Thursday, April 3, 2014

Keys (Real Madrid 3 – Borussia Dortmund 0)

Borussia Dortmund sorely missed Robert Lewandowski last night. The big man will be waiting for us at the Signal Igduna Park next week.

The TV screamed as soon as I switched it on. I switched it on at exactly 2:48am – 3 minutes late, and I had already missed a goal. The goal, scored by Gareth Bale and assisted by Dani Carvajal was scored 3 minutes into the game. Real Madrid would win 3-0 last night, the exact scoreline we needed but failed to achieve last season in the semi-final return leg (following a horrifyingly unforgettable 4-1 drubbing at the Signal Igduna Park). 3-0 tonight means that should we meet the Big Lewandowski next week, and even if we choose to / allow him to murder us like he did lasts season to the tune of a 4-1 massacre – we still go through to the semi-finals to meet Bayern/ManU, Atleti/Barca or PSG/Chelsea.
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It is in my opinion however, that we should not congratulate ourselves too much for the achievement. Let’s all admit it: this is not the Borussia Dortmund team that butchered us last season. 7 out of the 11 starters that destroyed us last season in the semi-finals were not on the pitch last night: the suspended Lewandowski, the injured Bender, Gundogan, Schmelzer, Subotic, Blaszczykowski (apparently pronounced as Bla-chu-kof-sky, I think) and the now-Bayern player Gotze. The Borussia Team that turned up last night brought a sizable yellow-and-black army of fans (who put to shame the Bernabeu’s many empty seats), they had the same mad scientist coach, a few familiar faces (Hummels, Kehl, Weindenfeller) – but they were far from the same team.
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Having said that, as we find ourselves in the middle of ‘crunch time’ for the season (4 matches to win the CL, 1 match to win CDR and 7 matches to possibly win La Liga), it’s important to pinpoint the key positives and the key negatives from the team’s play. If we do enough of the positives, then we just might be in for a treble, whilst too much of the negatives and we’ll be in for a trophy-less season.
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Positive Key #1: Siege Mode
We saw it against Schalke in the Veltins Arena. We saw it patches at the Bernabeu in the Clasico some weeks ago. We saw it again last night. Real Madrid have a tendency to start matches as if they were wolves who haven’t been fed in weeks and thus end up treating their opponents like hapless prey. The wingers (usually Bale) get up on the throats of opposing fullbacks, force errors and end up scoring early goals or get early scoring chances.
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The cumulative effect of this in the team is infectious. It results in the team collectively going on ‘Siege Mode’: pushing the entire ‘zone of play’ right into the opponent’s third of the pitch. The opponents then suffocate to death, conceding goals. It’s the footballing equivalent of using a full court press (in basketball) to start the game, and rattle your opponent.
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It’s physically impossible to play like this for 90 minutes (perhaps Atletico can do it?). Last night, the ‘siege’ lasted about 15-20 minutes: scoring a goal, winning corners, free kicks and forcing Weindenfeller into a few great saves. For those who frequently play video games, this ‘siege mode’ is almost the footballing equivalent of a one time power up in a game. Physically, Madrid probably has 1-2 of these ‘power up’ modes in a game. When used properly and efficiently as we’ve seen vs. Schalke, it can give Madrid a 2-3 goal blast within a 15-20 minute period. I hope Ancelotti realizes this and duly learns to us this ‘power up’ when things really count.
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Positive Key #2: Figuring Out how to Support Alonso in the 4-3-3
The key to making our 4-3-3 work is to support Alonso. If we have the ball, the players around him should offer a means for him to 'exit' the ball. On defense, he needs to improve his synchronization with the other CMs.

It wasn’t long ago when Nomz asked us the question for the Merengue Bites podcast: if you were the opposing coach, how would you play us (Real Madrid) to win? My answer was: deploy a 4-2-3-1 and use an athletic, high-energy ‘10’ to press Alonso on defense and take advantage of his lack of mobility / athleticism in attack. Against the highly-functional Atletico Madrid, this was Raul Garcia’s job, whilst against Barca, to used a 4-3-3, it was Messi, dropping into the ‘10’ position while playing as a ‘False 9’ who did this.
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This sort of thing to me is something that a bright tactical mind like Jurgen Klopp would not miss out on. I was certain that Myhktaryan, with the likes of Reus and Grosskreutz would be given exactly that brief and will duly trouble our aging and possibly fatigued Basque midfield lynchpin.
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Solutions to this are however available within the 4-3-3 system we employ. What is necessary is for Alonso to be offered adequate support both going forward and on defense. On attack, the 2 central midfielders need to always position themselves relative to where Alonso is on the pitch: making themselves available to receive passes when our ‘14’ is pestered by opponents. This forces the opposing midfield to choose between 2 poisons: 1.) Press Alonso and allow Isco / Di Maria to shuttle the ball forward to the attackers (Isco tap-danced his way through Dortmund’s midfield all night last night), or, 2.) deploy their players to shadow our CMs’ off-the-ball movement and open up long range passing channels for Alonso ping forward to Ronaldo, Bale and our fullbacks.
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When Madrid played fluidly last night, it was because of the availability of these supporting players around him. And when Madrid’s offense seemed to stutter, a look at the team shape reveals the lack of available passing channels for the players.
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Things are a bit trickier defensively. Alonso has a habit of reading situations and duly making surging runs forward to intercept, poke or lunge at opponents to win the ball back. When he does this without ‘coordination’ with his teammates, the team becomes vulnerable when the attempted interception or tackle does not come off. Ancelotti will need to resolve this with his midfield: does he ban Alonso from taking such risks? Or go for the more challenging approach of trying to establish synchronicity between his midfielders such that one or both of them will do the opposite of what Alonso does (i.e. if he surges forward, then they run back to cover him or if he sits back, then they burst forward to win the ball back).
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Negative Key #1: Allowing the Defensive Line to Sag.
Despite winning 3-0. More of the game was spent in our third of the pitch than Dortmund's. This is NOT Good.

Many dislike Guillem Balague but I respect him. I found his post-clasico comments enlightening too:

“Real started really well, putting pressure high and making life very difficult for the Barcelona defenders, but with every appearance of Messi, Madrid moved five or so metres back and ended up defending far too deep. That meant that when players like Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale recovered the ball they had a lot of metres to run.”

What happened to Madrid after our early ‘Siege’ reminded me of these words. Did Real Madrid tire? Or did we go into Mourinho mode? (“now that we have a lead, let’s play them on the counter”-thinking).  If there was one thing I learned from our eliminations at the hands of Bayern and Borussia, it is this: there is a VERY thin line between ceding possession to play on the counter and surrendering the initiative altogether. In the second half, we did just that and almost lost our clean sheet because of it.
Up 2-0, Real Madrid then began to allow their defensive and midfield line to sag deeper and deeper. At first it looked like we were daring them to attack us with the threat of our team’s counter-attacking. But it didn’t take long before their spells of possession emboldened them to attack with more confidence and verge, putting the Madrid defense on edge for a good number of stretches. In the second half, Aubameyang missed a golden opportunity to shoot at Casillas’ goal. He missed. Lewandowski would have made us pay dearly for that.
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Ancelotti made these boys comfortable on possession both while chasing a lead and protecting it. We must stay true to this. Having Alonso’s passing together with gazelles like Ronaldo and Bale will ALWAYS make us dangerous on the counter, yet the team must always be careful about surrendering the initiative to the other side.
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Negative Key #2: Bad Defending
Isco called our defense a ‘10/10’. The Bernabeu chanted Pepe’s name. Many would say that it was a stalwart performance by our defenders. I disagree. Spanish football fans have never forgiven Howard Webb for allowing Nigel De Jong to put his studs on Alonso’s chest in the WC final 4 years ago. It was thus a surprise to me that no one made a fuss about Englishman Mark Clattenburg refereeing the match. We were lucky he did. Undiano Mallenco (of El Clasico fame) would have given Borussia Dortmund 2, maybe 3 penalties last night.
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Pepe, Ramos and Coentrao were all guilty of late shoulder barges/body checks in very dangerous areas of the pitch, including 2 in the penalty box. All were non-calls to Clattenburg, but quite possibly legit ones to other referees.
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Perhaps it’s time we all admit it. Real Madrid have an attack that can win the Champions League, but not a defense that will do so. Reading the game, positional intelligence, good decision-making and avoiding last-gasp shot blocks are all virtues that our team needs to further cultivate.
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It is because of this that it is paramount for Madrid NEVER to surrender the initiative of a match – most especially to the sort of opponents that tread these parts of the Champions League.
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The Outlook
Manchester United ‘stole’ a draw vs. Bayern. Are they angling to become a Cinderella team? Or did they just delay an inevitable slaying they were going to receive at the hands of Pep’s team? I was shocked to see Chelsea lose 3-1 and Mourinho practically tell the world ‘my strikers are all shit’ in the aftermath. People say it was his fault that he decided to start the game without a #9. He did try it eventually (with the score at 2-1) and duly lost 3-1. If he loses this one, it won’t be because of this – but it will be because he decided at the beginning of the season that Samuel Etoo, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba were good enough to lead the line for an EPL and CL campaign.
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And what about Real Madrid? Barca have lost Pique. Atleti have lost Costa. Will it affect them in La Liga? There’s no point in asking if we can’t get our business sorted out at the Anoeta this weekend.


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