Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Pulling Teeth (Levante 2 - Real Madrid 3)

I never liked Levante. 
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They're a shit team who wear kits the same color as Barcelona. They used to be personified by man-mountain gangster Sergio Ballesteros who bullied their opponents into submission. Above all, I dislike Levante because despite the fact that they're actually a bad team... winning in their ground was always a difficult task. Thus, when I say that I dislike them, in a way, I mean it as a compliment.
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A huge part of what can make the task difficult however is when Real Madrid make it difficult for themselves: this was exactly what happened last Saturday too. I confess that I dozed off more than a few times during the 2am kickoff match, particularly in the first half. By the end of the match though, having seen our team complete the 2-3 remontada, I let out a 'whispered scream' that woke my wife up nonetheless (and would've woken the neighbors up if I had actually used my full voice) reacting to Ronaldo's winning goal.
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It's a relief to see Real Madrid not rely on a referee to win a match with a late flurry of goals. There's also a thrilling, romantic nostalgia to watching your team throw the kitchen sink at the opponent (and manage to kill him with it) during the dying moments of the match to secure 3 points.
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 Ancelotti said it as matter-of-fact that: "When Real Madrid play well, we can win a match in five minutes." The logical person however would be to ask: Why do these 5 minutes need to take place during the match's final 5 minutes? Or at least in the middle 5 minutes of the first half? I am very much reminded of one of the things that I like to tell the people who work under me: "Many times, the solution is to merely brush the tooth... and not to pull it out."
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In trying to 'unlock' the mysterious elixir formation that would unleash the full power of Real Madrid, I find that so far, Ancelotti has been acting like a sadistic / clueless dentist: having strapped madridisimo onto his dentist's chair. Here we are (Madridisimo), strapped onto it, surrounded by his glimmering array of sharp pointy tools, overwhelmed by the anstiseptic smell of his clinic and rattled by the sound of power tools being used inside the mouth of another poor soul in the next room. Ancelotti looks to be discovering the simple solutions to Madrid's tactical problems rather too slowly, tediously and quite painfully. Here are 2 of them:
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Play AT LEAST 1 attacking fullback at a time. 
Michael Cox has noted the renewed 'trend' of revisiting the 4-4-2 - a wave that Ancelotti seems to have discovered in PSG's tie vs. Barcelona. Just as he did with PSG against Barca, Ancelotti attempted the use of a natural winger (Lavezzi / Ronaldo) as a second striker to partner his first-choice striker (Ibrahimovic / Benzema). At midfield, he also deployed a natural '10' in a left-sided midfield role (Pastore / Isco) while the right flank was manned by a wide man (Lucas / Di Maria).
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Madrid''s 4-4-2 with no attacking fullbacks. The opposing team has a 3 vs. 2 advantage in covering our attacking players.
One of the critical missing pieces from Mourinho's last (and ultimately disappointing) season with us which was almost always never mentioned was Marcelo. Despite the fact that Ronaldo and Coentrao play on the same national team, our '7' doesn't quite have the same sort of telepathic understanding with Coentrao as he does with our wild-haired Brazilian left back (who recently 'cleaned up' his hairdo). Marcelo's raiding runs draw away one or sometimes 2 of Ronaldo's markers away to give the Portuguese winger the opportunity to destroy an opponent one on one. Without this 'feature', Madrid greatly suffered last season. And thus far, for reasons I still have yet to grasp, Ancelotti has deprived our flanks with attacking fullback support. Against 'typical' La Liga sides who will sit and wait for us, in our current 4-4-2, our opponents are given a 3 vs. 2 advantage on each attacking flank, giving the opponent an extra man to defend. In essence, the opposing fullback, central midfielder and central defender is able to cover the forward (Ronaldo / Benzema) and his supporting attacking player (Isco / Di Maria). This is illustrated in the diagram above showing the 3 vs. 2 matchup in the 2 yellow boxes in dotted lines.
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'Overloading' the flank with an attacking fullback on the other hand, will give Madrid an extra man and a fairer 3 vs. 3 matchup. Let's remember that Madrid's opening goal vs. Copenhagen was scored by Ronaldo from a cross by Marcelo. And last Saturday, Madrid's fluidity in attack GREATLY improved with the introduction of the Brazilian into the game. Ancelotti's decision to send Marcelo in as the first sub shows that 'he's starting to get it': that the team needs at least one true attacking fullback at a time on the pitch. Coentrao and Arbeloa are capable of spreading the pitch wide by surging forward and receiving the ball at an advanced position - they will rarely however, create danger from crossing, playing 1-2s in the final third or even attempt shots on the opponent's goal. Marcelo and Carvajal however are more than capable of this. Thus, when healthy, at least 1 of the 2 should play.
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I acknowledge the fear of being caught out on the break as a result of the space left behind by the use of attacking fullbacks. This concern however can be mitigated by the use of only 1 attacking fullback at a time (Marcelo or Carvajal). Against Copenhagen, Ancelotti opted for both. Last Saturday, against Levante, he opted for neither of the 2. It is time to redress this (un)balance. 
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There is a difference between Ronaldo as a Forward and an Attacking Winger... and Isco as a wide attacking midfielder and as a '10'.
Madrid in a 4-2-3-1 with Marcelo in 'attack mode': Ronaldo drifts in from a wide position, Marcelo overloads the left flank and Isco has more 'access' to Benzema and Di Maria
I suppose it's easy to mistake a guy who scores 1 goal/game as a 'striker'. Moreover, tagging Ronaldo as a striker frees him of the responsibility of having to track the opposing fullback in the odd situation the fullback decides to bomb forward to attack (e.g. the Barca 5-0 where Alves pushed forward to form a 3-4-3 to overwhelm Madrid's left defensive flank). Such cases however have been rare and can be especially prepared for (e.g. Champions League ties against superior opposition). 
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There is however a big difference between Ronaldo as a striker and a winger. As a player who scores a goal / game, CBs will surely track him. When he's out of the box however, it becomes ambiguous as to whose job it is to track him, especially when he is knifing through on the left flank with Marcelo running alongside him. 
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If the opposing central midfielder were to pick Ronaldo up, Isco would be set free. But if the opposing CB picked Ronaldo up before Ronaldo made his way into the box, then a large gaping hole would be left at the heart of the defense. 
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The 4-2-3-1 also allows Isco a more central position - which gives him the opportunity to link better with Benzema in front of him and Di Maria to his right, providing the 2 better service from the Spanish playmaker. 
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Ancelotti did not change into a 4-2-3-1 to finish the match last Saturday. But in addition to the sending in of Marcelo to address the need for an attacking fullback, his decision to send in Morata for Isco showed that he understood the 'Ronaldo as a winger' principle too. Morata would take his place as a striker next to Benzema in a 4-4-2 with Ronaldo shifted back to a 'wing position' from where he could threaten the Levante goal from a more withdrawn position where he had more space to operate such that he was able to use his speed and mobility to better effect (as opposed to the crowded penalty box when playing as a striker). 
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A Painstaking Mystery
It remains to be a pain-staking mystery to me as to why Ancelotti seems hellbent to veer away from the logical 4-2-3-1 that has brought plenty of success to Real Madrid (and many other clubs). I also do not see why such a system would not work while playing the patient, possession-based style of play (last season's Bayern played a possession-based 4-2-3-1 for the most part) he wnats to introduce. 
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Witnessing Carlo Ancelotti figure out bit by bit many tactical principles that has made Real Madrid successful over the years the hard way has been a painstaking process akin to having a tooth yanked out in a dentist's chair. First the attacking fullback, then Ronaldo's 'starting position'... and then perhaps Isco playing behind the main striker?
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We are up for a clasico in our second La Liga match after the international break. Will the team's woes be sorted out by then? Or will watching Madrid get another whipping from Barca add yet another excruciatingly painful episode for Madridistas the world over? The first few weeks have been like pulling teeth for me... and I'm really really craving for the moment to come when it becomes Real Madrid's turn to play the role of evil dentist to pull out the teeth over other clubs. 

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