Friday, December 14, 2012

Stick Shift Driving (Real Valladolid 2 - Real Madrid 3)

What a dissappointing weekend for for the Filipino sporting fan. I write this now merely hours after seeing Manny Pacquiao literally swallow straight right-handed punch to his chin c/o Juan Manuel Marquez in a loss that pretty much marks the watershed moment in the Pacman's career that spells its end or depending on how he plays his cards, spells the beginning of its end. And just last night, hours before Real Madrid's match at the Zorilla, the Philippine national football team only managed a 0-0 against Singapore at home soil in the semi-final of the ASEAN Football Championships (Suzuki Cup) with the return leg this Wednesday here in Singapore. Thankfully, Real Madrid spared me from going 0/3 last night.
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Same Old Virus
The Sky Sports UK guys who were doing the commentary during the broadcast of last night's match, were calling in the old cliches: They were saying that Real Madrid were vulnerable last night because they said firstly, we were playing away from home, and secondly, we were playing on the back of a midweek Champions League match. "But I thought they played second stringers midweek vs. Ajax?" my wife asked me when I cited the Sky commentators' explanations for Madrid's shoddy set piece defending. If your wife who doesn't follow football closely enough can see through the mindlessness of some of the punditry that's going on, then something's really wrong with some of them (apart from the fact that I have a wonderfully insightful spouse). Putting aside the theories of Gerry Armstrong & co., I can only come to the same conclusion that many Madridistas have known all along: that our team is not yet fully cured of our 'Dead Ball Virus'. Both goals which were scored by Manucho featured some ridiculous defending by our CBs and Alonso who were all rested midweek vs. Ajax. This is particularly worrying for a team whose aspirations for silverware are pretty much hinged in cup competitions where away goals you concede tend to bite you in the ass. The inability of Mourinho, his coaching staff and the players to kill off this 'deadball disease' is a disturbing sign as it is very easy to imagine getting dumped out of the CDR or the CL over dumbass goals conceded in that manner.
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Finding the Bright Spots
It's not difficult though to find the bright spotS in last night's match. Apart from enjoying myself as a witness to these moments, I also felt a bit of poetic justice being rendered upon those who made many out-of-perspective remarks re: the likes of Ozil, Callejon and of course, Mourinho. It's totally understandable to be upset at the fact that we conceded 2 goals off set pieces the way we did, or by the fact that we actually allowed ourselves to go behind as a result of those 2 goals... but to win despite being under such difficult circumstances is important. Make no mistake about it: Valladolid played well: their set pieces were spot on, and were very compact when they didn't have the ball with their defensive and midfield lines close to each other and sitting deep to effectively prevent us rom building our attacks which generally require 'build up space' to gather momentum. Real Madrid also benefitted from the injury of Patrick Ebert who was doing very well until he needed to be subbed off. Performances like last night's by teams like Valladolid put the Liga De Mierda 'Shit League' descriptions of La Liga literally to shit as it showcases that small teams in La Liga are completely capable of putting together impressive physical, tactical and technical performances to frustrate the likes of Madrid and Barca (it will happen soon enough this season) into mistakes and make them vulnerable.
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It is in moments like last night where championship character has to show itself in teams. Where simply having more talented players is far from enough to win the 3 points. Amateurish-loss-of-concetration-to-concede-goals aside, having the stomach to recover from an early deficit is a critical quality for a championship side, nevermind 2 deficits. It's also important to note that the team has been out of its comfort zone for majority of this campaign - given the many games we've seen makeshift defenses (no Marcelo), makeshift midfields (no Khedira) and even the loss of options upfront (no Higuain): and this is what makes last night's 'double remontada' important and filled with the feel-good factor that it has: because the team didn't come back merely by just playing with more intensity - they did so playing out of their comfort zone, without having the familiar players in their familiar positions doing the things we see usually see them do. The second goal (Ozil's first for the night) comes to mind as the play leading up to the goal looked more like it was out of a  Barcelona playbook - little space to run, tight passing, lots of 1-2 exchanges within a sea of Valladolid defenders' legs between highly technical players and a goal where the scorer literally 'passes' the ball into the goal. It was a reflection of the positive qualities of Madrid that shone last night, capable of reinventing itself to meet the demands of the occasion, with players who step up (Ozil, with 2 goals last night has now scored 5 goals in his last 7 games) when the usual suspects (Ronaldo) are shackled.
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Stick Shift Driving
Credit for last night's success must go to the very-talked-about Jose Mourinho. He has of course come under fire from many Madridistas for his exuberant and controversial ways. But shockingly, criticism of his tactics has also come with some even making statements (which in my opinion are ridiculous!) that he's slipping tactically or that his substitutions are all useless. My reply to those statements is simple: managers will make changes when they feel those changes are necessary - sometimes they come off, sometimes they don't. The outcomes of those changes however are not solely down the tactical nature of those changes - sometimes they're counteracted by the opponent, or sometimes the players on the pitch were unable to execute the plan... heck sometimes the plan actually works but just doesn't produce the goal/s. The bottom-line about such matters however is this:  Managers who have tactical nous in the game are plenty. Managers who have tactical nous and with the right dosage of boldness however are rare. Or perhaps it's not just about boldness?... but rather, the ability to know when to go another gear higher and when to downshift. Mourinho's performance as a coach last night, was a tour de force in this regard.
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After Halftime: it looks exactly like Mourinho's usual preferred XI - except with Callejon playing for Marcelo
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The First 'Up Shift' (4-2-3-1 with Callejon as LB) or a 3-5-2? Mourinho started with his familiar 4-2-3-1 with Nacho where Marcelo normally is and with Callejon given a start ahead of Di Maria both as a reward to Vanilla Joe for his impressive showing against Ajax and as a stern message to Di Maria that he has been piss poor these past several matches. With the score at 2-2 after halftime though, one would have thought that Mourinho would have had his boys stay with their current system to see if it was possible to get that game clinching goal with his current system. Instead, veering away from his reputation as a 'safety-first' tactician, Mourinho instead opted to send in Di Maria... for Nacho(!), pushing Callejon from his role as an attacking wide midfielder to (gasp!) left back. I was honestly trying to see if Mourinho had actually opted for a back 3, but alas, it genuinely looked like a 4-2-3-1 with Callejon at left back in what I can only interpret as Mourinho's attempt to have Callejon attempt to interpret Marcelo's role. It might have seemed to be a nutty idea, but the truth is that having the pacy, aggressive, but disciplined-and-hard-working Callejon as an attacking fullback wasn't as 'wild' an idea as it seemed to be.
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Another Gear Higher: Alonso plays as a ball-playing CB while Modric, with his playmaker's mentality offers another goal-assist threat from deep. It actually also somewhat looks like a 3-4-1-2.
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The Next 'Up Shift' (4-2-3-1 with Alonso as CB) or a 3-5-2? At 62' and still without a goal to get the lead, Mourinho cranked it up offensively another gear, sending in Luka Modric for Arbeloa - pushing Ramos to the right with Alonso and Pepe as Centerbacks with Alonso presumably playing a similar role to Busquets at Barca when dropping deep to be part of the Central Defensive Line, playing the role of ball-playing CB, to allow Modric to be the midfield distributor. This change is also significant particularly in light of Modric's performance midweek vs. Ajax (I managed to see a late replay): because even as the Croatian was playing as a pivot, he still has the mentality of a playmaker (keen to deliver the goal-assist) rather than the ball distributor (ala Xabi). Thus, the change also provides Mourinho's men a player capable of delivering killer pass from deep: a useful tool against a compact defense sitting deep. Madrid's far more offensive posture as a result of this substitution not only produced the winning goal (Ozil's free kick) but also one disallowed despite being a perfectly valid goal (Ramos was NOT offside).
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Downshift Mode: 4-2-3-1 with Varane on for Benzema, goes to RB, Ronaldo pushes as the lone striker, Ozil plays as an 'inside right', Modric pushes up as the '10' and Alonso slots back into his familiar pivot role.
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Downshift With the lead secure, Mourinho made his final change, 'closing the shop' by sending in Varane (for Benzema) to play RB thus allowing Ramos to revert back to his familiar place alongside Pepe. Ronaldo then pushed up to play as the lead striker with Di Maria (Left), Modric (10) and Ozil (Right) behind him - right back to a more defensively oriented 4-2-3-1 to keep secure.
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Making use of each substitution and putting each one to great effect, I can only imagine that it was the sort of performance by a coach that is shown in coaching clinics and in workshops on tactics. All of that of course would also not be possible without Mourinho having the right pieces on the pitch on the first place: namely Ronaldo (who plays both as winger and striker), Ozil (who can play as a wide midfielder apart from the '10'), Ramos (who plays as RB and CB) and of course, Callejon - who tactically speaking, was the key to it all. It would have been easy for the 'experiment' to blow up in Mou's face had Calleti playing at LB been exploited, but it was a combination of the team's overall play as well as Vanilla Joe's combination of work rate + defensive accountability that made it all work.
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It may well likely be that when I wake up tomorrow, Barcelona will right back to being ahead of us by 11 points and Atleti by 5 with Messi having finally matched or broken Torpedo Muller's goalscoring record (I honestly don't care), but I'd rather look at our team an point to the team's achievements last night. Yes we defended like school children for many parts of the game, but we came back. Twice. And won. And did so playing waaaaaay out of our comfort zone - both for the players and the manager. Perhaps in the big picture, we might not be able to overhaul that 11 point lead, but looking at last night's match just from the rectangular panel of my television alone, I can say that I'm happy and proud with what my team did out there last night.

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