Monday, March 31, 2014

Meregue Bites Episode 10: Real Madrid 5 - Rayo Vallecano 0


Rahul and I spoke about last Saturday's 5-0 win vs. Rayo Vallecano. We also looked forward to our upcoming Champions League match vs. Borussia Dortmund.
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Who Are We? (Real Madrid 3 - Barcelona 4)


The latest podcast can also be downloaded here:
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The Big Picture
Prior to the Match, I recalled Ancelotti’s 2 matches vs. Atleti and Barca where he ‘risked by playing safe’ and mentioned that I was hoping that he would play our first choice XI and go for a gunslinging duel with Barca. Real Madrid after all, could afford to lose this one. He did just that and prior to Sergio Ramos’ sending off, the match seemed to be exactly what the neutral fan asked for: 2 big clubs, neither ‘playing safe’, both going for each others’ throats. It also was as I expected: we would conceded goals from their frontal assault, but they likewise would to ours – with home advantage, form and physicality on our side allowing us to edge it out. It didn’t happen though, because…
The Referee
The kneejerk reaction is to blame Undiano Mallenco. His decision to send off Sergio Ramos completely ruined the spectacle of the match. It was a wrong decision too. Sergio Ramos’ hand barely brushed Neymar’s back. At its very worst, Sergio Ramos was either 1.) trying to scratch Neymar’s back or 2.) trying to tickle Neymar into losing the ball. Neymar exhibited his diving expertise by simulating the sort of momentum that would result in a defender trying to bundle you over by not just diving, but going on a tailspin movement. Those of us who have the benefit of instant replay can attack him for his bad call (just like Barca fans can do so for calling a Penalty on Alves for tripping Ronaldo outside the box) – but let’s all admit it: this is the sort of call referees commonly make mistakes with. The second penalty was more contentious. In my opinion, things were the other way around: at first look, it seemed to be no contact and replays show that there was indeed some contact. The contact however, was very marginal and thus it was a soft penalty to give. At the end of the day however, in my opinion, both calls were bad ones.
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The Play
Up until the sending off, Real Madrid’s play last night was a cathartic experience. Since accumulating the likes of CR7, Kaka, Ozil, Alonso, Benzema, Bale, Isco, etc., the world has been collectively waiting for a Real Madrid side to engage Barcelona in a pitched battle. No defensive schemes, no mind games, no rough-housing. Just 2 sides playing good old attacking football. Real Madrid gave the world what it was looking for. As I type this, apart from praising Messi and Barcelona, the world is also collectively positively reeling from the intensity of the play from the 2 sides last night. Real Madrid didn’t shirk or hide: Ancelotti and his boys went into an open field on a clear March night with their pistols, machine guns and machetes on hand and duly engaged Barca in a gunslinging duel. It was sheer footballing exhilaration and orgasm. It was to me, the footballing equivalent of having a Victoria’s Secret model in your bedroom, with every little moment of pre-coital flirting and cavorting oozing perfection… that is until your drunken uncle (Undiano Mallenco) turns up, knocks on your door asking if there’s any milk in the fridge. Jose Mourinho, at the time aware of Madrid’s lack of prepared-ness for such an encounter, avoided such a pitched battle. In his first clasico, also unsure of the team’s prepared-ness, Ancelotti did likewise (Ramos as DM). But finally after 31 unbeaten games, Ancelotti gave the world (and madridisimo) what it was craving for. Ancelotti deserves praise for that. He was however by no means perfect.
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The same goes for a number of Real Madrid players. Prior to the match, I had expressed my concern about Alonso’s lack of mobility being exploited by a Leo Messi dropping deep and running circles around him. Barca’s first 2 goals were all a result of that. If Madrid are to get far in the Champions League or are to beat Barca in the Copa Del Rey final, Ancelotti will need to have a close look at this weakness and address it. Carvajal was trapped in 2 minds for the first goal: does he help close Messi down? Or cover his man streaking down the flanks? Before his mind could decide, Messi’s pass would release Iniesta with acres of space for the opener. Minutes later, Carvajal would once again join the fray in closing Messi / Neymar through the center only to be tricked by Messi’s endless running who would receive a return pass from Neymar to score Barca’s 2nd.
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Alonso, Modric, Ronaldo and Bale didn’t cover themselves in glory either. Alonso and Modric failed to show the calm and ‘equilibrio’ that Ancelotti had been preaching (like a broken record) for the last several months. Bale seems to have forgotten many of the lessons he’s gradually learned over the past few games: making dynamic runs, robbing the ball in advance positions, and swinging the play from one flank to the other when there was too much pressure on him. Ronaldo forced himself into the game too much (as opposed to responding to the situations within the game): too many forced shots, too little tracking of Alves, too little influence for a Balon D’ Or winner.
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The 2 players who were deserving of praise would be Angel Di Maria and Benzema. Di Maria almost won the game my himself. He ran himself silly (to the point of almost passing out from the looks of it) for his first assist… only for him to repeat the trick again minutes later. I often feared that when the day came as to when our midfield would be exposed for being lightweight, that it’d would be el Fideo who would be questioned. It wasn’t him last night though. Benzema on the other hand can be viewed positively or negatively. He could have had 5 goals by half time. He scored 2, missed 2 and had 1 cleared on the line by Pique. He made Macherano and embarrassment to CBs the world over. The question remains however, if Macherano was going to be such a sorry excuse for a defender, then perhaps embarrassing him wasn’t enough – Benzema should have mercilessly annihilated him. The match would’ve been in bed by halftime if he had done so. There are arguments to both praise and criticize our French #9. I will however, stay on the fence on this one.
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The Mourinho Days Are Over
Losing was hearbreaking. Losing because of bad refereeing was infuriating. But seeing the team being bad losers was utterly disappointing. I have no problems with the team crying foul over bad refereeing. But when the team’s leaders (Ramos, Ronaldo) make conspiracy theory rants to the press, that to me, crosses a line. Someone should tell them that Jose Mourinho doesn’t work for Real Madrid anymore. We don’t do things that way over here anymore. If the team has taken a significant psychological blow from the loss, ranting petulantly only makes it obvious and provokes the vultures to circle over us even more, giving them confidence… giving them that ‘a-ha!’ realization about us. In 3 days, we travel to the Sanchez Pizjuan to take on the CL-aspiring Sevilla. Are we going let the Andalucians become vultures? Or shall we turn them into fried chicken?
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Now is not the time to bitch and moan. Now is not the time to rant petulantly over spilled milk. We had a great chance to end Barca’s title hopes and TOGETHER with the referee, WE blew it. Our title chance is however NOT yet blown. Now is the time to look at ourselves and ask 'Who Are We?',  'Where did we get it wrong?' and move forward. 3 titles are still at stake and questions about the team character are now being asked.
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Now is the time to answer them the right way and show them who we really are.

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.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Merentue Bites Episode 6 - Derby Talk

It was just Rahul and me this week to talk about the Derbi Madrileno. We also asked ourselves re: what the realistic expectations ought to be for Real Madrid this season plus a look into Jese's prospects with the first team.
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