Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Waking Up For the New Year (Real Madrid 3 - Celta Vigo 0)

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The Match Started with a Moment of Silence to Pay Tribute to Portugal's Greatest Ever Footballer, Eusebio. Even at 71, he was for me, gone too soon.
Happy New Year Everyone! We've had to wait for nearly a week into 2014 to see Real Madrid in action again - and judging from the empty seats seen last night at the Bernabeu (as well as the dour atmosphere amongst the crowd), many are willing to wait longer than a week to get their Real Madrid fix. Not this blogger though. I was eager to see my Men in White get it on - and to pay tribute to Portugal's greatest ever footballer, Eusebio, who left us way too early. 
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2014 ended with a nail-biting match for Real Madrid - requiring the late heroics of Jese to grab the win for Madrid against Valencia. Heading into 2014, having to play Luis Enrique's Celta Vigo at home would have been an ideal matchup for Real Madrid. Any betting man would have easily gone to betfair and rolled the dice in favor in of the much-fancied Real Madrid over the now-18th-placed Celta. Celta however, did not make it so straightforward for Real Madrid. It may have been a 3-0 win for Los Merengues on paper, but those of us who saw the match know very well that the scoreline flattered Real Madrid tremendously. 
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Celta Cedes the Midfield Part 1: Pressing High
What really struck me about the match was the clarity of Celta Vigo's game plan. From the first minute, to the last, they had absolutely NO INTEREST in winning the midfield battle. Instead - they played 2 modes. The first mode involved high pressing, particularly during the first half: winning balls in our third of the pitch to create scoring chances. After the match, Luis Enrique bemoaned the fact that all that was missing for Celta was to 'get the round thing' (ball) into the 'rectangular thing' (the goal). Most of these opportunities came during the first half when the fragility of the Ramos-Pepe defensive partnership continued to get exposed. 
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It was an interesting tactical battle in that sense: a 4-2-3-1 (Real Madrid) vs. a 4-3-3 which operated to allow Madrid to control the central zone of the pitch. And it was in this situation where we saw the inherent weakness of the 4-2-3-1 when attempting to play possession football. With Alonso and Modric controlling the ball at midfield (and Celta not interested to contest them in that zone of the pitch, all playmaking at the advanced zones of the pitch was forced through one player: Isco. And without adequate speed in their circulation of the ball, particularly in the advanced areas of the pitch, this resulted in mostly-sterile possession for Real Madrid. A 4-3-3 with a single holder would have given Madrid 2 creative players when going forward and thus avoid bottle-necking its entire attack through Isco (but alas, Madrid has decided to abandon this system of play when Khedira was sidelined). 
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Celta Cedes the Midfield Part 2: The Italian Goes Brazilian.
I actually didn't notice Di Maria 'doing a Michael Jackson'  last night as he was subbed out. I am thus surprised that it's a big talking point for today. I did however notice Madrid going 4-4-2 / 4-2-4 in the wake of Ancelotti's substitutions.
There were, in my opinion 2 key tactical happenings in the second half that ultimately gave Real Madrid the win in the second half. 
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First was the fact that Celta Vigo stopped pressing high and decided instead to defend deep. I can only suspect that the reason for this was the fear of the impact of fatigue creeping into the players pressing high, who might have conceded a goal in the wake of a first half that saw them fail to capitalize on any of their scoring chances. A draw at the Bernabeu after all, was not a bad result. Thus, Celta went into their second mode: their plan was to sit deep, keep their shape, remain compact and look for opportunities to hit Madrid on the counter. What was VERY notable was how their compactness thwarted Real Madrid further - forcing our boys to penetrate a narrow 'low-block' which was not helped by the fact that our 2 supposed wide men (Ronaldo and Di Maria) were playing as inverted wingers whose tendency was to play narrow: with Cristiano cutting diagonally inwards, looking to shoot, and Di Maria cutting diagonally inwards to deliver (mostly) crosses. 
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Jese now has 2 goals and 4 assists this season.
It was very clear that the solution to the 'problem' was also very clear in Ancelotti's mind: stretch the pitch wide open and put his best goalscorer in a goalscoring position. This was the 2nd key 'tactical event' of the match: with Carlo Ancelotti switching his 4-2-3-1 into a 4-4-2... which operated like a Brazilian-style 4-2-4. Jese and Bale (who came on for Isco and Di Maria), played as attacking wingers while Ronaldo joined Benzema to play as a Center Forward. 
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All 3 goals were created from wide positions. The first goal was a result of an interchange from right wing (Carvajal) to left wing (Jese) to the center (for Benzema to score). The second goal and third goals were both created from the right side: created by Carvajal (2-0) and Bale (3-0, who assisted not by cutting in 'Di Maria style', but by crossing with his right foot like a traditional right-sided wide man would). 
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It was a notable display spotting a tactical opportunity and shifting the team's gears to capitalize on the said opportunity to maximum effect on the part of Carlo Ancelotti. It was notable however that Ancelotti would subtly rant about his team's lack of 'balance' (which gave Celta their opportunities to score and get something out of the match) and lack of 'speed' in the movement of the ball (even our chances on the counter lacked sharpness). There remains much to be done for this team to sort out if it is to overhaul the 5-point gap that Barca and Atleti are currently enjoying over us.
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Another key message from the changes that Carletto ruch during the game was also about Jese. It was clear that the chances for play that were being handed out at the start of the season were mostly being handed to Alvaro Morata. And though he had shown flashes of brilliance, most of his performances were marked what what looked to me like an over-anxiety to play well and score, which often backfired and resulted in missed chances and nervous finishes what would be saved. Heading into the second half of the season, the chances are now being given to Jese - and he is grabbing them with both hands. His cameos have started out mostly as performances marked by his confidence with plenty of bright spots. Coming into last night's match, he had been responsible for 2 match-winning goals in Madrid's last 2 games (against Valencia and PSG). Last night, he played as a pain-in-the-ass troublemaker to the Celta defense. Ladies and Gentlemen, Madridistas all over the world, News Flash! Jese Rodriguez is about to explode. Let's all get ready to see a great show.
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Cristiano Ronaldo - Balon De Oro!
Cristiano Ronaldo's 19th and 20th goal for the season turned out to be the 399th and 400th of his career. What an accomplishment. Having announced his willingness to attend the Balon D' Or gala, is this year truly now his year to win it again? 
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A trip to Osasuna's El Sadar is on the cards next this Thursday. Here's to getting a better result than that wretched 2-2 draw last time out.

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