Monday, August 19, 2013

3 Points on a Stuttering Start

Rather than your Jolly Uncle, Ancelotti looked more like a James Bond Villain last night. It didn't help that the football wasn't as pretty as we all hoped / expected either.  Let's Give it time. More work needs to be done.

La Liga begins at last. Even better, La Liga begins at last without any dark clouds looming over Real Madrid. No opportunity to win silverware (Supercup) to start the season - and I'm totally ok with that. At least, the team will have the opportunity to play itself into form under Ancelotti's new system, which supposedly promises a more attractive, possession-based brand of football and one that's supposedly more handy against La Liga's 18 other teams (except against Barca who will likely force us to play on the counter again). Real Madrid had a pretty good preseason performance-wise. Carlo Ancelotti's dealing with the media, the club hierarchy and fans has also been admirable: even with how he has dealt with the ongoing Gareth Bale saga (refusing to talk about it by publicly declaring his desire to avoid upsetting AVB). He was decked out in a dapper suit last night for his Bernabeu debut - only for what looked like a blood clot or an eye infection of some sort to ruin his image for the night which made him appear like a James Bond Villain. 
.
.
.
1.0 TRYING to Understand the New 'System' (key word: 'Trying')
.
Pretty much every credible website called Ancelotti's new system a 4-3-3 to start the match. The matches I saw in preseason seemed to show how the Ancelotti's more possession-based system, which relied more on patient, short-range passes to build up play, which suited Modric nicely (he looked very comfortable). It was a contrast to Mourinho's system that relied more on long range passes into space from Alonso for the wingers and fullbacks to run into.
.
1.1 The Midfield: An 'Inverted' Triangle
What I'd like to do before discussing my thought's on last night's performance is to TRY to interpret what I THINK Ancelotti's intent is for the team's playing system. The last 'great' 4-3-3 of Ancelotti would have to be his Milan team which featured the Seedorf-Pirlo-Gattuso midfield trio. Its composition featured 3 'specific' roles at midfield:
-An attacking midfielder capable of handling some defensive responsibilities (Seedorf)
-A primary play-making ball distributor from deep with great vision and passing range (Pirlo)
-A do-all 'utility' midfielder who dribbles in short spurts, tackles and runs (Gattuso)
.
I were to INTERPRET this 'midfield system' into a 4-3-3 based on Real Madrid's current roster, the depth chart would look something like this:
.
A Theoretical RM Depth Chart Based on a 4-3-3 while making use of Ancelotti's "Milan Midfield System". It's a system that has won 2 Champions League Titles.
.
The team's central passing 'pivot' (the Pirlo role) would be manned by our ex-Sociedad passing maestros Alonso and Illaramendi. The 'Seedorf role' would be perfect for Modric and is one that Isco has demonstrated that he can play perfectly (1 goal, 1 assist last night + a superb preseason in this role). The midfield terriers in the 'Gattuso Role' would be Khedira and Casemiro (though neither of them are as ugly as Gattuso).
.
Up front, Ancelotti's Milan forward lines have never been known for their ability to provide width. His 2 Champions League winning sides have featured attacking midfielders (Rui Costa / Seedorf / Kaka) playing behind the striker. In the case of Real Madrid, it's slightly asymmetrical with Ronaldo on playing as an inverted winger on the left and Ozil, tucking in from the right side.
.
.
1.2 Mutating the system for Ronaldo (from 4-3-3 to 4-2-2-2 and back)
"It has to be Cristiano who chooses the position he plays in" -Carlo Ancelotti
.
The 4-3-3 'mutates' into a 4-2-2-2 when in full attack mode.

Carlo Ancelotti has NEVER had a player like Cristiano Ronaldo. Come to think of it, there has NEVER been a player like Cristiano Ronaldo: a winger's pace + dribbling ability with a #9's strength, power and goalscoring ability. Players of Ronaldo's caliber are an exception to the rule of 'fitting players into a system': he is instead, a player 'systems are built around'. Ancelotti knows this and has openly declared his intention to allow Ronaldo to play where and how he chooses. Thus, the use of Carletto's 'Milan system' is only a guide: the system itself would have to be tweaked to get the maximum out of Ronaldo's once-in-a-generation abilities. The task however is a tall order considering the following criteria:
1.) To to relieve him of any defensive responsibilities
2.) To have him in his preferred position (ideally the left flank, sometimes the right) when the team gets ready to attack
3.) To provide him with a 'running mate' to prevent the opposition from double/triple-teaming him (Full Back Support when needed)
4.) To be provided with excellent service when in 'attack mode' (Support from a playmaker)
.
Of the 4 matches I've seen Ancelotti's Madrid play (vs. LA Galaxy, Chelsea, Inter and Betis last night), I've noticed one peculiar thing: that the team's 4-3-3 'mutates' back and forth to/from a 4-2-2-2. Ronaldo would be surge forward to join Benzema as a striker while Ozil tucks inward behind the 2 strikers, joined by Isco: providing Madrid with 2 forwards with twin playmakers behind them. Width is provided by attacking fullbacks with the team now finally also equipped with an attacking right back (Carvajal).
.
It is a fluid system that usually sees Ronaldo in the '9' position when Madrid are playing in full defensive mode (where he has the least defensive responsibility). The main weakness of the system is when Madrid are 'caught in transition' between the 2 systems, especially when in full attack mode, where acres of space will be available behind the fullbacks for opposing teams to counter.
.
My 'theory' re: Ancelotti's system seems to be valid given last night's average positions as taken from ESPN's Gamecast. Ronaldo (7) plays as a left forward with Isco and Ozil playing inside behind the strikers, in front of Modric (19) and Khedira (6) / Casemiro (16)
.
.
.
2.0 Interpreting the System Without the First-Choice 'Pivot'
The problem that Ancelotti had going into last night's match however was that neither Basque player  (Alonso and Illaramendi) envisioned for the 'Pirlo Role' was available. An important aspect to this role is not just the ability to distribute the ball, but also to 'sit' in front of the back 4:
1.) To be available to receive passes for attacks that don't materialize
2.) To positionally be a line of defense to protect the back 4
.
Playing in this role, Khedira, in my opinion, still carried forward many of his tendencies in the Mourinho system, which allowed him to make bursting runs into the opposition third of the pitch. He tried this more than a few times and left his back 4 bare naked and vulnerable to Betis' forwards. By the end of the first half, I was still wondering who Madrid's defensive midfielder was. Real Betis played with a high defensive line, which included their front 4 enjoying the huge gap left between our midfield and defense. It was a gap that was big enough to allow the super-fast Cedric to knife through our defense and create their opening goal.
.
Marca's Lineup for Last Night's match: a 4-3-3 for Madrid with Khedira sitting as a lone 'pivot' at the base of a midfield triangle.
In the friendly against Inter, Casemiro started in the central 'pivot' role with Modric and Khedira either side of him and together, bossed the entire match. Casemiro showcased his full repertoire of long range passing, tidy possession, aggressive tackling and even playmaking (assisting Ronaldo's goal). Perhaps he might have been the better choice to start instead of Khedira. It's notable that Ancelotti's first substitution was to send the Brazilian in for Khedira to shore up the middle (perhaps also due to a knock suffered by the German). Many negative things have been said about Casemiro due to his supposed poor performances for Castilla last season. I didn't manage to catch any Castilla matches last season - but basing on what I saw during preseason and last night, he looks deserving of a spot in the roster.
.
Whoscored.com's Real Madrid Player Positions. Ronaldo (7), Ozil (10), Isco (23) and Benzema (9), forming a 'Magic Square' (4-2-2-2)

Overall, my theory about the 'switching' from 4-3-3 to 4-2-2-2 appeared to be valid with Ronaldo surging forward to join Benzema to form a striking tandem when in full attack mode. In this situation, Khedira and Modric's positions 'sagged' to the pivot areas while Isco and Ozil played as 'twin playmakers' behind Ronaldo and Benzema. The weakness of the 4-2-2-2 was also there to see: though the goal conceded was due to our CBs being asleep (again!!!!), our right flank was taken advantage of repeatedly by the searing pace of Cedric exploiting the space left behind by Carvajal on attack.
.
.
3.0 Thoughts on Individual Performances
Before we criticize our players for a dull performance, it's also important that praise and credit is given where it's due: Pepe Mel's boys followed his tactical brief really well and could have come out of the match with a well-deserved 3 points. They kept their defensive line high and this meant that their front 4 was able to take full advantage of Khedira's faulty positioning as a pivot in attack while in defense, their back line was very well-drilled in 'stepping forward' to constantly catch our boys offside when we attacked.
.
The CBs played poorly: Ramos and Pepe were caught napping constantly. Our fullbacks need to be assessed differently. My take on the matter is that if a fullback is going to attack, it should do so in a manner where the opposing wing players are pinned back by the attack. Because if they're not, then the flank is vulnerable to the space available behind for a counter. Based on this, I'd say that Marcelo did well, but Carvajal did not.
.
Khedira IMO was poor in his rendition of the pivot role. Between Modric and Isco, the latter was always going to have the better night given that playing as the left-sided CM allowed him more passing angles to Ronaldo and Marcelo. Ronaldo, Benzema and Ozil weren't bad but were not up to the high standards that we normally associate with them. Diego Lopez did well starting ahead of Iker IMO (I still expect Ancelotti to make Iker first choice at some point of the season but anticipate that Diego Lopez will be getting a lot of playing time too).
.
The Madridista of the match would have to be hands down Isco. 1 goal and 1 assist. Everything great Real Madrid did involved him. I'll admit that I wrongly assumed that Real Madrid would essentially follow the same system of play (4-2-3-1) under Ancelotti as we did under Mourinho and thus thought that our key upgrade needed to be on the wing (Gareth Bale for Di Maria). It did not occur to me that Ancelotti's more possession-based style of play might result in a different formation altogether (4-3-3). I also wrongly concluded that Isco was 'just like' Ozil: in need of 2 holding midfielders to cover for him to play directly behind the striker... that Isco could in fact play deeper, be given more defensive responsibilities and thrive as a central midfielder in a 4-3-3 (unlike Ozil, who would need to play on the wing - much like Coutinho does for Liverpool). I knew he was a great player, but I never knew he was this good.
.
.
.
Isco: What a Player. What a Performance!
There's much more work to be done. Lucky for the team, there's another tune up match (Santiago Bernabeu Trophy) that will allow us to refine the playing style of the team, and simultaneously play tribute to the great Raul before the next La Liga game.
.
It was a stuttering start, but it was 3 points nonetheless. There's plenty of reason believe though that once they boys master Carletto's system that it won't be long before the team stops stuttering.











No comments:

Post a Comment