Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Waking up to a Fantasy (Real Madrid 2 – Sevilla 0)

When the match started at 2:45am, I was still feeling as disoriented as those dudes trying to spell 'Real Madrid' during the opening ceremony. All that changed when the match started
Maybe it’s because this is the offseason after orgasmically winning La Decima…
Maybe it’s because this is the offseason when I became a dad for a second time…
Maybe it’s because this is the offseason where we had a very entertaining World Cup…
Or maybe it’s just simply because life in the office has become insanely busy these days…
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But we are a couple of weeks from the opening of the La Liga season and somehow, I still feel de-sensitized to the supposed excitement building up to the season opener(s) of the European football calendar.
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All of that changed last night after seeing Real Madrid pretty much stroll right through Sevilla to win the first of 6 possible trophies to be won this season. Sure, it was ‘only’ a 2-0 win. I predicted the scoreline correctly during the weekend podcast too: accounting for Sevilla’s lack of creativity going forward to the departure of Rakitic (to Barca) whilst Real Madrid I thought, might still be rusty. I was only half right of course: Sevilla did indeed barely threaten us (except the last few minutes), clearly missing the incisiveness of Rakitic’s passing… our ‘only’ 2 goals however, were more due to Beto’s great performance between Sevilla’s sticks.
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Ancelotti’s Goes Counter-Intuitive AGAIN

Everyone saw Kroos, Modric and James on the teamsheet at midfield and instantly thought: 4-2-3-1 (including me). It seemed like the logical thing to do: you assign Modric and Kroos as pivots (where they have played before) whilst allowing your 80m Euro #10 (James) to play in his preferred role behind the striker.
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Doing so however, meant curtailing Kroos and Modric’s role and forces them to function more as ‘specialist’ pivots. Mr. Carlo ‘Equilibrio’ Ancelotti was having none of that. He thus surprised us all by deploying his team using the same 4-3-3 formation he used for majority of last season: with Modric in his usual role, Kroos in the ‘Alonso role’ and James in the ‘Di Maria role’. In essence, all 3 midfielders were both given the opportunity to conduct the team’s passing movements AND carry the defensive responsibility equally. ‘Balance’ – as Ancelotti has preached all of last season. I think everyone would agree that it was an absolute success.  
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Midfield Kroos Control
Given the way Kroos and Modric were playing, coupled with Cristiano starving to make an impact, Sevilla stood no chance against us. Artwork from @r4six (follow him on twitter!)
No one impressed me more out there last night than Toni Kroos. He made everything simple for Real Madrid: keeping possession, neat touches and clear and accurate passes. He completed 96% of his passes including 13 out of 14 long passes. I once called him a ‘Modric lite’. I was wrong – he’s a far better player than my feeble, lazy assessment at the time. Together with Modric (94% passing accuracy last night), Sevilla stood no chance against us (not even those red elbow patches on Unai Emery's suit could do it). We kept possession and were in complete control of the entire match. Kroos not only impressed with his neat, tidy possession and his passing acumen, he also functioned as the team’s primary hub and was the conductor of the orchestra last night. I never expected him to slip so seamlessly into Alonso’s role.
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Real Madrid can now play with a midfield 3 of Kroos-Alonso-Modric if it chooses to do so, it will be a 3-headed passing monster combo that cannot be stopped in the manner Klopp once imagined (stop, Alonso and you stop Madrid). All 3 are masters of possession, passing, and the dictating of the game’s tempo. From one game to another, depending on the nature of the game or the opponent, Ancelotti can opt to rest 1 or 2 of his 3 passing/possession maestros and inject the midfield with steel (Khedira/ Illaramendi), more attack-mindedness (James / Isco) or blood the youngsters in (Isco / Illaramendi).
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Last night, bereft of Alonso (who shook his head towards Platini and gave him a ‘you’re a shithead’ look while collecting his winner’s medal), Ancelotti decided to try James in the role Di Maria played last season. Occasionally, when it would catch Ronaldo’s fancy, the 4-3-3 would become a 4-4-2, with CR7 joining Benzema to form a strike partnership upfront, turning Bale and James into wide midfielders. The Colombian, also blessed with a sweet left foot (like Di Maria and Isco who played that role last season) will need to learn the virtues of one of Carlo Ancelotti’s greatest disciples: a one-time Madridista-turned-Milanista legend: Clarence Seedorf, who learned to use his qualities as a ‘10’ in a central midfield role to devastating effect. And like Isco, James hasn’t ‘gotten’ the role just yet (Incidentally, I take Di Maria not playing last night as a near-sure sign that he might leave us).
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Remember Him???
1-2 weeks before last night’s match, twitter experienced a surge in photos showing Gareth Bale in a sleeveless training top with his biceps about to explode during his first proper preseason with the team. He had the look of a player ready to morph into his idol, Cristiano Ronaldo.
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Playing in his hometown with a trophy at stake, after a preseason where he’s been the sole bright spot for his team, he really looked set to explode last night. And in a way, he did… just more subtly. Bale demonstrated a highly-improved, and a far more organic understanding of his teammates. His actions on the pitch were not just relegated to the use of his explosive pace. Last night, we saw plenty of neat touches, diagonal passes, lay-offs, lobs and crosses that showcased the fact that he has gotten to know and has synchronized his play with his teammates. Now all he has to do is get rid of that stupid hair band.
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But as all eyes were transfixed on the hometown boy, the world’s best player chose to end his injury hiatus and remind us all who the true super star was. Cristiano has gone missing since around March-April. We managed to win the Copa Del Rey without him, fell apart in his absence for the League campaign (where we also rested other key players), whilst nearly lost the CL final with the skin of our teeth with our star man barely half-fit. As expected, Portugal’s fate was tied to his strained/torn/tendinitis-stricken knee/muscle/etc. this past World Cup. But chasing the only club title that has eluded him, and eager to come back, Ronaldo exploded last night as if to ask us all ‘Remember Me???’
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Yes Cristiano, we remember. ‘Cristianoooo, Cristianooo….!’ went Cardiff City’s stadium last night over his performance, and so did my living room. Glad to have you back champ!
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10 Thoughts for the re-introduction of the #10
In a situation where Benzema is unavailable, how is a 4-3-3 with James as a 'False 9' (formation on the left) very different from a 4-3-1-2 / Midfield Diamond (formation on the right)? Might there be a chance for CR/Bale (who are all 20+ goals/season players) to be played as wide forwards (much like Robben in the WC)? We can even include Di Maria in the midfield rotation!
Last season, we all enjoyed watching the BBC terrorize defences. The combination of Ronaldo and Bale’s pace and power, coupled with Benzema’s selflessness (bravo to his contract renewal!) made our front 3 the best in the world. This was on display again as all goals involved members of the BBC (Ronaldo’s goals last night were assisted by Bale and Benzema respectively). My post-season reflections however, brought a few key points to mind:
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#1: After 3 super-spectacular seasons under Mourinho (playing practically all minutes of all games), last season, we were all reminded that CR7 is human. He CAN get injured and miss a significant number of games (just as he did when he was supposed ‘voodoo hexed’ by a witch doctor during his first season).
#2: Gareth Bale too can get injured. His early years at Tottenham were mostly injury-ravaged. We should also remember that players with the sort of pace of Bale are prone to long injury spells (Robben, Walcott) from muscle niggles, etc.
#3: Remember Jese? He’ll be back before year end.
#4: Particularly intrigued by Louis Van Gaal’s Dutch team in the World Cup, I found LVG’s use of Robben (a pacy, goal-scoring winger like CR, Bale and Jese) as one of 2 forwards to be interesting.
#5: Ronaldo, Bale, Jese would NOT be comfortable as a central striker, they would, I imagine, thrive as part of a strike partnership. (in the manner Van Gaal used Robben with Van Persie in the WC)
#6: We only have one ‘proper’ striker: Benzema (this point would of course be invalid if we ended up signing Falcao).
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So I was thinking: if a ‘balanced’ midfield is non-negotiable for Carletto, and if Isco and James are going to need possibly another season or 2 to be a functional part of a fully-stacked midfield department, Why not rip a page out of Van Gaal’s playbook and use our goalscoring wingers as part of a strike partnership, and then using our world-class #10s in their preferred roles? Many may remember Carletto’s ‘Christmas Tree’ (4-3-2-1) in Milan, but few perhaps might remember that he did use a 4-3-1-2 as well in Milan (Izaghi and Shevchenko with Rui Costa as ‘10’) and the occasional diamond midfield in Chelsea (with Drogba and Anelka up front). Applied to this Real Madrid:
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#7: James and Isco can be played in their favoured positions while still having the midfield 3 Carletto considers important for team balance
#8: The presence of Ronaldo / Bale / Jese and even Benzema in one or both forward spots will mean that there will still be width up front as all have their tendencies to drift wide according to the needs of the game.
#9 The system is in essence, not very different to a 4-3-3 that deploys James / Isco as a ‘False 9’.
#10 The system can just as easily be converted on the fly to a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 without substitutions if the players are drilled properly.
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I’ll stop at 10 points because maybe my imagination has gone a bit too wild.
Maybe my mind is drifting far too deep into ‘fantasy mode’…
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Oh well, but then again, isn’t this Real Madrid team exactly that: a team for one’s fantasies.
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Now we all know that when Florentino Perez talked about ‘ilusion’, he really meant it.

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