Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Replacements (Real Madrid 4 – Real Zaragoza 0)

For the mean time, the likes of Modric and Essien are playing like replacements that circumstances have forced upon us. Soon enough though, I genuinely believe that they will multiply Real Madrid's playing capabilities considerably.

Another Real Madrid match, another goalfest – a 0-5 win against Mallorca last weekend, a 1-4 win against 3rd division Alcoyano midweek and now a 4-0 win at home vs. Real Zaragoza. It really does seem like the team is snapping back into gear, right? NOT! Let’s not be deceived by the score-line folks as the proof is always in the play, and not in the scoreline. Let's also be honest about it: the 4-0 scoreline was not a fair reflection of what transpired on the pitch out there last night.
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Last night, Real Madrid continued to soldier on with its makeshift lineup. Alvaro Arbeloa did return earlier than expected from his injury (he was expected to be gone for a month) and he slotted in at left back – freeing up Michael Essien to join Luka Modric at the center of midfield. Arbeloa’s return was just as nice too, given that Xabi Alonso was suspended for last night’s match. The pairing of Modric with Essien then would prompt a discussion at midfield very much different from the one I explored after last weekend’s match. It wasn’t going to be about the idea of having passing midfield pivots – but about how the pairing of Modric and Essien fared in their attempt to replicate the functionality provided by Alonso + Khedira.
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The Alonso-Khedira partnership at the center of the pitch has developed as one of the Real Madrid’s most critical tactical components (if not it’s most critical one). Alonso was the team’s deep-lying ball distributor – able to use his seemingly limitless passing range to reach his teammates all over the pitch: from Khedira who would normally be standing next to him, to Ozil in front, back to the Center Backs, further laterally to the fullbacks and even all the way forward to the front 4. Khedira on the other hand is Alonso’s wingman. The German’s tireless running is both an offensive and a defensive feature of his game. In attack, Sami makes himself constantly available to Alonso as a possible means of ‘exiting’ the ball when our ’14’ is under pressure by ensuring that a passing angle / channel is always open between the 2. This attacking relationship has not only functioned well (making it more difficult opposing teams to simply mark Alonso) but has also blossomed (we are now seeing Sami bring the ball forward to dangerous positions). On the flipside, on defense, Khedira offers his considerable lung, leg and physical power in pressing, anticipation and tackling.
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Last night - playing with 'replacement' midfielders, I was reminded of the funny 2000 movie 'The Replacements' (starring Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman), where a player lockout in the NFL forces a coach and an American Football Team's management to hire replacement players. The story of course sees the ragtag bunch achieve some success but not without the usual share of comical antics. In the case of Real Madrid, it would be injuries and suspensions that would force Mourinho's hand to opt for his replacements. And given the scoreline, I suppose one can assume that there was a bit of success there - albeit not without the usual head-scratching moments.
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Last night’s combo of Modric and Essien at midfield was clearly an attempt to replicate this relationship. Modric, who had learned to play deep under Redknapp’s Spurs and keep up with the physical demands of the role (especially in the Premier League) played the Alonso role last night. Essien on the other hand was tasked to play the ‘Khedira role’ – the latter is a far more interesting arrangement in my opinion because I consider Khedira’s role in Mourinho’s Madrid as Mou’s attempt to re-create that insatiable combination of physical power, tireless workrate, and dynamism that embodied Essien at his peak in Chelsea. In short, with regards to Essien, I found it both bizarre and interesting that we had Essien playing the ‘Khedira role’ whose inspiration was Chelsea's ‘Essien role’ in the first place.
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Modric and Essien’s rendition of their pivot role in their night out on the Real Madrid’s starting XI was slightly different to that of Alonso + Khedira. A likely implication of his more limited passing range and his natural tendency as a ‘10’, Modric played at a more advanced position both when compared to Alonso and relative to the positioning of Michael Essien. What Modric adds to the role is an additional goal-assist threat from the pivot when compared to Alonso. Alonso’s game is much more about facilitating play and keeping the circulation of the ball perpetual especially to the key parts of the pitch rather than directly creating the goal-scoring opportunity. Modric on the other hand, will likely never be able to fully temper his natural predisposition to attempt to carve out the scoring opportunity himself. We saw a few enticing looping balls from deep for Ronaldo and Di Maria to run down last night.  It might take a bit of time, but I don't see why it can't be a possibility for us to see Ronaldo, Di Maria, Benzema or Higuain managing to get on the end of these types of balls from Modric to create / score goals.
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Made in Argentina
Despite the new midfield arrangement though, our goals would come through more familiar if not more conventional means. Both first half goals were scored by the team's 2 much-criticized Argentines. Gonzalo Higuain, who has been criticized for his 'poor conversion rate' opened the scoring last night by slamming the ball into the net following Albiol's thundering header (not a bad game too for El Chori). For those who sneer at Pipita's scoring proficiency, please consider the following stats: 7 goals in 10 La Liga games with 2 assists. Angel Di Maria scored the second goal from the right after getting on the end of a diagonal thru-ball and attempting 3 shots (the first blocked, the second saved, the third time a charm) before managing to score. Both goals conceded were reflective of how badly Real Zaragoza played in the early exchanges of the game, particularly on defense. Having said that, we must not discount the fact that both Argentines are in good form and are reminding us all of why they play for our club - the form of players will always go through peaks and valleys and I find that we are always too quick to judge them dismissively without considering what they bring to the overall scheme of things. One day Falcao might find himself in a goalscoring funk and Peter Crouch just might explode with a 30 goal season - should we sell Pipita then and approach Stoke City for Mr. Abby Clancy? Beware of fads and trends people.
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Without the benefit of a 'running mate' on the left wing for Ronaldo, the team will need to become more 'balanced' in its attack in these 'Left Back-less' months: and finding goalscorers and chance creators in the other parts of the pitch are important. Having an extra goal-assist threat in the middle (Modric) will mean that our forwards are in for better service - and Pipita's and Benzema's form (2 goals midweek) are positive signs. Having an attacking right back (Ramos,) will also mean more chances for Di Maria. And on both accounts, our boys are responding.
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The 'Donut Match' Disease
Last night's performance was met with criticism from no less than Jose Mourinho himself: "It was not our best game today. We can and we must play better."
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It was a match that I would personally like to refer to as a 'donut match': empty at the center with the substance on the sides with our best play coming at the beginning and at the end of the match (where our 2 midfielders would find the back of the net). Our team's performance in the first half was an intriguing display of how our 'replacement' midfielders attempted to shoehorn themselves into the team and interpret their assigned roles. As mentioned, there were a few bright spots which culminated in the 2 Argentine goals. What followed however was a 'Lost in Space' performance that saw Real Madrid sleepwalk through the match and even allow Zaragoza glimpses of brightness to get back into the game (forcing Casillas to a couple of good saves).
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It's a disturbing observation to make - the entire team, particularly the midfield 'switching off' after gaining a 2 goal lead. By the second half, our midfield was completely overrun (affirming my donut metaphor once again): Zaragoza moved and roamed freely into our half with almost zero resistance from our midfielders. It's in this regard, it's worth noting that Mourinho criticized the team's performance as a whole (see quote above), yet still chose to praise Modric:
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"I really like Luka Modric since he joined. He works well, and he has adapted very well... Playing in the Premier League, and playing in the Spanish league are very different, and playing for Tottenham is as well very different than playing for Real Madrid. But he is a great player, and he is adapting very well."
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Perhaps this was his attempt to build up the Croatian's confidence? Though Modric has learned to cope with the physical demands of being a central midfielder from Tottenham, his role there has pretty much remained as a creator with minimal defensive responsibilities. At Madrid however, whether playing as a substitute or as partner to Xabi Alonso, Modric must learn and accept that his role will come with considerable defensive responsibilities. No, we are not asking him to morph into Nigel De Jong - but just to be able to at least mirror Alonso's fair-but-certainly-not-minute contributions on defense. Pundits in the Premier League love talking about the adaptation process non-Premier League players will need to go through particularly referring to the pace and physicality of the English game. On the flipside, last night was a display on the adaptation process that Essien and Modric will need to make in the Spanish League where play has less pace, but players are more technical and move the ball about with a better sense of tactical intuition. Brute force, physical power and the ability be on the receiving end of physical play will need to make way for improvements in reading the game and anticipation. Essien in particular fell short in this regard - often found merely reacting directly as play unfolded in front of him and thus ending up always a step behind in the play (his second half performance reminded me a lot of Lass' 'headless chicken' routine).
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Alonso looks to be back on Tuesday vs. Dortmund, but not Khedira. This means that we can continue to expect Modric or Essien playing the pivot for Madrid - thus making these improvement to their play very critical. Dortmund will be happy to make us pay dearly if we allow their midfield to overrun ours even if we are playing at home on Tuesday.
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Positives and Negatives
All in all, last night's match was one of positives and negatives. It wasn't just about the doom and gloom of having a porous midfield of 'replacements' struggling to come to terms with their roles for our team. It was also about our boys finding their scoring boots. The seemingly ill-timed teething process for Modric and Essien also has its positives and negatives. Rather than be allowed to take his sweet time (and allow questions from the media to creep in on why Modric isn't playing enough) to master their roles on the training pitch, circumstances (injuries and suspensions) are now forcing the 2 midfielders to learn on the job in actual matches at an accelerated pace. With 1 (semi-understandable) loss at Dortmund, this 'teething process' hasn't come at a stiff price on our standings given our 13-1 aggregate score in the last 3 matches (vs. Mallorca, Alcoyano and Zaragoza) which have all ended in wins.
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For the mean time, I'm opting to take all of these as temporary hiccups and hopefully exchange them for seeing our team peak at just the right time in the season. And  hopefully when that happens, there will no longer be such a thing as 'replacements' in this team anymore.

1 comment:

  1. Modrid is an awesome player that bring to Madrid bench more dynamic. Its great to have him ... Hala Madrid

    ReplyDelete