Sunday, February 19, 2012

Taking Care of Business (Real Madrid 4 – Racing Santander 0)



Last night, Real Madrid were given the most glorious opportunity to go to bed with a 13-point lead over Barcelona. It was an opportunity that was as clear as day: against a bottom team who were on a freefall (Racing Santander), at home and on the back of what has largely been a sweet Valentine’s Month for Real Madrid. There was no reason for Real Madrid to step on a banana skin except for a lack of motivation or concentration – and last night, on the back of their 4-0 win over Racing, they not only went to bed with a 13 point lead over Barca, they also managed to put to bed any suspicions that the team may be lacking in focus or motivation. Real Madrid took care of business alright: their dominance and control over the match was so commanding and undisputed, that the match actually was a bit boring.
.
I know I quoted Jose Mourinho in my last review, saying he was right when identified the fact that our rivals from now are all playing matches with their season’s objectives in mind (survival, European places, etc.) – but let’s call it what it is: Getafe, Levante, Racing and Rayo Vallecano (our rivals for the month of February) are not exactly teams that will get Real Madrid jittery. This is the time of the season for Madrid to rack up the points and pad that lead against Barca who are facing their annual early year fatigue issues (aggravated by their participation in the World Club Cup and their tricky Copa Del Rey tie vs. Valencia), and with us playing one game a week against weaker teams without even having to leave the city of Madrid. If there was a time to rack up the points, it’s now and I’m glad to see Real Madrid taking care of business.
.
And just as I began to daydream of a pasillo at the Camp Nou or even winning the title there, I was rudely reminded of out hellish April fixture list: away to the kick-you-to-death Osasuna, at home to Valencia, a Madrid Derby vs. Diego Simeone’s Atleti (and we know they’re not the same Atleti anymore) at the Calderon, at home to Sporting, then the Clasico at the Camp Nou and then Sevilla after that… and we haven’t even counted the Champions League fixtures in yet. Valentine’s February is indeed the time to win and nurse our injured players back to health before this season’s crunch time truly rolls around the corner.
.
.
A Break from Remontadas
Jose Mourinho will be happy to note that we didn’t have to win this game via remontada. We dominated the match from start to finish. 68% possession for the entire game, no ‘whew’ moments, no periods of rear guard action, 90 minutes of Real Madrid laying siege to Racing’s goal: it was the sort of performance that was so dominating to the point of dullness to be honest (where I as a viewer wished that Racing would just some how fight back). In today’s AS, editor Alfredo Relano even found himself calling this the best Real Madrid he had seen in his life (though he confessed to not have seen Di Stefano’s Madrid in their peak) – a big statement coming from a man who claims to have been watching Real Madrid for over 50 years. The truth is that because the match was in my opinion a bit dull (and I blame Racing for that), most of my talking points for the match are just notable tactical talking points with very little waxing lyrical.
.
Glad to See Varane Again
While I totally understand the sentiment of wanting to see Castilla’s Carvajal get a game in lieu of Arbeloa’s suspension and Lass’ injury (Mou did point out that he couldn’t have played?), I would have much rather seen game time for our under-used Centerbacks Albiol and Varane. If we’re all building up to the crescendo of the season on April-May, playing a match every 3 days, the importance of getting as many first-team players completely combat-ready is essential. Mourinho chose to play Varane last night and the young Frenchman duly didn’t disappoint. He played in a more withdrawn CB role relative to Pepe. Varane is clearly now ahead of Albiol in the pecking order in the squad – with Ramos clearly now a CB, it well and truly looks like El Chori and the seemingly in-decline Carvalho is the odd man out. I expect one of the 2 if not both to be moving on in the offseason. Given Mourinho’s trust in Carvalho however, it sadly looks like it’s Albiol (who’s also worth more in the transfer market) who will be the odd man out. With that, Mourinho will be left with only Arbeloa as the team’s only natural RB. It will be curious to see if Mourinho will stick to rotating 3 players (Lass, Altintop & Coentrao) to back him up or if Carvajal can get the break into the first team we Madridistas are all hoping for – in any case, that’s a discussion for the offseason…
.
.
The Malleable 4-2-3-1
Last week, we saw how the presence of Pipita and Benzema turned what was supposedly a 4-2-3-1 into a variety of 4-4-2 iterations. This week, with Kaka and Ozil joining Cristiano in the attacking line of 3 behind Benzema as the lone striker, there were a couple of combinations worth taking note of.
.
.
The more he plays, the better his performances get as his confidence increases. I REALLY hope Mou keeps it up with playing Granero

When playing with a single recognizable striker, Granero’s positioning allows the 4-2-3-1 to become a 4-1-4-1. With Granero’s natural position being more advanced as compared to your usual ‘pivot’ midfielder, he tends to drift further up the pitch and uses not just his passing, but also his movement / mobility to shuttle the ball up or to push up to receive a forward pass: often times bringing him aligned to the ‘10’ (who in last night’s case was Kaka). Xabi Alonso played as the lone pivot many times last night, being supported by Pepe (who played the more forward CB role last night). Once again, I wish to point out that this arrangement (of having a single pivot) will probably only work against weaker teams who have little or no ambition to control the midfield. That vertical movement of Granero’s up and down, together with his passing ability is a great fit against such teams: it is a quality that neither Khedira nor Lass is great at (especially Lass). It’s also clear to see that Granero’s performances have been progressively increasing in level as he accumulates minutes on the pitch with his rising confidence: watch out for when he actually starts scoring on those attempts from distance: it’s a weapon I’ve seen in every canterano playing CM (beginning with Ruben Dela Red). If Mourinho keeps giving him minutes, we’ll eventually see it turn up – and I’m pretty sure it’ll start getting those Granero-doubters out there second-guessing themselves
.
Benzema has turned into a BEAST of a player this season.

Benzema – the ‘9’ that really isn’t a ‘9’. If you saw him and his goal scoring numbers in Lyon without really watching him play a full match, you’d definitely think Karim Benzema was a near-classic #9 – he scores lots of goals, is an amazing technical finisher, has the size of a #9 player and even counts arguably the best #9 of all time (the Brazilian Ronaldo) as his idol. Benzema however is no #9. After gaining his fitness in a weight-loss spa on the thanks to Zidane and gaining his aggression from Mourinho, Benzema now plays a very dynamic game up front. Last night, he was constantly switching positions: first with Ronaldo to play on the left wing to allow Ronaldo as a Center Forward and then at times dropping deep ‘into the hole’. He has become a marking nightmare for defenders who find themselves utterly confused with regards to who gets to mark him – the Center Half? The Full-Back? The Defensive Midfielder? If you’re a coach planning a defensive scheme against a team with Benzema, it’ll be a massive headache, if you’re a coach planning a defensive scheme against a team with Benzema AND Ronaldo + Higuain + Kaka + Callejon (whom he’ll be switching positions with CONSTANTLY in the game): forget about it, lest your headache becomes a brain tumor.
.
.
Welcome Back El Fideo
Madridisimo welcomed El Fideo Angel Di Maria back last night too – and he duly acknowledged the welcome he received with a golazo: a classic goal scored by an ‘inverted winger’ (where he cuts diagonally in to unleash his shot from his favored foot) – the sort of goal Arjen Robben scores all the time and the same one El Fideo scored vs. Tottenham last season in the Champions league. It’s too bad he wasn’t called up for the CSKA game, though it’s probably for the best as sending him in to play in below 10 freezing temperature on an artificial pitch sounds like a fishy idea to me – especially with the likes of Callejon, Kaka and Ozil all available, fit and in form.
.
.
Next Up: Plastic and Snow
The team has now traveled to Moscow to play CSKA. In a match against a team whose level is considerably lower compared to Madrid’s both in talent and in fitness (their in pre-season), the boys’ main obstacles will be the below-freezing temperature, the artificial pitch and what may turn out to be an intimidatingly hostile crowd. I’m not expecting a repeat of last night’s result – but I do think a narrow win or a draw wouldn’t be a bad result as we can always clean them out at the Bernabeu. In the mean time, Barca play Valencia in a couple of hours… let’s hope Los Che can get a bit of payback for the Copa Del Rey Semifinal – I’d like to see a couple of ex-Madridistas on the scoresheet too (take your pick between Soldado and Parejo). I'm keeping my fingers crossed...

Real Madrid - Racing Santander: Match Preview


2012-02-12: Real Madrid 4 - Levante 2


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Learning to Drive (Real Madrid 4 – Levante 2)



COUNT 'EM UP! Messi and Pique counting the number of points we have over Barca. Say 'Cheese' Guys.



Last week it was 7up. This week, we’re all out of names of fizzy drinks to describe our lead: it’s now TEN points. 10. Beautiful.
.
Sid Lowe had some great feel-good reading material re: Real Madrid too (read the full article here):
They are relentless, irresistible and boast gigantic variety about them. The sheer number of great players they have was likely to tell eventually – on Sunday, the 13 players who turned out for Madrid cost a combined 364m* – and although the tensions have been real, and the mistakes apparent, the work that Mourinho has done is impressive. He has also been given a second year – a concession not made for any of his predecessors.
Even when Madrid are not playing well, they have a power that is unrivalled. This is an astonishingly athletic side; talented, too. As the former Madrid sporting director Miguel-Angel Portugal put it on Sunday night: "Against Madrid, when you're most convinced you can win you're suddenly two down, or three, or four … You leave thinking you have played well but you have been hammered." Just look at the number of chances Madrid create from other teams' corners.”
.
Mourinho is right though: the points will be harder to win at this point as every club we face will now have established their goals for the season: be it survival, a place in the top 10, a place in Europe and so forth. Then there’s also the matter of concentration: the players may deny it, but Mourinho’s concerns over a lack of focus are true too: both goals conceded last night were clear examples of poor focus. Replays after Levante’s opening goal show a clearly guilty Arbeloa (he had that ‘shit, that was my fault’ look) while Ramos and Pepe were clearly culpable for Levante’s 2nd goal – more of Ramos actually as Pepe, who made the unsuccessful last-second lunge to block the shot, was actually marking the Levante player drifting to the far post.
.
Let’s make no mistake about it: this is La Liga crunch time. This is where having Mourinho on the bench counts, especially for teams who haven’t won a league title in a while. Where the likes of Manchester City in England can stutter and bottle league leadership at the slightest show of ferocity of Fergie’s men, Mourinho’s Chelsea did no such thing. Getting a 10 point lead is one thing – keeping it and padding it further is another. Real Madrid haven’t won a league title in 4 years: with a squad that can only count on Casillas, Ramos, Higuain, Pepe and Marcelo as holdovers from the last league, this isn’t exactly a team soaked in championship experience. Maintaining motivation, stability, focus and concentration are easy words to pronounce, but difficult ones to practice. Real Madrid must now learn how to be leaders: how to handle being on the driver’s seat.
.
.
Mourinho’s English Love Affair
FUNCTIONAL DIAGRAM of Mourinho's asymmetrical 4-4-2 last night. Solid Lines denote movement patterns while  dashed lines denote passing pattern. With Ozil drifting inward, Arbeloa enjoyed much more action on the right compared to Coentrao. Ozil's involvement was also activated by Granero's movement forward and Benzema dropping deep

The one thing I would like most to note from last night’s match was Mourinho’s chosen formation. Perhaps due to Kaka’s bleh performance last weekend, Mourinho instead chose to see the ‘double 9’ partnership (Pipita and Benzema) over the ‘double 10’ (Ozil and Kaka). Instead of using the usual 4-2-3-1 (where Benzema would be on the right or left) while using the 2 strikers, Mourinho instead opted to use a very ‘English’ 4-4-2: with Benzema and Pipita together upfront with the Frenchman just slightly behind Pipita. It was a role that liberated Benzema (and turned him into one of the game’s bright spots): allowing him to play his natural game of dropping deep, help in the buildup play, but at the same time make runs and receive passes to wreak havoc on the Levante defense… and while we all are still trying really hard to come to terms with the fact that Ronaldo’s third goal really did happen, let’s not forget that Benz’s goal last night was an absolute peach as well.
On the flanks Ronaldo played on the left in his usual role as an attacking winger. Despite the fact that he had a hat trick, which included that wonder strike for the 3rd goal (and 4000th scored in the Bernabeu), he was not as central to the buildup play as we were accustomed to last night. I suspect that this was due to the absence of his left wing ‘running mate’ Marcelo. Coentrao and Ronaldo may be compatriots, but the 2 do not have the near-telepathic understanding that Ronaldo enjoys with Marcelo (something for Portugal Coach Paolo Bento to have a look at). Ozil on the other hand, played as an ‘inside right’ midfielder (making it an asymmetrical 4-4-2), drifting inward, funneling balls diagonally forward to his strikers into the center for Granero, or out to the flanks for Arbeloa. With the presence of Granero’s forward movement, and with more activity on his flank (due to Marcelo’s absence), Ozil had plenty to do and looked great doing as such – shame that the goal post literally got in the way of his nutmeg move on Ballesteros from culminating into a goal.
.
Average Positions of Real Madrid's Starters last night (courtesy of Soccernet's Gamecast): it actually resembles a Brazilian 4-2-4!
At the heart of midfield, just like in a good ‘ol 4-4-2, Esteban Granero played the role of a box-to-box midfielder and then some… and he looked great last night doing it too! Apart from spraying passes across the midfield and making constant runs up and down to receive passes (mostly from Ozil) to keep the midfield linked up (mostly on the right side), Granero would also at times completely disengage from his pivot position beside Alonso to occupy a considerably more advanced position: turning the ‘English 4-4-2’ into an ‘Argentinean 4-1-3-2’ (nevermind that the team’s average position on the pitch resembled a ‘Brazilian 4-2-4’ – see the gamecast diagram) with Alonso as the lone pivot. Before anyone gets carried away with what they saw however, let me state that I feel that this way of playing is suitable only for teams like Levante who have no ambition to control possession – against team’s with a stronger midfield or with more attacking potency, such play will likely prove to be very dangerous.
.
.
Learning to Drive
Average Position of Mourinho's Subs after I photoshopped off the subbed-off starters. Note the deeper and more 'conservative' positions of Kaka, Khedira and Callejon compared to Ozil, Higuain and Granero whom they replaced.

It was after Cristiano’s wondergoal (which was spontaneously and emphatically celebrated with Mourinho and the entire team) where the coach’s voice of displeasure haunts us: about how the team got carried away in their seemingly greater desire to put Levante to the sword than to secure the 3 points. It is no wonder why substitutes Kaka, and Khedira positioned themselves much deeper and played with much less attacking intent once sent in (see diagram of average positions).
.
10 points allows the team not just the breathing room to make mistakes, but also to make priorities. The Champions League is back on this month and with injuries and form issues at hand, a 10 point cushion will now allow Mourinho to rotate his squad to allow the best lineups with the most-fit/rested players playing the key matches (i.e. Champions League, matches stronger La Liga teams). It’s a very different perspective indeed when seeing the league through the lens of today’s league table. It’s time for Real Madrid to get comfy sitting on the driver’s seat with their hands on the wheel.
.
Who knows, at this rate, Real Madrid might actually be able to pull off another feat I will be proud to tell my son all about: a pasillo at the Camp Nou in the coming clasico. If such a thing were to happen, I would totally feel conflicted as to what I would want to see more: the match? the pasillo? Or the looks on the cules’ faces as it happens. Either way, with 39 points still to play for, let’s not count the chickens while the eggs aren’t even in the basket just yet – but when the time comes for them to hatch, I’d love to know who’s selling tickets.