Tuesday, December 3, 2013

On a Roll (Real Madrid 4 – Real Valladolid 0)

I’ll start with a clip from a band whose music was a ‘guilty pleasure’ of sorts: Limp Bizkit’s ‘Rolling’:
It’s the second consecutive match now: 
Real Madrid had to play without Cristiano Ronaldo
Real Madrid had to play without Sami Khedira.
Two Consecutive Home wins
Two Consecutive Four-goal thrashings
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Last night was also Barca’s first loss (playing with no Messi, Alves, Valdes, etc.) – their points total now equal with Atleti and within 3 points from us. Alas, leadership is now looking more and more within touching distance. The team is now on a roll.
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A Touching Surprise
A Big Thanks for the Thoughts and Prayers for my Countrymen in Need
As a Filipino supporter of Real Madrid, the past 2 matches have been marked by touching surprise to see messages of solidarity (from UEFA during the midweek match vs. Galatasaray and from Real Madrid during last Saturday’s match) to the people of my country, particularly the victims of Typhoon Haiyan. A shoutout must also go to Real Sociedad, who donated the ticketsale proceeds of their Celta match to the humanitarian cause. While I am fortunate to have no relatives affected by Haiyan’s carnage, many others have not been so fortunate (my wife’s friend lost her 12 month old child). A big thank you goes to those who have spent a moment in prayer to my countrymen.
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Shelving the 4-3-3 and Rebooting the 4-2-3-1
Going back to the football, perhaps one of the most significant talking points after the international break has been the return of the 4-2-3-1 formation. It was the injury to Sami Khedira that has led to the change. Perhaps it’s of no interest to some, but I’ll attempt to explain anyway:
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Excluding the fullbacks, a 4-2-3-1 entails the use of 4 attacking players. The 2 ‘pivots’ are given responsibility for the team’s midfield shape and have mostly a restricted role in terms of offensive contribution. At its worst: it can remarkably boring (think Capello’s Madrid with M. Diarra and Emerson in the pivot) and creates a ‘broken team’ – with an invisible line between the 2 pivots and that 10 which demarcate the players who can license to attack and those designated to sit back. At its best however, it can still be utilized as an attacking formation – the likes of Heynckes’ treble-winning Bayern side have used it effectively. It is still however mostly a system that suits a team with pace which can transition from defense to attack very quickly to play a very direct-style of football which many critics dismiss as ‘counterattacking’. Its current foremost practitioners include Klopp’s Dortmund, Rafa Benitez’s Napoli and of the recent past: Mou’s Madrid.
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The 4-3-3 (with a single holder) on the other hand IN PRINCIPLE – allows up to FIVE men excluding the fullbacks to participate in an attack: the front 3 plus the 2 CMs flanking the holder.  The caveat however is that the 2 CMs are not given the license to carelessly roam like a classic ‘10’ lest the team’s spine becomes to weak. And given a brief to play more attractively and perform better in possession, Ancelotti envisioned a Modric-Alonso-Khedira trio through the middle combining, mobile combination passing (Modric) and steel (Khedira) with a passing fulcrum (Alonso). And it started to look like the team’s 2 young Spaniards and ex-Castilla player would become understudies to the roles of the 3 vets.
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Without Khedira however, whose understudy was Isco, Ancelotti wouldn’t have the benefit of fielding his best XI while using that system. The use of the 30m Isco, who is yet to ‘master’ his role in a 4-3-3 was paramount. Thus the reason why I THINK that Ancelotti has opted to return to the 4-2-3-1. For the past 3 matches, I would have to say that the most interesting point to note about the lineup and formation was the combinations of pivots which Carletto employed. Against Almeria, he played with 2 passing pivots (Alonso and Illaramendi), against Galatasaray at home, he played a utility man (Casemiro) alongside with Alonso. While last Saturday, Alonso was partnered with linkman Modric at the middle of the park. In all 3 matches, Isco started as a ‘10’ and wowed us all with his class. Against the weak Valladolid at home, the Alonso-Modric-Isco trio completely dominated the midfield. I do suspect however, that Ancelotti will opt for the Alonso-Illaramendi-Isco trio in a tougher match and will consider the use of a 4-3-3 featuring Alonso-Casemiro-Modric in other tough matches too. Methinks that Modric has now evolved away from being a classic ‘10’ and thus lineups that involve Modric but not Isco will become a 4-3-3.
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On a personal level, I’m not partial to any system or combination as of yet. We will only know which system is suited best once we see it deployed against tougher opposition.
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Needless to say, that the familiarity of the 4-2-3-1 plus the increased levels of the team’s overall confidence has seen us transition back to our familiar system seamlessly with great results. Freed of his defensive responsibility, Isco has spent the last 3 matches tap-dancing his way around opposing defenders and defensive midfielders and I’ve really enjoyed watching every minute of it.
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The Prince of Wales
I always knew Bale would be a Star for Madrid one day. I just didn't expect that he'd reach that level this season. He and Ancelotti have proven me dead wrong.
An Arsenal-supporting friend of mine euphorically asked me yesterday how much I was enjoying ‘our Welshman’ (suggesting that he too was enjoying his team’s Welshman Aaron Ramsey). Last Saturday, he scored the ‘perfect hat trick’ (one with his left, one with his right and one with his head), apart from assisting the also-in-form Benzema. Bale now has 9 goals and 6 assists in 13 matches – making him directly responsible for 15 goals thus far (slightly above a goal per game). A Big congratulations to my friend, to his Aaron Ramsey (who he’s been talking up since 3-4 years ago) and to his Arsenal, but it’s impossible to argue against Bale being the more enjoyable Welshman to watch.  Last Saturday, his latter 2 goals where a showcase of the physical specimen that he is: accelerating into the box, leaving his defensive markers eating dust as he got into position to score. My Arsenal supporting-friend noticed something about Bale too – in Spain, his frame is visibly larger when compared to many of his opponents, most of whom are Spanish or South American. Thus, with his power, and sheer explosive pace, most of his defenders are at a loss trying to figure out how to stop him.  A big congratulations should also be put forth to Carlo Ancelotti: for successfully integrating Bale into the team whilst recovering his physical condition. I said before that this season would be a writeoff for Bale and Carletto’s work proved me dead wrong.
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The Pauper Prince
The Madrid and British media have had a frenzy over Gareth Bale’s performance. While much of the praise is deserved, I admit that I’m deeply irritated by the British press’ overkill horn-tooting over the success of a Briton in the continent. Headlines that spout ‘Who needs Ronaldo?’ have honestly disgusted me. Thus I urge Real Madrid fans to steer clear of the British horn-tooting rhetoric. It’s important to keep things in perspective and look beyond the surface.
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Last Saturday’s unsung hero was not the Prince of Wales, but the Pauper Prince – Angel Di Maria, and Ancelotti rightly singledout ‘El Fideo’ as deserving praise (he said: “Di Maria's performance was fantastic. He was our most dangerous player and he adapts to different positions on the field"). If I was a Valladolid defender, I would have considered Bale as the player to fear but Di Maria was the player to hate. The Argentine was absolute pest who wore down the Valladolid defense.
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Time to Roll On and then Crank it up some more.
As Barca appear to show signs of running out of steam (their play has been criticized these past few games and they’ve now lost 2 on the trot), the time has come for Madrid not to just keep rolling along, but to crank it up yet another gear higher. After the midweek CDR fixture, a tough trip to Pamplona to face the gritty Osasuna awaits us. Let’s hope that the time has come for the good times to roll: the varying midfield mixtures can all create magic, the kitty cat has not become a Lion again (Benzema), the team is clicking, the 2 Princes have found their form… and of course, King Cristiano returns.

Monday, November 11, 2013

To the BBC! (Real Madrid 5 - Real Sociedad 1)


One would have thought that after bashing Osasuna 5-0 last weekend and having been able to withstand Manchester United’s onslaught this weekend that Real Sociedad would have been capable of putting up a much better fight last Saturday. They did not. They collapsed like a house of cards after some minimal prodding from our boys. I was confident of a Real Madrid win coming into the match, following a string of matches that saw the emergence of our front 3 clicking. I did not however, expect a whitewash. But who’s complaining, right?
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The BBC (Bale, Benzema and Cristiano)
Real Madrid's New Super Trio: The BBC - Benzema, Bale and Cristiano
So apparently, everyone at the club is now referring to our front 3 as the BBC. It might not be much of a coincidence that these initials which is commonly associated with the British Broadcasting Corporation were associated with our front line following the acquisition the man who is currently hailed as British Football’s  superstar: Gareth Bale.
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It is not just that fact that our normally-sullen French Striker has just snapped back into form or that the supposedly (and still not 100%) fit Bale has been starting, playing 90 minutes, handing out assists and scoring goals. It’s actually the fact that the 3 have been making and scoring goals FOR EACH OTHER. Last Saturday – Ronaldo had 3 goals and 1 assist (to Benzema), Benzema had 1 goal and 1 assist (to Ronaldo) while Bale ‘broke the rhythm’ by assisting to Khedira.
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The second choice front 3 are no slouches either AJM – Angel Di Maria, Jese and Morata are also more than enough to spook a defense.
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The match was also marked by the chanting of ‘Cristiano Ronaldo, Balon D’ Oro!’ from the stands of the Bernabeu. While I wholeheartedly believe that Ronaldo’s tenure and undisputably astounding accomplishments at Real Madrid deserve a Balon D’ Or, I have reason to believe that it won’t be this year. Blatter aside, Real Madrid haven’t won any silverware this year despite the fact that CR’s superhuman individual accomplishments deserving of the honor. I have a bad feeling that the FIFA mafia will still give it to Messi (over Bayern’s Ribery who also deserves a shot at the award). It doesn’t matter though – Ronaldo is hands down Balon D’ Oro for Madridisimo… and from Ancelotti’s post-match comments, I think he is only starting to REALLY understand how truly, truly special his no. 7 is.
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There’s also been much discussion re: Karim Benzema who was substituted to a standing ovation from the Bernabeu. He is rightly evolving into a role perfectly suited to his characteristics within this lineup. As a striker, Benzema has never been known to be a voracious scorer of goals (32 goals in all competitions for the 2011-2012 season was his best). He has however, a knack for assisting goals that is a tad unusual for a striker: his 32 goal season saw him with 15 assists whilst his disappointing 20-goal total last season was ‘compensated’ with a staggering 20 assists too. To put that number into context, Mesut Ozil had 18 assists last season – Karim out-assisted him! This season, he has 8 goals and 8 assists thus far and is very much becoming a sort of ‘playmaking’ striker.
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It puts certain things into mind:
1.)  That Karim Benzema shouldn’t be judged solely on the number of goals he scores in a season. It is his overall contribution to the team’s attack that must be considered (e.g. assists)
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2.)That replacing him with a player meant soley as a high-volume goalscorer (e.g. Falcao)  is quite likely not a good idea.
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3.)This does not mean however that he gets a free pass for missing 2-yard sitters or for not putting in the right amount of defensive effort.
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Midfield Balance? Or Sissy Sociedad?
Is Alonso the man to make the difference in Madrid's Midfield once again?
Last Saturday, Real Madrid started with a midfield of Modric, Alonso and Khedira. It was as close to Ancelotti’s ideal midfield combination which consisted of a veteran deep-lying midfielder tasked with ball distribution controlling the tempo of the match (Xabi Alonso), a mobile but defensively sound passer tasked with spraying short passes across the pitch (Modric) and a utility man to physically impose himself on both sides of the pitch (Khedira).
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Many envision a sense of symmetry for the midfield: of having 2 players of similar characteristics on either side of the holder (Alonso). This however has rarely been the case with the midfields of successful 4-3-3s – including Ancelotti’s. Both his 2003 and2007 sides featured a deep-lying ball distributor tasked with dictating the pace of their play (Pirlo) and to his right, a guy to provide muscle, ball winning, simple passing and the occasional attacking move (Gattuso).  The key midfield difference between the 2003 and 2007 midfield 3 was Seedorf (2003) and Ambrosini (2007, where Seedorf played as part of the front 3 of the ‘christmas tree’). Either way, they key thing to note is that the midfield was NOT symmetrical and that there is nothing if it’s not.
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Likewise for Madrid, Ancelotti has opted for an asymmetrical midfield with Alonso as his modern day Pirlo (with double the passing range plus the ability to tackle and win balls) flanked by Khedira (Gattuso) and Modric (Seedorf). Last Saturday, the midfield looked considerably more balanced. Was it the presence of Alonso, who not only provided passing and ball-winning, but also leadership at the epicenter of the Real Madrid Formation? Was it the fact that Khedira played a more balanced game? Or was it Modric’s incredibly dynamic display?
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Or was it also Sociedad’s shockingly bad midfield display? While Madrid’s players moved with such dynamic purpose with and without the ball, Sociedad were absolutely hapless. The truth is probably a combination of both. Either way, it was unexpected to see the match sorted out by halftime.
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All in all, beyond Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern and PSG winning, it was a mostly weekend of surprise results: Monaco only managing a draw in France, Borussia slumping to a surprise loss to Wolfsburg (and catastrophically losing Subotic for the rest of the season) while Arsenal, Spurs and City all stumbled in England. In Spain, Atleti dropped points once again – making them now only a mere 3 points away from us. There are promising signs all around and all in all it’s a great sensation to have heading into another International Break.
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A Call for Help
Before I end, I’d like to make a request to all RMFB readers out there, whatever color or creed – I’d like please spare a thought or prayer for my countrymen in the Philippines who have suffered through a massive super typhoon (for those who aren’t familiar with the situation, you can check out: https://twitter.com/ExtremeStorms to see what happened). It is estimated that there might be up to 10,000 dead. There is a massive need for aid in the area. Those who wish to donate can do so through the Philippine Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org.ph/donate). Let’s all count ourselves lucky that in times such as these – it is the beautiful game that occupies our minds and hearts and not the horrors that mother nature can inflict upon humanity.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Trios, Mashups, Doldrums and Conundrums (Juventus 2 – Real Madrid 2)

Juventus 2 – Real Madrid 2. In the end, it was a fair result.  It was a game of 2 halves. After Real Madrid’s opening sequence that strung what must have been 20+ passes (hailed by a deafening shriek of whistles from the Juventus Stadium crowd), the first half was all Juventus. In the second, half, it was mostly Real Madrid. Copenhagen away and Galatasaray at home is next – it shouldn’t be a problem to qualify now. What’s left to see in the group is the dog fight that will happen for 2nd place in the group. I would personally like to see Juve fail to advance. They are a team who are capable of eliminating us should we run into them in the knockout stages… BUT we’ve already proven we can beat them (a win at home and a 2-goal score draw away).
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Real Madrid’s Dynamic Trio: Cristian Bale + The Catman
A Nice Graphic I found Online prior to Last Tuesday's Match
The most heartening part of the match for Real Madrid fans would be the sight of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale not only scoring goals, but also creating them for each other. I had prematurely declared Gareth Bale’s 2013-2014 season to be a writeoff (much like Modric’s 2012-2013 season was) and have been duly proven wrong. It’s a beautiful shock for me to see how the front 3 of Ronaldo Bale and Benzema have clicked so wonderfully. In the last 3 matches, Ronaldo has had 6 goals + 1 assist, Bale has had 3 goals and 4 assists and Benzema has had 3 goals and 3 assists.  The criticism that Real Madrid is merely a team of individuals is no longer valid. Attacking players are no longer being mindlessly given the ball in the spirit of ‘here’s the ball, now we’ll move out of the way and let you do your thing.’ Instead, the front 3 are being fed with intelligent balls into spaces and having their runs being tracked and synchronized with each other. We are seeing more interchanges between players and less individual goals.
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What we are seeing now is also the phenomenon that many coaches and pundits have said: great players want to play with other great players. It is of course of great help that within the team, there is an clearly recognized and undisputed alpha dog (Ronaldo) with his 2 wingmen (Benzema and Bale) more than willing to accept their role to back up the alpha dog.
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Perhaps the unreasonable fans of Madrid expected the 3 to be clicking as magnificently as this since the beginning of the season. To me however, the accomplishment of getting this trio to click as an attacking unit is a remarkable achievement that merits praise for Ancelotti and the coaching staff.
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4-3-3 vs. 4-2-3-1: Midfield Mashups and Defensive Doldrums
Before I discuss the midfield, I just want to clear something up: a lot of people replied to my last post (where I said that Madrid played a 4-3-3), saying that whoscored.com had Madrid listed as a 4-2-3-1. I know that – and that’s why I’m frustrated. Because a look at the average positions diagram of that match (which can also be seen in Soccernet gamecast’s average positions diagram) shows Madrid playing as a 4-3-3 with Isco playing the role of a carillero, just like Khedira with a single holder sitting in front of our defense. So I’ll say it again: for quite some time now, Ancelotti’s Madrid has been playing a 4-3-3: with Illaramendi / Alonso as the holders (Ramos played this role vs. Barca) and with 2 midfielders on either side.
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The truth is, I have no idea as to why Ancelotti has been shunning the 4-2-3-1: a formation that majority of clubs in Europe (including many of the best ones including the pre-Ancelotti Real Madrid) are using. We started with a 4-3-3, dabbled a bit with a 4-4-2 (4-2-2-2) and now we're back to the 4-3-3. Is it the stigma that is normally associated with the 4-2-3-1 that it is a 'counterattacking formation'? Jupp Heynckes Bayern played a 4-2-3-1 with an emphasis on possession last season. Or is it the association that the 4-3-3 has with a possession style of play (e.g. Barca, Ajax, Pep's Bayern)? We shouldn't forget though that Mourinho's Chelsea v1.0, mostly known as a grind-results-out team, played a 4-3-3. It is thus important to drop the stereotypes about formations (4-2-3-1 is for counter attacking, 4-3-3 is for possession). Whether a team is proactive or reactive is ALWAYS down to the application of the formation and not the formation itself.
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At the moment however, I blame the 4-3-3 for 2 things that are currently happening to Madrid: 1.) the 'shipwrecking' of our '10' and 2.) many of the team's current defensive woes. Despite the fact that Madridisimo is celebrating the clicking together of the world's most expensive front line (Ronaldo-Benzema-Bale), a question is rubbing many Madridistas the wrong way still: what's going on with Isco? He has been an unused sub for 2 consecutive games, both of which have been away games. It's also notable that while the 4-3-3's frontline has clicked, producing 12 goals in 3 matches (an average of 4 goals / game), the defense has also conceded 7 goals in those the games (2.3 goals / match). As entertaining as it may be, this is not the way to win league titles - and especially not the way to win cup competitions with away goals rules.
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Our CMs need to understand the dynamics of the system as well as embrace their defensive responsibilities just as much as their attacking opportunities.
I wish to make it VERY CLEAR however that I AM NOT AGAINST the 4-3-3. I am merely saying that the players' unfamiliarity with the system is currently the culprit for the team's defensive suffering. The beauty of the 4-3-3 (compared to the 4-2-3-1) is that when on 'attack mode' the team using it can attack with five men (the front 3 plus 2 CMs) plus the fullbacks with only the holder having to play with restraint sitting in front of the defense. It is thus NOT FAIR for people to criticize Khedira for 'playing as if he thought he was Ozil' - because in such a system, part of his role is to bomb forward when the team was on attack mode. The caveat however is that neither of the 2 CMs have a 'free role' - both men are required to also take on considerable responsibilities on defense for pressing and ball winning. It is for this reason that the CM role in such a system is very physically taxing and for this reason also why Di Maria (who has demonstrated the willingness to accept defensive responsibility) was played as a CM against Rayo Vallecano. For Real Madrid, it helps that we have quite a number of alternatives in the squad.
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In Turin Tuesday, Juve lined up in a similar formation as us: with Pirlo sitting deep as the holder and primary ball distributor with 2 midfield (physical) beasts playing alongside him in Vidal and Pogba. In his post-match comments, Ancelotti correctly observed that Madrid were defending too deep. For me, the key observation I had during the Juve-dominated first half was how rampant Pogba was close to our goal. With Madrid defending deep while Juve was on attack mode, the Bianconeri enjoyed a 1-to-1 matchup against our defense with Marchisio keeping Marcelo occupied on the left and Llorente keeping Pepe alert at the center. To our right however, Tevez caused confusion with his constant movement - sometimes playing along the touchline to trouble Ramos, while sometimes drifting to the middle to pester Varane. Topping this all off was the rampant Pogba who would charge forward past Alonso (who in turn still needed to worry about Vidal). Ramos (RB) and Varane were both given equal doses of dealing with Pogba and Tevez who were constantly switching positions. In the end, the penalty conceded was from a foul by Varane on Pogba (perfectly taken by Vidal). 
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The simple solution on paper would have been to have Khedira track Pogba (and Modric track Vidal). Playing as deep as we were however, having Khedira track Pogba meant the deformity of the team shape. Thus, we all saw that the players have not yet fully grasped the dynamics of the formation just yet in a manner that allows them to identify the adjustments that need to be made to counteract how the opponent plays. 
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For the 21-year old Isco, he will need to make the same journey as Luka Modric - to go through the learning curve of being a natural '10' having to learn to influence the game from a deeper position as well as take on additional defensive responsibilities. 
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The Casillas Conundrum

Cagliari's Pinilla and Nainggolan capture their reactions to Iker's saves from the Juve match for the Twitter world
The world is collectively marveling at Iker Casillas' performance vs. Juve last Tuesday. As a Real Madrid fan of quite a number of years, I confess that I considered last Tuesday's performance from Iker a 'usual Iker performance' i.e. littered with marvelous saves. Perhaps less noticed however were his poor reactions to crosses and some corners. Many of them were met with an unconvincing single-handed punch from Iker which he would sneak between the bodies that have piled up in the 6-yard box immediately in front of him.
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Make no mistake about it: I'm used to this too and am willing to accept such shaky moments in return for the sort of world-class shot-stopping that we saw last night. All my years as a Real Madrid fan have featured Casillas in goal and while I recognize the importance of decisively dealing with crosses, I actually don't recall too many goals conceded by Iker borne from this weakness. I do however understand and accept Ancelotti's decision to opt for what he PERCEIVES as a safer bet: a 'keeper who is more secure in dealing with fundamentals (e.g. dealing with crosses, commanding the box, etc.) rather than one who might not have all of them fully mastered but who will pull off shotstopping miracles on the pitch. 
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Real Sociedad pay us as visit this weekend. Thankfully, for me - the match will be shown in a decent hour (11pm Singapore time). Here's to hoping for all the attacking thrills and no more of the defensive spills. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Moving On (Real Madrid 7 - Sevilla 3)



In a press conference before last Wednesday's Sevilla match, Carlo Ancelotti enthusiastically said that (I paraphrase): "We are very close to seeing his Real Madrid."
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I'm now wondering what he said to the boys before he came out of that tunnel in the Bernabeu. Did broodingly and menacingly tell his men (ala Russel Crowe in the opening scenes of the film 'Gladiator'): 'On my signal, unleash hell.' ?
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The match captures very much the fact that Real Madrid are moving on and transitioning towards getting right many of the things that went wrong in the Clasico. It also gave us a glimpse of what this team is truly capable of once things are able to click when ‘the Ancelotti way’ is done properly. We’ve had some very good wins this season (e.g. vs. Galatasaray to open the CL season), most of those wins however have come as a result of large spurts playing the ‘Mourinho way’ (counter attacks after gaining the lead). This is however, the first match I’ve seen this season where we’ve walloped the opposition playing Ancelotti’s system… and boy was it bloody entertaining.
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Playing the 4-3-3
I get really frustrated when people keep thinking that we still play a 4-2-3-1. It's a 4-3-3 guys! (diagram c/o whoscored.com)

Ancelotti once again played with a 4-3-3 which featured a single holder. Illaramendi’s performance in this role demonstrated his growing understanding of the system as well the growing confidence he has in himself as well as that of the team towards him. And in another bright spot of the game, Alonso was brought in for this role for some minutes to mark his return to the fold. Isco and Khedira played as the 2 roaming Central  Midfielders flanking Illaramendi. Isco looked much sharper and more active as compared to his last few performances. It has to be said however that post-match, after Ancelotti bemoaned the team’s lack of balance (which allowed Sevilla back into the game following the 3-0 lead we established), he was referring to the lack of defensive support offered by Isco and Khedira. It seems as if they enjoyed themselves way too much in roaming forward to participate in the team’s attacks.
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Also notable in the match was the role that Di Maria played when subbed in. Replacing Khedira for 10 minutes, the Argentine played as a central midfielder as well – taking up the Isco’s role in the midfield to Alonso’s left side (with Modric to Alonso’s right): allowing Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale to carry on playing as the team’s tridente. It’s an interesting ‘experiment’ to follow and a clear manifestation of a question that Ancelotti is asking himself out loud: “If a proper striker (Benzema / Morata) is needed in the front 3 and Bale plays to his potential, how can I set the team up to allow Di Maria into the team as well?” – and a sure sign of Ancelotti’s belief in the Argentine.
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Bang for Your Buck
It wasn't just that they scored. It was that they did so whilst playing beautifully TOGETHER.
If you’re going to spend 231m-Euro (96m for CR, 35m for Benzema and 100m for Bale) on a ‘strike force’, this is what you ought to expect: 3 goals for Ronaldo, 2 goals and 2 assists for Bale and 2 goals and 1 assist for Benzema. If there was ever a time to talk about a tridente, then perhaps it is now. They are after all starting to obsess about 'strike partnerships' these days (SaS - Suarez and Sturridge at Liverpool, Aguero + Negredo / Dzeko at City, Rooney + Van Persie at Man U, Ibra + Cavani at PSG and even Neymar + Messi at Barca). Let Real Madrid do all of them one better - we're not just doing duos or tandems, we're doing 'Tridents'... or as they say in the NBA 'Big 3'.
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Last Wednesday, Ancelotti played all 3 in their ‘logical’ positions – Benzema through the middle, the right-footed Ronaldo on the Left, and the Right-footed Bale on the Right… and was rewarded handsomely for it. The 3 players clicked magnificently, not only in terms of being able to individually score goals, but also considering the fact that they were assisting each other. Bale’s assists were to Benzema and Ronaldo. Bale’s opener on the other hand, was a juicy move that involved the 3 front players: with Ronaldo passing to Benzema and moving into a deep position, dragging an defenders with him – allowing Bale to make a late run into the box to openly receive the Frenchman’s pass. Minutes later, Ronaldo would thread another tasty ball through to Bale who struck a goal-bound shot first time, only for it to be saved spectacularly. It was the stuff of Florentino’s wet dreams, whom I imagine was giggling like a school girl behind his diplomatic, poker-faced expression in the director’s box.
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Commander / Commandante Cristiano
Commander Cristiano
A friend said it perfectly on Facebook: that the moniker ‘Commandante Cristiano’ would turn into the modern day equivalent of the cheer ‘Asi, Asi, Asi, Gana El Madrid!’ (translated: That’s how Madrid win) The cheer started amongst rival supporters who chanted it to sarcastically suggest that Madrid won matches unscrupulously through foul means. Today, it is chanted by Real Madrid fans as it to tell their opponents: That’s how our team whips your ass.
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Sepp Blatter’s ‘Commander’ quip re: Ronaldo might likely go the same route: that Madrid fans will now  take this mocking criticism of him and turn it around as praise and cheer for being the team’s commander. He has after all more and more embraced and increased his leadership role in the team.
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When I first read about Blatter’s statements, I felt that it was no big deal for him to be described as a player who ‘had more expenses with the hairdresser than Messi.’ Having seen the video myself though, I was aghast by the mocking tone by which he referred to Ronaldo as a ‘commander’ and pulled off his ridiculously embarrassing impression of him. I do not accept that he did not mean to insult Ronaldo when he did this because I am personally very good at doing mocking impressions of people. I did it as a naughty and rebellious student to mock my teachers in school in front of my classmates and I still do it now to mock and make fun of my bosses and clients in rebellious frustration – all behind their backs of course as any immature, insubordinate person would. But while it is not uncommon to see an immature and insubordinate student or employee (like myself) do such things, having the President of the governing body of the world’s most popular sport do it is appalling. Alvaro Arbeloa is right: if he says and does such things in public, one can only wonder what he would say in private.
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Kudos goes to Ronaldo, for giving the most wonderful response to Blatter: by doing it on the pitch with his 3 goals and showing that idiot how a REAL commander performs with his actions (scoring goals, leading his team) and gestures (a pretty snappy salute, eh?).
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Ronaldo’s goalscoring antics have now moved him past Puksas in the club’s all-time scoring list. All hail the commander.
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Subtle Rotations
Perhaps a less exciting topic of conversation are my observations on how Ancelotti has been subtly rotating his squad. Outside of the clasico, the changes in the match day team sheet could hardly be viewed as ‘tinkering’. Apart from a select group of mainstays (Ronaldo, Khedira, Ramos, Marcelo when fit, Lopez for La Liga matches, Casillas for CL matches), Ancelotti has been quietly shuffling his players and rotating them – keeping everyone fresh, alert and feeling relevant. This is especially important for a team out to play a possession game where intensity and absolute fitness are pre-requisites. The 10-minute experiment that saw Di Maria playing as a Central Midfielder, if it works out, further gives the team more alternatives in the middle.
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More football is coming guys! The team is off to Vallecas to face Rayo and then Turin for our group stage 'return leg' against Juventus. Having pulled off a great performance last Wednesday, it's now to take this show on the road and REALLY put this team and its newfound way of playing the game to the test.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Post-Clasico Thoughts on a Monday (Barcelona 2 - Real Madrid 1)

titulo foto
Everybody's wondering 'WHAT IF a penalty was given and it became 1-1': Honestly, we might have won. But there was no penalty and we didn't win. It wasn't all THAT bad though.
Yes, it was a penalty (Mascherano on Ronaldo). But let’s look back at the game and examine it with a clear conscience: on the balance of what happened out there on the pitch, 2-1 to Barcelona was a fair result (by a cinch). After the Juventus game, I wrote that for Madrid to win the game, they needed to put on a game with no dark spots and only the bright spots. That did not happen unfortunately: there was quite a number of promising signs that we saw out there last Saturday. Signs that indicate promise for Madrid and signs that likewise show that Barca are absolutely not invincible or even difficult to beat.
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Let’s go through the storyline and pick it apart.
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The WRONG false 9: Martino outwits Ancelotti
The funny thing about playing with a 4-3-3 with a single holder is that despite the perception that it is the more ‘attacking’ formation (compared to a 4-2-3-1), it can actually be used as a more effective defensive tool against Barca’s rendition of the 4-3-3 (who play it with a false 9). Ancelotti’s post-match comments these past few days have revealed his ‘marking system’: he normally asks our center forward to mark the opponent’s deep-lying ball distributor (e.g. he mentioned that he tasked Benzema to mark Pirlo vs. Juve and Bale to mark Busquets last Saturday). Against Juve, who neither played with a ‘10’ nor a false ‘9’, our holder (Illaramendi) was criticized as havingan unclear role – this didn’t bother me as it meant that he would be free (which Illara took advantage of with his 95% passing completion rate midweek). Against Barca on the other hand, who plays with a false 9, the team’s sole holder this time would have a man to mark.
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It was on this premise that Carletto decided to start the match with Sergio Ramos as the team’s holder (with Illaramendi on the bench). I can only imagine that Ancelotti had in mind the same idea that Mou had in playing Pepe in that spot: to mark / track Messi (the false 9). I also imagined that this role was given to Ramos instead of Pepe given that the latter has proven to have issues with over-aggression which have proven impossible to curb.
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But while Ancelotti prepared for the havoc that would be caused by Messi as a false 9, it seems to me that Tata Martino also prepared for the havoc that Marcelo + Ronaldo would cause through Madrid’s left flank. His solution to this was to create his own super-combo on Barca’s right flank that would duel with Madrid’s Ronaldo-Marcelo: Messi-Alves. The effect on Madrid was two-fold: Firstly, it created a stalemate on the Madrid-flank with CR-Marcelo and Messi-Alves cancelling each other out. Madrid could no longer mindlessly bombard Barca’s right flank with Messi and Alves working together there (so much so that one of the highlights of the match was Alves nutmegging a Ronaldo who had tracked back to stop him on that flank). And secondly, the false 9 Ancelotti prepped for (who was supposed to be Messi), turned out to be another guy (Fabregas).
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The truth of it is that despite Martino’s switch, Ancelotti’s system still worked in theory. What made things really dicey for Madrid was Ramos’ Yellow Card. Now forced to be extra-careful, Ramos’ role as a holder essentially became useless: he was neither able to dominate the midfield with his tackling (because of the yellow card) nor his ball distribution (he’s no Alonso): allowing Xavi and Iniesta to seize control of the game (especially in the first part of the first half).
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A Forward Problem
One of the many Critical 'Pieces' Online Re: Bale's Performance as a Center Forward Last Night. What can I say? That's what you get if you cost 100m, right?
What happens when your first-choice striker has been missing  open goals from 2 yards away and you’re not quite ready to trust your 21-year old backup? Last Saturday, Ancelotti attempted to use the world’s most expensive player in an experiment which utilized him as a false 9 of sorts.  A lot of people are having a good laugh about in now, but a second thought would tell you that there was merit to what Ancelotti was thinking:
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Gareth Bale after all had his best season in the Premier league in a free role through the middle last season (albeit behind a striker). And Real Madrid after all were playing Barcelona: a team whose weakness is its vulnerability on the counter. Ancelotti pragmatically believed that Madrid’s chances to score would come off a counter attack (our lone goal c/o Jese was scored on a counter) so he opted to field a front line with players who ran like the wind. The logic to me, was NOT flawed.
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It didn’t work though. Despite the fact however that at this point, having a front 3 of CR-Bale-Di Maria only works in FIFA (the video game), there is no reason to believe that it is an experiment that is  inevitably doomed to fail... perhaps it was just way too soon to try it. Benzema fluffed a great chance to head once he came on and hit the woodwork when he came one. This tells me that based on the way we play, a striker is needed. The meat of the matter however is the fact that what the current system needs is a clinical, mobile but physically potent striker to lead the line… and until Madrid are able to land one, we will have to make do with the sort of chopping and changing between Benzema, Morata and even Bale as we are seeing now.
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One thing that we might need to ominously accept: that this season will be a writeoff for Gareth Bale, just like the last one was for his ex-teammate at Tottenham, Luka Modric. Yes, the club paid 100m for him: but at this point in his career (or his life), he has not yet (or may never) reached the sort of superhero-level physical condition of his idol Cristiano Ronaldo. And clearly not yet match fit, it is very likely that we will see him make sporadic contributions to the team this season and only blossom into form next season just as what happened to Modric. Perhaps we now ought to accept that this is what happens if you buy players from Daniel Levy.
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Let’s not hit the panic stations just yet though as there were a few positives in the game for Madrid:
We’re Now FAR More Comfortable in Possession
Even with Sergio Ramos playing as a holder, Real Madrid had a few bouts of possession able to cope with Barca’s pressing to move the ball forward. Things also started to improve considerably for Madrid when Ancelotti finally decided to torpedo the ‘Sergio Ramos Midfield Experiment’ and sent in a proper holding midfielder in Asier Illaramendi. Keeping possession of the ball and duly creating chances against Malaga or a 10-man Juventus is one thing – to be able to do it in a Clasico against this Barcelona is quite another.  Lock in it. Pin it down. Real Madrid are officially learning to play a possession game once again. This is no longer the team that looked completely hapless and deserving of a loss to Atletico weeks ago. The ultimate testament for me, was that we played well enough on the front foot to force Tata Martino to play a double pivot (sending in Alex Song for Iniesta) to protect their back 4 who were increasingly being put under pressure by our boys. 
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It’s important to note that their second goal, scored after our boys made them go into ‘Mourinho mode’ (4-2-3-1 with 2 ‘pivots’) was also scored Mourinho-style: on the break. I honestly don’t remember the last time we forced them to play on the counter in their own house.
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The (Spanish / Cantera) Kids are Alright
Was it Arbeloa’s atrocious performance against Juventus? Or the fact that he got skinned by Neymar in the Confederations Cup is still fresh in everyone’s minds (including Ancelotti’s)? Has Carlo Ancelotti now finally awakened to realize that Real Madrid’s best Right Back (and probably Spain’s) is the young Dani Carvajal? The youngster showed absolutely ZERO symptoms of stage fright: bombing down the right touch line with aplomb and did not cower at the prospect of facing Neymar on defense. I am hoping that Carvajal’s place in the starting XI is a sign that Ancelotti has made his choice too as to who Madrid’s first-choice RB is.
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Ancelotti’s decision to send in Jese is to me, an indication that Carletto’s mind was clear with regards to what he wanted to accomplish tactically as the game was dying out: he wanted pace on the break and directness – which was why he opted to send in Jese instead of Morata or Isco. The young Jese duly responded by scoring what appeared to be consolation goal – but a goal that nonetheless demonstrated what Ancelotti had in mind as time was running out.
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Ditto for the drastic improvement in Madrid’s overall play upon the introduction of Illaramendi. All that’s left is to figure out how / where Isco fits in all this.
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We’re actually not THAT far away from them
Marca put it quite nicely today: Keep Calm: This Madrid is Starting to Function
At the end of the day, Barcelona won 2-1 but did it neither emphatically or even convincingly (of course Cules will argue otherwise). Their opening goal was scored off a speculative attempt and their second off a counter attack after they’ve been placed on the backfoot because of our team’s improved second half play.
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At the end of the day however, I don’t quite know how to place our team’s expectations. As a pragmatic man without unreasonable delusions of grandeur, I find myself pondering that I can painfully accept this season as one in transition and therefore to be accepted as one where silverware might not be forthcoming. The truth is that this Madrid is beginning to function as Carletto and his men have envisioned it and is slowly getting there. Whether we get there in time to win silverware is another matter altogether though.
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Today, I’m not raging in fury (over the loss, the penalty, etc.), I’m not soured by bitter disappointment, nor do I feel heartened enough by the positive signs seen out there last Saturday. It’s mixed feelings all around for me.
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To be quite honest – I’m actually not really sure how I feel. But then again – it’s Monday.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Bianco / Neri Performance (Real Madrid 2 - Juventus 1)

Who knew that there would be a groundswell of optimism over our team's current Champions League performances? 3 matches. 3 wins. And among those wins is a 1-6 beatdown of Galatasaray in hell and a pretty handy last night win over the 'other big team' in our group - Juventus. Shockingly, after half of the group stage matches have been played, Juve find themselves behind Galatasaray to the race to qualify for the last 16. They only have themselves to blame of course, having failed to grab 3 points in any of their 2 opening matches.
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For Real Madrid, despite the fact that it was a good result (winning), I really feel like last night's performance was one with 'Biancos' (White, i.e. bright spots) and Neris (Black, i.e. dark spots): giving Madridisimo an encouraging and worrying feeling simultaneously.
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The Biancos (White, i.e. Bright Spots)
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Tactics: Looks like the 4-3-3 actually works!
The 2 Teams' formations as documented by officially by UEFA.
Whether by design or accident, it SEEMS that Ancelotti has formalized / 'discovered by accident' the way by which his Real Madrid would play. We saw it vs. Malaga over the weekend, we saw it vs. Juve last night and I trust we will see it again in the clasico this weekend. Ancelotti seems to have settled on playing a 4-3-3 with a single holder (Illaramendi) who will be flanked by 2 central midfielders who are required to balance BOTH attacking and defensive responsibilities. The lineup does not accommodate for any single player to play as a free-roaming '10' ala Ozil. In the formation, Ronaldo plays in his favored left wing position and Di Maria plays also as an inverted winger but mostly having a deeper position (see the diagram on the upper left hand corner of the image above). 
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Knowing that Antonio Conte's Juventus mostly play a 3-5-2 gave me much reason to be optimistic about the match. A 3-5-2 deploys wingbacks as the sole wide men in their team - tasked both with providing width in attack and covering the threat from the flanks from the opponents. This essentially meant that against a team with that played with 4 at the back (4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2),  the opposing wingbacks on defense had to deal with BOTH our fullbacks and our wide men, but when on the attack, it also allowed our wide men to be free of defensive responsibility as our fullbacks would cover their wingbacks. In such a scenario, the a team playing a 3-5-2 would be considerably vulnerable when playing against a team that that had top class wingers and fullbacks. And is there a more devastating left wing in world football today than Cristiano Ronaldo + Marcelo? I looked forward to seeing them roast Juventus.
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Conte however realized this and instead chose to step out of his 3-5-2 comfort zone and play a narrow 4-4-2 - using CMs Marchisio and Pogba as 'inside right and left' midfielders respectively (see diagram on the upper right hand corner above). I can only imagine that he did this to: 1.) use the athleticism of Pogba / Msrchisio to support his fullbacks in tracking Ronaldo and Di Maria and 2.) with a narrow line of 4 in the middle comprised mostly of muscular, powerful CMs (e.g. Pogba, Vidal), that they could create a 4 vs. 3 man advantage in the middle to win the midfield battle.
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It is thus interesting that the opening goal was firstly, created by our wingers (assist by Di Maria, scored by Ronaldo) who were supposed to be tracked by these CMs playing as 'inside left and right' midfielder and secondly created by our wingers while playing through the middle. 
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Either way, I felt that with our first-choice midfield out there (Modric, Illaramendi and Khedira), Madrid's coherence in play was generally good.
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Illaramendi's Growing Up
Key Stats of Illaramendi from last night c/o squawka.com
Central to how the midfield worked was the performance of the central holding midfielder whose job it is to ensure that the team keeps control ball possession. Last night, Illaramendi displayed that he is really getting there in understanding his role in the team. His pass completion rate was 95%, many of which were single touch passes to our CBs and fullbacks to ensure possession was retained. A look at his passing though reveals a refreshing surprise - that he actually attempted (and succeeded) a healthy number of vertical and diagonal passes forward. It must be noted as well that Real Madrid suffered greatly in the second half when he was subbed out. Modric took over the role but failed to cover nearly as much ground as Illaramendi did - causing the midfield to be porous and the defense to become extra-vulnerable. Illaramendi still has some ways to go to reach the level he's an understudy for: Xabi Alonso. He still takes one too many touches in some possessions and some of his passes need the correct weight applied to them to retain the correct momentum of the match (a good number of his passes are a bit underhit) for the match. It must be noted though, that he is steadily improving and coming onto his own in this role at the epicenter of the Real Madrid lineup.
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This is Madrid!
It wasn't a self-centric 'Be Calm, I'm here' Goal Celebration last night. Instead, it was a team-centric 'This is Madrid!' goal celebration for Ronaldo last night. CR is winning the love of Madridisimo no longer just from his footballing ability but also for his own displays of commitment and love to the Real Madrid cause.

Cristiano Ronaldo has been melting my heart these past few days. Apart from scoring ridiculous quantities of goals for Real Madrid – his actions on the pitch are a full-on display of how he has totally embraced Real Madrid as HIS team. Last Saturday, he apologized to the ‘Bernabeu’ for being wasteful in front of goal (despite the fact that he scored). While last night, after 3+ minutes, opening the scoring for the game, he furiously pointed onto the pitch: “This is Madrid! This is MY house! You are not walking away from here with a win! You aren’t even walking away from here with a point!” It was a point he would make even clearer by patting the Real Madrid badge on his chest and then pointing to the ground after scoring the penalty that ultimately gave us the lead.
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Beyond the goals scored and goal-celebration gesticulations though, I will remember 2 key moments from Ronaldo’s performance tonight: First was to see him voraciously harassing a Juve attacker, tracking him down all the way to the area of the pitch where the left back would be to win a tackle very much to the delight of the Bernabeu. The second would be the 2-3 instances in the second half, with him positioned dead center at the middle of our attack (where the ‘9’ would be), looking back at his teammates, gesturing for them to push up and attack – like a fearless bloodthirsty general from ancient times signaling for his men to charge with him.
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Casillas wore the armband today. Ramos wears it over the weekends. Ronaldo however seems to be showing all of us that he is emerging as the leader of this pack. It is heartening to see him embrace this. He is now 3rd in the all-time top goalscoring list in the history of the Champions League, zipping past ex-Madrid man Ruud Van Gol. 
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Tactically speaking, a key complement that needs to be given to him regarding his performance against Juve was that he displayed a much improved understanding of the possession game the team is trying to play. He didn't play as if he felt the need to dribble through 2/3 men everytime he received the ball. In fact, he surprisingly made plenty of one-touch passes back to his midfielders upon receiving the ball in assessing that he didn't have an 'angle' into the opponents' goal and duly moved onto space to find another space.
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The Neris (Black, i.e. Dark Spots)
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Iker and Arbeloa's Disturbing Lack of Sharpness
I'm deeply bothered by the astonishing lack of sharpness that I saw from Casillas and Arbeloa last night. Both men were culpable for Llorente's equalizing goal for Juventus: Arbeloa was ball-watching both for the first attempt (which Casillas blocked) and for what seemed like the 5-second interval after the first strike before Llorente swooped in and scored Juventus' goal. Arbeloa was out of position too - catch the replay and you will find Arbeloa standing where a CB ought to be and not covering the space in front of Casillas that would have either allowed him to hoof Iker's fluffled parry / clearance or  obstructed Llorente from tapping in. I 
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Iker's sharpness ought to be in question too. Yes, yes, yes - I know that I'm bordering on blasphemy by calling out San Iker. I do so however, with the luxury of being able to compare him to our other really great goal keeper (Lopez). Could Iker have just parried the first strike far away from the goal rather than to merely 2 meters in front of him to the path of Llorente? What about those instances of failing to keep the ball in his hands (where he was lucky the Juve striker had his back turned)? Between Iker and Diego, Iker is far more capable of the ridiculously spectacular. He does however seem more prone to misdoing the basic stuff. And for many coaches, pinning down the  ordinary basic stuff remain is more important than the ridiculously spectacular for goalkeepers. 
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The Team Mentality / Shape After Getting a Lead
Is it complacency?  ("Ok, we've scored now we can relax") Or is it a leftover from the Mourinho counterattack mindset ("Ok, now that we've scored, we can now sit back, soak up the pressure and hit them on the break.")? Either way, it doesn't work - not with this system at least. 
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In today's game, playing with a 4-3-3 with a single holder means that you always play on the front foot. You keep possession until you score. Or.... (gasp!) you do a Barcelona, i.e. keep possession and bore the world (and your opponents) to death until time runs out. We have neither live in an era nor have a player (e.g. Makelele), who can sit BY HIMSELF in front of a back 4 to win every ball and hit teams on the break like Mourinho's Chelsea ver. 1.0 (With Makelele, Lampard and Essien as CMs and with a front 3 of Robben, Drogba and Duff / Cole). 
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The current system requires that Real Madrid always play with the initiative and not 1.) fall into a mindset of complacency, or, 2.) the mindset of playing on the counter using this system. 
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Having said that, should Carletto wish to play on the break once a lead has been gained, I humbly propose a way to do it: Invert the midfield Triangle. Let me explain: in last night's system, Real Madrid roughly looked like this:
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Casillas
Arbeloa-Pepe-Ramos-Marcelo
Illaramendi
Khedira--Modric
Di Maria-Benzema-Ronaldo
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With Illaramendi playing as the only holder and with Khedira and Modric playing as 'carilleros' to shuttle the ball up and down. If Ancelotti wants to go on 'counter-attack' mode, without having to change personnel (make substitutions), he can teach his boys to transform themselves into a 4-2-3-1 with to defensive midfielders tasked to form a 'dragnet' in midfield and go into 'Mourinho Mode', allowing Modric (or Isco) to play as a '10' and use our wingers (Ronaldo, Di Maria / Bale) to play Formula 1 football on the break:
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Casillas
Arbeloa-Pepe-Ramos-Marcelo
Illaramendi-Khedira
Di Maria-Modric-Ronaldo
Benzema
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It can be done. I can only suspect that it hasn't been done yet because they might not have drilled for it in training just yet. It can, in my humble opinion, be a potent weapon in the knock-out rounds of the Champions League: Score a goal or 2 in 'possession' mode and then shift gears to counterattack mode where the threat of Ronaldo and Bale on the flanks can put the opponent to the sword. 
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What happened last night instead, was that the team sat on its hands after scoring an early goal and then duly sat back and allowed Juve to fire 6 shots at our goal before allowing them to equalize. Our boys then got into attack mode again to gain the lead, only to sit back again after gaining it. Playing with this sort of mentality / team shape, after getting the lead, if it weren't for Chiellini's sending off, Juve might have gotten a point from this game. 
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Where's the the Killer Instinct?
Benzema went into Hello Kitty mode.... AGAIN.
Giorgio Chiellini's sending off was way too harsh. It was IMO, a foul, maybe a yellow, but by no means a direct red card. It was however a glorious opportunity for Real Madrid. They were a goal down and a man down with lots of time to go - a perfect opportunity to score another 2-3 goals. To put them to the sword playing our possession game would have greatly boosted the team's confidence heading into the clasico and the 'return leg' in Turin next week. We would have put the fear of God into them and to everyone else who was watching.
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But we didn't. There was no killer instinct from our boys. Karim 'Mr. Champions League' Benzema played like Hello Kitty, Marcelo forgot that he was a left back (and mistook Isco as our team's LB). The team continued to play the 4-3-3 system but only half-heartedly, allowing the hungry Juventus back into the game. Antonio Conte re-configured his 10-man team to play a 4-3-2: solidifying his midfield with a line of 3 and using 2 mobile strikers (Tevez and Giovinco) to 'play the channels'. Modric (perhaps tired?) failed to 'hold the center' in playing Illaremendi's role following the Ex-Sociedad midfielder's substitution. The midfield became porous and the defense got lax. Madrid cannot afford to do this during the knockout stages or else, it will pay the ultimate price.
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Road Trip! Road Trip! Road Trip!
Next Stop: Barcelona. The tiki-taka boys have dropped points in their last few games: a 0-0 v.s Osasuna and a 1-1 vs. Milan in their last 2 games sees them sorely in need of a win. We must all remember though that both draws came on away games. They will be playing at home this Saturday with Puyol back in the lineup and after Messi has had 2 matches under his belt in his road to recovery from injury. Our team is escalating physically, tactically and mentally. The results from our last few encounters vs. Barcelona also give the boys all the reason in the world to believe that the Cules are very much beatable. 
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There's plenty of reason to believe that the team can win. But as always, victory against them will only be possible if Ancelotti and his boys turn in a performance that only features the bright spots.
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Our boys are about to hit the road this weekend (and on to Turin next week) - and it's time for an all-blanco performance this time. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bite Your Tongue and Enjoy (Real Madrid 2 - Malaga 0)

Barcelona drew 0-0 at Pamplona to Osasuna and Atleti lost 0-1 to Espanyol at home (thanks to an own goal). Real Madrid on the other hand won 2-0 against Malaga at home. The first goal was scored after what was meant to be an Angel Di Maria cross went in (over breakfast this morning, I saw that apparently the same thing happened to Tottenham's Andros Townsend last night too) and the second was a penalty coming off a weak penalty call 'won' by substitute Gareth Bale.
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Yes, yes, yes - there is plenty of reason to grumble. Real Madrid are still 3rd - but Atleti (2nd in the table) are now merely 2 points away while Barca (1st in the table) are now just 3 points away... and with a Clasico coming up next week they are very much within reach. The temptation to grumble is there but to be honest, at this point, I'd rather Bite my Tongue and Enjoy.
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There were a good number of things to enjoy about last night too:
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Real Madrid Playing a 4-3-3 is More Coherent
Real Madrid's average positions vs. Malaga last Saturday: It reveals a 4-3-3 with Illaramendi as the single holder with Khedira and Isco either side of him.
I was very pleased with the coherence of Real Madrid last Saturday. Particularly during the early parts of the first half. Build-up play and possession was tidier and there was much more balance from the team. It was NOT the 'broken team' that we had seen in weeks past where there seemed to be 2 groups of players on the pitch statically trying to perform roles (1 group to hold their position, and another to attack). The variety of ball movement had improved (not just square balls or long punts). Ball recovery after failed attacks improved as well as the variety of the team's moves going forward. 
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I really feel that last night's match showcased the importance of Khedira to the team. With Illaramendi tasked as the sole 'holder' of the team (a role perfect for a fit Xabi Alonso), our German tank performed equally well in recovering loose balls, winning tackles after our attacks break down as well as surging forward and getting into dangerous attacking positions. 
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It's VERY easy to spout the mindless Marca musings of indulging in FIFA video game fantasies where a single holder can be supported by 2 '10s' (e.g. Isco and Ozil) in a 4-3-3 midfield by merely telling the 2 '10s' to 'defend more.' For the believers of such thinking, I wish to say that this is sadly not FIFA the video game. It has taken Andres Iniesta (a natural '10') a lifetime in La Masia to master playing in a midfield 3 (with a single-holder). And now in his 3rd season back at Barca, Cesc still isn't even considered 'sound enough' for a role in Barca's midfield 3. In a 4-3-3, there is no room for a '10' to play as he usually does (freely, behind the strikers, with 2 holders behind him to 'mop up'). The 2 midfielders sandwiching the holder are both required to balance between their defensive and attacking responsibilities. They both will also need to play deeper than the usual #10 and thus cannot expect to play in that 'zone' just outside the penalty box behind the striker. 
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I am thus not surprised that after a promising start, Isco's performances have begun to sputter. Last season, with Malaga the team was essentially built around him as the '10' in a 4-2-3-1. This season, he has had to play either as part of the midfield 3 this season in Ancelotti's 4-3-3 (with more defensive responsibility) or on the left side of a 4-4-2 where he had yet to learn how to drift inward to play as an 'inside left' attacking midfielder. 
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Nevertheless, I have absolute confidence that Isco will duly learn this role. After all, he has exhibited a willingness to play deeper and accept more defensive responsibility as well. Perhaps for now Modric can play this role with Isco as his understudy. Illaramendi provided energy in performing the holding role, putting out fires and winning balls - he is however not yet adept at the sort of distribution that made Alonso so important to us. Young Illaramendi needs to master the art of swinging the ball to start attacks from the flanks as well as diagonally forward to his surging midfielders and wingers.
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Morata gets his Start
Morata's play last Saturday proved to be instrumental to the team's overall play.
Over the interntational break, we saw Karim Benzema broken his 2,000-year old goal drought. The timing seems great too considering our coming 'double-header' with Juventus in the Champions League sandwiching the Clasico. Our crashcar superstar however apparently had some injury issues which allowed Alvaro Morata to start the game.
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...And the youngster in my eyes did not disappoint. He took his chances well and was mostly thwarted only by the heroic performance of Willy Caballero (more on that later). I would like to identify 2 key elements to his play however that are very much worth noting as bright spots:
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First: yes, yes, yes - many of us have seen the data from the Champions League showing that Karim Benzema ran 9.7km (higher than the average of 8+ km for the rest of the team). How many of those runs however were spent chasing (seemingly impossible) loose balls and closing down opposing defenders? I can only suspect that most of those runs were to deep and wide areas of the pitch to create space for Ronaldo and other attacking players to run to. Morata's effort, while mostly not necessarily winning the ball or directly creating attacking opportunities, sets the tone for the rest of the team. The intensity of his play (visible to every Real Madrid player because of this position at the front of the team) spurs on / sets the tone for the rest to play like attack dogs to close down space and be the first man to loose balls: forcing the opponent ton the backfoot and giving the team control of the ball and the game.
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Second: if the team is unable to play coherently on the ground (yet), Morata gives our boys a second target for high balls and crosses into the box (apart from Ronaldo). We all know that Cristiano Ronaldo is a fearsome aerial threat. This seems to be even moreso this season as we've seen him score more than the usual number of goals via headers. I can only suspect that the reason for this is with the team's play more based on possession, we see less attacks that feature Ronaldo running against back-pedalling defenses to score. Instead, we see more crosses into the box for a Ronaldo already parked inside, surrounded by defenders and relying on his aerial ability to reach those balls. This circumstance is perhaps even more pronounced with Angel Di Maria's great form and superb deliveries thus far this season. With Morata on the pitch, Di Maria finds himself with another target to aim for when sending those laser-guided crosses in. Once Madrid are able to sort out their passing game on the ground (still a work in progress), then perhaps our midfielders will eventually figure out how to synchronize their passing with Benzema's attacking runs. But while our passing game is yet to click, I find nothing wrong in using a young, talented and fired-up target man from the cantera a chance.
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Jese almost scored too... once again, if only it weren't for Willy Caballero's heroics.
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It's the First Match of the Season where we're talking about the great performance of the OPPOSING Goalkeeper.
Finally, we're not talking about how Diego Lopez bailed us out once again. Instead., we're still wondering how we didn't win by 4 / 5 goals last Saturday.
After taking and scoring his penalty, Ronaldo did something which has REALLY won my respect as a Real Madrid fan: he apologized to the Bernabeu for his profligacy in front of goal. He didn't do it in an interview after a match spent missing a bunch of sitters or fluffling a penalty. He did it on the pitch AFTER HE SCORED. It was as if he was telling the Bernabeu and Madridisimo at large: 'I'm sorry I was wasteful in front of goal today. You deserve better. I apologize.' I've never seen such a gesture before and I am deeply humbled by it coming from a player who was supposedly a whiny, arrogant, primma donna.
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Ronaldo's misses did not come from brain fart moments when the scoring chances came - they were mostly he result of the game's man-of-the-match: Malaga's Willy Caballero. Wow. This is the first game this season that we will not be talking about Diego Lopez saving our butts. Instead, we are finding it difficult to avoid the discussion of how Willy Caballero deservedly won the plaudits for his efforts in goal which prevented Madrid from giving them a 4-5 goal hiding.
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The Big Ones are Coming
The big matches are all coming up in the next few days: the clasico sandwiched by 2 matches against Juventus in the Champions League. I am still scarred by Marcelo Zalayeta's winning goal that eliminated us from the Champions League many years back in extra time. It will be an interesting 'reunion' for Ancelotti and Zidane as they meet this team from their own past. While at home: the time has come for Ancelotti and the boys to really see how this semi-new-look Real Madrid measures up to Tata's Barca.
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I'd like to end the post with a tribute of sorts to Malaga's Willy Caballero. It was a badass performance he put on at the Bernabeu. And for that, here's an equally badass 'song' from the character of badass Quarterback Willie Beaman (played by Jamie Foxx) in the Oliver Stone cult classic film 'Any Given Sunday'. Enjoy: