Thursday, October 1, 2015

Revisting Rafa's Dilemmas

For the past few matches, Real Madrid have been without 2 of our key attacking players: Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez. And though there is much left to be desired over our last 2 matches (0-0 to Malaga, and a doze-worthy 2-0 against Malmo last night), it's easy to fall into the wrong conclusions generated by a few superficial observations. 
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It's undeniable that following our 6-0 drubbing of Espanyol, things have been a tad dry from a goal scoring point of view (1-0 over Granada, 1-2 over Athletic Bilbao, 0-0 against Malaga and 0-2 over Malmo). Fingers have been pointing and whispers have been directed towards Cristiano Ronaldo and how his 5 goals in La Liga are a deception since they have come from a single game only. I on the other hand, personally believe that the fingers are pointed at the wrong people. We should be looking at Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez instead. We have been without Gareth Bale since the Granada game and the goals have dried up since. In his 4 appearances so far this season, Bale has scored 2 goals and dished out 3 assists - and we're not yet counting plays which include winning penalties or plays which he helps to create but isn't credited with a goal or assist for. So as surprising as it may seem to be, it's difficult not to come to a conclusion that Gareth Bale has become incredibly important to Rafa Benitez's system. 
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Rafa's Dilemma: System vs. Personnel
Like most managers, even the rotation-obsessed Rafa Benitez has an A-List and B-List of players in his squad. Having lost 2 of his prime A-listers however (Bale and James), Rafa Benitez has had a look at his bench and has found that he only has one remaining A-lister to deploy: Isco. 
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So against Granada, he did a very characteristically Rafa Benitez thing: he started Lucas Vasquez on the right side of a 4-2-3-1 to replace James while Isco played as a classic 10 - keeping his 4-2-3-1. It was a drab 1-0 win for us which clearly needed a re-look at his approach to squad management. 
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What is Rafa Benitez to do now that without Bale and James, and with only Isco as only the remainig 'A-lister' from the bench, he finds himself with more affinity to his B-List Central midfielders (Kovacic, Casemiro) than his attacking wingers (Jese, Cheryshev, Vasquez). What he ultimately decided to do after the Granada game, was a big surprise.
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Revisiting the 4-3-3
Real Madrid's lineup vs. Athletic Bilbao - A classic Ancelotti 4-3-3 formation. Stats and diagrams courtesy of whoscored.com
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It was thus a shock when against Bilbao, he took a different tact: shocking us all by going for a Carlo Ancelotti-esque 4-3-3: with a midfield trio of Kovacic-Kroos-Modric. He noted in a post-match interview later that he used 3 different formations throughout the match: 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1. The composition of the midfield was classic Real Madrid Ancelotti - with Kroos sitting deep center, flanked by Modric to his right, and his fellow Croatian Kovacic (who is proving to be an astute signing) on the left. The front line mostly played narrow with Cristiano drifting center lots of times in a bid to get into goal scoring positions, while Isco played on the right, looking also to drift closer to his operating comfort zone. The game was decided by Benzema, and did not see the sort of fluid, attacking brand of football that we associate with Benitez's predecessor.
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Against Malaga last weekend, Isco played as part of the midfield - but given his instincts as a '10' pushed up a lot more aggressively compared to Modric. Kroos carried on playing the same role he performed last year under Ancelotti. Stats and diagrams courtesy of whoscored.com
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Benitez seems to have been pleased with the outcome of the Athletic game too: repeating the approach last weekend in our home game vs. Malaga, this time with Isco as part of the midfield 3 and with Jese joining the front 3. It was a dissappointing 0-0 draw than saw us lose the lead we took during the last matchday. It was however still a game where we took a staggering 31 shots with Cristiano taking a whopping 14 of them. In the end, we can't call it a totally bad performance - given that the match turned into the annual Carlos Kameni-denying-Real-Madrid-3 points festival (as he has done so for many many years. 
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Last night's formation looked EVEN more Ancelotti-esque: with the 4-3-3 executthed to resemble a Carletto's 'Christmas Tree' (4-3-2-1) formation. The introduction of Lucas Vasquez and Dennis Cheryshev later in the game would made the team resemble a 4-3-3 more. Stats and diagrams courtesy of whoscored.com
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Last night's Champions League match vs. Malmo saw the same approach, with different personnel: with Casemiro was deployed as the pivot man (I really like the way he plays) in front of the defense with Kroos and Modric on either side of him. Isco, Ronaldo and Benzema would comprise the front 3 just as against Athletic Bilbao. What is interesting to notice however was that last night, Benzema and Isco spent so much time dropping deeper and centrally that the formation began looking more like Ancelotti's 'Christmas Tree' (4-3-2-1) - and it was only the late introductions of Cheryshev and Vasquez that re-formed the formation to look more like the 4-3-3 it was probably intended to be. 
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Personnel vs. System
I am not yet ready to participate in a debate re: the merits of opting for guys like Jese, Cheryshev and Vasquez, young Spanish players from the cantera, as opposed to our more expensive foreign recruits (who are just as young) such as Kovacic and Casemiro. Jese is after all yet to reach the levels he showed prior to his injury while Cheryshev hasn't been given the chance to showcase the player who was so important for Villarreal last season. Of our 3 young, newly-promoted canteranos, it has only been Vasquez who has shone in periodic moments to assist a few goals (2). What this tells me however is that in his dilemma of Personnel vs. System, Rafa is opting for the former - choosing to go with the players he trusts the most, and working out a system for them to fit in, rather than to shoehorn them into positions on the pitch unsuited to them. Rafa Benitez has always been a pragmatist in his football, but rarely at the expense of a pre-conceived tactical system / philosophy - that he is willing to be flexible about this is a pleasant surprise to me. 
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A Trip to the Calderon
A trip to the Calderon awaits us this weekend where there is speculation that Gareth Bale might be fit to play. If so, we should probably expect a 4-2-3-1. We all know however that tactics will not count for much in a Madrid derby. It won't matter whether we've used a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3. The winner will be the team that keeps their heads, avoids mistakes, and keeps the ice in their veins should the opportunity come to strike. We've seen Rafa tinker with his tactics and to a certain extent, we've also seen some of his man managing capabilities. This weekend however, we will see him tested in yet another facet of his capabilities as a manager. Carlo failed this test multiple times last season. Let's all hope that Rafa will do better. 

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