Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Winding Up the Machine (Real Betis 0 - Real Madrid 5)

So it looks like my decision to wait it out till today (before writing this post), REALLY paid off. I'll be very honest: choosing to not write on a Sunday was a decision made more to fulfill my obligations as a husband and father rather than the desire to see how the rest of the matches for La Liga would pan out for the weekend. Let's all admit it too: no one anticipated Barca to drop points at Levante and Atleti to drop points to Sevilla at home. Thus, I spent my sunday morning chasing my son around in the playground in a public park and pushing the shopping trolley for my wife in the supermarket enjoying the fact that Madrid were level on points with Atleti and Barca. I did not expect however to wake up today to see them only one point ahead of us.
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I dreaded going back to work today. But going to work with this bit of information at the back of my head is a soothing balm for Monday morning blues. Perhaps it’s the reason I decided to break from habit by writing this inside a sassy coffee shop on my lunch break (rather than at my dreary and messy work desk). 
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Is the 4-3-3 Officially Back?
2013 ended with the team mostly reverting to Mourinho's 4-2-3-1 in the wake of the injury to Sami Khedira. Many liked the idea. All of a sudden, without the highly-functional (but less aesthetically pleasing) Khedira, Madrid were able to play 3 'passing' midfielders into the same lineup: Alonso and Modric would play as pivots, while Isco would be slotted into his favored '10' position behind the striker. The thinking was that Alonso and Modric were not the type to shun defensive responsibility and thus were suited to the role. And given that Isco struggled to adapt to the life of being a full-fledged central midfielder in a 4-3-3 anyway, why not just play him in his favored '10' position?
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Playing the 4-2-3-1 in such a manner however doesn't give the side enough 'steel' at the midfield. It also exposes Alonso's lack of mobility, especially in the absence of a mobile, hardworking midfield 'hatchet man' ala Khedira. Partnered with Modric, who is willing to track back but isn’t a natural ball-winner, Alonso becomes prone to vunerability on the counter, forced to cover too much ground or worse, to concede unnecessary bookings given how Modric tends to drift all over the pitch in his role as that short-range passing ball distributor. I can only guess that this is the reason why Ancelotti has opted to revert to the 4-3-3 where Alonso can be protected by a system where 2 Central Midfielders are inherently given roles to be close to Alonso.
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A Perfect System for Modric
Modric has quietly become Ancelotti's most tactically important player.
It has to be said, that the 4-3-3 is perfect for Luka Modric. So much talk has taken place re: the 4-3-3 and the 4-2-3-1 as suitable to one player or another, but it seems lost on way too many people that the 4-3-3 has been a perfect fit for the Croatian. Voted La Liga’sWORST signing of 2012, he has now completely shut his critics up with his performances and his contributions. After starting out as a classic ‘10’ and later on forced to play on the pivot in Redknapp’s Tottenham – Modric’s game has now evolved to become Real Madrid’s answer to Xavi Hernandez.
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Modric’s game of constantly passing and moving has been the anthem of Ancelotti’s 4-3-3. In the Mourinho era 4-2-3-1, Madrid’s midfield passing consisted primarily of long-range passes from Alonso to surging fullbacks or to the front 4 – necessitating quick vertical transitions to create scoring chances (i.e. counter attacks). With Modric playing as a CM in a 4-3-3 with license to roam forward when Madrid is in possession, the team not only has a capable ball distributor, but one whose movement / mobility on the pitch can change the spatial configuration of the pitch to allow Madrid the ability to more effectively penetrate massed up defences. It is a role we’ve seen Sami Khedira attempt with limited effectiveness much to the chagrin of many fans.
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On the other side of the ball, having been ‘trained’ as a pivot man by Redknapp at Spurs, Modric is a willing tackler, presser and accustomed to being given defensive responsibility. If this season has raised us an interestingly disturbing question it is: if the signing of Illaramendi puts us at ease over having a backup for Alonso, who is Modric’s backup?
The OTHER CM
Are Modric and Di Maria now Alonso's ideal dance partners in the midfield of Ancelotti's 4-3-3?
The second big question re: the 4-3-3 in the absence of Khedira then becomes: who is the OTHER CM? We all thought that it was going to be Isco – he looked great during preseason in that role but then began getting shaky in the role as the season rolled along. Unable to fully understand how to influence the match from such a deep position, and cope with newly-assigned defensive responsibilities, the ex-Malaga man has ended up turning in quite a number of disturbing performances.
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And it is here where Angel Di Maria comes in. Known for his willingness to shoulder defensive responsibility even as a winger, his eye for a killer pass and even dead ball delivery, it seems clear now that Di Maria’s appearances as a CM are no longer just an experiment. With a midfield trio of Di Maria-Alonso-Modric, Ancelotti is able to field a lineup that features 3 players all fully willing to shoulder defensive responsibilities as well as one where all 3 players are capable of creating danger up front, with long-range passing (Alonso), endless pass-and-move maneuvers (Modric) and verticality through mazy dribbles and trickery (Di Maria). If made to work, it allows the team to completely dispel the Jurgen Klopp impression of: stop Alonso, and you stop Madrid. This is also the first time of the season (if I remember correctly) where Ancelotti has repeated the same midfield in consecutive La Liga games.
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An angle which can be explored in all this is whether Carletto also wants to show the Argentine that he isn’t just a backup for the regularly-injured Bale. By showing Di Maria that his source of minutes will not only come when the 100m-man is not fit, Ancelotti becomes more convincing to El Fideo that ‘you’re not a second fiddle man’. Di Maria must in turn, grab the opportunity with both hands, having the opportunity to slot into 2 different positions in a side like Madrid guarantees him an important role in the squad and plenty of minutes. For the CM role, it’s a great help that even as a winger, Di Maria isn’t a high-volume goalscorer (like Bale) or assist man (like Ozil was) – he won’t always have ants in his pants when 2-3 games have gone by without a goal or assist. This allows him to concentrate more on facilitating build-up play.
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There is however one trait that every great CM requires that Di Maria is very much short on: good decision-making. Looks like we all just have to see how he fares.
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Isco – The Odd Man Out?
This returns the conversation back towards Isco. The 4-3-3, designed without room for a ‘10’,  does not give Isco a clear role in the team. If Ancelotti has indeed decided to bite the bullet and proceed with the 4-3-3, then Isco must learn to adapt. He must either: 1.) embrace the opportunity to learn playing as a CM and evolve into the sort of player Modric is today, 2.) Play on the wings where he will be pegged behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Bale and even Di Maria in the pecking order or 3.) Offer Ancelotti the possibility ofplaying as a false 9.
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A Different Sort of Manita
Last Saturday’s Manita was a different sort of Manita. The scoreline at halftime was 0-3 to Madrid. By the second half, after Di Maria’s laser guided missile goal, you still didn’t get the sort of feeling that one used to get during the 0-4 / 0-5 massacres of the Mourinho era where Madrid had this look of an irresistibly forceful team. Was it because our goals didn’t come from hurricane-like formula 1 attacks? That they were borne out of more deliberate, passing sequences?
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Or simply, was is because Madrid are just simply not yet at that point where it could be said that our team indisputably unstoppable? Jurgen Klopp after all was recently quoted as saying that RealMadrid are not yet at par with Europe’s current powerhouse team (Bayern) – andthat we’d get a whipping if we were to face them.
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Maybe he is right – maybe Real Madrid are a still a team that’s slowly but surely getting its act together. Atleti is a team at its peak whose sole concern now is the maintenance of their team’s fitness and form. Barca on the other hand to me have the look of an unsteady team, seemingly in decline and struggling to keep itself afloat (maybe Messi’s return will remedy that somewhat). Real Madrid on the other hand have the look of a team ‘getting its shit together’ – the gears are beginning to click, the injured are being nursed back to health (e.g. Varance) and the unfamiliar slowly finding their place (e.g. Di Maria, Bale).
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Maybe Klopp is right – that we aren’t quite ready for Bayern just yet. But the last time I checked, the next team from Germany we face are Schalke. And thus, there is still time. Time to polish things up and wind the machine up just tightly enough such that when the gears are cranked up by then, the boys are able to reply with a nice meaty snap right back at them when the time comes.
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It’s 2014 guys. Let’s all get in the mood to win some trophies.
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My Reaction to Ronaldo's Opening Goal.
p.s. Now that he’s won the Balon D’ Or, is Ronaldo now gunning for the Puksas award (for best goal)? That 30-yeard opening goal made me suffer from a temporary loss of sanity… and though I’m happy to see Morata get on the scoresheet, let’s all admit it: We would all have rather seen that bicycle kick go in.

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