Monday, March 9, 2015

A Hole in the Hole (Athletic Bilbao 1 - Real Madrid 0)

It's 9:43am on a Sunday morning, almost 7 full hours after Real Madrid's defeat at San Mames at the hands of Athletic Bilbao. It's incredibly depressing to realize that at exactly this time tomorrow, Barcelona will be league leaders. We've thrown away 5 points in 6 days, scoring only one goal - with ZERO scored in open play. That we conceded the goal in the first half of the first half is even more disturbing. For Real Madrid, if that's not a call for help, I don't know what is.
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The pattern of play has been all too familiar as well: Real Madrid are able to keep possession of the ball, have majority of it, but are unable to create enough clear cut chances. Athletic on the other hand, with their limited bouts of possession, are able to create adequate amounts on danger in the Real Madrid penalty box, one of which proved to be the fatal blow for us. 
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Are Real Madrid collapsing? Is this Carlos Queroz version 2.0 (for those who don't know / remember, the Carlos Queroz 'Galactico' Real Madrid went on a rampage during the first half of the season and then self-destructed with a freefall down the table during the second half of the season)?

Some have pointed to the BBC's lack of form: Cristiano Ronaldo does not look like himself, Bale looks like a 10m player, not a 100m one, and while one can say that if Benzema is the glue that holds them together, what he can produce without the 2 clicking, is sorely limited.
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A tweet that in my opinion sums up what's been wrong with the team.

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As I've thought deeper and deeper about the possible reasons for our disappointing performances, I'm coming closer and closer to the conclusion that there is something inherently wrong with the team's structure on the field as we've tried to compensate for the injuries of our key players on the pitch - particularly the midfield. As the disaster unfolded last night, a tweet caught my attention that summed the problem up: "The Front 3 are too far up on defense. Midfield too far back on offense. Zero Cohesion." 
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When I think about it, this problem of the 2 lines not being cohesive wasn't just last night's problem, but it's been the team's problem all this time since the loss of Modric. The subsequent loss of James on the other hand has made it even worse. Ronaldo's injury / drop in form adds to the problem but isn't a structural part of it. Bale's 'dip in form' though, is an outcome of this problem, not a source of it. Let me explain...
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Pre-Injury 2014-2015 Real Madrid
'Midfielder' is supposed to be Kroos. But the essence was simple. A dynamic 'triangular relationship' was created on each side of the pitch: CR-Marcelo-James on the left, and Bale-Carvajal-Modric on the right. The hub of each these 2 triangles was the Central Midfielder (Isco and Modric), whilst the hub that linked these 2 triangles together was Kroos.

With the losses of Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso in the offseason, Real Madrid managed to carry on with a similar system used by Ancelotti last season: a 4-3-3 which featured a deep-lying midfield playmaker (Kroos, whom Ancelotti very successfully adopted into Alonso's position), flanked by 2 Central Midfielders who pushed the ball forward to the front 3 when we had possession, whilst also linking up with our surging fullbacks. It took a while for James to figure it out, but once he did, things clicked.  
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The principle is quite simple though: a dynamic triangular relationship both in attack and on defense existed on each side of the pitch between the attacking winger, central midfielder and fullback. On the left, it was Cristiano, James and Marcelo while on the right, it was Bale, Modric and Carvajal. These 2 'triangles' had 2 hubs which connected them: Kroos at the base of the midfield triangle, and Benzema who connected everything up front.
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The success of the system however was dependent on a series of 'hubs' first is the Central Midfielder, who functioned as the 'hub' of each triangle (the second was Kroos, who has played at a pretty high level all through the season). On attack, the midfielder needed to push up and occupy part of the space normally occupied by a '10' in a 4-2-3-1 system. Whilst on defense, he needed to track back like a 'pivot' tasked to win the ball back immediately. James and Isco's (particularly last season) struggles with the role were more on the latter for obvious reasons (they were both natural '10's). Once thier adaptation was complete however, Real Madrid were off to the races, which included our record-run of consecutive victories. 
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Modric Goes Down
The loss of Modric to injury was a significant setback for the team. It forced Ancelotti to go for an Isco-Kroos-James midfield. The weakness of a Modric-less midfield was obvious though: Madrid's midfield became lightweight and thus more vulnerable to bigger, stronger and more physical sides. And while Isco is a fabulous player, his instincts as a '10' - to dribble the ball forward and beat opponents, was not exactly what the role called for, and occassonally slowed the build up of the team's passing rhythm. We did get by however through the players' sheer quality, allowing the streak to continue. We were also greatly helped by Isco's adaptation to the role as his confidence and form began to elevate. 
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Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel with James' Injury
Real Madrid may have had the quality to 'survive' and even thrive after losing 2/3 of its Champions League and Copa Del Rey-winning midfield. We may also have been able to survive losing the lone survivor of last season's midfield trio (Modric) with the rise of Isco. Losing 2 out of our 3 first choice midfielders THIS season however has had to mean scraping the bottom of the barrel. It meant trying Sami Khedira out whose fitness has been off for the last 2 season and whose mind is in vacation already (following the failure to extend his contract with the club) - and it also meant trying Asier Illaramendi out once again who has looked less and less convincing as the opportunities for him to prove himself have piled on. It also meant purchasing and trying Lucas Silva out in the Modric role with mixed results. 
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Last night's lineup vs. Athletic. There was a Big Hole 'in the hole' on the right side of the pitch. Illaramendi, Bale and Carvajal were instead just left to lumping crosses into the box.

Last night, Carlo Ancelotti tried to use (once again) Asier Illaramendi for the 'Modric role' and the outcome was a dud. Perhaps it is because the Basque is most comfortable sitting very deep. Illaramendi sat in line, or sometimes, even deeper than Toni Kroos in the Madrid midfield last night, creating a very unbalanced 4-3-3 for Real Madrid to play. 
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Mostly sitting in line with Kroos, many times deeper than the German, Illaramendi hardly occupied comfortably, much less attacked the space between Bale and Carvajal to function as the 'hub' of the 'triangle' on the right side of the pitch. It is the right side of this zone, referred to by many as 'the hole', which we didn't occupy effectively enough when on the attack with greatly reduced our ability to create. Thus in effect, with only Isco playing that space when we were on attack mode, there was a hole in the way we were trying to occupy and use that space referred to as 'the hole'. It also left Bale completely isolated, with only Carvajal to link up with on the right side of the pitch. In the end, the right-sided trio spent the entire night lumping mindless crosses into the box in the hopes of reaching  Ronaldo's head. Bale's most significant action of the night, a looping attempt at goal from the half-way line, came from the left side, which was where all the action was coming from as far as Real Madrid were concerned.
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Every promising move from Real Madrid came from the left side, with Isco doing his utmost as the hub of that left-sided triangle to play 1-2s with Marcelo and Ronaldo to create danger. On the right side however, there was hardly anything beyond what ultimately began to feel like mindless, irritating crosses.
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As the game wore on, with Athletic defending their lead, 2 solutions came to my ameteur-trying-to-be-a-tactician mind: The first was to swap Kroos and Illaramendi in their roles: let Illara sit in front of the 2 CBs, deep where he is comfortable, and allow Kroos (who used to be a #10!) occupy the Modric role, allowing him to push up and occupy the massive 'hole in the hole' which might have given Bale some support and given us a stronger presence in attack going forward. The second, was to play a 4-2-3-1: to let Kroos and Illaramendi both sit deep and allow Isco to push up and roam CENTRALLY to allow him to reach Bale as well. 
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Ancelotti instead decided to go for a 4-4-2: sending Jese on for Illaramendi, whilst leaving Madrid with a relatively lightweight midfield of Kroos and Isco. Ancelotti would later on send Silva in for Kroos, presumably to give the team an energetic pair of legs to support Isco who was in full-attack mode. Losing the numerical superiority at midfield however meant losing control of the game. In the final minutes, we were unable to put them under the sort of pressure needed to yield a goal and they were thus able to safely sail away with the 3 points.
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La Liga Hopes
Our La Liga hopes aren't dead yet. A win in El Clasico turns the tide back to our side, whilst Barca have to travel to the Sanchez Pizjuan to face Sevilla (us too), have to face Valencia at home (us too), a Catalan Derby and  a trip to the Calderon to face Atleti (week 37). Turning the tide however is no small matter. 
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Needless to say, talk of replacing Ancelotti, in my opinion is just plain stupid. There isn't a better coach in the sport at the moment who is more fit for the job at Real Madrid than the Italian, despite his imperfections. I would choose for the moment at least to ignore the fact that for a man with 3 European Cups, his league title trophy haul, is relatively small. But personality-wise he is the perfect fit for this team and all this talk of him not being hard enough on the team is utter rubbish. How many coaches can bring his team to league leadership with 2/3 of his midfield from the previous season replaced and during the current season, have yet another 2/3 of his midfield miss a serious number of games due to injury? 
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Being 1 point behind the league leaders after 26 matches is no big deal. Getting our heads right and the system right however, is the most important thing at this point. There's work to do, there are gaps to fill, and holes to plug. Ancelotti has 2 games to get it right. He should also remember to tell Kroos and Isco by the way, to watch out for those fouls and yellow cards. Both men are a yellow card away from missing the clasico. 

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