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:

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