Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Recovery (Real Madrid 2 - Levante 0)



Kaushik, Ryan and I talked about last Sunday's win vs. Levante, rejoice over Modric and Ramos' return and ponder the Bernabeu's right to boo. The podcast can also be listened to / downloaded here:
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Ah, a win at last. I never thought I'd find myself saying that while referring to this Real Madrid, but here I am. We've lost to Athletic Bilbao and then a really embarrassing one to Schalke - a week before a Clasico. That's the absolute WORST way to 'prepare' for the game which may decide the fate of our league campaign. We needed a win really badly, not just because the night started with Barcelona ahead of us by 4 points on the table, but also because we needed that vital sense of self-belief that we are capable of winning at the Camp Nou.
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Physical Recovery
Sergio Ramos started and played the full 90 minutes. Luka Modric started and played more than 70. Toni Kroos on the other hand, did not play. All three went through some form of a recovery process. Whether it's to get themselves into up-to-par conditions in terms of match fitness after missing so many games (Ramos, Modric), or getting a rest (Kroos), Real Madrid are getting the much-needed physical recovery that's critical for the homestretch of the season. If there was ever a reason to have optimism in the face of the 2015's bad results, those reasons have always rested on the return of our key players who had gone down through injuries (Modric, Ramos, James) as well being able to find the opportunity to allow the team's 'over-played' members to recuperate from having too much mileage on their legs (Kroos). 
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Coming away with a win while resting Kroos in particular was very important. Kroos is not the most physically gifted player of the team, his game instead is an extremely cerebral and technical one. Rahul summed this up with a very astute observation (in a comment he made in last weekend's podcast): that the German seems to have a 'sixth sense' of knowing that a tackle is coming and where it's coming from. As fatigue sets in however, his ability to do this diminishes, and so does his other critical mental / cognitive faculties in reading the game, facilitating play, opening spaces for team mates and dictating the tempo of the game.
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Tactical Recovery
Last night, there was a noticeable drop in Real Madrid's level in terms of dictating the tempo of the game from the 'Kroos position', which was played by Lucas Silva. That drop however (also possibly due to the quality, or lack thereof of our opponents) wasn't too significant - and thus Real Madrid did not suffer too much in Kroos' absence. Because while Lucas did not have Kroos' considerable 'court vision', Lucas is not a 'ball stopper.' The momentum of the team's buildup play basically doesn't come to a halt when the ball is played to him, as he is capable of pinging it about even if it won't necessarily pierce the heart of the opponents' defense. It must also be noted that Lucas Silva also has an impressive passing range and offers an added layer of physicality to the center of the Madrid midfield. Finding an understudy to Kroos who isn't a ball stopper (like Illaramendi) is a big step forward for the club: it enables us to rest the German ahead of big matches without paying too steep tactical price.
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The best part of the night however for me as a Real Madrid fan, was seeing a short scrawny Croatian midfielder wearing #19 play. Madridisimo has greatly missed Luka Modric and it's easy to tell that the team plays at a much higher level with him on the pitch. Even in that disastrous performance midweek last week against Schalke, Real Madrid looked far better and far more balanced with Modric around. The really funny thing about Modric however is the team not only becomes considerably far better when pushing the ball forward to attack when he's around. Defensively, we are a far better side too with him - and this is a big surprise when we realize that the players who have recently been asked to fill the void he has left in his absence are players whom we all perceive to be more defensive than him (Khedira, Illaramendi and to a lesser extent, Lucas Silva).
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The key to Modric's success in his position is his very deep understanding of it, and the fact that he is comfortable in both the advanced areas and deeper positions of the pitch. This gives him the ability to know when to push up with / without the ball and when to sit back. This is in contrast to Khedira and Illara who are both more comfortable sitting deep and so when asked to perform the 'Modric role', either get lost at sea mindlessly wandering forward while leaving gaps behind without necessarily contributing significantly on attack (Khedira), so sitting so deep that his front 3 become isolated and become ineffective (Illaramendi). The troubling thing for the 2 however is that they also seem to be ineffective in ball recovery once its lost. This thus brings us to the ultimate curiosity re: Modric - that Modric is also better at performing the defensive requirements of his role as compared to his naturlly 'more defensive' substitutes (Khedira and Illara).
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Mental Recovery
photo title
So only after he scores 2 goals does the Spanish Media start talking about Bale's extra hours in training to regain his form.
What was perhaps most encouraging for me last Sunday however was how Real Madrid did NOT start the game asleep. Within seconds from kickoff, the match's 'zone of play' almost immediately shifted to the final third of the pitch around Levante's goal, with possession, ball recovery and movement into space creating danger and scoring chances for Real Madrid.
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It must be said however, that if there was one Madridista whose game was characterized as a form of mental recovery, then it would have to be Gareth Bale. His first goal was an astute finish with his weaker right foot, an instinctive finish of great class. His second goal in my opinion was really more of a fluke. To me at least, the replays clearly show Bale attempting to GET OUT of the way from the ball's path upon Ronaldo's vicious strike. It deflected off his shin as he attempted to backpedal away from the path of the ball, and into the net. And just like for the first goal, Ronaldo's strike looked to be on target, but this time with a cannon-ball-like speed towards goal.
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For Gareth Bale however, I would also like to look at his performance not merely because he was able to get on the scoresheet and break the unpleasant streak of 8-9 games without a goal. Gareth Bale's performance on the night reminded me of the sort of performance we see from Chelsea's Eden Hazard: he's not the destroyer of worlds in the way that CR and Messi are, but he was most definitely the man who gave you the feeling that if his team was going to get on the scoresheet, that he was somehow going to be involved. This is the sort of performance we need to encourage from the Welshman: that if the goals and assists aren't necessarily coming, the constant effort and willingness to be an absolute pest on attack ought to be the minimum we should expect from him. With the benefit of hindsight, I would think that I'd still be praising his performance even if he did not score the goal.
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Recovering Ronaldo
In startling contrast to Bale however is our very own superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Much has been said about his performance and also his reactions during the game - some of which have shockingly earned him boos, whistles and white handkerchiefs. And let me just say that I'm deeply disappointed by the behavior of these spoiled fans. Many of them seem to have forgotten that if it weren't for Cristiano, we would be out of the Champions League by now.
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Ronaldo had a bad game, let's all admit that. Even he knows that, which in my opinion, explains his reactions on the night. Cristiano is lacking that final edge of sharpness: that final inch of precision in his game that would turn a touch into a goal and a flick into a perfectly-laid assist. Playing time and confidence and encouragement are the only antidotes to Ronaldo's current doldrums. This is not a player who spent the night before the match in a nightclub chugging booze. This is a player who spends every second of his existence to the perfection of his craft as a footballer. And on the days where things don't come off, fans like ourselves ought to rally behind him to offer him support, and lay down our brickbats.
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The most disappointing criticism of all in my opinion come from those who knock on Ronaldo by claiming that he isn't happy for Bale's success (at scoring 2 goals, both created by him). This is horseshit. Watch the replays again and one will realize that Ronaldo is pounding the floor NOT because Bale had slammed in the rebound of his acrobatic shot cleared off the line, and thus scored, but because he is upset with himself as to why his body was not able to contort itself to the perfect state in needed to be in to execute that magnificent attempt at a bicycle kick. Ronaldo is NOT unhappy over his teammates' success. He is unhappy because he is trying so hard to find his groove and is frustrated that he still can't manage to snap into it.
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Recovering The League
The Classic eleven Madrid
I'd feel pretty good about the chances of this Starting XI against Barca at the Camp Nou this weekend.
With the exception of James (who is replaced by the wonderful Isco), Real Madrid have completed the recovery of its team as it heads to the season's homestretch. Modric has the look of a man ready to play 90 minutes against Barcelona, and so does Ramos, following injuries to the 2. Kroos on the other hand got himself a much-needed rest while Bale got his much-needed goals.
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To tilt things further to our advantage: Barca have a midweek Champions League tie against Manchester City. Barcelona hold a 1 goal lead but have 2 away goals as they face a Manchester City side whose pride have been wounded by a weekend loss to Burnley. This is no dead rubber match. City have pride, survival and silverware at stake and can scare or damage Barca just as much as Schalke did with us.
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We on the other hand have a full week to recover. Let's us all hope that by the end of Sunday, the League has been recovered too.  

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Merengue Bites: Episode 26 - The BBC go 'Off the Air' Against Athletic Bilbao

It was a crappy Sunday evening. We lost to Athletic at the San Mames the night before, and Barca had just butchered Rayo Vallecano 6-1 to take a 1 point lead in the La Liga title Race... Rahul, Ryan and I tried to make sense of it all.
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You can also listen to the podcast here: 

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.