Monday, August 31, 2015

Real Madrid Steak (Real Madrid 5 - Real Betis 0)



When the season started with an away trip to Sporting Gijon, I somehow had a sinking feeling that our season opener will end with a draw. Managers’ debut games tend to be underwhelming: Capello started with a draw, while Pellegrini and Mourinho probably did as well. I remember Ancelotti starting his career with a drab win over Villarreal with Gareth Bale scoring. So when Rafa Benitez debuted with a 0-0 at the Molinon, it wasn’t surprising to me. I spent the entire week last week quizzing my colleagues in the office who inquired about the result: “Didn’t you know??? Real Madrid are only going to have 38 points at the end of this La Liga season!” Before they could even figure out what I meant, I would finish off with “With Rafa Benitez, every game this season will be 0-0 or 1-1.” It was a good joke to get laughs from my friends. It’s no joke for a serious Real Madrid fan though.
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Steak and Rafa the Chef
One such Real Madrid fan was my good friend Nomz. While I was grappling with the shitty fact that despite paying more than $200 monthly (combined) for 2 cable TV subscriptions but can’t get a La Liga TV broadcast, Nomz eagerly watched the season opener and walked away with fury at how badly we played. “They were all shit!” he said.
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Like most Real Madrid fans, he was furious at where Rafa Benitez seemed to be taking us. Barcelona are unable to incorporate any of their new signings till January. They lost Neymar to Mumps, and lost Pique for 4 games for being potty-mouthed. If there was ever any time for us to race into a good head start in the La Liga race, it was now. But we were blowing it.
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Make no mistake about it, many of Rafa’s core tactical beliefs fit perfectly with Real Madrid: a 4-2-3-1 system that can take advantage of having 2 world-class #10s in our squad (James and Isco), and a rotation policy that can keep our squad players from getting disgruntled and our first choice players from burning out. He is however not known to be a great man manager and has a reputation to being tactically over-bearing - characteristics that have proven fatal for other coaches in Real Madrid’s past.
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Having been taken to Singapore’s best steak restaurant for a heavenly late-Friday meal, I saw it fit to compare Rafa Benitez to a chef as Nomz and I pondered Real Madrid’s tactics. With Valencia and Liverpool back in the day, Rafa had a few good ingredients to work with: a core of 5-7 great players surrounded by mostly mediocre players. Like a chef working with a limited pantry, Rafa configured his sides to maximize his best ingredients and mask the limitations of his mediocre ones to create a great dish.
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Real Madrid however (and THIS particular side especially) are different. Every member of our team #1-25, is a great player, a golden ingredient. If Real Madrid was a dish, it didn’t need to be covered in garnish, coated with unnecessary sauces, or artistically plated for the visual pleasure of a food blogger’s instagram account. If Real Madrid was a dish, it would have looked like and tasted like the steak that was served to me last Friday night.  A single slice of perfectly-cooked USDA grain-fed, 35-day old slice of Angus Beef on a warm plate. It had bit of a crunch on the outside, with a salty caramelized edge, cooked to a perfect medium-rare at the center: pink, juicy and it melted in your mouth after a single knife stroke on your plate. Gastronomic orgasm would follow after you washed it down with a sip of fine red wine.
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At our best with Ancelotti, we were that steak. Minimal tactical gimmicks: just 11 of the best players in the world doing their thing. For teams like ours, I fear managers like Rafa because he’s the sort to take a perfect slice of wagyu beef meant to become a steak, and put it into a meat processor to become a sausage or meat balls. We have to be fair to him though, 2 games isn’t enough to judge him.
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Wingers as #10s
Our 5-0 win last Saturday at home against Betis was the sort of result Rafa needed to put people at ease about his tactical intentions. We played the sort of football we expected from Real Madrid: starting the game with a mouth-watering series of 1-2 passes, pinging about across the pitch until James’ cross would find Bale’s head for the 1-0.
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The bone of contention between many pundits and Rafa Benitez at the moment is El Gordo’s decision to play Gareth Bale behind the striker, as a #10 - presumably to re-create his most successful spell at Tottenham where he was given a free role behind the striker. Those who watched those Spurs games would do well to remember though that despite Gareth Bale scoring 20+ goals that season, making him the Premier League’s best player, there were a few wrinkles that must not be over-looked. First was that many games Gareth Bale won for Spurs (mostly thanks to goals scored by him) were drab games that featured 1 or 2 moments of brilliance of Bale scoring goals similar to his second goal last saturday (where he races up the pitch with space in front of him to launch a missile at goal), second is that while at Spurs, there was no other player on the team who was remotely close to his level in terms of quality.
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At Real Madrid, winning the game 1-0 or 2-1 thanks to a moment like that from Gareth Bale is not good enough. Wins like last Saturday (5-0, with 3 different goal scorers) are par for the course. Also, at Real Madrid, every member of the squad is at the same league as him quality-wise. In fact, he’s not even among the team’s top 3, (even 5 players).
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We must also note that wingers being played as #10s is not a Rafa Benitez thing alone. Mourinho has been playing Hazard-Willian-Pedro behind Diego Costa at Chelsea (at the cost of Oscar), while Louis Van Gaal has been playing Adnan Januzaj and Memphis Depay behind the striker while shunting Juan Mata to the right wing at Manchester United. Have a look at the results of those 2 teams and you know you have something to worry about.
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I get that Rafa wants to liberate Gareth Bale from the shackles of being on the right wing. He was far too predictable there last season and was thus far from the 100m player we expect him to be. But we must not forget that James and Isco aren’t chopped liver either. the key to finding ways for Gareth Bale to succeed is to work out a system where the front 4 (including the striker) can swap places systematically to create tactical chaos for the opponent, but not for Madrid. Benzema is after all, comfortable with dropping deep while Ronaldo has now become a lethal 1-touch goalscorer (let’s not fuss too much about his goal drought - 2 consecutive hat tricks are coming soon when the law of the averages kicks in). James has had experience playing on the right, just like Bale.
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We saw signs of this last Saturday of course: with Benzema’s goal assisted by Bale from the right wing while James’ spectacular second goal was scored with him playing centrally. The substitutions offer promise as well: Isco entrance to the game pushed Ronaldo to the striker’s role where Isco managed to feed him a forward ball for a clear-cut goalscoring chance Adan managed to save. The key is for the formation not to be executed statically. CR, Bale, Benzema and James/Isco must have a system to swap places while in attack: giving each other turns to enjoy their favorite spots on the pitch while confusing their markers.
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Rotations and the Back line.
Credit must also be given to Benitez for his changes. At 4-0, he wasted no time in sending Isco in to rest the only-partially-fit Benzema and duly rested the midfield (Kroos and Modric) for their understudies (Casemiro + Kovacic) - the sort of substitutions we didn’t see enough of last season, which probably cost us dearly.
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I also have to admit seeing Carvajal relegated to the bench bothers me deeply. Danilo looked good, but there’s no reason for Carvajal to be rotting on the bench nonetheless. I’m counting on the coming international break to see Carvajal back in the starting XI as the Brazil NT duties tend to mean inter-continental flights which would mean it makes more sense for Carvajal to be starting our next league game.
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Props must also go to Keylor Navas for his performance last Saturday. I never fancied him in a Real Madrid shirt until last Saturday’s performance: which made me start asking myself “Maybe he is Real Madrid material.” Either way, tonight will be the final hours of the David De Gea saga for the next few months - and whether he comes or goes, I’ll be happy to not hear about it for a while.
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Meatballs
It’s too early to draw conclusions about Real Madrid version 2015-2016. There are reasons to be optimistic and reasons to despair. At the end of the day though, I have to say that starting your week with a 5-0 win in your head (plus those goals from James), is a great way to get going.
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Last night, I messaged Nomz: “Well it turned out to be a great result.”
He replied: “True that. But in reality, Betis sucked balls.”
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I suppose he meant Meat Balls. Either way, eating up those meat balls were great, but they are nothing compared to a great steak.

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