Tuesday, January 14, 2014

3 Points (Espanyol 0 - Real Madrid 1)

Real Madrid were right back to a 4-3-3 last night much to my surprise. Diagram is from whoscored.com
3 Points. That's the number of points that our boys won in that hard-fought match at the Cornelia El Prat last night. 
3 Points. That's also the exact number of points that separate us from co-leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. 
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In any other season from the past, Madridistas all around the world would have preferred to see the 'usual turn of events' - for Atletico to hand us 12 points: by losing to us (via self-destruction) and beat Barcelona in the season's rare moment of lucidity. This however, isn't like any other season. Atletico have the look of a team that will steamroll their way to the title if allowed to go unchecked. And for this reason, there were probably no Real Madrid fans watching the events at the Calderon last Saturday hoping for an Atleti win. The best result in that match would have been a draw. And the best result for Sunday night was of course a Real Madrid win. And so here we are with those exact events having taken place over the weekend. Atleti and Barca Draw. Real Madrid win. Their lead is down to 3 points with 57 more to fight for. 
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So why do I still feel unsettled? Here are my 3 Points Why:
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POINT #1: Tactical Memory Blackout
Tactical Heat Maps of Modric, Alonso and Di Maria, our 3 in the middle. Modric's (top diagram) and Di Maria's (bottom diagram) show them almost playing as wide players - too far away from Alonso, who in turn was forced to uncomfortably be all over the midfield (middle diagram). Diagrams are from Squawka.
Both Ancelotti and the players need to be looked at for this.
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Last night's match saw the team make a surprising return to a 4-3-3 featuring Modric and Di Maria playing on either side of Xabi Alonso. Ancelotti's decision to revert back to this formation was particularly interesting for me given that I saw the match immediately after Liverpool's 3-5 win over Stoke which featured Alonso's ex-midfield partner Steven Gerrard playing EXACTLY the same role as our '14' in the game (as the team's 'passing pivot' - while pushing Lucas Leiva from his usual spot in that very position to one of the CMs). I honestly thought I had seen the last of the 4-3-3 this season under Ancelotti following Sami Khedira's injury. And given the way we played last night, I really missed Sami.
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Last night's rendition of the 4-3-3 by Modric-Alonso-Di Maria was awful. 4-3-3 is supposed to allow you to control the match by having 3 players controlling the center of the park. What happened instead was that our midfield trio, decided for reasons that I have yet to understand, to play so far apart from each other. The heat maps above show Di Maria and Modric practically playing as wide players and the not-so-mobile Xabi Alonso all over the pitch. The outcome was a team unable to keep their shape and retain possession with everyone spread so far apart from one another.
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This in turn led to a torrid opening 15 minutes where Real Madrid was hardly able to get out of their own half. This defeated the entire purpose of using a 4-3-3.
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The hugely dislikable Johan Cruyff once upon a time elaborated on one of the great virtues of the 4-3-3: it is the only formation that allows a team to cover the entire pitch. The success of its use however is predicated upon not just being 'in your position' but also always understanding your position on the pitch relative to those of your team mates - and it is in the application of this necessary element that is hindering the team's successful use of the system.  
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POINT #2: Pub League Defending
An interesting footnote to the game was Carlo Ancelotti's praise for his defense (Pepe and Ramos). Ancelotti went as far as publicly revealing that he had to convince Pepe to stay over the summer, most likely in the wake of Mourinho's 'he lost his place to a teenager' comments.
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What cannot be disputed however is that thus far in the year 2014, Real Madrid have yet to concede a goal in 3 matches (3-0 vs. Celta, 2-0 vs.Osasuna in the CDR and 0-1 last night). That's a 6-0 aggregate score, which, considering our defensive frailties last year, merited a pat-in-the-back remark from the coach to his defensive charges.
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But while the statistics may inject something of a feel-good element, the team's defense still fails the 'eye test' (i.e. what we see when we watch them play). During the opening 15 minutes when Espanyol took the game by the scruff of the neck (because of our porous midfield), the defense looked really shaky. Our defensive line looked continuously vulnerable to set pieces and crosses into the box. Our boys were constantly off position as well and found themselves making poorly-timed challenges which duly resulted in fouls, yellow cards, and worst of all, even more set piece opportunities for them to threaten us. We may have been fortunate enough to escape those opening exchanges (and the rest of the match) with an unblemished, but a stronger opponent (e.g. Atletico or an Champions League foe) would have duly punished us for it.
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Ancelotti, his coaching staff and the players need a to take a long hard look at themselves immediately to sort this weak defense out. It won't be long before it is embarrassingly breached really badly.
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POINT #3: Balon D' Oh-My-God-How-Could-You-Miss-That!?!?! 
Emotional moment: Ronaldo receives his award from Pele
Cristiano Ronaldo finally wins his second Balon D' Or. Well-deserved and well-timed that he received it in the same ceremony where Pele received his honorary prize as well. He's only 28 and has a long way to go in his career, but there should be no doubt that he belongs to the pantheon of the game's all-time greats.
By the time this review of the match is posted, Cristiano Ronaldo might well and truly have been declared officially as the world's best player. It is a well-deserved accolade that has been long due. His goals, fighting spirit and lately, his leadership as well, have become critical to Real Madrid's success on and off the pitch. Last night however was a different story. After declaring his willingness to attend the awards gala last week, perhaps Ronaldo's mind had found itself flying off to Zurich, getting his hands on the much-coveted trophy.
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Cristiano Ronaldo uncharacteristically missed what must have been 5-7 spectacular scoring chances, many of them in the second half to put the game to bed. Truth be told, had Cristiano buried 1 or 2 of those and if we were looking at a 3 or 4-0 win for Real Madrid, then perhaps many would be looking at the performance from a much more positive standpoint. So in a way, it can probably said that a couple of goals from him might have been able to sugarcoat many of the negatives of the overall team performance. Having said that, going into the 80th minute of an away game with a porous midfield, shaky defense and a 1 goal lead is not a recipe for comfort or peace of mind heading towards the endgame.
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At the end of the day however, 3 points is still 3 points, and there are just some days when you need to claw for them... and last night, it just so happened that those 3 points just got us to within 3 points of the League's 2 co-leaders.
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And that my friends, ain't too bad.

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