Monday, January 30, 2012

Auspicious Beginnings



It’s been 7 days since the beginning of the Dragon Year – and here we are 7 points ahead of Barca in the league table. Our 3-1 over Zaragoza and Barca’s 0-0 (their first scoreless game in 15 matches) made sure of that. In a league where the margins of error between a league title or a bridesmaid finish is a hairline, 7 points is gold – it gives us that all-important precious margin for error: to account for that somewhat inevitable match that will see us drop points against a Levante, Sporting or… a Real Zaragoza!
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The last time Real Madrid ‘recovered’ the league title from a Barca hegemony (led by their ‘10’ who at that point was the undisputed best player on the planet - Ronaldinho), Real Madrid were coached by a ‘defensive coach’ too (Capello). It also looked like things were going to turn to shit for us until a series of heart-stopping remontadas put us back on course: allowing the team to win the needed points on the league table, but more importantly, galvanizing the team’s chemistry, psychology and self belief.
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Since that infamous 1-2 against Barca in the home leg of the Copa Del Rey (and since the beginning of the new Lunar New Year): 4-1 against Bilbao, 2-2 against Barca, 3-1 against Zaragoza. All remontadas.
No, I’m not saying that history is or should repeat itself – I am merely highlighting the stark similarities of both situations. I’m also not saying that remontadas are good (they’re entertaining, yes) – who wants to win by digging a hole for themselves first? Either way, wins are wins… either way, we celebrate.
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With regards to last Saturday’s match however, it’s perhaps pertinent to note a few notable points – particularly ones that seem to be recent ‘trends’ in the way Real Madrid have been playing / being aligned. Against Saturday, many of these caught our attention again.
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1.) Ronaldo playing ‘D’. Ronaldo playing Defense has been one of the shockingly pleasant surprises that have greeted me from the beginning of the New Lunar New Year. He didn’t have his usual electricity against Bilbao but it was not lost on many Madridistas (and Mourinho too) that Real Madrid’s very own thong boy / bitch fit master is learning the value of putting in a shift of blue collar work on the pitch. His willingness to drop deep, watch out for balls to intercept, pressing and drastically-improved involvement on defense was one of the absolute critical ingredients to last Wednesday’s clasico. His work allowed Madrid to turn the pressure up in that favored zone of play that Barca like to play in that negated the natural man advantage they had in a 4-3-3 vs. 4-2-3-1 battle. Last Saturday, his goal was offside. But more importantly, he’s winning back the boo-boys who criticized him so ferociously (including yours truly) for choking during last December’s clasico.
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2.) Nursing Ricardo Carvalho Back – Jose Mourinho looks to be trying to blood him back into the squad. A capable and experienced defender during an injury crisis will always be helpful. I can’t help asking and wondering however, if such game time might be better for the building up of Raphael Varane’s experience and confidence.
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3.) Hamit Altintop a Right Back? – Jose Mourinho looks to have decided that Ramos is a CB. He’ll be left with one natural right back on the back of that decision though. Lass can play there but isn’t a natural: he doesn’t have the natural ability of a real fullback (regardless if he’s an attacking or a defensive one) to open space for his team by stretching the pitch wide. Coentrao doesn’t look a good fit there either. Perhaps to find a place for Turk, Mourinho is trying him out at RB. I didn’t see him play during the first leg of the Copa Del Rey clasico: there were praises and criticisms for him then, but on the back of last Saturday Night’s meh performance, I think someone should remind Mourinho that there’s a bright kid in Castilla named Carvajal who deserves to have a go at that substitute RB spot for the first team.
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I really enjoyed watching Granero's work last Saturday
3.) Granero: learning / re-defining the pivot role – From a ‘decent’ performance against Bilbao, to a ‘pretty good’ performance against Barca to a ‘very good’ performance last Saturday: El Pirata’s surge in playing time has also been marked by a progressive increase on the quality of his performances… and he’s doing it from the ‘pivot’ position. Mourinho has once described his ideal position as being the tip of a diamond midfield a position that puts him 3rd in line behind Ozil and Kaka. As a pivot though, what he lacks in skills as a ball winner is compensated by his ability to relieve Xabi Alonso of pressure by not only being that second passing outlet from deep but also with his driving runs and dribbles forward: allowing him to change the team’s formation from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-1-4-1 at the drop of a hat. He might truly be an ideal guy to sit beside Xabi against weaker teams who will prefer to sit tight and play defensively.
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Is this appearance of the old Kaka here to stay?
4.) Kaka: Using Spaces? Or Making Spaces? – I described Kaka as an ideal pick for the Bilbao game because its open-ended tempo suited his ‘fast break’ skills. Then he does it again against Barca’s hard-pressing game… and then he does it against Zaragoza yet again last Saturday. Interchanging roles between that ‘10’ spot and the right side of Madrid’s attacking midfield with Ozil, Kaka seems to have found a groove: where his sound technical skills, his mobility and his knack for making runs has helped open and create spaces for the Madrid attack. Maybe he’s not the just-for-fastbreaks kind of player I adjudged him to be…
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Ozil's been on fire and I'm lovin' it
5.) Ozil: Finding his Magic Wand – In my opinion, he was Real Madrid’s Man of the Match last Saturday and against Barca last Wednesday. He seems to have that extra boost when he runs and somehow moves, passes and runs with a much-improved sense of fluidity and crisp-ness. He’s also somehow started figuring out how to play on the right. I remember very clearly now why he’s my favorite player on the team.
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The Copa Del Rey was the 3rd Objective of the season and now it’s gone: who knew that our meaningful ‘last charge’ for that competition just might be the antidote we need to carry us through for that elusive La Liga title. Getafe’s next. I say more of the same please.  
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p.s. Apologies for not writing a review of THAT El Clasico match – I’ve been down with a nasty throat infection these last few days.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Exceptions


The fallout from last week’s El Clasico loss was astounding. The fallout from the coming El Clasico – should we lose (which is a likely event) will perhaps be equally astounding.
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The players are shit – we need to buy 6 new players.
We need a new defense
We need a new midfield,
We need better strikers…
Mourinho should be fired. Perez should resign.
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If any of those above statements are in your mind following the Clasico loss last week and following another loss that might (or rather, will probably) take place on Wednesday – you need to get some perspective.
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Let me say this about THIS Real Madrid: we are currently the second best team in the world. Outside of Barcelona, there is no team in club football that exists that can even be considered better than us (any idiot who will tell me that Man City, Man U, Bayern, Inter, Milan, etc. are better than us will just get a chuckle and a scoff from me). If this Barca team did not exist today, this Real Madrid would in fact be talked about for a very, very long time. I dare anyone to pick a coach, and using a hypothetical 800m Euro budget to ‘pick a team’ and beat this Barca in 1-1/2 years (the amount of time Mourinho has had so far) using Real Madrid (i.e. the ‘challenge’ comes with the obligation to play attractive football). That is the reality and the curse that has been bestowed upon Mourinho’s team.
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The challenge that Real Madrid face, apart from figuring out a way to beat Barca, is to develop ‘coping mechanisms’ from defeats at the hands of Barca to continue ‘operating’ as usual. The coping mechanisms are not only necessary for the psychological recovery and strengthening of the players, but also from the press massacres that take place after such losses. Last night, Real Madrid faced a similar challenge…
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Playing against a team coached by one of Guardiola’s coaching heroes (Bielsa), and following a pillaging from the press (including from their ‘own’), Mourinho’s boys had to step onto the pitch, surrounded by a lukewarm Bernabeu crowd – whose combination of awkward silence and half-hearted support was palpable. The best way I can describe the ambience of the Bernabeu from what I saw on TV was akin to that neither-here-nor-there feeling of awkwardness and half-irritation that 2 lovers have with each other after a spat – or maybe it was just the dull TV broadcast?
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Mourinho's ‘Gamble’
The noticeable thing about Mourinho’s lineup last night was that it featured Granero as Xabi Alonso’s ‘pivot partner’, Kaka on the right in place of Di Maria / Callejon and Varane at CB. Marcelo Bielsa’s Bilbao is a refreshingly different team from the physical, balls-to-the-wall, almost-English Bilbao we’ve seen over the years. Bielsa’s Bilbao as seen last night was slick, possession-based and unafraid to express themselves technically with their expansive passing game. It was only Iturraspe who had a stinker of a game and whose out-of-place, overly-robust game (which included an horrid ‘scissor-leg’ tackle on Kaka) seemed to have forgotten to read Bielsa’s script. Lucky (or intended) by Mourinho that he opted to keep Lass on the Bench then.
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I suppose I would need to see another game with this lineup to be fully convinced that the approach taken by Mourinho last night actually works. A predominantly-Spanish team built to more to pass the ball around with NO defensive ‘enforcers’ – was it an experiment?
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Whatever it was, it proved very suitable to the type of football that Bielsa’s men offered last night: there was plenty of space for Kaka to jet forward with the ball when he had it – the same space that allowed Ozil to make use of his unique manner of positioning himself on the pitch (to perpetually keep the passing angles open to him). The 2 attacking midfileders also duly switched positions on the field, interchanging ‘shifts’ in the middle an on the right side. First half possession showed a largely even possession stat of 51% to our favor despite the 1-1 scoreline. It was just ironic that the goal they scored was off a counterattack while the one we scored was off a neat buildup of play, which culminated in a nifty 1-2 exchange with Marcelo finishing.
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My theory on Madrid’s mental weakness was of course fully validated in the second half: where the opening exchanges almost immediately led to the 2-1 (scored by a spectacularly nasty Ronaldo penalty: a missile to the top corner): that Real Madrid have absolute self-belief that they can win any game regardless of the circumstance EXCEPT if it’s against Barcelona. For most opponents, a handy 3-0, 4-0 or 5-0 would do the job – goals scored by the opposing teams become mere footnotes in the game. Whereas in cases where the opposing team manages to score first, a remontada is always a likely outcome: whether by means of grinding out a result (see Mallorca game last weekend) – or by means of a more attractive approach to winning (last night) – and the players know it too.
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It’s fitting to note that in a game as attractive to watch as last night’s, that the 2 best Real Madrid players were the men who were supposed to be the team’s ‘offensive instigators’: Kaka and Ozil. Well-supplied by Xabi Alonso (who was in turn supported by a Granero’s neat and tidy game), the 2 ‘10’s wove their way very effectively through the Bilbao midfield and defense. It was a game to showcase the 2, along with Granero – who I think put in a decent shift and might perhaps have won himself a candidacy for Wednesday’s El Clasico. The other notable performer last night was also Raphael Varane who convinces me every time I see him that he will become, as Mourinho once prophesized “a starter for Real Madrid for the next 10 years.”
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As the sun began to rise this morning, on the first day of the new Chinese Lunar Year – the year of the Dragon, the score was 4-1. Real Madrid had won once again. Auspicious omens I hope. Marcelo Bielsa openly admitted that the result was just. I disagree – I thought Athletic gave a great account of themselves last night and didn’t deserve such a lopsided scoreline. Either way – the lead is back at 5 points.
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Erasing the Exceptions
 
It still isn’t clear to me EXACTLY what our shortcomings are when we play Barca. I continue to believe that it’s a psychological thing. Because in the midst of this hurricane of praise or criticism that the tema and Mourinho receive from the outcome of the clasicos, I’ve come to believe one thing: that whether we choose to play them by pressing them up high (like in the Supercup) or by dropping deep (like last week) – that we are capable of winning. I insist that both are workable approaches to winning. Victory however can only be achieved through the perfect execution of the selected game plan – and achieving that can only be done through impeccable mental / psychological prepared-ness: our current Achilles’ Heel in facing Barca. Currently, we can do it against any side in the world EXCEPT for them. Currently, they are the ‘Exception’ for us.
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And this affects us all too: have a look at our reactions when we beat other teams (or are beaten by them) vs. our reactions when faced with Barca and it is also easy to tell how we, as Madridistas think, speak/write when faced with the Cules.
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It’s a New (Lunar) Year – a time for the team, a time for the fans to look into themselves and do more than a bit of spring cleaning in their heads: a time to purge those ghosts, those manias, paranoias and phobias. A Time to Erase those Exceptions.
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p.s. I’d like to wish everyone out there a Happy Chinese (Lunar) New Year. Gong Xi Fa Cai! Here’s to happy returns for Madridisimo this Year of the Dragon.

2012-01-18: Real Madrid 1 - Barcelona 2

2012-01-14: Mallorca 1 - Real Madrid 2


Monday, January 16, 2012

Grinding It Out

I will always remember last night's game for Callejon's Celebration: The Canterano showed the world that a man who wears THAT badge never surrenders. Never.
I was reading Guillem Balague’s pre-match thoughts on last night’s game in Sky sports here and this was what he had to say about Mallorca:
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“Under Joaquin Caparros, Mallorca have changed their way of playing. They have a more solid defence but that means they shoot at goal less and lack creativity. They will struggle until the end of the season…”
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This was of course the same Mallorca team who massacred Real Sociedad 6-1 in the Copa Del Rey earlier last week. Of course the part which didn’t get mentioned in Balague’s preview was that apart from forming a forest of Red-and-Black-clad players in front of their goal, Mallorca was also a team that would break out for some pretty fast and impressive counter attacks once they won the ball back – and this was EXACTLY what the islanders did against us last night. They’ve also been drilled well in set pieces – capitalizing on Real Madrid’s Achilles’ Heel as of late.
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In short, last night’s Mallorca team showed that if Joaquin Caparros was a poker player, he’d have been one of those superbly clever ones who knows how to use a poor hand of cards (quality of players) dealt to him to maximum effect. Using a combination of common sense, mind games and near-perfect execution, he nearly managed to put Jose Mourinho’s back to the wall with his team’s play last night. And just as poker players’ tricks and methods can eventually be broken down and analyzed by their rivals and eventually rendered ineffective, I also suspect that Caparros’ Mallorca, while perhaps capable of steering clear of the danger zone, will still not turn out to become the overachievers that they were with Manzano – but that’s another discussion altogether.
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Ripping Out A Page from Pep’s Playbook
As for Jose Mourinho, while it is alarming that his team has been exposed recently as a side vulnerable to a well-executed set piece, credit must still go to the Portuguese for going ‘all-in’ for attack when the chips were down at halftime. The 4-2-3-1 he started with proved to be useless when confronting Caparros’ superbly organized 11-0 formation (all men behind the ball) when Mallorca didn’t have the ball. And so the question emerged in his mind perhaps sometime in the first half: what was the point in having 2 pivots to control a midfield that Mallorca had no interest in occupying / fighting for anyway? Cue the second half changes.
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Average Position of Real Madrid's Players after all of Mourinho's Substitutions (courtesy of ESPN Gamecast - I - photoshopped off Arbeloa, Marcelo and Lass). It was a 3-1-4-2... just like how Barca beat us last December.
By the time Real Madrid made all 3 substitutions in the second half and were still down 1-0: Mourinho had his team playing a formation which he probably ripped out from Pep Guardiola’s playbook: Real Madrid were playing a 3-1-4-2 against a clearly tiring Mallorca squad.
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Three men at the back, all with pace and awareness to chase after anyMallorcabreakout counter attacks: Ramos, Pepe and Coentrao. Marcelo was dropped because well, he can’t defend. I’m more bothered however, for Arbeloa who last season played in one of Mourinho’s remontadas following a decision to go with 3 at the back as well. Does the fact that he was pulled to the bench once again mean that he still hasn’t satisfied Mourinho?
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A Single Pivot: Xabi Alonso. There was no battle for midfield supremacy –Mallorcawere perfectly happy to cede that piece of footballing Real Estate to us: who better to boss it but Xabi Alonso?
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The attacking midfield line of 4: Ronaldo and Callejon on the flanks with twin playmakers (Ozil and Kaka) between them. Ronaldo was lackluster, Kaka was so-so, Ozil seems to be finding his feet again (or is it a case of me developing a renewed appreciation of him?) while Vanilla Joe Callejon put in his usual all-action performance.
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A double-headed Striking Monster: Pipita and Benzema. Where Benzema offered class, technique and his much loved-quality of dropping deep to help in the buildup of play, Pipita offered effort, persistence and his now-signature “Banzai M%therF#cker!” Attitude.
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Now what defense wouldn’t cave in to that?
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Caparros’ plan, as well-executed as it was, may have worked wonders in the first half, it however seemed to be the only plan. And as the time wore on and the Islanders’ ability to threaten on the break waned with fatigue fromMadrid’s siege – it was only a matter of time before their walls would get breached.
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Banzai M%therf#cker!
Gonzalo Higuain: Real Madrid's Captain Kamikaze
It wasn’t the exquisiteness of Karim Benzema’s technical abilities and finishing (which has been on full show over the last few weeks) that won us this match. Ditto for Ronaldo – who still seems to be on the wrong side of his mood swing / bitch fit. It was the spirit of Capello’s Real Madrid that won us this one: the stubborn refusal to lose - borne by the absolute and sheer self belief that the game was only going to end with one result: with 3 points in the bag.
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It was a game with absolutely no aesthetics, save for Ozil’s assist on the opening goal and the sheer audacity from Callejon’s winning-thunderbolt volley. The rest was a pure war of attrition fought on the trenches. And who else was going to be the posterchild for such a win but for Pipita Higuain? The epitome of this was seen in the second goal: created out of nothing but Pipita’s insistence on chasing after a ball that seemed destined for the hands of the keeper. TheMallorcadefense was there too – but this didn’t stop Pipita from barging in to rattle Dudu Auate and offering Benzema the chance to poke the goal home (deflected) – then in comes Callejon and the rest was history. 3 points in the bag. (I’ll just gloss over the fact that Mourinho had him playing at RB to defend the lead afterwards).
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It’s relief to see that despite the team’s newfound ability to dominate teams, despite the demoralizing loss to Barca, despite the post-winder break funk our players are suffering, despite the good and the bad – that Real Madrid can still fashion a good old win by grinding it out.
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Most of all, I will remember this match by Jose Callejon’s celebration following his winning goal: running to the bench with his hand stretching out to show the world the badge on it. In this time where the shadow of Barca is cast well above us, it’s great to take comfort from the fact that those who wear the white shirt know exactly who their playing for and what that truly means.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Great Article on Soccernet

Zonal Marking's Michael Cox wrote a fantastic piece on our very own Mesut Ozil on ESPN Soccernet. Have a read here: