madrid were without their ‘Magic Juice’ while Dortmund had theirs. So the first half was to me essentially a story of Borussia Dortmund making Real Madrid taste its own medicine and Real Madrid unable to make Borussia taste theirs because it was without its fullbacks – and this was what made me curiously irritated.
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Over the past few matches, particularly against Mallorca, Real Madrid seemed not just to be looking for ways to allow Luka Modric to learn Madrid’s ‘pivot’ role, but also in doing so, allow Madrid to develop a means of attacking through the middle. Seeing Mourinho start Modric alongside Alonso last night brought that to mind. Madrid’s play however suggested otherwise and it played right into the hands of Dortmund’s defensive strategy.
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Throughout the first half, Real Madrid’s continually attempted to attack through the flanks via Ronaldo and Di Maria and mostly without fullback support. Jurgen Klopp had a very clear strategy to deal with this – he had both his pivots ‘enclose’ our wingers to the touchline when they had the ball, forcing them to face pressure both from the opposing fullback (Picsczek / Schmelzer) and the opposing pivot (Kehl / Gundogan). Without their usual fullback support (Marcelo / Coentrao on the left and Arbeloa on the right) who would normally race along the touchline, Ronaldo and Di Maria were repeatedly forced to either lose the ball or pass vertically backwards to Arbeloa / Ramos. Thus, I found myself constantly yelling at the television: “Play through the middle! Come on!”
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Because what Klopp’s defensive strategy did, was open up the pitch at the center where Ozil in particular could operate and link up with Higuain. Indeed, I found that the most promising attacking moments for Madrid was when Ozil had the ball behind the striker with a considerable amount of space around him to operate, leaving him free to make a pass to what was supposed to be a mobile Higuain. Higuain however was nursing some form of muscular injury that had him lumbering about in the pitch, offering little for Ozil to work with. A look at who we had on the bench had me scratching me head: no strikers left, sending in Callejon to play on the wing with Ronaldo as a striker will have Klopp free up one of his pivot men from doubling up on Calleti thinking that one fullback to face him is enough. Thus as the referee blew the halftime whistle, I was thinking that perhaps Mou can send in Kaka to play as a striker for Ozil to link up with – the Brazilian after all, had the height, strength, mobility and finishing capability to fulfill that role. Mourinho however, had a more radical idea in mind.
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Second Half – Mourinho shatters the Mirror
Soccernet Gamecast's diagram showing the average positions of the players on the pitch. When you remove Higuain (20) and Modric (19), it looks like we played a 4-2-2-2. And with Kaka (8) on for Arbeloa (17), it looked like we played a 3-2-4-1 with Kaka as the lone striker
Substituting Essien in for Modric and Callejon for the injured Higuain, I thought that Mourinho had opted to revert to a more conventional 4-2-3-1 with a midfield muscle man (Essien) assisting Alonso with 'Vanilla Joe' Callejon taking up a place on the flanks to push Ronaldo up as the lone striker. The change he opted for was far more radical. Mourinho solidified his midfield (Alonso + Essien) and allowed this 'platform' as a base for the much-reviled 'Magic Square' formation (4-2-2-2): with Ronaldo, Callejon, Ozil and Di Maria taking turns as attacking midfielders and strikers. Callejon would make an instant impact with several great scoring chances - including one which was debatably called offside.
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Playing with a stronger sense of purpose (presumably following a tongue-lashing from Mou during halftime), Madrid dominated the second half and seized the initiative from Dortmund: forcing them on the backfoot. And now unable to 'mirror' us on defense because of the natural chaos / flexibility that the 4-2-2-2 affords its front 4 players, Borussia's marking system for our players came unstuck. It was no longer possible for them to mark our front 4 without disrupting their team shape and this increased Real Madrid's superiority in the match. No goal though.
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Mourinho's last roll of the dice would be to go with 3 at the back: not too bad of a risk when you consider that we had 2 of the world's most athletic and pacy CBs (Ramos and Pepe) together with the composed and positionally astute Varane. It looks like a 3-2-4-1: with Callejon, Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria behind Kaka as the lone striker when seen from Soccernet's Gamecast, but it also resembled a 3-5-2 (3-2-3-2): with Callejon, Ozil and Di Maria behind bromance partners Ronaldo and Kaka. Regardless of what it actually was, it was an undoubtedly bold move from Mourinho which paid off with Ozil scoring a goal from a Free Kick (thankfully Ronaldo let him take the shot - which was perfectly suited to his left foot).
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Chaos Theory
Last night, we managed to see a great tactical maneuver by Jose Mourinho. I've seen more than a few remarks in the comments section at RMFB criticizing Mourinho's substitutions as if to say that Mou was incapable of making important substitutions to change the course of a match to Madrid's favor - some thing which honestly pissed me off as they were remarks that smacked of lacking in perspective. Last night was not the first time that Mourinho rolled the dice in favor of an attacking strategy and seen his changes bear fruit. Granted that such gambles don't always come off, last night was one of those classic moments where Mou clearly spotted what our opponents were onto and reacted brilliantly by ringing in the changes to turn the match around. I have to say that what made last night's tactical change even more exciting was that Mourinho opted for a solution that was less about structure and more about chaos (ruining Klopp's marking system).
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Experimental Horizons
More tactical experimentation will surely continue for Mourinho's Madrid in light of Pipita's injury. After the match, Mourinho openly admitted to being blindsided by the injury woes for his strikers to explain why Morata was excluded from last night's match (he played 90 minutes last Sunday for Castilla). Short on Fullbacks, short on strikers - our team will be in for more experiments coming on the horizon. We should expect Mourinho to be doing more lineup and tactical shuffling in the coming matches. The truth is with the team out of its personnel and tactical comfort zone, our matches stand to be more unpredictable - both in good ways and in bad. I can only suppose that at this point, we can take comfort from the fact that we have a coach who seems to know what he's doing.

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