Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Signs of Life (Galatasaray 1 – Real Madrid 6)

Con esta espectacular imagen recibieron los aficionados del Galata a los dos equipos.
'Hell Freezes Over': The hugely impressive banner of the Galatasaray Fans sought to spook us. Slightly past the halfway point of the second half though, the stadium known as 'hell' began to empty after the spanking our boys handed to their team.
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Don’t be Deceived by the Scoreline. 
Don’t be Deceived by the performance.
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Real Madrid did not play as well as the 6-1 scoreline suggested , but neither did we play as poorly as our dour first half seem to indicate either. The truth re: our team’s performance in my opinion,  is somewhere in between.
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Make no mistake about it though: last night’s result was utterly significant. It was supposedly Real Madrid’s first win at Istanbul and ‘biggest’ away win scoreline in the Champions League. It was also the team’s first ‘big’ score line in the Ancelotti era after a couple of sputtering wins and a draw in La Liga and Cristiano Ronaldo’s first goalscoring ‘explosion’ in the Ancelotti era. Real Madrid were in desperate need of a win with such an emphatic scoreline... that it came on opening night of the 2013-2014 Champions League campaign in what was supposedly a difficult stadium to play in, was absolutely huge for the team.
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(Slightly) Improved Possession Game... but with goals scored c/o Counterattacks
Average Positions of Real Madrid last night (c/o uefa.com). The team essentially looked like an asymmetrical 4-4-2 with a wide man on the right (Di Maria) and a playmaker in an 'inside left' position (Isco)

Carlo Ancelotti didn't fuss about with personnel or tactics last night. He started to me what looked like a 4-3-3. At central midfield, it was Isco-Modric-Khedira with Modric playing as the team's main ball distributor as Isco tucked closer to his left at the center shuffling up and down while Khedira was to the Croatian's right, providing muscle and ball-winning functions to the middle. Up front, it was Ronaldo-Benzema-Di Maria. 
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In practice however, the lineup, much similar to what we've seen at La Liga thus far, has gradually mutated into an asymmetrical 4-4-2: with Ronaldo surging forward to play as a striker and Di Maria withdrawing slightly from the right, almost in line with Isco - providing Madrid with a wide man on the right (Di Maria) and a playmaker 'tucked in' on the left (Isco).
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Playing a possession-game in this particular match was always going to be difficult given that Galatasaray lineup up as a 4-3-1-2 (or a 4-4-2 with a narrow diamond): packing the middle with 4 CMs (including Sneijder) behind 2 strikers: Drogba, a muscular target man and Yilmaz, a more mobile stiker playing the channels. Thus, the outcome of the midfield battle was a bit fuzzy during the start of the game - and it was not helped by the fact that both teams played at a level that someone on twitter described as ' at the pace of a charity game' during the first 20-35 minutes. This is the fault of both sides in particular as both the Turks and Madrid were seemed to be unnecessarily but casually and cautiously feeling their way through the game. There were moments of danger created by Galatasaray's Felipe Melo here and there - but by and large it started as a dour affair because of both sides.
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It's interesting to note that things only began to tighten up into a proper high-level European clash when the first goal was scored. Even more interesting is the fact that the goal created seemed to be play right off Mourinho's playbook - A long, looping direct pass from deep targeting an attacking midfield runner (Isco), who controls beautifully, bamboozles his defenders, and scores the opener. At that point, it actually felt as if the opening goal was against the run of play.
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Many people have rightly lavished praise on our new star playmaker (Isco), and I'm one of his admirers. His passing and chance creation are not as picturesque as Ozil, yet his movement, skill, technical ability and tactical awareness is a thing to behold. Last night's unsung heroes for me however would have to be Luka Modric and Sami Khedira. Apart from a few heavy touches and misplaced passes, I find that the combination of the 2 at the middle of the park has seen us come closest to Ancelotti's 'vision' of a Real Madrid who are competent and comfortable with possession without having to put the pedal to the metal every single time we have the ball. The 2 have demonstrated the value of a lateral or diagonal pass that doesn't necessarily create a goal scoring chance, but is critical to the positional setting up of a team to create that goal-scoring chance. To play this style however, the team will need to know how to win the ball back when possession is lost. I did not like the fact that Galatasaray enjoyed long bouts of possession during the first half of the match. Whether this is because of the fact that Galatasaray had 4 midfielders, or whether this exposes Madrid's collective weakness at winning the ball back once it has been lost, something needs to be done about it.
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Kudos must also go to Ancelotti for his decision to embrace the opportunity to play on the counter last night. Up 3-0, Ancelotti brought on Gareth Bale for Isco: Bale played on the right side with Di Maria on the left in what looked like a straightforward 4-4-2 featuring 3 players with warp speed pace (Ronaldo, Di Maria and Bale). Carletto was duly rewarded with 3 more goals. I have no problem with Ancelotti's objective of letting the team be more comfortable with being the side who has majority of possession - it is something our team needs to develop when facing majority of La Liga sides who have learned to effectively park the bus and ambush us on the counter. I do feel however, that it is just as important for the team to not let go of its counter-attacking game - especially when we have 2 of the world's best pacy goalscoring wide players (Ronaldo and Bale). 
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Mr. Champions League Again
The straw that broke the camel's back however was Benzema's goal early in the second half. A split second of catching them asleep at the wheel cost them dearly as our Mr. Champions League (Benzema) ruthlessly punished a defensive error with a clinically-taken goal that seemed to have totally deflated them. I've spent the last few weeks hammering on Karim Benzema for his lackluster performances - but last night, he shut me up.
The Frenchman completed a great game with two goals.  The Champions League continues it really well.
Karim Benzema: 4 games, 4 goals, 3 assists. That's HARD to argue against.
What is it about the Champions League that makes Benzema's blood stir differently? Even during the first 25 minutes of the match when things were still stale, Benzema had a bounce to his step and was clearly playing with some form of bloodlust. He was making tackles, making runs and running after seemingly lost balls, one of which he even turned into a scoring chance for Ronaldo. Was it the removal of that horrifying ugly patch of hair on his head that somehow made him more aerodynamic and play as if he was 10 kilos lighter? Despite performances that have been met with criticism from many fans (including me), I will have to admit that it's difficult to argue with statistics. Karim Benzema has played 4 matches and he has 4 goals and 3 assists. Can he carry his Champions League form into La Liga? Or should we let young Morata have a run out against Getafe at home this weekend?
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Pregnant with Goals
Cristiano celebró su renovación marcando tres goles y comenzó esta edición de la Liga de Campeones a lo grande.
Ronaldo celebrated his contract renewal (and MASSIVE pay rise) with a Hat Trick in 'Hell'
He didn't score in our first 2 La Liga matches (vs. Betis and Granada) - so somehow at the back of your head, you just knew that he was going to blow up at some point and 'compensate' for those matches without goals scored by bursting in with a hat trick. Who knew that he would do it in 'hell'? What was tactically notable about Ronaldo last night was that he played almost as a full fledged forward last night (not just his usual 'inverted winger' role).
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I'm finding that Ronaldo is increasingly more willing to try playing 1-2s with his teammates either for himself or for them to burst into the box for goal scoring chances. It was also refreshing for him to attempt a sneaky pass (it was intercepted though) rather than take a shot fron long range on one free kick occasion. He linked up really well with Benzema last night too... and how about that 3rd goal??? An absolute beauty.
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Beyond The Scoreline
Looking back at last night's events with a level head, I find it important to NOT be caught in the euphoria that such numbers (the scoreline, etc.) can provoke within us. Many of the team's weaknesses continue to exist and need refinement (controlling possession, keeping clean sheets, etc.). There were plenty of positive sensations that came about from last night's match though. La Decima is the trophy that is deepest in the hearts of Madridisimo and our start to the current European campaign could not have gone any better. In a way, I prefer to look at what the team has accomplished last night as 'signs of life' on the sort of things that this team under Ancelotti would be able to achieve once things begin to click.
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Final Thoughts
-I really feel for Iker - injured again on a freak accident on his first game back. I'm really glad though that we have Diego Lopez onboard
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-Perhaps Pepe ought to try shaving his head. Benzema did it and look what what he did last night. 

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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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Friday, September 13, 2013

Our 2013-14 Third Kit: What Do You Think?

Bale's first runout with the boys for Promo Duty.
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Gareth Bale joined his new Real Madrid team mates for his first team promo event to launch Adidas' 3rd Kit for Real Madrid. It's supposed to be used in the Champions league and I suppose other La Liga teams who wear blue and white (Real Sociedad?).
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My first impression upon seeing them last offseason when they were leaked was that they reminded me of Iker's goalkeeping kit from some seasons back. When I showed them to my wife though, she innocently remarked that they 'looked like the jerseys of the Dutch National Team'. This instantly made my blood stir the wrong way as a images of that douche-bag Johan Cruyff and the old Barca teams of the past (who wore orange away jerseys some seasons back) came rushing to my head.
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In any case, I'm very interested to know what Madridisimo thinks of Real Madrid's 2013-2014 Third Kit in Orange. Let me know what you think:
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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Selling them, Spending for them and Slotting them in

An Infographic on Bale care of Sporting Index
Selling them and Spending for them
After 'mourning' the loss of the many great players who have left our squad, during the winter transfer window, the time has now come for us to assess how the club has performed, assess the new arrivals to the team and speculate how the team can play with the personnel that we have onboard. It is important for me that we are able to perform this 'analytical exercise' without letting our emotions or our attachments to many of the players who have left cloud the thinking process. 
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This past summer transfer window, Real Madrid has spent 174m has been spent on player purchases:
-6m for Dani Carvajal, from Bayer Leverkusen (buyback option)
-6m for Carlos Casemiro, from Sao Paolo (post-loan option)
-30m for Isco, from Malaga
-32m for Illaramendi, from Real Sociedad
-100m for Gareth Bale, fromt Tottenham Hotspur
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BUT, Real Madrid has also 'earned' 113.4m from Player Departures.
-37m Higuain to Napoli
-12m Albiol to Napoli
-10m Callejon to Napoli
-4.4m Negredo from the deal between Man City with Sevilla (sell-on clause)
-50m Ozil to Arsenal
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That's a net transfer fee of 60.6m. 
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Comparisons with Other Clubs
I've often preached the virtue of having a sense of perspective in reacting to the goings-on in the club and a big part of being able to do that is to compare ourselves to other teams in Europe. So let's have a look at the business conducted by some of Europe's other big clubs (info taken from transfermarkt):
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-AS Monaco: net transfer spend of 159.95m (In: Falcao, Moutinho, James Rodriguez, Kondogbia, Toulalan, Lopez, Martial, Mirin / Out: Toure, Medjani, Loan Fee for N'Dinga)
-PSG: net transfer spend of 84.4m (In: Cavani, Marquinhos, Digne / Out: Sakho, Gameiro) 
-Napoli: net transfer spend of 16.2m (In: Zapata, Higuain, Albiol, Callejon, Rafael, Mertens, etc / Out: Cavani, Santana, Cigarini)
-Barcelona: net transfer spend of 42.9m (In: Neymar, Buyback of Bojan / Out: Thiago Alcantara, Villa, Fontas)
-Tottenham Hotspur: net transfer gain (profit!) of 5.15m (In: Lamela, Eriksen, Chiriches, Chadli, Paulinho, Capoue, Soldado / Out: Bale, Huddelstone, Parker, Dempsey, Caulker)
-Chelsea: net transfer spend of 60.85m (In: Willian, Atsu, Etoo, Schurrle and Van Ginkel / Out: Bruma, Loan Fees for Lukaku, Moses, Wallace, Romeu).
-Manchester City: net transfer spend 104.3m (In: Negredo, Navas, Jovetic, Fernandinho and Demichelis / Out: Tevez, Loan Fee for Sinclair). 

Looking at the quality of players we have brought in and lost, I'd say that's pretty good business when we compare them to Europe's other big club big spenders. There area few interesting comparisons to be made with the teams above.
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1.) Napoli and Spurs have both spent mostly the just the money earned from the sale of their superstars (Bale and Cavani) - Spurs have in fact made a profit - validating my point that Florentino should have at least faked leaving the negotiating table to let Spurs sweat over the fact that they had spend 100+ million already.
2.) Monaco is a a non-applicable comparision because they are building a team for the first time to compete to win a league title without any star players onboard.
3.) Barcelona have spent a handsome fee essentially to acquire a player that does not fill any critical area of need of the squad (CB)
4.) The 3 teams above that can be best compared to Real Madrid in terms of spending are: PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City - spending money on a series of players who are all likely to figure in the 'core' of the team (with this core being a pretty big squad owing to the fact that they wish to compete for multiple titles.).
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It is with regards to item 4.) above where perspective comes in:
PSG have a net transfer spend of 84.4m and they have 3 who are starting XI material.
Manchester City have spent a whopping 104.4m on 4 who are starting XI material (Demichelis isn't).
Chelsea's net spend is similar to Real Madrid's with only Etoo and Willian looking like instant starting XI material (Schurrle is a borderline starter)
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Real Madrid's 60.6m net spend consists of five players who are all starting XI material. They are also players who will areas of need which include depth at RB (Carvajal), and a possible medium-long term heir to Alonso (Illaramendi) to cap off a saga that has lasted 3 seasons. We've also signed the world's best young #10 (Isco) and the best player of the "Best" League in the world (Bale). There is no arguing that this is great value for a net spend of 60.6m.
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Slotting Them In
Real Madrid C.F. 4-3-3 football formation
2013-2014's Real Madrid Squad in a 4-3-3
The most overlooked part about they way by which people have been looking at the team's transfer activity has been the formation / system of play by which Ancelotti wants the team to play.
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He's done it before in Milan and he's doing it again at Madrid: a 4-3-3 which features a primary ball distributor at the center of the lineup (Pirlo / Alonso) flanked by a mobile playmaker with the legs and mentality to shuttle up and down (Seedorf / Isco) and a utility midfielder who can play simple passes and can tenaciously win the ball with tough tackling (Gattuso / Khedira).
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He's also used an asymmetrical 4-4-2 as we saw in his PSG team last season. 2 Central Midfielders are surrounded by a wide midfielder (Lucas / Bale) on one side, while a player normally accustomed  as a '10' is shunted wide and allowed to drift in at another wing (Pastore / Isco).
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From the 3 matches that we've seen so far, Ancelotti to me appears to be using a system that shifts back-and-forth between these 2 systems using the same XI. It is in this regard where Madrid's system becomes very clear - where we can now easily see that we are 2 players deep for every position:
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Goalkeeper: Lopez / Casillas - Shot Stopper vs. Tactical Goalkeeping
2 world-class goalkeepers who will continue to divide opinions among Madridistas. Casillas is the world's best shot stopper but Lopez, many coaches would say (which include Capello,) Mourinho and Ancelotti), is better 'tactical' goalkeeper (more presence in the box, better at crosses, better distribution). I honestly prefer Casillas, but see no wrong in the choice of making Lopez the #1 choice between the sticks.
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Fullbacks: Arbeloa / Carvajal, Marcelo / Coentrao - Attacking vs. Defensive Fullbacks
With the retention of Coentrao and the arrival of Carvajal, Real Madrid are now 2-deep in both fullback positions with every player a top-class one. Madrid now finally have the tactical flexibility of having attacking and defensive fullbacks both on the right (attacking: Carvajal, defensive: Arbeloa) and the left (Attacking: Marcelo, defensive: Coentrao). It's interesting to realize as well that both right backs are Castilla graduates (Carvajal and Arbeloa) while both left backs are native speakers of Portuguese (Marcelo / Coentrao).
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The Center of Defense
Madrid have 3 world-class center backs to mainly rotate for the 2 CB slots in the Madrid XI (Varane, Pepe and Ramos). With his calling to the senior national side, Nacho plays the role of being the team's aspirant CB.
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Center Midfield
The 4-3-3 'rotates' clockwise to become an asymmetrical 4-4-2 with an attacking midfielder on one side (Isco / Modric) and a natural wide man on the other (Bale / Di Maria). Diagram is from a previous article (pre-arrival of Bale and exit of Ozil).
For the deep-lying central, ball-distributor 'Pirlo' role, we have 2 Basque, ex-Sociedad players in Alonso and Illaramendi. It's interesting to note that the 2 can do more than distribute: they're no slouches in doing defensive work too. We've also seen Modric (last match vs. Bilbao) play this role masterfully to the delight of the Bernabeu. Modric and Isco however are the players who are tasked with the 'Seedorf' role of pushing forward whilst still given defensive responsibilities. Isco in particular, has many times detached himself from the trivote to push forward to become an advanced playmaker. For those who are fond of comparisons, my opinion re: Isco is that he is not yet at the level of Ozil, but at age 20, there is no reason why he won't be able to reach or even surpass the level Ozil at age 24 is at in 2-3 years. Khedira and Casemiro on the other hand, are the team's water carriers, providing bite and blue-collar work for the team on the pitch.
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The Front 3: Sheer Firepower
Yesterday's Marca cover. Everyone is waiting for Benzema to mess up... so that they can re-start drooling over Falcao or Suarez for the winter transfer window. Both players will not be cup-tied should they arrive on January.
Most pundits have identified Madrid's main area of need as being the '9' spot. Benzema had a mediocre season last year while Higuain has left. Some might be wondering where the goals will come from. I'm not one of them. When you have a player who scores 50 goals/season in your team (Ronaldo), I find it silly to wonder where the goals will come from... especially if your major summer signing was a guy who scored 34 goals last season in England (Bale). Benzema has no need for a Falcao or a Luis Suarez to remind him that he needs to buck up: he only needs to look at the bench to find Morata awaiting his chance to play. Morata is 3 good, goal-scoring performances away from swaying the Bernabeu to clamour for him to start over Benzema as the team's first choice #9. Our 100m man Bale won't have it easier either: he will need to show Ancelotti that he can work just as hard as Di Maria on defense while showcasing his more impressive attacking skills to nail down his place in the starting XI. As for Jese, he and Ronaldo will play on that left-sided role that 'shifts' to become a secondary striker's role when the team converts from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2.
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I did not watch any international football this past weekend nor did I pay any attention to the needless drama from the aftermath of Ozil's departure. It doesn't matter to me if he felt that the club owed him more transparency or if the club was irked by his father / agent's continuing demand for a (well-deserved) pay rise. Nevermind, let's let it go.
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Callejon, Albiol and Higuain will be wearing Napoli shirts from now on.
Ozil will be wearing an Arsenal shirt from now on.
There will always be reasons to be upset about that.
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But frankly, I'm more interested about the fact that Casillas, Varane, Pepe, Ramos, Coentrao, Khedira, Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale, Marcelo, Alonso, Carvajal, Casemiro, Arbeloa, Nacho, Modric, Jese, Morata, Di Maria, Isco, Illaramendi and Lopez are all wearing Real Madrid shirts.
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It's Tuesday again and I'm no longer in the mood to sulk about what happened 7 days ago.
What I am in the mood for instead is to look forward to what will happen in 4 days: to see my beloved Real Madrid take the pitch once again.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Prayers and Player Departures

My last thoughts before drifting to sleep have always ended in prayer – thanking God for the day that was and for the family that I have. I also make my last wishes for the day: prayers for loved ones, my challenges at work, etc. Last night, with still several hours to go in the transfer window, before drifting to sleep: I, like many sports fans, unfairly asked for divine intervention on sporting matters: I asked God to keep Mesut Ozil at Real Madrid.
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When I woke up in the morning, Arsenal had signed Mesut Ozil for 50m. My heart sank. I wanted Ozil to stay more than I wanted Bale to arrive. I can only imagine what an Arsenal fan’s heart was like: floating on an incredible high (it was to be confirmed when I saw the scenes of jubilation amongst the Arsenal fans outside the Emirates Stadium later on). I suppose God decided to heed an Arsenal fan’s prayers last night… and that he didn’t want Real Madrid fans’ football fantasies to be overfed.
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Now that the transfer window has slammed shut and we can now finally look forward to a firmed-up squad with no more speculations on signings, I suppose it's a good time to assess the comings-and-goings to our squad that took place over the last few months as we look forward to the young season.
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The Departures
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The Napoli Boys: Higuain (37m Euros to Napoli) Albiol (12m to Napoli) + Callejon (10m to Napoli)
Pipita holds up his '9' Napoli Shirt. The Army Camouflage motif is perfect for him too: Pipita is a fighter. I will miss having him at Real Madrid
In their 2-4 victory vs. Chievo Verona last weekend, Napoli's XI lineup was:
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Reina
Maggio-Albiol-Britos-Zuniga
Inler-Behrami
Callejon-Hamsik-Insigne
Higuain
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Rafa Benitez's team has 3 Spaniards and 3 ex-Real Madrid players in their starting XI. Napoli to a certain extent, set the template that Tottenham did: they spent the money they earned from the sale of their superstar player (Cavani) to strengthen multiple positions in their squad. If I attempted to be a neutral, I'd say that they overpaid marginally for Higuain and overpaid considerably for Callejon and Albiol. For the 3 ex-Madrid players however, I'm very glad that they've found a place where they would not just be undisputed starters, but also a place where they have the opportunity to contend for silverware. Napoli faces a tall task in dethroning the mighty Juventus in Italy but their team is more than capable of putting a worrisome challenge for Juve supporters. In the Champions League, I will admit that I would dread seeing Madrid face a Rafa Benitez-coached team in the knockout rounds - maybe he's the man to break open the ketchup bottle for Pipita in Europe.
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Gonzalo Higuain was one of my favorite Real Madrid players. He's not as talented as many of our previous strikers (R9, RVN, Owen, Benzema), but what he lacked in talent, he more-than-compensated for in heart and intangibles. Intangibles - that's probably a quality that American Sports fans value a lot (which tend to be valued less outside) more than sports fans from other cultures. It was a quality that Pipita had in spades. It was the reason why from the age of 19 till he left us, he never stopped fighting for his place, he never sulked and never flinched in the face of criticism, opposition or boardroom and dressing room politics both at Real Madrid and with his National Team. Pipita has stared down challenges to his place in the team from Raul, Van Nistelrooy (his mentor), Huntelaar (remember him?) and Benzema at Madrid. For Argentina, he contends with Aguero and Tevez for a place in the front line and still wins out most of the time. With Benzema the only proven (well, semi-proven) striker we have, I question the wisdom of letting Higuain leave. Other nit-picky Real Madrid fans can disagree with me and criticize him all they want, but my opinion is: it was a mistake to let him go.
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The 2 Spaniards on the other hand, have left largely to accommodate the Real Madrid's swelling ranks of young superstars-to-be. Backup CBs usually consist of reliable veterans (like Albiol) or promising youngsters (like Varane) - but when these promising youngsters' talents explode for the world to see, they are best put to the fore. Varane will now contend with Pepe as the first-choice partner of Ramos while Nacho has been deservedly promoted as the 4th-choice CB. It was clearly time for Albiol to move on. He had one pretty good season paired up with Pepe at CB under Pellegrini. I really hope that his performances as a starter for Napoli can win him a place in the Spanish National Team for the World Cup.
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Callejon played with the full understanding that he was a squad player at best for Real Madrid. He embraced this role wholheartedly out of sheer love for Madrid... And we all loved him for it in equal measure.
Callejon is in a similar situation to Albiol - he was never going to be good enough to be a starter for Madrid. He was always going to be a squad player. He himself knew this and embraced his 'supersub' role in Mourinho's team. It was thus inevitable that he would lose his place in the team if Madrid decided to a.) further upgrade from Di Maria or b.) had a bright young canterano come up to take his place in the team as an understudy. Unfortunately for him, both scenarios came to be with the arrival of Gareth Bale and the emergence of Jese. Callejon seems to have found a home in Rafa Benitez's Napoli, in the role that Dirk Kuyt played for Rafa's Liverpool - a utility wingman, with tremendous workrate capable of chipping in with goals from the right flank. The big difference is that Callejon has 10x more pace than Kuyt. I fully expect him to be a success in Rafa's team.
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Kaka (Free to Milan) - The Galactico that Disintegrated
I got myself a Kaka Jersey, (not Cristiano's) when Uncle Flo's Galactico project version 2.0 started. No fan is more disappointed at his failure at Real Madrid than me.
I have openly admitted many times that at the beginning of Florentino's second galactico project, that I was more excited about the arrival of Kaka than Cristiano Ronaldo. The memory of Kaka single-handedly destroying Ronaldo's Manchester United in the CL semis is still indelibly seared into my memory. No fan is more disappointed by Kaka's failure at Madrid than me. 
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The politically-correct thing to do was to curse luck and injuries. I believe though that a huge part of his failures was also his own doing. His multiple absences during his first season with us were largely masked by the outstanding performances of Rafa Van De Vaart under Pellegrini during the 2009-2010 season. It was the season before the World Cup and it was clear to me that he prioritized playing in the world cup over not just his club, but also over his own health and his career. The decision to wait until after Brazil's ill-fated World Cup campaign to have knee surgery was the worst decision of his career. Brazil self-destructed in the World Cup and post-tournament surgery and recovery ultimately sabotaged his club career for the 2010-2011 season for Mourinho's Madrid - the season that saw him permanently lose his place as the team's first-choice #10 to a young German genius named Mesut Ozil.
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Many attributed Kaka's lack of success in his first year at Madrid due to the incompatibility of his game to Pellegrini's possession-based system. Many hypothesized that Kaka's success was down to Milan's counter-attacking game that allowed him to use his ability to accelerate past back-pedalling defenses which was not applicable to Madrid's style of play at the time. If this was true, then surely the arrival of Mourinho and his counter-attacking 'Formula 1 football' would have been perfect for the Brazilian... if only he had decided to have his surgery and recover in time to be part of Mourinho's preseason. In the end, it didn't matter: post-surgery Kaka was still a good player but no longer with his 'jets' (his famed ability to accelerate) and without the passing vision to feed the insatiable Ronaldo the way Ozil did.
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He had his chances to leave many times and still decided to stick it out at Madrid knowing full well that he would never become first choice again - reportedly because of his refusal to take a pay cut. I will presume that he has finally decided to agree to leave and accept less than half his current pay to give himself a chance to play for Brazil.
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I don't accept the assertion that what happened to Kaka was a straightforward  club-vs.-country dilemma where he just simply placed country ahead of club in his list of priorities (which will lead to some people admiring him). His decision to prioritize the 2010 World Cup didn't just jeopardize his club, but his entire career as well. By sorting out his injuries at the right time and timing his recovery in conjunction with the club's preseason, etc., a recovered, fully-match fit Kaka might well have kept Ozil out of Madrid's starting XI during Mourinho's debut season with us. A recovered and fully match-fit Kaka today might well have resulted in him being the National Team Captain and key player for his country when they host the World Cup next year. It is ironic that his mis-informed decision-making to prioritize club over country earlier in his career might possibly be the reason for his decline and now he is in a state where he is making a hail-Mary career move just to get a outside chance of becoming a mere squad player for Brazil in the coming World Cup.
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As for his 'treatment' of Real Madrid, I find it hypocritical and shameless of him to make decisions re: his career that placed Madrid as second fiddle in his list of career priorities... only for him to refuse to leave because he enjoyed way too much the salary that he received from the club. 
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I'll say it now: Kaka was a galactic failure at Real Madrid. And I'll say this too: a big part of why he failed was also down to him. I really hope that after he curses his luck (re: injuries) for his career failures that he too can find part of that reason when he looks in the mirror.
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An AC Milan-supporting colleague of mine who was celebrating Kaka's return told me this morning: "Thank You for letting us have him back for free!" I replied: "No. Thank YOU for getting him off our books. Now we can finally pay Ronaldo."
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Ozil - The Wizard who vanished into thin air on a Transfer Deadline night in Madrid. (50m to Arsenal)
Özil, Arsenal's shirt
'Fly Emirates' - wrong colored shirt, wrong badge! Ozil belongs in a Real Madrid shirt.
Nightmares are supposed to haunt you in your sleep. Today, the nightmares haunted me while I was awake. It's not a passing nightmare either - it's become a reality. Mesut Ozil is no longer a Real Madrid player. This is a ridiculous outrage. I realize I am not alone in feeling this way about this subject matter. An AS survey apparently has revealed that 2/3 Real Madrid fans disapprove of the sale of Ozil (Cries of 'Ozil not for Sale' even rang out at the Bernabeu during Bale's presentation which Florentino Perez shushed). Sergio Ramos, who has an ongoing bromance affair with the German has also openly declared his opinion that Ozil ought to be one of the last to be let go of in the current squad. Even more worrying is that Cristiano Ronaldo, our star player whom we are trying to sign to a contract extension is supposedly upset at Ozil's departure. Why wouldn't he? Ozil has after all assisted a huge number of his goals. 
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Florentino Perez, in wanting to 'please' Madridisimo has made a huge mistake. I think he has failed to understand that Madrid fans are NOT going to be upset if Bale didn't come. but that they would be (and currently ARE) upset if Ozil were to go.  
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Isco is a wonderful player, he is younger, more willing to take on defensive responsibility and is Spanish... but his arrival need not mean that there was no longer any room for Ozil even with Bale's arrival. I am deeply disappointed that neither Ancelotti with his tactics nor did the upper management of the club has done enough to keep Ozil at ease amidst the arrival of Isco and Bale. I feel deeply betrayed by Florentino Perez for allowing (or perhaps even being the mastermind) for this to happen.
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I also reject the criticism of Ozil as if to blame him that he didn't have the stomach to fight for his place in the team. Shunted to the right wing (not his natural position) during preseason and at the beginning of this season, Ozil has not looked comfortable and has been logically outdone by Di Maria in a role that fits the Argentine perfectly. How was he supposed to successfully convert himself from being the best #10 in the world into a world-class winger at the drop of a hat? 

Arsenal who have been in search of another striker all summer long, have managed to land the jackpot of the summer transfer window. The oft-injured Wilshere is NOT a #10 (he ought to give up his jersey number to Ozil!) while Aaron Ramsey has started the season thriving as a pivot. Overnight, Arsenal with Ozil have become a frightening team:
Szczesny
Sagna-Mertesacker-Koscielny-Gibbs
Wilshere-Ramsey
Walcott-Ozil-Cazorla
Giroud

Arteta and Flamini can interchange with Wilshere and Ramsey in the pivot positions, Rosicky can interchange with Cazorla and Ozil as '10s' while Oxlade-Chamberlain is an alternative winger, while upfront, Wenger might be interested in trying Podolski out as an alternative striker. It will be a system built around the talents of Ozil - a sporting situation that he has earned and deserves.
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In my sorry attempt to try to see the bright side in all this, it actually seems like Ozil's sale to Arsenal is our way of screwing Tottenham and Daniel Levy back for screwing our club out of 100m Euros for a player that costs less than half that amount. Taking Bale's departure to Madrid into consideration, I actually fancied Spurs to overtake Arsenal in the race for Top 4. Ozil, re-dresses the balance of power between the 2 and just might give the gunners an 'equalizing factor'.
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Making up for 50% of Bale's ridiculous transfer fee, Ozil is also the most expensive sale of a Real Madrid player in history. Assessing the deal without emotions, 50m for the world's best #10 is a fair price and is a big step forward compared to the scandalously cheap prices by which we let the likes of Wesley Sneijder (15m), Rafa Van Der Vaart (11m) and Arjen Robben (25m) leave.
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In trying to see things without the strong emotional attachment I have towards him as a huge Real Madrid fan, his departure can be chalked up to 2 simple reasons: Firstly, to balance the books in lieu of the Gareth Bale purchase (his sale singlehandedly wipes off half of the money 'lost' on Bale's purchase). Secondly, Ancelotti's new 4-3-3 system (that 'converts' into a sort of 4-4-2) places more value on high-defensive-workrate playmakers (Isco and Modric) or wing players (Di Maria, Bale) and not what has become a 'classic #10'  (like Ozil) playing at the heart of a 4-2-3-1, protected by 2 holding pivots behind him and surrounded by a series of mobile attackers in front of him to feed (will discuss this in another post).
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'Farewell Prayers'
It's interesting to note that the players who have left us this past transfer window have all left most of us feeling a sense of loss. None of the players who have left us has made us feel like celebrating (Faubert) or crying 'Good Riddance!' in indignation (Robinho). That many of us feel bad about these players leaving is a reflection of what a truly great team we've had over the past 3-4 seasons. They are all players who have won our affection for their dedication (Callejon, Albiol), fighting spirit (Higuain), humanity (Kaka) and genius (Ozil). I suppose now is a time to wish them the best of luck in their new teams... and for those of us who wish to do more - support their teams. I for one, have now become a Napoli fan and have plans to renew my bonds with the Arsenal faithful.
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After the tears have dried up and the numbness from the shock and the pain from the sadness has subsided, I suppose now is as good as any time, to have an international break to balm over the wounds from the hurt of losing such great players in our team. When this process is all done, the time will come again for us to renew our faith in Real Madrid and to begin pestering God with our ridiculous prayers for the glory of Real Madrid once again.