Friday, December 14, 2012

Action and Reaction (Manchester City 1 - Real Madrid 1)

Having been able to eke out a 1-1 draw at the Etihad stadium, together with Borussia Dortmund's 1-4 trouncing of Ajax, Real Madrid booked their ticket to the last 16 of the Champions League. First place in the 'group of death' or rather 'group of champions' did not go to us as many had expected, but the milestone is one to look at for us Madridistas as something positive. I'll admit though that I'm trying really hard to overlook the fact that we have failed to win in the Champions League in the last 3 matches.
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The Madrid press, together with Mourinho (who celebrated his 100th Champions League match as a manager) are once again irritatingly deflecting all attention towards last night's refereeing decisions: referring to the numerous times where fouls on Ronaldo weren't called and of course the penalty that was awarded to Manchester City to tie the game. People seem to forget that penalties are awarded for such incidents (even if we deem them to be 'soft') and that Real Madrid also have themselves to blame for their failure to put the game to bed with a 2nd or 3rd goal. Having said that, it must be noted Real Madrid played generally well and must be given due credit for their performance last night which clearly deserved more than a single point. The point re: the performance of Real Madrid becomes important for the simple fact that the match featured an interesting Action-and-Reaction sequence with regards to tactics - and that Real Madrid played in a manner that showcased the futility of Mancini's plan to foil us tactically.
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Man City Goes with 3 at the Back (3-3-2-2 vs. 4-2-3-1)
My notes during the early part of the first half: The Tactical Matchup at the beginning of the match: Man City's 3-5-2 vs. Real Madrid's 4-2-3-1. City's defense had a considerable numerical advantage in anticipation for Ronaldo + Di Maria. Their execution however was poor.

The first meeting of the 2 sides saw Real Madrid successfully mauling the English club over our team's extensive use of its attacking resources on the flanks. Roberto Mancini's  statements praising Ronaldo before the match, coupled with his decision to opt for 3 (or 5) at the back last night was the surest sign that he was wary of the threat offered by Ronaldo + Di Maria. With 3 (or 5) at the back, the key protagonists in the match for Mancini were his wingbacks (Maicon & Kolarov) and how they could manage to simultaneously threaten Madrid and ensure that there is always a spare man when defending. The numbers game in defending would have been simpler: If Ronaldo AND Coentrao would attack on Madrid's right, the idea was to allow Maicon to pick up Coentrao's run while Ronaldo (with presumed support from Benzema) would be covered 3 vs. 2 by City's CBs. The tactical plan seemed very sound indeed. But alas, it's success would have to depend on how well City's players could execute the plan - and therein lay the problem.
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A look at the match's opening goal by Benzema however was a blatantly clear sign that all best laid plans are meaningless if they're not executed properly: Di Maria was given all the time and space in the world to serve up a tasty cross for Benzema to half-volley home behind a sleepwalking Maicon. Real Madrid would make mincemeat of Man City's defensive strategy many more times during the early stages of the first half with Ronaldo once again being the protagonist serving up Sami Khedira twice. How strange it is to find Manchester City thoroughly prepare a defensive plan to protect the flanks against Madrid only to see those very same flanks torn open due to the defensive ineptitude of their own players? Real Madrid's countered dangerously forward with menacing vertical runs and passes, many times along the very same flank positions Man City were supposedly protecting. It is in this regard where we must give a tremendous amount of credit for Ronaldo as well: he may have not scored, but he surely put City's back to the wall
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Credit must also go to Mourinho for making the right choice of picking Modric to start the game instead of Ozil. Though both are essentially playmakers, the Croatian tends to play deeper and was thus always in front of Toure. Having Ozil on the pitch (who tends to play much higher) would have allowed Toure to push forward and support Silva and Nasri more to put pressure on Alonso + Khedira. Khedira was once again the attacking surprise package - with his rampaging runs from deep catching City by surprise many times.
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Switching to a Back 4 and playing more Through the Center
Man City changes to a back 4 in the final third of the first half. Kolarov would be replaced by Javi Garcia (who would take his place at the center of the pitch) and allow Nasri and Silva to play as twin playmakers behind Aguero and Dzeko.

Mancini's '3/5 at the back' plan though sound in theory was left utterly in shambles thanks to his team's poor execution. Thus, being in need of a goal, he switched his formation on-the-fly without substitutions in the latter stages of the first half: going to a back 4 with Zabaleta at LB. the result was an asymmetrical 4-4-2 with Silva on the right drifting inwards and Kolarov pushing up as a true-blue wide midfielder. The formation gave City a stronger presence in the middle and allowed them to take control of the game more. It didn't take long however, before Madrid regained their bearings once again and snap into the dangerous counter attacking mode that threatened City once again. And at the start of the second half, Mancini would send RM Castilla graduate Javi Garcia in for Kolarov - turning them into a full-fledged 4-2-2-2 with Toure + Garcia at the middle with Silva and Nasri as midfield schemers playing behind 2 strikers. At this point I had one thought: Mourinho had finally managed to push Mancini into a situation that the Portuguese favors - with City playing a narrow possession-based game that allowed our wingers space to hit them on the counter. Mourinho would later on send Callejon on for Modric to confront Mancini's narrow 4-4-2 (4-2-2-2) with his own wide 4-4-2 with Callejon on the left, Di Maria on the right and Ronaldo + Benzema up front.
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It didn't happen though. To their credit, City kept the ball well and was able to successfully use their 'midfield platform' (comprised of their 2 hulking midfielders Toure and Garcia) for Silva to operate. Edin 'Don't-call-me-a-super-sub' Dzeko, who is built like a classic #9, showcased his mobility and drifted wide several times to send some tasty crosses in which weren't converted into goals. Madrid on the other hand continued to threaten on the break: in the second half however, Di Maria had a very poor game. El fideo would finish the game with a paltry 51% pass completion rate.
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The internet now allows us to freeze time and capture moments of people being such dickheads.
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The Real Madrid hero for me however would be (surprise!) Ronaldo. He bitched and moaned over calls which didn't go his way much to the amusement of the City fans. Ronaldo also failed to score last night. It was Ronaldo however who personified the kind of lethal threat on the counter which Mourinho envisioned his team to pose once the onus to score fell to of Man City. It was the sort of performance that would surely have pleased a coach even if it would fail to do so for a casual fan who merely judges players by the number of goals they scored. I'm also pleased to see him attempting chips over the keeper over his low-power shots (which tend to be deflected given certain game situations). His chip over Hart last night was just a yard away from crossing the goal before being cleared by Nastasic. Ronaldo also successfully 'led the line' as the lone striker in a 4-4-1 formation after Arbeloa's sending off and even managed to give the Sky Blues many nervy moments during our counter-attacking opportunities.
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Other Anecdotes
-How about that wonder-save by Casillas eh? That was a moment right out of the Iker-when-he-was-21 scrapbook.
-I honestly thought Varane would play as CB when he was sent in - instead he played as a RB. Albiol played as a 3rd CB when he came on. Mourinho will take comfort in the fact that Madrid has finally pulled off a rearguard action successfully in an away match against a top team in European competition - it might just prove to be the sort of experience our team needs once we go to the last 16 and beyond.
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Prospects
Mourinho has pointed to the curious fact that his 2 Champions League trophies were won from campaigns that started with only a 2nd place berth from the group stage. Interestingly, in both instances, his teams came in 2nd to Spanish Teams (Madrid and Barca respectively). One of the interesting points for me however will be the implication of having a 2nd place seeding on the elimination ties. Holding a second seed will mean that the ties will be played at the Bernabeu first and the away leg will be played after. This might actually be the sort of situation that favors the cautious Mourinho more given his propensity to opt to 'defend' a lead during the tie once its gained - and in a situation where the second leg is at home, the fear of conceding an away goal later in the tie tends to work against a team with Mourinho's mentality (e.g. what happened against Bayern). I would like to think that playing the first leg in the Bernabeu will naturally force Madrid to play more aggressively in the first leg while the urgency to win and secure the tie with an away goal in the second leg might work better psychologically for our team.
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Another point to consider as well is that for Mourinho's past 2 CL campaigns with Madrid, apart from Bayern and Barca, our opponents have not necessarily been the cream of Europe's crop. This campaign however has seen us face up against elite teams in the early stages and seems to promise more of the same (in lieu of our 2nd seeding) for the next phase of the competition. Thus, it doesn't just become about making victory sweeter, but also about conditioning the team mentally, physically and tactically for the competition.
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The campaign's focus will shift back to La Liga on Saturday away to Betis. The next pair of midweek games are now essentially dead rubbers (at home vs. Alcoyano in the CDR and Ajax in the CL): time for Mourinho to prep the likes of Mssrs. Varane, Callejon,  Rodriguez (Jose & Jesse) and Morata for those. And as for Mssrs. Pepe and Ramos, maybe it's time prepare contemplating Mr. Falcao's impending visit to the Bernabeu too.

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