Monday, September 16, 2013

Struggling to Make the Puzzle Pieces Fit

What a disgusting result.
What a disgusting performance.
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After celebrating the fact that Real Madrid supposedly went off to its best start with 9 points from 3 matches before the international break - Real Madrid finally dropped points last night in El Madrigal. And with that draw, we have now finally allowed eternal rivals Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have now leapfrogged us in the league table with their respective 100% records (I honestly wonder when Barcelona are finally going to let a second half collapse do them in). 
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There were in my opinion 2 key factors that dictated the selection for last night's match:
1.) International Break. Ancelotti managed to 'recover' Asier Illaramendi during the break and probably felt more comfortable to use him. The afflicted ones from the 'FIFA virus' hit the back line particularly hard with Carletto left with no choice but to go with a Nacho-Ramos-Pepe-Carvajal back line.
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2.) Prepping for the Champions League trip to Istanbul vs. Galatasaray on Tuesday. Did Ancelotti want to preserve Khedira for Tuesday?
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Working around the weaknesses if the 4-3-3
Whoscored.com's listed Real Madrid as playing a 4-2-3-1 with Modric and Illaramendi as pivots. Their actual average positions on the pitch however reveals a 4-3-3. It didn't start like that though

To my utter frustration, most 'official' listings of the team's roster shows Real Madrid to be playing a 4-2-3-1. When asked to speculate where Gareth Bale would play at Madrid, most pundits say: "On the right hand side in the 3 behind the striker" also referring to the 4-2-3-1 formation Mourinho established which Ancelotti seems to be shunning away from. Ancelotti has in fact been playing a 4-3-3. I've spoken written about it quite a number of times (here, here and here). It is a system that is not without precedent. This particular system of Ancelotti has won plenty of silverware (including multiple Scudettos and Champions League titles).  What is yet to be established however is how clear the players are as to what their roles are to this system... because the disaster of last night was in my opinion, a direct result of the players still playing as if they were totally clueless to what Ancelotti is trying to accomplish tactically.
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The key to a successful 4-3-3 has always been based on the willingness of the 3 midfield players to accept defensive responsibility. When one of the midfield players fancies himself to have a 'free role', to roam as he chooses and thus relegating his defensive responsibilities to the other 2 midfielders - the system essentially becomes a 4-2-3-1. This is NOT the spirit of Ancelotti's possession-based style of play (which is why Ozil was shunted to a right wing). Despite the fact that there is normally a player tasked to sit in front of the back 4, the remaining 2 midfielders on either side of that player, cannot afford to play as if they were free-roaming 10s. The system is inherently vulnerable to pressing and counter attacks.
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There is no doubt that perhaps the most critical role in the team is that of the man sitting at the heart of midfield. The player in this lone pivot role not only protects the back 4, but also establishes the pattern of play from deep (much like Busquets does for Barca). In our last match vs. Bilbao, it was Modric's masterful performance un this role that has enabled the team to play its best match yet. I believe that in the long term, Alonso will stake his claim to this role. Last night however, it was his heir-apparent who started the match in this position. With Modric and Isco either side of him at midfield (see screen shot below).
2 LARGE Danger Zones inherently exist in a 4-3-3 with a single holder. The 2 CMs (Modric & Isco) need to be aware of their defensive responsibility lest the sole holding player (Illaramendi) is left to cover way too much ground. (Screen Shot taken during the first half)
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It's also important to note that one of Villarreal's keys to success last night was their pressing of the Madrid midfield. Losing the ball at midfield essentially allowed Villarreal's attacking players to flood through the key 'danger zones' on either side of Madrid's holding player to start a counter attack. The ability to pass out of midfield when being pressed was a critical element for a midfield's success. Madrid NEVER dealt with this facet of Villarreal's game in all 90+ minutes of last night's match.
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Another key question that I find myself asking then is: was this the right match to throw Asier Illaramendi into the deep end? The young basque player had quite a stinker of a match and was unable to both cover his territory keep his team's engine room humming. From the sort of passes that he likes to attempt, I can see the comparisons with Alonso. He is however clearly considerably more raw. I thus chalk up the decision to play him, rather than repeat the last match's midfield lineup of Isco-Modric-Khedira the key error - which, sorry to say, ought to be attributed as a personnel error on the part of Carlo Ancelotti.
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Modric took over the 'Pirlo Role' in the second half and there was an improved coherence to the team's play.

Surely, securing the win and then sending Illaramendi as a late sub for Khedira might have been at better option if Carletto wanted to use the 23-year old midfielder... Or the use of the yet-to-dissappoint Casemiro in place of Khedira might have been a 'safer' choice if resting Khedira for Tuesday was that important. By the start of the second half (perhaps latter part of the first half), the critical role of playing at the heart of the midfield ('Pirlo Role') was given to Modric with Illaramendi playing the role of being the 'Utility midfielder' ('Gattuso Role'). Madrid in my opinion, played more coherently with this system.
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Defending a lead: To Counterattack? Or Death by Tiki-Taka?
I understand the thirst to break from the Mourinho era and to step away not just from Mourinho's abrasive antics but also his counter-attacking tactics. But when you're up 2-1 in an away match against a good team, doesn't it appeal to common sense to set your team up to play more safely and use the team's peerless ability to hit on the counter against other teams and score a third or fourth by playing on the break? At 2-1, Real Madrid had Khedira and Di Maria on the pitch (for Illaramendi and Bale): surely we could have chosen to play with 2 pivots to protect the back 4 better (their second goal started with a Villarreal player knifing through our midfield with no resistance) and looked to send balls for Ronaldo and Di Maria to hurt them on the break?
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...Or if we're now going to do this possession-football thing, then perhaps we should have played keep-ball ala Barcelona... to take the sting off the match, to tire / frustrate the opponent until a 'convenient' scoring opportunity came up.
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Player Performances
Pepe: I recently had a discussion with some RMFB readers on the 'definition' of a 'World Class' CB and whether Pepe and Sergio Ramos deserved to be considered so. Well, on the back of what we saw from Pepe last night, I was utterly embarrassed. Pepe's defending last night was hardly even worthy of being considered 'Pub Class', nevermind world class. His performance reminded me of my 2-year old son when he discovered the joys of sliding about. Just as we had thought that his performances had started to improve again, he gives us this shitter of a performance. I really can't wait for Rafa Varane to be back.
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Illaramendi: Simply put - a Deer Caught in the headlights. Ancelotti should ease him into the squad. I have no doubts as to his quality and his potential, but the kids needs time.
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Benzema: Was he even in the game? To be fair, it was his attempt that Ronaldo rebounded and scored our second goal from. But for the rest of the match, he was pretty much invisible. He didn't press, didn't link up play... and mostly just stood around. Morata did more in a little over 15 minutes than he did in 73. When, oh, when does the coaching staff and the management give up on him?
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Carvajal: Assisted his fist Goal (Gareth Bale's first). And generally redeemed himself from his poor performance during the season opener. Provided good width on the attack without rendering the Madrid right flank too vulnerable.
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Bale: Scored his first goal. Looked decent and didn't seem half-bad considering that he's supposedly some way from being fully match fit.
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Diego Lopez: The ONLY reason why we're talking about a draw and not a loss by 4-5 goals. Someone once asked if Carlo Ancelotti ought to be sacked (or at least deserved heavy criticism) for continuing to bench Iker in favor of him. I've often said that though there is an argument that he's a tactically better 'keeper than Iker, I also said that Iker was a far better shot stopper. Last night, was a tour de force performance on shot-stopping. Lopez by a country mile, was my Real Madrid man of the match. Iker's playing on tuesday, let's see what shape he's in and what sort of challenge he can lay upon Lopez to become the team's #1 keeper.
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I'm pissed off that Real Madrid didn't mange the 3 points last night. But in a way, justice was served for Villarreal. It would have been too harsh for them to walk away with no points from last night's match (it was in fact, an injustice for them to only have drawn). This was the first of a 7-match relay for the team in which they will be playing 2 matches every week till Oct. 5 (Galatasaray-Getafe-Elche-Atletico Madrid-Copenhagen-Levante). The time to piece together the tactical puzzle of this Real Madrid has come.
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...And in a league where a single draw or loss can decide the title, Ancelotti better realize that if he doesn't make those pieces fit in immediately, then he just might find himself having to fit them in for next year September this year September.
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POST-SCRIPT: Glad to see Ronaldo put pen to paper on that contract extension. That's a welcome balm to soothe the wound inflicted upon us last night. 
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