Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Build It Up, Not Tear it Down

This Real Madrid embodies the fiery intensity of Mourinho's team. It is however, currently coated and further galvanized by Carletto's steely unflappability.
It's probably fitting that I put up this post as the the last 16 tie vs. Schalke was concluded last night with Real Madrid's 3-1 win at the Bernabeu. The tie was murderously concluded by Real Madrid with an aggregate scoreline of 9-2 - the sort of numbers one would see in a video game, rather than in real life. It is a re-assuring foundation for Real Madrid as the boys head off to face Barcelona in this weekend's El Clasico. The only thing that is really troubling me right now is the premature end to Jese Rodriguez's spectacular debut season as a member of Real Madrid's first team (after tearing his ACL last night).  
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It's probably 2 weeks by now: when I posted my thoughts on Real Madrid's 1-6 win over Schalke that I wrote piece that I did not know as I wrote it, would turn into a sort of comparison between Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid. There were those who made their feelings known in the comments section of RMFB, who thought of the piece as a sort of slagging of Mourinho (and thus didn’t appreciate it). So as I was about to type out a ‘clarification’ in the comments section on what I meant to say, I realized soon enough, that what I had to say had become way too long (what follows is what I typed). So instead, here I am putting up a full piece to clarify my thoughts on the matter:

1.0  Team Psyche under Mourinho
In my opinion, Mou's psychological approach to team building is to create a 'bunker mentality' (us vs. the world) in order to amp up his players' psychological intensity (and subsequently express this intensity physically on the pitch too – with the desire to do so positively of course, through effort, goals and victories). The bunker mentality doesn't really work for RM though as Madrid has for more than its 100-year history, been an 'establishment team' and not the band of outsiders / rebels that Mou wants it to be. Thus, 2 things happen:

-This psychological intensity becomes overcooked and manifests itself as physical aggression on the pitch ( Mou poking Villanova's eye, Pepe stamping on Messi's hand, etc.)
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-Members of the team who understand and value the image of the club as a righteous establishment team (in a utopian sense) are not agreeable with to this notion of Mou's 'Real Madrid Rebels'. Thus it’s no coincidence that it was the Spanish players who were primarily affected by this (Iker, Ramos)
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-If carried on for too long, the psychological intensity created by this bunker mentality will later on start grating at the players and cause a psychological implosion. When we lost to Atleti at the Bernabeu in the CDR final last season, it was very clear to me that this is what happened.
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2.0  Team Tactics under Mourinho
Mou's system didn't evolve enough to utilize the depth of the entire squad. The Sahin experiment didn't work and Modric didn't succeed under Mou either (which maybe you can blame on no preseason?). But let's all admit it: without a fully fit Alonso launching long balls to Ronaldo + Marcelo / Di Maria / Ozil, his system would stop working. So as the irreplaceable Alonso began to show signs of fatigue, the entire team lost its effectiveness as well.
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3.0  Team Psychology under Ancelotti
It doesn't take a shrink to know that the psychological makeup of Ancelotti's Madrid is VERY different to Mou's. I hate to be oversimplistic, but Ancelotti’s demeanor reminds me of Vicente Del Bosque. Ancelotti has his eyebrow, Del Bosque has his mustache… Both men look like they’ve spent too much time in the kitchen. Both men seem calm, wry and unflappable. Neither man rants, scowls, or throws tantrums and most certainly and none of them are interested in off-the-pitch feuds. Perhaps the only difference is that Ancelotti has better fashion sense. Neither of the 2 are also famed as Fabio Capello or Felix Magath-esque as disciplinarians or drill sergeants.
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Both men run their teams with a calm, relaxed environment to allow the team’s various types of personalities not only space to grow into each other, but also space to allow healthy, comfortable distances between clashing personality types within their dressing room. No one will ever mistake Carletto or VdB for being your archetypal ‘blood, guts, mud, thunder and lightning’ sort of manager.  
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Let’s make no mistake about it however, Ancelotti also happens to be enjoying the fruits of Mourinho’s labor. Despite the seemingly relaxed air about the team at the moment, it’s also clear that the players all have a steely determination running beneath them – a mental toughness and aggression that was bred by Mourinho and is now being harnessed by Ancelotti’s subtler, lighter touch into a controlled and balanced aggression that is expressed in the team’s football.
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Thus, when I wrote that "The steel forged by Mourinho is clearly well and truly still within this team. This steel however has been further galvanized by the calm balance and measured control that Carlo Ancelotti has brought." I meant it as a COMPLEMENT and a tribute to the foundation that Jose Mourinho has laid out for the team. It was Jose Mourinho who forged this team’s rock- solid 'psychological DNA': all Ancelotti is doing now is to harness it and release it in his typical calm, unflappable and balanced way – a method that has so far proven far more suitable to Madrid’s club culture.
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4.0  Team Tactics under Ancelotti
Ok. So I have completely fallen into the temptation of likening Ancelotti to Del Bosque. But I just can’t help it. Their similarities extend to their tactical approach also. Neither man will be caught dead preaching their philosophy about football as if it was a matter of religious zeal (Tiki Taka Taliban, et. al.). Both men take the players they have, and work out a way to fit the players at their disposal into a workable tactical system. It is VERY different to the Philosopher Zealot-like insistence of shoe-horning players into a pre-conceived system (e.g. AVB at Chelsea, Spurs) regardless of suitability.
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As a ‘base’ though, like any other manager, Carletto has his preferences. His most glorious years as a manager to date in Milan have featured a midfield 3 with a rock-solid defense behind. His experience has also seen him have tendencies towards experiments (e.g. just as he did with PSG, he fiddled with a 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2 with Real Madrid). What seems to be his corner-stone in terms of tactical thinking however has been his obsession with the seemingly ambiguous notion of ‘balance’ or ''equilibio'.
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This Ancelotti-eque notion of ‘balance’ to me, relates right back to the Italian’s preferred personal and team mentality: calmness, unflappability and poise. This notion applies both in the team’s attack and defense. And once we combine his principle of ‘finding a system that fits the players’ and ‘balance’, the results are what we see on the pitch today for this Real Madrid side.
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By looking at a team filled with technically capable players, Carletto has gone for a tactical system where the players are capable of defending and attacking comfortably while in possession. Equipped with a CB who fantasizes about playing as a ‘10’ (Ramos), as well as a slew of midfielders gifted in passing and possession (Alonso, Modric, Isco, Di Maria, Illaramendi), the Italian has had the team re-learn how to be comfortable playing a possession game, thus improving the team’s performance against sides who park the bus against us. By the same token, the team has also learned how to comfortably keep possession defensively, lessening situations where the opponent seizes the initiative in a game where Madrid is forced to play rearguard action against waves and waves of attacks: a position that Real Madrid has NEVER been comfortable at.
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And while it seems to contrast starkly with Mourinho’s ‘Formula 1 Football’, what Ancelotti is doing (at least in my eyes) is building on top of the foundations laid out by Jose Mourinho. Consiousness with regards to positioning on the pitch, speed of ball movement when shifting into full attack mode, and above all, the application of high-intensity workrate to retrieve the ball back once it is lost. Let us also not forget that despite the comfort that Real Madrid now exhibits when in possession, our team still possesses the most lethal counter attack in world football.
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Build It Up, Not Tear it Down
In conclusion, what I meant to do in that piece by bringing up Mourinho and pinpointing the contrasts between him and Carletto was not to negatively criticize Mourinho. My intention was to point out the first and foremost, that Carlo Ancelotti has used Mourinho’s work as the foundation on which his Real Madrid is being built – it is an ultimate complement to the work of his Portuguese predecessor. Thus, should Madrid win titles this season, I have no plans of scoffing at Mourinho should he choose to claim some credit for Carletto’s successes with Real Madrid.
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Mou’s system had its weaknesses and it is with this ‘second layer’ on which Ancelotti is building that is addressing some of these weak points and adding another dimension to the way by which the team is playing.
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Many have praised Carlo Ancelotti’s virtue of ‘choosing a system based on the available players’ that he has. It is a complement has been rightly bestowed upon him at Juventus, Milan, Chelsea and PSG. The same is true for Real Madrid as well. For me however, his greatest accomplishment thus far as Real Madrid manager is he has chosen to do the opposite of what many new managers do: rather than to tear down what has been built by his predecessor to do his own thing, Ancelotti has done the opposite. He has instead, built on the foundations laid down by Mourinho to build the pretty beautiful edifice that is the Real Madrid that we see today.

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