Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sifting Through the Rubble (Real Madrid 0 - Barcelona 4)

It was hard to openly admit it coming into the match, but I have to now confess heading into this game that I truly believed we would lose last night's clasico. That we would be humiliated in the manner that we were however, was a totally different matter.
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Prior to last Saturday's clasico, Barcelona have been flying. With the odds stacked against them, they have overcome a transfer ban that has forced them to work with a depleted squad, they have overcome various injuries and suspensions (Pique) and more importantly, they have managed to keep racking up the wins and did so in glorious fashion (not just 'getting the 3 points') without the greatest player in their club's history. Just as the Bernabeu showed its class by giving Andres Iniesta an ovation last night (on the 10 year anniversary of Ronaldinho being given the same honor), we as Madridistas must tip our hats to Barcelona for that they have achieved. From their management, to their coaching, down to the players: their accomplishments given the obstacles that have been laid their way should be applauded, praised and congratulated by Madridisimo.
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Last Saturday's debacle however was not only the product of Barcelona playing some blindingly impressive football. It was also a product of a catastrophic failure of Real Madrid on multiple levels - from the management (President), the coaching and the players. There is a very understandable outburst of anger aimed particularly at Florentino Perez and Rafa Benitez at the moment as seen in the panoladas that started at a disturbingly early part of the match (who could blame the Bernabeu, the team was getting skinned alive from kickoff?). The 2 surely must take responsibility for last night. EVERYONE in the club however must collectively take responsibility and look at themselves in the mirror.
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Is this the Death Spiral of Florentino's 2nd Presidency?
The Infamous Panolada happened at the Bernabeu last Saturday. Is this the omen for the Death Spiral of Florentino's 2nd Presidency?
Florentino famously won trophies during the early years of his first presidency, doing so while amassing superstar talent which reinforced the club's reputation as the world's most glamorous football club. He also infamously fired a classy, level-headed and much-loved manager (both by fans and players) - Vicente Del Bosque, before the club went into a death spiral that led to Perez's own resignation.
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At the end of last season, Perez's 2nd presidency has essentially been marked by winning every trophy already: the Copa Del Rey, the La Liga Title (both won by Mourinho) and the elusive La Decima. Having completed, this 'cycle' of trophies, he then fired the man many consider the 'The Italian Del Bosque'. If we were to refer to the pattern of Perez's first presidency, this might be the beginning of the death spiral for his second presidency.
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Does Florentino Perez live in a bubble or not? The arguments in favor of Uncle Flo living in a bubble lies in his failure to see that the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti, a coach loved both by the players and fans. was just plainly, a stupid idea. The idea of him NOT living in a bubble is this: if the fans and players don't blame Ancelotti for last season's failures, then surely the eyes of blame would all be focused on him. Cynical a view as it may be, during bad times, having a wildly popular, respected and loved coach like Ancelotti would NOT be good for the president. It exposes what's wrong with the system (the fact that Florentino Perez and Jose Angel Sanchez, a construction magnate and a financial guru respectively, are the club's de facto Sporting Directors).
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In fairness to Florentino, this summer's transfer activity was not one spent obsessing mindlessly over a 'galactico'. His failed summer courtship of David De Gea was a clear attempt to address a problem position we had (anyone who tells me he knew Keylor was going to be at Iker Casillas's level circa 2000-2010 is lying). The re-acquisition of Casemiro from Porto has been an inspired decision whilst choosing to listen to Rafa's recommendation on Lucas Vasquez was wise as well. There are those who are crying foul over Danilo. The signing of the Brazilian to me was not to upgrade our Right Back position, but to prevent Barcelona from upgrading theirs.
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In my opinion, Florentino deserved the jeers, white handkerchiefs and calls for resignation. Those in my opinion however ought to be the end of his 'punishment' - I do not believe he deserves to fall on his sword for this. The public firestorm over last Saturday's embarrassment ought to be a sobering enough reminder to him, that the fans will not fall for his coach scapegoating tricks. That we know he's part of the problem.
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Rafa Benitez - from a Buffoon to a Coward
It's been 10 years since 'The Miracle of Istanbul'. Was that Rafa's peak and are we now riding his decline?
"I'd hire a Pole!" was the reply by a dear Madridista friend to my question to him of "who would you replace Rafa with?" in my response to his "Rafa out!"stance. That many Madridistas feel that a wooden stick would do a better job of coaching this team than Rafa Benitez is indicative of what a massive failure last Saturday was for him.
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Before last night, many Madrid fans perceived Rafa Benitez as a sub-Real Madrid standard manager who clumsily bundled his way into the Real Madrid job. It's been 10 years since 'The Miracle of Istanbul', whilst 'The Debacle of Napoli' is still fresh in all our minds. These days, we associate Rafa Benitez more as a buffoon who eats the plastic wrap of his sandwich more than as some form of tactical mastermind.
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The truth is that before last Saturday, I actually thought that Rafa was doing a relatively decent job. The team was winning despite a long list of injuries to key players (Modric, Bale, James, Benzema, Marcelo, Kovacic, Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Pepe, even Keylor Navas), whilst previously unheralded players were getting their chances and turning in some good performances (Kovacic, Casemiro, Vasquez, Nacho). The defense has looked pretty good too (perhaps partly helped by Keylor being absolutely brilliant). I also do not see his constant swopping of formations to be a bad thing either: having tried the 4-2-3-1, the 4-3-3 and even the 4-4-2. A new coach trying different systems to find the best fit for his ever-changing list of available players to me shows pro-activeness and open-mindedness.
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What I cannot stand however is cowardice. If Rafa believes in defensive football (or to use his term 'balance'), then he should own it. He should play the team he wants and in the way that he wants, not what he thinks others want. The team he should have fielded last Saturday should have been the team which he felt would give us the best possible chance of winning, NOT the team that he feels will get him the least amount of flak afterwards.
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Gareth Bale (injured), James (injured / flew in from South American Internationals), Benzema (injured / involved in a sextape+extortion scandal) had all hardly played leading up to last Saturday. Even if they were physically 100%, they were all not match fit for sure (which is why I am not going to criticize his decision to go with Danilo over Carvajal). That James, Bale and Benzema created chances or almost scored is a different matter. Instead, the likes of Casemiro, who was fit and on form was excluded.
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Why? Because Florentino pressured him to play the super star team? Because the fans would crucify him for being defensive by playing Casemiro? Because the team's 'senior players' supposedly confronted him and pressured him into 'attacking Barcelona'??? Rafa was a coward because he opted for what turned out to be this false notion of 'attacking' Barca even if he didn't believe in it deep down inside. He broke under the will and pressure of the whispers of those around him to field a team that was ideal personnel-wise or prepared tactics-wise to face Barcelona instead of the team which he knew in his heart of hearts would have done something more meaningful out there.
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Real Madrid were tactically a broken team. They gave Barcelona an ocean of space to operate and and do as they wished.
Real Madrid played as a broken team, with a sea of space for Barca's players to enjoy their passing and find their angles for Suarez and Neymar to rip our hearts out... and no one enjoyed this more than Andres Iniesta. On this false notion of intending to 'attack' Barcelona, the team hoped for a gun-slinging match like during the latter-Mourinho / early-Ancelotti era. Last Saturday was no cowboy-style gun-slinging duel: Madrid played like shadows chasing shadows.
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The ultimate and sad irony of it all is that the root Rafa's cowardice was his decision to pretend to be brave and 'attack' Barca with his superstar team - pretending to be someone he's not, and making decisions to avoid criticism in the coming days' post-match analysis, rather than making decisions to win. There is no cowardice in facing yourself and living up to who you are and owning your own actions. That is true bravery. And it is in that where Rafa failed us all last Saturday.
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The Players - From the Walking Wounded to the Sulking Sissies
We will never know if Sergio Ramos (who probably took another pain-killing injection on his shoulder to play) or Marcelo (who had to be subbed off the game) will pay a dear price for sacrificing / forcing themselves to play last Saturday. To be honest, it might not matter for the league campaign: with a 6 point advantage, Messi regaining fitness and the transfer ban being lifted on January, there is little to suggest that Barca will not run away to yet another league title. All I can do is applaud their bravery / stupidity for putting their injured bodies on the line for the cause.
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My beef with the players however have to be trained upon the 2 most expensive players in the history of the sport: Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
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This season, Rafa Benitez fulfilled Gareth Bale's wish of playing behind  the striker, as some sort of super mobile, super explosive '10', not in the Ozil mould (to feed balls for CR7 and Benzema to score), but to terrorize La Liga's slower and physically weaker defensive midfielders with his pace and power. We saw him play this role quite effectively at the beginning of the season (before he was injured). Against the slow-footed Sergi Busquets, Bale was supposed to have the same effect. As the man supposedly the target of any outlet balls from midfield or defense, his job was to drop deep (if necessary) and use his pace and explosiveness to overpower and blow by Barca's midfield line. Last Saturday however, he did NOT do this. He instead, together with Ronaldo, Benzema and James, waited for the ball to arrive to their side of the pitch, leaving the midfield and defense to suffer at the hands of Barca's midfield and front 3 who were enjoying a massive, ocean-sized space to operate and pass their way through our defense.
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Ronaldo's Wrong Road
By taking the 'right road', Ronaldo can put himself in a position to win the Ballon D'Or once again. If he takes the wrong road, he will find himself down the same road as Shevchenko, Torres, Owen and Kaka.
At age 30, Cristiano Ronaldo is at a crossroads in his career. He must choose between 2 roads. The first road is one that will lead to a glorious destiny: as the world's best '9'. He has all the physical tools to achieve this: strength, pace over a short stretch, mobility, the poacher's instinct, aerial power, the ability to shoot with both feet and above all, a greed for goals. To reach this point, Ronaldo must lock himself up in a room, and watch 12 hours of Karim Benzema playing: memorizing the Frenchman's intelligence at running, creating space, making himself available for passes to his teammates,  holding up the ball and various other skills that are expected of strikers. He must then edit out some of Benzema's reactions in the final third (which is to look to pass to Ronaldo) and replace them with his greed for goals. A 30-year old Cristiano Ronaldo who runs the channels, holds the ball up, creates space, etc. will score 60 goals/season for the next 2-3 seasons. Next, Ronaldo must also spend another 12 hours watching film of his former team mate, the recently-retired Raul. With even less pace, and even less strength and with almost zero aerial ability, Raul in his final 2-3 seasons at Madrid was still good for nearly 20 goals per season. Playing like that at age 33-37, Ronaldo would still be a guarantee for at least 30-40 goals a season at the highest level.
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The second road is a path that is now all too familiar to many of us: the sad fate of a player who has built his entire game on his pace and explosiveness but has lost it due to father time and/or injury. This was the sad road taken by the likes of Andriy Shevchenko, Fernando Torres, Michael Owen and more recently, CR7's former Real Madrid teammate, Kaka. For the strikers in particular, they have (d)evolved into 'mere' finishers - wandering around the penalty box, waiting for a ball they can stick their boot into for a shot at goal. It doesn't take long for managers to realize that such players are only of use if they score. And without their goals, their teams are effectively only playing with 10 men.
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Having played as the striker for the last few weeks due to Benzema's absence, I am dismayed to see Cristiano Ronaldo opt for the latter road. His participation in the build up of play has been next to none, and has spent most games jogging about disinterestedly, waiting for the ball to reach his space, where he seems to only be interested to finish an attacking move with a shot at goal. Beyond the goals, he offered little else. Last Saturday, Cristiano Ronaldo did nothing but sulk and curse his luck as up to 3 great scoring chances came calling with no goal to show for. He offered little beyond that.
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It is with these thoughts that I made my wife nearly spit her coffee out over breakfast this morning when I sullenly confessed to her that I have come to believe that Cristiano Ronaldo has now been surpassed by Luis Suarez and Neymar as Messi's only contender/s to the title of 'Best player in the world'. Yes, there you have it - I said it. And it is with this thinking that I find myself believing, that unless CR7 'changes his ways' and turns toward the other road, that Real Madrid must accept any 'stupid money offer' that many come this summer. Perhaps the 'lesser' French League can mask his decline whilst keep his glamorous reputation intact playing in the City of Light (Paris). Perhaps a return to the club and the city (Manchester) that made him a man can nudge Ronaldo to the right road. Either way, something has to give.
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Something Does Have to Give
My assessment of Rafa at the beginning of the season stands: his tactical approach (4-2-3-1) gives a natural place to our playing personnel (James, Isco and Bale) while his rotation policy can help allow us avoid last season's mistakes (Ancelotti's refusal to rotate the squad resulted in the team succumbing to fatigue late in the season). His personality however is a massive question mark to motivate a team of superstars and mega-egos and get them onboard to his methods.
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What we are seeing at the moment seems to show that his personality is having a very negative impact towards the team - a team so good in terms of talent, that the tactical system employed to use them matters far less compared to the need to keep them motivated and focused. Without having to make the readers read between the lines, this is my way of saying that I do not believe that the team or its performance will suffer if Rafa Benitez is sacked. Because of the team's dysfunctional chemistry thanks to the coach, it is essentially now playing merely on talent rather than tactics, or organization. As my good friend believes: "A bloody pole can coach this team better than him."
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The massive hurdle however is the institutional damage that Real Madrid will suffer over the firing of a newly-hired coach just months into the season. As it stands, I am not optimistic that we can win La Liga. Having said that, a season with a trophy is not yet out of the cards - but even then, with all this going on, I'm not sure even a trophy can stop us all from concluding that this has been one butt-fuck ugly season.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Tribute to an Artist


I recently had the privilege of 'meeting' an unbelievably talented artist by the name of Karl Maxwell.
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Get this: he HAND DRAWS these amazing works of football-inspired art. He recently sent me this beautiful Real Madrid piece which took him 500 - FIVE HUNDRED HOURS to do. All his work is hand drawn, numbered and signed.
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In a world of easy downloads, mindless fabrication and copy-catting, true artists and craftsemen like Karl are a rarity.
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Madridistas can/should buy his work in his website, his etsy page or his Bigcartel page. You can find him online through Twitter (@KMaxArt), Facebook (Karl Maxwell Art), Instagram (KMaxArt) and Pinterest (KMaxArt).