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.
.
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.
.
.
The Biancos (White, i.e. Bright Spots)
.
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). 
.
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.
.
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.
.
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. 
.
Either way, I felt that with our first-choice midfield out there (Modric, Illaramendi and Khedira), Madrid's coherence in play was generally good.
.
.
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.
.
.
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.
.
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.
.

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. 
.
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.
.
.
The Neris (Black, i.e. Dark Spots)
.
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 
.
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. 
.
.
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. 
.
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). 
.
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. 
.
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:
.
Casillas
Arbeloa-Pepe-Ramos-Marcelo
Illaramendi
Khedira--Modric
Di Maria-Benzema-Ronaldo
.
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:
.
Casillas
Arbeloa-Pepe-Ramos-Marcelo
Illaramendi-Khedira
Di Maria-Modric-Ronaldo
Benzema
.
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. 
.
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. 
.
.
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.
.
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.
.
.
.
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. 
.
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.
.
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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment