Monday, October 28, 2013

Post-Clasico Thoughts on a Monday (Barcelona 2 - Real Madrid 1)

titulo foto
Everybody's wondering 'WHAT IF a penalty was given and it became 1-1': Honestly, we might have won. But there was no penalty and we didn't win. It wasn't all THAT bad though.
Yes, it was a penalty (Mascherano on Ronaldo). But let’s look back at the game and examine it with a clear conscience: on the balance of what happened out there on the pitch, 2-1 to Barcelona was a fair result (by a cinch). After the Juventus game, I wrote that for Madrid to win the game, they needed to put on a game with no dark spots and only the bright spots. That did not happen unfortunately: there was quite a number of promising signs that we saw out there last Saturday. Signs that indicate promise for Madrid and signs that likewise show that Barca are absolutely not invincible or even difficult to beat.
.
Let’s go through the storyline and pick it apart.
.
.
The WRONG false 9: Martino outwits Ancelotti
The funny thing about playing with a 4-3-3 with a single holder is that despite the perception that it is the more ‘attacking’ formation (compared to a 4-2-3-1), it can actually be used as a more effective defensive tool against Barca’s rendition of the 4-3-3 (who play it with a false 9). Ancelotti’s post-match comments these past few days have revealed his ‘marking system’: he normally asks our center forward to mark the opponent’s deep-lying ball distributor (e.g. he mentioned that he tasked Benzema to mark Pirlo vs. Juve and Bale to mark Busquets last Saturday). Against Juve, who neither played with a ‘10’ nor a false ‘9’, our holder (Illaramendi) was criticized as havingan unclear role – this didn’t bother me as it meant that he would be free (which Illara took advantage of with his 95% passing completion rate midweek). Against Barca on the other hand, who plays with a false 9, the team’s sole holder this time would have a man to mark.
.
It was on this premise that Carletto decided to start the match with Sergio Ramos as the team’s holder (with Illaramendi on the bench). I can only imagine that Ancelotti had in mind the same idea that Mou had in playing Pepe in that spot: to mark / track Messi (the false 9). I also imagined that this role was given to Ramos instead of Pepe given that the latter has proven to have issues with over-aggression which have proven impossible to curb.
.
But while Ancelotti prepared for the havoc that would be caused by Messi as a false 9, it seems to me that Tata Martino also prepared for the havoc that Marcelo + Ronaldo would cause through Madrid’s left flank. His solution to this was to create his own super-combo on Barca’s right flank that would duel with Madrid’s Ronaldo-Marcelo: Messi-Alves. The effect on Madrid was two-fold: Firstly, it created a stalemate on the Madrid-flank with CR-Marcelo and Messi-Alves cancelling each other out. Madrid could no longer mindlessly bombard Barca’s right flank with Messi and Alves working together there (so much so that one of the highlights of the match was Alves nutmegging a Ronaldo who had tracked back to stop him on that flank). And secondly, the false 9 Ancelotti prepped for (who was supposed to be Messi), turned out to be another guy (Fabregas).
.
The truth of it is that despite Martino’s switch, Ancelotti’s system still worked in theory. What made things really dicey for Madrid was Ramos’ Yellow Card. Now forced to be extra-careful, Ramos’ role as a holder essentially became useless: he was neither able to dominate the midfield with his tackling (because of the yellow card) nor his ball distribution (he’s no Alonso): allowing Xavi and Iniesta to seize control of the game (especially in the first part of the first half).
.
.
A Forward Problem
One of the many Critical 'Pieces' Online Re: Bale's Performance as a Center Forward Last Night. What can I say? That's what you get if you cost 100m, right?
What happens when your first-choice striker has been missing  open goals from 2 yards away and you’re not quite ready to trust your 21-year old backup? Last Saturday, Ancelotti attempted to use the world’s most expensive player in an experiment which utilized him as a false 9 of sorts.  A lot of people are having a good laugh about in now, but a second thought would tell you that there was merit to what Ancelotti was thinking:
.
Gareth Bale after all had his best season in the Premier league in a free role through the middle last season (albeit behind a striker). And Real Madrid after all were playing Barcelona: a team whose weakness is its vulnerability on the counter. Ancelotti pragmatically believed that Madrid’s chances to score would come off a counter attack (our lone goal c/o Jese was scored on a counter) so he opted to field a front line with players who ran like the wind. The logic to me, was NOT flawed.
.
It didn’t work though. Despite the fact however that at this point, having a front 3 of CR-Bale-Di Maria only works in FIFA (the video game), there is no reason to believe that it is an experiment that is  inevitably doomed to fail... perhaps it was just way too soon to try it. Benzema fluffed a great chance to head once he came on and hit the woodwork when he came one. This tells me that based on the way we play, a striker is needed. The meat of the matter however is the fact that what the current system needs is a clinical, mobile but physically potent striker to lead the line… and until Madrid are able to land one, we will have to make do with the sort of chopping and changing between Benzema, Morata and even Bale as we are seeing now.
.
One thing that we might need to ominously accept: that this season will be a writeoff for Gareth Bale, just like the last one was for his ex-teammate at Tottenham, Luka Modric. Yes, the club paid 100m for him: but at this point in his career (or his life), he has not yet (or may never) reached the sort of superhero-level physical condition of his idol Cristiano Ronaldo. And clearly not yet match fit, it is very likely that we will see him make sporadic contributions to the team this season and only blossom into form next season just as what happened to Modric. Perhaps we now ought to accept that this is what happens if you buy players from Daniel Levy.
.
.
Let’s not hit the panic stations just yet though as there were a few positives in the game for Madrid:
We’re Now FAR More Comfortable in Possession
Even with Sergio Ramos playing as a holder, Real Madrid had a few bouts of possession able to cope with Barca’s pressing to move the ball forward. Things also started to improve considerably for Madrid when Ancelotti finally decided to torpedo the ‘Sergio Ramos Midfield Experiment’ and sent in a proper holding midfielder in Asier Illaramendi. Keeping possession of the ball and duly creating chances against Malaga or a 10-man Juventus is one thing – to be able to do it in a Clasico against this Barcelona is quite another.  Lock in it. Pin it down. Real Madrid are officially learning to play a possession game once again. This is no longer the team that looked completely hapless and deserving of a loss to Atletico weeks ago. The ultimate testament for me, was that we played well enough on the front foot to force Tata Martino to play a double pivot (sending in Alex Song for Iniesta) to protect their back 4 who were increasingly being put under pressure by our boys. 
.
It’s important to note that their second goal, scored after our boys made them go into ‘Mourinho mode’ (4-2-3-1 with 2 ‘pivots’) was also scored Mourinho-style: on the break. I honestly don’t remember the last time we forced them to play on the counter in their own house.
.
.
The (Spanish / Cantera) Kids are Alright
Was it Arbeloa’s atrocious performance against Juventus? Or the fact that he got skinned by Neymar in the Confederations Cup is still fresh in everyone’s minds (including Ancelotti’s)? Has Carlo Ancelotti now finally awakened to realize that Real Madrid’s best Right Back (and probably Spain’s) is the young Dani Carvajal? The youngster showed absolutely ZERO symptoms of stage fright: bombing down the right touch line with aplomb and did not cower at the prospect of facing Neymar on defense. I am hoping that Carvajal’s place in the starting XI is a sign that Ancelotti has made his choice too as to who Madrid’s first-choice RB is.
.
Ancelotti’s decision to send in Jese is to me, an indication that Carletto’s mind was clear with regards to what he wanted to accomplish tactically as the game was dying out: he wanted pace on the break and directness – which was why he opted to send in Jese instead of Morata or Isco. The young Jese duly responded by scoring what appeared to be consolation goal – but a goal that nonetheless demonstrated what Ancelotti had in mind as time was running out.
.
Ditto for the drastic improvement in Madrid’s overall play upon the introduction of Illaramendi. All that’s left is to figure out how / where Isco fits in all this.
.
.
We’re actually not THAT far away from them
Marca put it quite nicely today: Keep Calm: This Madrid is Starting to Function
At the end of the day, Barcelona won 2-1 but did it neither emphatically or even convincingly (of course Cules will argue otherwise). Their opening goal was scored off a speculative attempt and their second off a counter attack after they’ve been placed on the backfoot because of our team’s improved second half play.
.
At the end of the day however, I don’t quite know how to place our team’s expectations. As a pragmatic man without unreasonable delusions of grandeur, I find myself pondering that I can painfully accept this season as one in transition and therefore to be accepted as one where silverware might not be forthcoming. The truth is that this Madrid is beginning to function as Carletto and his men have envisioned it and is slowly getting there. Whether we get there in time to win silverware is another matter altogether though.
.
Today, I’m not raging in fury (over the loss, the penalty, etc.), I’m not soured by bitter disappointment, nor do I feel heartened enough by the positive signs seen out there last Saturday. It’s mixed feelings all around for me.
.

To be quite honest – I’m actually not really sure how I feel. But then again – it’s Monday.

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. 

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.
.
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.
.
There were a good number of things to enjoy about last night too:
.
.
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. 
.
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. 
.
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. 
.
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. 
.
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.
.
.
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.
.
...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:
.
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.
.
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.
.
Jese almost scored too... once again, if only it weren't for Willy Caballero's heroics.
.
.
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.
.
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.
.
.
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.
.
.
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:

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Pulling Teeth (Levante 2 - Real Madrid 3)

I never liked Levante. 
.
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.
.
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.
.
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.
.
 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."
.
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:
.
.
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).
.
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.
.
'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.
.
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. 
.
.
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). 
.
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. 
.
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. 
.
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. 
.
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). 
.
.
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. 
.
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?
.
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. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

When Karma Bites Your Ass (Real Madrid 0 – Atletico Madrid 1)

Photo title
AS' cover yeterday was spot on. Atletico Madrid played like a proper football team. Real Madrid's played like a Suburban Millionaire's neighbourhood team where the players hardly knew each other.
I suppose that it’s REALLY now safe to say that this season’s likely La Liga winners are going to be Barcelona.
.
And with that, I also suppose that the team to place second this season will be Madrid... and at the rate things are going on at the moment, it looks to be Atletico Madrid.
.

It was bound to happen sometime – Real Madrid were bound to lose a match in the Ancelotti era at some point. So now here it is – at the hands of our city rivals. Losing however wasn’t what hurt me. Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid side has been rising and rising over the past few years. It was inevitable that at some point, they were going to beat us. What really hurt me was how Real Madrid were so hapless and so unprepared to face Atleti. They were all over us and there was ZERO coherence in the way that Real Madrid played - it was as if everyone was just waiting for Ronaldo or Bale to magically score... or for the Atleti of the past 14 years to turn up and self-destruct... or for the ref to call a ridiculously dubious penalty ala Elche. Yup: the ref's incompetence bailed us out on that one. Last Saturday however, Atleti's brilliance and our team's incompetence allowed Karma to haunt us. We may have escaped from the draw midweek, but we did not escape from the jaws of defeat last Saturday. There's no denying that some form of justice was served onto Real Madrid.
.
.
Missing Ingredients
At the heart of all this are the questions that Madridisimo is asking our coach Carlo Ancelotti. Mourinho's team had the inherent weakness of cracking through teams who 'park the bus' yet was ridiculously devastating and irresistible when given the opportunity to play with directness (on the counter). Ancelotti's team was supposed to be a different one: with an emphasis towards more possession and patient build-up play. What I realize however is that despite the supposed difference in approach and playing style between Ancelotti and Mourinho's Madrids, many of the ingredients remain the same and that the quality of the team's players do not necessitate an overhaul of the squad to accommodate this desired stylistic change.
.
.
A Dance Partner for the '10'
Whether it was Mesut Ozil or Isco, whether it's a 4-2-3-1 (Mourinho), a 4-3-3 (Ancelotti) or a 4-4-2 (Ancelotti), Madrid always had another creative player in the middle as a 'dance partner' for the '10'. With Ozil, it was Alonso - and now under Ancelotti, with Alonso still recovering, it has been Modric. The partnerships have been very logical in a stylistic sense too: For Mou it was a midfielder with unparalleled passing range (Alonso) hitting long, raking vertical and diagonal passes to a mobile '10' in the final third of the pitch to create 'Formula 1 Football'. For Ancelotti, the team's most successful spells in attack have been borne from the combination passing of Modric and Isco.
.
"We were slow in attack. We didn't have a good game. We have to recover and improve," he told reporters after the game... Losing a match at home is not easy. I have to think about solutions. We played well up until last week. We have to continue working with the same system but I'm confident we will improve. We must improve a lot of things including our attitude and confidence. I have faith in my players. The problem is not our style of play; it's with our pace." - Carlo Ancelotti

Carlo Ancelotti's post-match words have struck me: particularly his pining for more pace and speed in the way thee team play. I do NOT believe that when Ancelotti was criticizing the team's speed of play or pace, that was referring to a Mourinh-esque definition of 'speed' or 'pace' but that he was referring to speed and pace of ball interchanging - for the players to have quick interplays of passing exchanges while moving into space to as to loosen up the massed up opposing midfield and defense that had built up in front of the team when we had the ball. 
.
Where I felt that Ancelotti made a miscalculation however was the misguided decision to match Atletico's midfield physical presence. Perhaps clearly aware that he was on for a physical battle: Ancelotti opted to have Illaramendi partner Khedira in the middle of the park (over the more lightweight but creative Modric). The selection proved disastrous. Illaramendi was unable to organize the team's play or dictate the tempo of the match with his passing... and robbed Isco of a 'dance partner'. Illaramendi is a talented young man, but still not ready for the responsibility of being the conductor for the team on such big occasions. The Real Madrid midfield failed to cope with Atleti's pressure: and a  lost ball at midfield would eventually release Costa in a beautiful one-on-one situation from where he scored the game's only goal (A big kudos must go to Lopez for saving Costa's effort in his second one-on-one with our #1). 
.
The team played (slightly) better with Modric on the pitch in the second half. 
.
.
An Attacking Fullback - 'Dance Partners for Inverted Wingers'
One of the things that I celebrated the most about the acquisition of Dani Carvajal was that it gave the team the opportunity to have a variety (attacking or more defensively sound) of fullbacks for both flanks. a 4-4-2 (4-2-2-2) with fullbacks attacking on both flanks will be very vulnerable on the counter. A 4-4-2 (4-2-2-2) with no fullbacks providing adequate width attacking danger with their wing players (Isco and Di Maria / Bale) is in for a clusterfuck in the middle when faced with a team on full defensive mode... and this was what happened last Saturday after Atletico scored.
.
There were matches where injuries have forced the team to just go with the players we had available on defense - in siutations such as that, there is no choice but to go with the defenders we have at our disposal. Last Saturday however, 3 out of our 4 fullbacks were available (Arbeloa, Carvajal and Coentrao) thus giving Ancelotti the option of having an attacking fullback one one flank, and a more defensively conservative fullback on another. Alas, Carletto opted to play safe and opted against the more attack-minded Carvajal and went with Arbeloa and Coentrao.
.
I'm not saying that Coentrao and Arbeloa hardly ever cross the halfway line - they do it frequently and in doing so, 'relieve' the pressure in the middle to spread the pitch wide. There is a difference though between a fullback who merely crosses the halfway line to receive a pass (and stretch the pitch wider in the process) ala Arbeloa and Coentrao compared to one who will receive a pass and pose as an attacking threat to cross the ball to the center or to link up with a winger and overload the flank of a defending team (Marcelo, Carvajal). 
.
Against an Atletico team who had gone narrow to protect a lead, width was the critical ingredient to open them up. With 2 inverted wingers drifting inside (Ronaldo and Bale) and without attacking fullbacks to overload the flanks and force Atleti to ruin the balance of their team shape, Real Madrid failed to undo the clusterfuck that Atleti had created in front of Courtois' goal.
.
Many have criticized Arbeloa in particular for his lack of contribution on attack and I've found this to be unfair because I've always felt that he ought to be measured by the right standard: as a defensive fullback. Unless you'rep playing in a video game, playing with 2 attacking fullbacks is a very dangerous way to play. Playing with one however, gives you a nice offensive edge to unbalance your opponent when he's packing it in... and last Saturday, our team didn't do that.
.
.
Another kind of Striker
Real Madrid - Atlético de Madrid
Morata should be given a full game to play not just because he's a young, hungry and talented canterano.... but also because he's a  tactically different type of striker to Benzema and gives the team a different dimension in attack.
One of the game's most most difficult moments was when Ancelotti's decision to sub out Isco for Morata was roundly whistled by the Bernabeu. While it is true that Benzema hardly got any decent service during the match, it was also true that a player who isn't really a threat in the air ought to make more than a few runs or even drop deep to collect the ball. He hasn't done any of that yet this season... and if you combine that with the host of sitters that he has missed (that has had Arbeloa and co. insist the upon the Bernabeu to applaud him when he was subbed out some matches go) then surely the possibility of making a change ought to be considered. This to me would be especially valid when you have a young, hungry, superbly talented and most importantly - a tactically different player, available in Alvaro Morata.
.
When I first saw Morata, at 6'3 and with comparisons being made by his coaches and many pundits to Fernando Morientes, I thought to myself: 'Target Man'. When I really saw him play though, I was also astounded by the fact that for a guy his size, his pace is also very impressive.
.
Last Saturday, as Madrid hunted for the equalizer, Madrid in my opinion needed to do a few things SIMULTANEOUSLY:
1.) Quicken the pace of passing and moving through the middle, which could have been helped by:
2.) Stretching the pitch open with supporting fullbacks supporting our inverted wingers by overloading one of both flanks and...
3.) Having an active, mobile target man available in the middle to physically impose himself on Atleti's CBs and be yet another aerial threat.
.
Ancelotti sent Morata in, who duly executed an on-target bicycle kick from a cross and also took on a few Atleti defenders on a mazy run on the left flank like he did many times for the Spain U-21s last summer. Morata is now chomping at the bit for a chance to start and prove himself. His substitute appearances have shown him to be over-anxious to prove himself in the short 20-30 spells he's been getting as a substitute thus far. The kid is due for a start, it started with a few murmurs but bit by bit were are hearing the madridisimo clamor for it. 
.
Note to Florentino: Madridisimo will applaud you for bringing a galactico, but it will worship you if your mandate produces a homegrown canterano to lead the team's next generation. In Morata and Jese, you might just have the right pearls. Please have your men treasure them.
.
.
5 Points
Madrid are now 5 points adrift of the co-leaders Barca and Atleti. Even in a 2 (or 3) horse race league, 5 points is not an insurmountable lead. Barca are having their own wobbles despite the fact that it has not yet been seen numerically with regards to their league points totals. Atleti on the other hand are the in-form team of the league but it is difficult to see them keep this form up with their relatively thin squad.
.
The REAL question is how Madrid can pick themselves up from their current troubles. We have Copenhagen next at the Bernabeu and there is no reason why we can't beat them and APPEAR to paper over the cracks that have appeared over the last few games (heck, I won't put it past Benzema to score a hat trick even). The test I'm keen to see would be the match against Levante in the weekend - another tough defensive side playing in their home ground.
.
All of us are pining to see a solid Real Madrid victory not from a 'bailout' super-golazo from Ronaldo or a dodgy refereeing decision after a bad team game. What we're all waiting for is a performance that reveals a a well-coached and well-executed game plan. And only when we can manage to do that can we expect Karma to bite other people's asses and not ours.