Monday, November 11, 2013

To the BBC! (Real Madrid 5 - Real Sociedad 1)


One would have thought that after bashing Osasuna 5-0 last weekend and having been able to withstand Manchester United’s onslaught this weekend that Real Sociedad would have been capable of putting up a much better fight last Saturday. They did not. They collapsed like a house of cards after some minimal prodding from our boys. I was confident of a Real Madrid win coming into the match, following a string of matches that saw the emergence of our front 3 clicking. I did not however, expect a whitewash. But who’s complaining, right?
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The BBC (Bale, Benzema and Cristiano)
Real Madrid's New Super Trio: The BBC - Benzema, Bale and Cristiano
So apparently, everyone at the club is now referring to our front 3 as the BBC. It might not be much of a coincidence that these initials which is commonly associated with the British Broadcasting Corporation were associated with our front line following the acquisition the man who is currently hailed as British Football’s  superstar: Gareth Bale.
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It is not just that fact that our normally-sullen French Striker has just snapped back into form or that the supposedly (and still not 100%) fit Bale has been starting, playing 90 minutes, handing out assists and scoring goals. It’s actually the fact that the 3 have been making and scoring goals FOR EACH OTHER. Last Saturday – Ronaldo had 3 goals and 1 assist (to Benzema), Benzema had 1 goal and 1 assist (to Ronaldo) while Bale ‘broke the rhythm’ by assisting to Khedira.
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The second choice front 3 are no slouches either AJM – Angel Di Maria, Jese and Morata are also more than enough to spook a defense.
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The match was also marked by the chanting of ‘Cristiano Ronaldo, Balon D’ Oro!’ from the stands of the Bernabeu. While I wholeheartedly believe that Ronaldo’s tenure and undisputably astounding accomplishments at Real Madrid deserve a Balon D’ Or, I have reason to believe that it won’t be this year. Blatter aside, Real Madrid haven’t won any silverware this year despite the fact that CR’s superhuman individual accomplishments deserving of the honor. I have a bad feeling that the FIFA mafia will still give it to Messi (over Bayern’s Ribery who also deserves a shot at the award). It doesn’t matter though – Ronaldo is hands down Balon D’ Oro for Madridisimo… and from Ancelotti’s post-match comments, I think he is only starting to REALLY understand how truly, truly special his no. 7 is.
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There’s also been much discussion re: Karim Benzema who was substituted to a standing ovation from the Bernabeu. He is rightly evolving into a role perfectly suited to his characteristics within this lineup. As a striker, Benzema has never been known to be a voracious scorer of goals (32 goals in all competitions for the 2011-2012 season was his best). He has however, a knack for assisting goals that is a tad unusual for a striker: his 32 goal season saw him with 15 assists whilst his disappointing 20-goal total last season was ‘compensated’ with a staggering 20 assists too. To put that number into context, Mesut Ozil had 18 assists last season – Karim out-assisted him! This season, he has 8 goals and 8 assists thus far and is very much becoming a sort of ‘playmaking’ striker.
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It puts certain things into mind:
1.)  That Karim Benzema shouldn’t be judged solely on the number of goals he scores in a season. It is his overall contribution to the team’s attack that must be considered (e.g. assists)
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2.)That replacing him with a player meant soley as a high-volume goalscorer (e.g. Falcao)  is quite likely not a good idea.
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3.)This does not mean however that he gets a free pass for missing 2-yard sitters or for not putting in the right amount of defensive effort.
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Midfield Balance? Or Sissy Sociedad?
Is Alonso the man to make the difference in Madrid's Midfield once again?
Last Saturday, Real Madrid started with a midfield of Modric, Alonso and Khedira. It was as close to Ancelotti’s ideal midfield combination which consisted of a veteran deep-lying midfielder tasked with ball distribution controlling the tempo of the match (Xabi Alonso), a mobile but defensively sound passer tasked with spraying short passes across the pitch (Modric) and a utility man to physically impose himself on both sides of the pitch (Khedira).
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Many envision a sense of symmetry for the midfield: of having 2 players of similar characteristics on either side of the holder (Alonso). This however has rarely been the case with the midfields of successful 4-3-3s – including Ancelotti’s. Both his 2003 and2007 sides featured a deep-lying ball distributor tasked with dictating the pace of their play (Pirlo) and to his right, a guy to provide muscle, ball winning, simple passing and the occasional attacking move (Gattuso).  The key midfield difference between the 2003 and 2007 midfield 3 was Seedorf (2003) and Ambrosini (2007, where Seedorf played as part of the front 3 of the ‘christmas tree’). Either way, they key thing to note is that the midfield was NOT symmetrical and that there is nothing if it’s not.
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Likewise for Madrid, Ancelotti has opted for an asymmetrical midfield with Alonso as his modern day Pirlo (with double the passing range plus the ability to tackle and win balls) flanked by Khedira (Gattuso) and Modric (Seedorf). Last Saturday, the midfield looked considerably more balanced. Was it the presence of Alonso, who not only provided passing and ball-winning, but also leadership at the epicenter of the Real Madrid Formation? Was it the fact that Khedira played a more balanced game? Or was it Modric’s incredibly dynamic display?
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Or was it also Sociedad’s shockingly bad midfield display? While Madrid’s players moved with such dynamic purpose with and without the ball, Sociedad were absolutely hapless. The truth is probably a combination of both. Either way, it was unexpected to see the match sorted out by halftime.
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All in all, beyond Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern and PSG winning, it was a mostly weekend of surprise results: Monaco only managing a draw in France, Borussia slumping to a surprise loss to Wolfsburg (and catastrophically losing Subotic for the rest of the season) while Arsenal, Spurs and City all stumbled in England. In Spain, Atleti dropped points once again – making them now only a mere 3 points away from us. There are promising signs all around and all in all it’s a great sensation to have heading into another International Break.
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A Call for Help
Before I end, I’d like to make a request to all RMFB readers out there, whatever color or creed – I’d like please spare a thought or prayer for my countrymen in the Philippines who have suffered through a massive super typhoon (for those who aren’t familiar with the situation, you can check out: https://twitter.com/ExtremeStorms to see what happened). It is estimated that there might be up to 10,000 dead. There is a massive need for aid in the area. Those who wish to donate can do so through the Philippine Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org.ph/donate). Let’s all count ourselves lucky that in times such as these – it is the beautiful game that occupies our minds and hearts and not the horrors that mother nature can inflict upon humanity.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Trios, Mashups, Doldrums and Conundrums (Juventus 2 – Real Madrid 2)

Juventus 2 – Real Madrid 2. In the end, it was a fair result.  It was a game of 2 halves. After Real Madrid’s opening sequence that strung what must have been 20+ passes (hailed by a deafening shriek of whistles from the Juventus Stadium crowd), the first half was all Juventus. In the second, half, it was mostly Real Madrid. Copenhagen away and Galatasaray at home is next – it shouldn’t be a problem to qualify now. What’s left to see in the group is the dog fight that will happen for 2nd place in the group. I would personally like to see Juve fail to advance. They are a team who are capable of eliminating us should we run into them in the knockout stages… BUT we’ve already proven we can beat them (a win at home and a 2-goal score draw away).
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Real Madrid’s Dynamic Trio: Cristian Bale + The Catman
A Nice Graphic I found Online prior to Last Tuesday's Match
The most heartening part of the match for Real Madrid fans would be the sight of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale not only scoring goals, but also creating them for each other. I had prematurely declared Gareth Bale’s 2013-2014 season to be a writeoff (much like Modric’s 2012-2013 season was) and have been duly proven wrong. It’s a beautiful shock for me to see how the front 3 of Ronaldo Bale and Benzema have clicked so wonderfully. In the last 3 matches, Ronaldo has had 6 goals + 1 assist, Bale has had 3 goals and 4 assists and Benzema has had 3 goals and 3 assists.  The criticism that Real Madrid is merely a team of individuals is no longer valid. Attacking players are no longer being mindlessly given the ball in the spirit of ‘here’s the ball, now we’ll move out of the way and let you do your thing.’ Instead, the front 3 are being fed with intelligent balls into spaces and having their runs being tracked and synchronized with each other. We are seeing more interchanges between players and less individual goals.
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What we are seeing now is also the phenomenon that many coaches and pundits have said: great players want to play with other great players. It is of course of great help that within the team, there is an clearly recognized and undisputed alpha dog (Ronaldo) with his 2 wingmen (Benzema and Bale) more than willing to accept their role to back up the alpha dog.
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Perhaps the unreasonable fans of Madrid expected the 3 to be clicking as magnificently as this since the beginning of the season. To me however, the accomplishment of getting this trio to click as an attacking unit is a remarkable achievement that merits praise for Ancelotti and the coaching staff.
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4-3-3 vs. 4-2-3-1: Midfield Mashups and Defensive Doldrums
Before I discuss the midfield, I just want to clear something up: a lot of people replied to my last post (where I said that Madrid played a 4-3-3), saying that whoscored.com had Madrid listed as a 4-2-3-1. I know that – and that’s why I’m frustrated. Because a look at the average positions diagram of that match (which can also be seen in Soccernet gamecast’s average positions diagram) shows Madrid playing as a 4-3-3 with Isco playing the role of a carillero, just like Khedira with a single holder sitting in front of our defense. So I’ll say it again: for quite some time now, Ancelotti’s Madrid has been playing a 4-3-3: with Illaramendi / Alonso as the holders (Ramos played this role vs. Barca) and with 2 midfielders on either side.
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The truth is, I have no idea as to why Ancelotti has been shunning the 4-2-3-1: a formation that majority of clubs in Europe (including many of the best ones including the pre-Ancelotti Real Madrid) are using. We started with a 4-3-3, dabbled a bit with a 4-4-2 (4-2-2-2) and now we're back to the 4-3-3. Is it the stigma that is normally associated with the 4-2-3-1 that it is a 'counterattacking formation'? Jupp Heynckes Bayern played a 4-2-3-1 with an emphasis on possession last season. Or is it the association that the 4-3-3 has with a possession style of play (e.g. Barca, Ajax, Pep's Bayern)? We shouldn't forget though that Mourinho's Chelsea v1.0, mostly known as a grind-results-out team, played a 4-3-3. It is thus important to drop the stereotypes about formations (4-2-3-1 is for counter attacking, 4-3-3 is for possession). Whether a team is proactive or reactive is ALWAYS down to the application of the formation and not the formation itself.
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At the moment however, I blame the 4-3-3 for 2 things that are currently happening to Madrid: 1.) the 'shipwrecking' of our '10' and 2.) many of the team's current defensive woes. Despite the fact that Madridisimo is celebrating the clicking together of the world's most expensive front line (Ronaldo-Benzema-Bale), a question is rubbing many Madridistas the wrong way still: what's going on with Isco? He has been an unused sub for 2 consecutive games, both of which have been away games. It's also notable that while the 4-3-3's frontline has clicked, producing 12 goals in 3 matches (an average of 4 goals / game), the defense has also conceded 7 goals in those the games (2.3 goals / match). As entertaining as it may be, this is not the way to win league titles - and especially not the way to win cup competitions with away goals rules.
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Our CMs need to understand the dynamics of the system as well as embrace their defensive responsibilities just as much as their attacking opportunities.
I wish to make it VERY CLEAR however that I AM NOT AGAINST the 4-3-3. I am merely saying that the players' unfamiliarity with the system is currently the culprit for the team's defensive suffering. The beauty of the 4-3-3 (compared to the 4-2-3-1) is that when on 'attack mode' the team using it can attack with five men (the front 3 plus 2 CMs) plus the fullbacks with only the holder having to play with restraint sitting in front of the defense. It is thus NOT FAIR for people to criticize Khedira for 'playing as if he thought he was Ozil' - because in such a system, part of his role is to bomb forward when the team was on attack mode. The caveat however is that neither of the 2 CMs have a 'free role' - both men are required to also take on considerable responsibilities on defense for pressing and ball winning. It is for this reason that the CM role in such a system is very physically taxing and for this reason also why Di Maria (who has demonstrated the willingness to accept defensive responsibility) was played as a CM against Rayo Vallecano. For Real Madrid, it helps that we have quite a number of alternatives in the squad.
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In Turin Tuesday, Juve lined up in a similar formation as us: with Pirlo sitting deep as the holder and primary ball distributor with 2 midfield (physical) beasts playing alongside him in Vidal and Pogba. In his post-match comments, Ancelotti correctly observed that Madrid were defending too deep. For me, the key observation I had during the Juve-dominated first half was how rampant Pogba was close to our goal. With Madrid defending deep while Juve was on attack mode, the Bianconeri enjoyed a 1-to-1 matchup against our defense with Marchisio keeping Marcelo occupied on the left and Llorente keeping Pepe alert at the center. To our right however, Tevez caused confusion with his constant movement - sometimes playing along the touchline to trouble Ramos, while sometimes drifting to the middle to pester Varane. Topping this all off was the rampant Pogba who would charge forward past Alonso (who in turn still needed to worry about Vidal). Ramos (RB) and Varane were both given equal doses of dealing with Pogba and Tevez who were constantly switching positions. In the end, the penalty conceded was from a foul by Varane on Pogba (perfectly taken by Vidal). 
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The simple solution on paper would have been to have Khedira track Pogba (and Modric track Vidal). Playing as deep as we were however, having Khedira track Pogba meant the deformity of the team shape. Thus, we all saw that the players have not yet fully grasped the dynamics of the formation just yet in a manner that allows them to identify the adjustments that need to be made to counteract how the opponent plays. 
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For the 21-year old Isco, he will need to make the same journey as Luka Modric - to go through the learning curve of being a natural '10' having to learn to influence the game from a deeper position as well as take on additional defensive responsibilities. 
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The Casillas Conundrum

Cagliari's Pinilla and Nainggolan capture their reactions to Iker's saves from the Juve match for the Twitter world
The world is collectively marveling at Iker Casillas' performance vs. Juve last Tuesday. As a Real Madrid fan of quite a number of years, I confess that I considered last Tuesday's performance from Iker a 'usual Iker performance' i.e. littered with marvelous saves. Perhaps less noticed however were his poor reactions to crosses and some corners. Many of them were met with an unconvincing single-handed punch from Iker which he would sneak between the bodies that have piled up in the 6-yard box immediately in front of him.
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Make no mistake about it: I'm used to this too and am willing to accept such shaky moments in return for the sort of world-class shot-stopping that we saw last night. All my years as a Real Madrid fan have featured Casillas in goal and while I recognize the importance of decisively dealing with crosses, I actually don't recall too many goals conceded by Iker borne from this weakness. I do however understand and accept Ancelotti's decision to opt for what he PERCEIVES as a safer bet: a 'keeper who is more secure in dealing with fundamentals (e.g. dealing with crosses, commanding the box, etc.) rather than one who might not have all of them fully mastered but who will pull off shotstopping miracles on the pitch. 
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Real Sociedad pay us as visit this weekend. Thankfully, for me - the match will be shown in a decent hour (11pm Singapore time). Here's to hoping for all the attacking thrills and no more of the defensive spills. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Moving On (Real Madrid 7 - Sevilla 3)



In a press conference before last Wednesday's Sevilla match, Carlo Ancelotti enthusiastically said that (I paraphrase): "We are very close to seeing his Real Madrid."
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I'm now wondering what he said to the boys before he came out of that tunnel in the Bernabeu. Did broodingly and menacingly tell his men (ala Russel Crowe in the opening scenes of the film 'Gladiator'): 'On my signal, unleash hell.' ?
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The match captures very much the fact that Real Madrid are moving on and transitioning towards getting right many of the things that went wrong in the Clasico. It also gave us a glimpse of what this team is truly capable of once things are able to click when ‘the Ancelotti way’ is done properly. We’ve had some very good wins this season (e.g. vs. Galatasaray to open the CL season), most of those wins however have come as a result of large spurts playing the ‘Mourinho way’ (counter attacks after gaining the lead). This is however, the first match I’ve seen this season where we’ve walloped the opposition playing Ancelotti’s system… and boy was it bloody entertaining.
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Playing the 4-3-3
I get really frustrated when people keep thinking that we still play a 4-2-3-1. It's a 4-3-3 guys! (diagram c/o whoscored.com)

Ancelotti once again played with a 4-3-3 which featured a single holder. Illaramendi’s performance in this role demonstrated his growing understanding of the system as well the growing confidence he has in himself as well as that of the team towards him. And in another bright spot of the game, Alonso was brought in for this role for some minutes to mark his return to the fold. Isco and Khedira played as the 2 roaming Central  Midfielders flanking Illaramendi. Isco looked much sharper and more active as compared to his last few performances. It has to be said however that post-match, after Ancelotti bemoaned the team’s lack of balance (which allowed Sevilla back into the game following the 3-0 lead we established), he was referring to the lack of defensive support offered by Isco and Khedira. It seems as if they enjoyed themselves way too much in roaming forward to participate in the team’s attacks.
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Also notable in the match was the role that Di Maria played when subbed in. Replacing Khedira for 10 minutes, the Argentine played as a central midfielder as well – taking up the Isco’s role in the midfield to Alonso’s left side (with Modric to Alonso’s right): allowing Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale to carry on playing as the team’s tridente. It’s an interesting ‘experiment’ to follow and a clear manifestation of a question that Ancelotti is asking himself out loud: “If a proper striker (Benzema / Morata) is needed in the front 3 and Bale plays to his potential, how can I set the team up to allow Di Maria into the team as well?” – and a sure sign of Ancelotti’s belief in the Argentine.
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Bang for Your Buck
It wasn't just that they scored. It was that they did so whilst playing beautifully TOGETHER.
If you’re going to spend 231m-Euro (96m for CR, 35m for Benzema and 100m for Bale) on a ‘strike force’, this is what you ought to expect: 3 goals for Ronaldo, 2 goals and 2 assists for Bale and 2 goals and 1 assist for Benzema. If there was ever a time to talk about a tridente, then perhaps it is now. They are after all starting to obsess about 'strike partnerships' these days (SaS - Suarez and Sturridge at Liverpool, Aguero + Negredo / Dzeko at City, Rooney + Van Persie at Man U, Ibra + Cavani at PSG and even Neymar + Messi at Barca). Let Real Madrid do all of them one better - we're not just doing duos or tandems, we're doing 'Tridents'... or as they say in the NBA 'Big 3'.
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Last Wednesday, Ancelotti played all 3 in their ‘logical’ positions – Benzema through the middle, the right-footed Ronaldo on the Left, and the Right-footed Bale on the Right… and was rewarded handsomely for it. The 3 players clicked magnificently, not only in terms of being able to individually score goals, but also considering the fact that they were assisting each other. Bale’s assists were to Benzema and Ronaldo. Bale’s opener on the other hand, was a juicy move that involved the 3 front players: with Ronaldo passing to Benzema and moving into a deep position, dragging an defenders with him – allowing Bale to make a late run into the box to openly receive the Frenchman’s pass. Minutes later, Ronaldo would thread another tasty ball through to Bale who struck a goal-bound shot first time, only for it to be saved spectacularly. It was the stuff of Florentino’s wet dreams, whom I imagine was giggling like a school girl behind his diplomatic, poker-faced expression in the director’s box.
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Commander / Commandante Cristiano
Commander Cristiano
A friend said it perfectly on Facebook: that the moniker ‘Commandante Cristiano’ would turn into the modern day equivalent of the cheer ‘Asi, Asi, Asi, Gana El Madrid!’ (translated: That’s how Madrid win) The cheer started amongst rival supporters who chanted it to sarcastically suggest that Madrid won matches unscrupulously through foul means. Today, it is chanted by Real Madrid fans as it to tell their opponents: That’s how our team whips your ass.
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Sepp Blatter’s ‘Commander’ quip re: Ronaldo might likely go the same route: that Madrid fans will now  take this mocking criticism of him and turn it around as praise and cheer for being the team’s commander. He has after all more and more embraced and increased his leadership role in the team.
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When I first read about Blatter’s statements, I felt that it was no big deal for him to be described as a player who ‘had more expenses with the hairdresser than Messi.’ Having seen the video myself though, I was aghast by the mocking tone by which he referred to Ronaldo as a ‘commander’ and pulled off his ridiculously embarrassing impression of him. I do not accept that he did not mean to insult Ronaldo when he did this because I am personally very good at doing mocking impressions of people. I did it as a naughty and rebellious student to mock my teachers in school in front of my classmates and I still do it now to mock and make fun of my bosses and clients in rebellious frustration – all behind their backs of course as any immature, insubordinate person would. But while it is not uncommon to see an immature and insubordinate student or employee (like myself) do such things, having the President of the governing body of the world’s most popular sport do it is appalling. Alvaro Arbeloa is right: if he says and does such things in public, one can only wonder what he would say in private.
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Kudos goes to Ronaldo, for giving the most wonderful response to Blatter: by doing it on the pitch with his 3 goals and showing that idiot how a REAL commander performs with his actions (scoring goals, leading his team) and gestures (a pretty snappy salute, eh?).
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Ronaldo’s goalscoring antics have now moved him past Puksas in the club’s all-time scoring list. All hail the commander.
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Subtle Rotations
Perhaps a less exciting topic of conversation are my observations on how Ancelotti has been subtly rotating his squad. Outside of the clasico, the changes in the match day team sheet could hardly be viewed as ‘tinkering’. Apart from a select group of mainstays (Ronaldo, Khedira, Ramos, Marcelo when fit, Lopez for La Liga matches, Casillas for CL matches), Ancelotti has been quietly shuffling his players and rotating them – keeping everyone fresh, alert and feeling relevant. This is especially important for a team out to play a possession game where intensity and absolute fitness are pre-requisites. The 10-minute experiment that saw Di Maria playing as a Central Midfielder, if it works out, further gives the team more alternatives in the middle.
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More football is coming guys! The team is off to Vallecas to face Rayo and then Turin for our group stage 'return leg' against Juventus. Having pulled off a great performance last Wednesday, it's now to take this show on the road and REALLY put this team and its newfound way of playing the game to the test.