Thursday, May 7, 2015

ABCs and 123s (Juventus 2 - Real Madrid 1)

What a shit performance. At age 35 (turning 36 this year), I am finding it harder and harder to get up at 2:45 or 3:45 am Singapore time (depending on European Daylight Savings time) to watch Champions League matches. And when you get up in the middle of the night, on 2-3 hours sleep to watch a match like that, and then get another 2 hour shut-eye session before heading to work - your day is pretty much fucked up before it even began. 
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I am not by the way, referring to the result. I am referring to the performance. Champions League (or and form of Cup Competition) semi-finals are supposed to be cagey affairs. The remaining teams are normally there on pure merit and the matches are normally decided by fine margins. A yellow card, a sending off, a tiny defensive error, a minor tactical oversight or such minute things are supposed to decide such things. They are not supposed to be decided by basic, fundamental errors like how Ancelotti and his boys allowed things to transpire last night. 
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If we lost last night because of such fine margins, I'd be half-awake at this moment ruing such minor details and half-cursing our luck. But here I am today, half-awake with the entirety of my conscious self livid over our boys' shortcomings on the ABCs and the 123s of top level Cup football. 
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Tactics 
Juventus as they lined up in their last 2 Champions League Matches. A 3-5-2 vs. Monaco and a 4-4-2 Diamond vs. us last night
The tactical question re: Juventus coming into this game had always been 'will they play 3 or 4 at the back?' With 3 at the back, Juve play a 3-5-2. With 4 at the back, they play a midfield diamond. Both systems deploy their numbers through the center of the pitch, presumably to 'protect' Andrea Pirlo. And for a team like Real Madrid, with forwards like Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo and fullbacks like Carvajal and Marcelo, we had the opportunity to take advantage of their weakness - the flanks.
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Last night, Juve lined up with 4 at the back and a midfield diamond. We on the other hand, lined up in a narrow 4-4-2 (or a Brazilian style 4-2-2-2). It was a sound approach: with Isco and James drifting to the middle, we could match their numbers at the center. When on attack mode however, with CR and Bale up front, when paired with Isco + Marcelo (on the left) and James + Carvajal (on the right), We had superiority on the flanks or force their CMs (Marchisio and Sturaro) to be drawn out from their comfort zones in the middle. 
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The goal that Ronaldo scored, created by an overalapping fullback (Carvajal), combining with a wide midfielder (James) to reach our striker (CR), was the sort of goal Carlo Ancelotti envisioned us scoring in this tactical battle.
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The system though, had its key weakness. as we saw in Luxemburgo Real Madrid in the first galactico era, and in Brazil's ill-fated 2006 World Cup campaign. Playing natural 10s as wide midfielders usually meant that attacking width only came from the fullbacks: leaving acres of space behind them vulnerable to be counter-attacked by opposing wide players. 
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 Kaushik, Rahul and I all agreed in last weekend's podcast that Morata's large frame concealed the fact that he's got good pace and could hurt us with it. You can also listen / download the podcast here:

Without natural wide players though, Juventus SEEMED at a disadvantage and unable to capitalize on our weakness. But with pacy forwards like Morata (as pointed out in last weekend's podcast) and the hyper-active Carlos Tevez, Juventus had 2 players up front who enjoyed attacking the space left behind by our attacking full-backs. Juventus' opening goal was a result of Carlos Tevez finding himself open in a sea of green open space behind Marcelo, away from Kroos, and even further away from Varane. It was Morata who stabbed us in the heart, but it was El Apache who found the opening in our 'armor.' (if you can call it that).
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Personnel 
While Ancelotti's tactics for the match were sound, his personnel selection proved to be greatly flawed. The selection of Sergio Ramos against a defensive Atletico Madrid side who are lethal on set pieces was a brilliant move. It was clear that night however, that Ramos was uncomfortable in the role but was important for Atleti's aerial game and to stymie Mario Mandzukic. Against Juventus' 4-man midfield looking to press him in possession, Ramos was totally exposed and useless. His passes were mostly backpasses and any ones that weren't resulted in the loss of possession. About 3 of them turned out to be wayward crossfield balls seemingly aimed at members of the crowd.
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When playing with 2 pivots, both men need to win balls and distribute them forward. Last night, Real Madrid's pivots could only perform one function each. As Ramos continuously lost possession, the space behind Kroos became the base from where Carlos Tevez terrorized Casillas and his defenders.
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You could say that injuries have made Carlo Ancelotti's team selection one that was conducted 'by default.' Modric is hurt and Illara can't cut it. Well now Carlo, let's call it what it is: Against Juventus, Ramos can't cut it either. He will have to re-examine Illaramendi, Lucas Silva, a lightweight midfield with Kroos, Isco and James, or some other kooky idea against Juventus especially for the return leg where we must also now likely prepare for a match against the world's best young central midfielder: the mow-hawked Paul Pogba.
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Iker, Iker, Iker,
Before the match, I read a piece asking wondering which Iker Casillas would turn up: San Iker? or Iker 'What the fuck are you doing!?!' Casillas - (the Iker Casillas who was described as someone 'who flapped at crosses, and spoons shots into the path of opposing attackers tap the rebound in'). Every match, this question looms dreadfully over the thoughts of every Real Madrid fan. Last night, Iker 'What the fuck are you doing!?!' Casillas turned up.
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He started the match with an error that nearly led to a goal, then almost got caught off his line (by Morata) and then finally he spooned Carlos Tevez's long distance attempt right into the waiting boot of Morata.
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Let me finally say this unequivocally: this summer, we should buy a goalkeeper. I don't care if we spend 50, 60, 70m, not for a goalkeeper to 'compete' with Iker, but one who will clearly, and with no doubts replace him as the team's #1. At this level, the absolute highest level, Iker's time is up.
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Dani, Dani, Dani
The biggest boo-boo of the match sadly has to go Dani Carvajal. Just like what happened with Marcelo, the space he left behind when bombing forward became a comfortable operating zone for his fellow Real Madrid Castilla classmate Alvaro Morata (which as I pointed out, is a natural consequence of the formation we play). His big boo-boo however was obviously the penalty conceded to give Junvetus the match and the advantage of the tie.
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Let's be clear about this though: the counterattack we conceded to Juventus was the fault of the entire team. How could we be in a situation where we didn't have a single CB or Defensive Midfielder around to protect us from a counter attack? The penalty conceded though, was all Carvajal - and it was a mental meltdown of epic proportions.
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As Marcelo's deflected shot capriciously bounced into Tevez's path to create the counter-attacking opportunity, Real Madrid were forced into stopping a 2 vs. 2 counter-attacking opportunity. Tevez was being harried by Carvajal to drift to Madrid's right flank as Morata was bursting through the middle tailed by Marcelo. The play unfolded in everyone's mind before it could even happen: if Tevez could somehow cross or thread the ball to a Morata who could brush Marcelo off, it would be Morata vs. Casillas and possibly a goal. Marcelo was keenly aware of this and thus decided to tactically foul and bring down Morata at the cost of a yellow card - leaving Carvajal 1-v-1 against Tevez who was being forced to his left. By the time Tevez arrived in the penalty box, Casillas was already in position, covering the near post with Tevez having no angle to shoot as he was far too much to the left side. Carvajal only needed to hold this position for long enough for Pepe, Varane and Ramos to catch up. His inexperience however got the best of him - sticking his feet out in an attempt to poke the ball off Tevez's feet. He missed. Penalty. Goal. Ouch.
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The tie turned from one where we had a clear advantage (we were going for a 2-1, to give us a series lead and 2 away goals), to one where we are now: lagging behind.

Was it a red card offense? Perhaps. I've seen them given, and Juventus had a legitimate claim to ask for one. I personally felt lucky the red card didn't come out: Carvajal after all was the last man. A few post-match pundits though did point out to the fact that when the (missed) tackle happened, Tevez was already ferried out off a direct goalscoring position and thus the foul did not merit a red card. Either way, we were lucky there was no red card.
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A Look on the Bright Side
Despite a host of rudimentary errors, our prospects to win the tie remain pretty good. A 1-0 at home wins us the tie, a 2-1 brings the match into extra time. That's a pretty good outlook for a team that completely fucked things up for themselves in the first leg.
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We are by no means in an ideal situation with the absences of Benzema and Modric. We were however a team that was in touching distance of the Champions League final despite all these absences. And if we only managed to get our basics, our ABCs and 123s down to pat, we might have had one foot in Berlin already.
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So next week, there is no reason not to believe that these rudimentary basics will be sorted out. And hopefully, this time next week, we will have then moved on from ABCs and 123s to arithmetic and spelling.
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W-I-N. 2-1, 1-0. 

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