Thursday, February 18, 2016

Levelling Up (AS Roma 0 - Real Madrid 2)

The match's key events as they happened. Info Graphic is thanks to Sporticos.com

Not long after this (early) morning's (3:45am) viewing of Real Madrid's 0-2 victory at the Stadio Olimpico over Roma, I began reading reports and commentaries of the match. To my shock and rage, I found one of the pieces written in a critical manner about the way Real Madrid played. I was absolutely outraged. This is the Champions League people! And no, we weren't playing some team from Luxembourg who fielded a bunch of semi-pros that had day jobs waiting for them the next day. This was Roma, now coached by Luciano Spaletti - the same man who orchestrated our elimination 2-4 on aggregate in 2008, the same man who introduced the term 'false 9' into my football vocabulary. 
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After the sacking of Rudy Garcia, prior to this morning's match. Roma had been unbeaten in 6 of their last 7 matches (losing 1-0 to Juventus). Pjanic (I am still scarred by his goal for Lyon which eliminated us many years back). and Nainggolan would walk into the squad of any of the world's best clubs and while El Shaarawy and Mohammed Salah might have had a few career bumps recently (for Milan and Chelsea respectively), they are easily better than Amatino Mancini and Mirko Vucinic (scorers of Roma's winning goals in the respective legs of the 2008 tie that saw us eliminated). 
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Real Madrid are expected to win. I get that. But it's not fair to expect Real Madrid to swoop into the Stadio Olimpico and butcher the Romans 5-0.
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The Tactical Battle
It was 4-3-3 vs. 4-3-3 this morning at Rome.
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The game turned out as I expected actually. It was a cagey affair. Both sides played a 4-3-3 with Roma deploying ex-Sevilla winger Diego Perotti as a false 9. Spalletti's intent was clear: he was going to expose the space left behind by Carvajal and Marcelo to play El Sharaawy and Salah into space on the counter. And without the ball, he would keep it tight and organized.
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This approach (of using pace on the counter) is nothing new to anyone at Real Madrid. Our 2 seasons under Carlo Ancelotti plus the fact that Zidane's tactical approach has been very similar to that of Ancelotti's have meant that the team has learned to use possession and ball movement to unlock defenses. When faced with a team which played in a manner as organized as Roma this morning however, 'picking the lock' just takes a bit more time.
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Ancelotti and Zidane however are not dogmatic in their beliefs and do not obsess over philosophies. Thus, they do not consider it a violation of some form of football morals to use direct play to create scoring chances. They have no qualms about using a long ball (if the opportunity arises) to reach our 'athletes' (a word used in a semi-derogatory manner by Pep Guardiola to describe some of our players) up front, namely Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. This morning however, with James playing as part of the front 3 instead of the injured Gareth Bale, Real Madrid have had to use passing and movement even more so to pick the Roma defense open. 
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Bale's absence made Ronaldo's presence in the wide areas even more critical to the team's play, together with the presence of Carvajal on the right. It was thus an absolutely pleasant surprise to see Marcelo fit to play (and play such a critical role) this morning.
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Tale of the tape: Real Madrid dominated the match in terms of possession and shots.
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With their organization, Roma resisted us and executed their game plan well. The first half was a chess match between Isco-Kroos-Modric and Pjanic-Vanqueur-Nainggolan at midfield. Roma also managed to give Salah and El Sharaawy plenty of opportunities to break away, only to be met with the imperious Rafa Varane. Madrid enjoyed the domination of possession - and as with all teams who do so, what ultimately matters is how the possession is used. I am of the belief that barring the conccession of a goal on the counter, our control of the game, even during the cagey first half would eventually wear them out and give us an opening.
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This opportunity would come at the second half, ironically, of us giving them a taste of their own medicine. It was a transition of play, that allowed Marcelo to play our wide man (Cristiano Ronaldo) through to make it 0-1 Real Madrid.
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Cristiano Ronaldo
His walkout during the pre-match interview had been the much-talked about item prior to the match. A pundit remarked that he should rise above it and respond on the pitch instead. It was exactly what he did. Not only did Cristiano score, he also created plenty for Karim 'Mr. Champions League' Benzema too, which the Frenchman sadly was not able to capitalize on. 
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Since last season, I've written extensively on my aspiration to see Cristiano Ronaldo make a transition to become a full-fledged striker now that he is on the wrong side of 30 and has clearly lost a step in terms of his explosiveness, whilst still possessing his finishing ability, aerial power and physical strength. His resistance to this has been frustrating to me. Under Rafa Benitez, he has neither become a full fledged striker, nor has he retained his usual threat from the wing. 
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It seems though, that under Zidane, he is making a return to the left wing where he has been so effective since Mourinho's Madrid - following his usual M.O. of running at his defender, beating him, cutting in to his right, and firing a missile towards the goal. Throughout most of this season, I've noticed Ronaldo receiving the ball at a left-sided forward position, running towards goal, and using his left foot to shoot across his body at goal. The usual outcome of this is a goalkeeper save - because even though CR7 can shoot with equal power on his left foot, shots from his left boot can't quite swerve, dip and bobble with the same deftness as those from his right boot. I cannot count the number of times I've yelled at (the image of) Ronaldo (on my TV) this season to cut into his right foot to shoot, rather than use his left leg to take a square shot accross his body.
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Last weekend, against Athletic Bilbao, he did just that to score his first goal. This morning, he did exactly the same thing. In both cases, the goalkeeper had no chance. As a fan, it awakened something within me: "Yeah!!!! That's the CR7 I know!" I screamed within. I get the feeling that his team mates feel the same way too. 
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It was an away game, against a serious opponent, with high stakes - and Cristiano Ronaldo came up big. I am truly enjoying this these familiar sensations of my beloved club's superstar player producing the goods when it truly counts. 
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Zidane's Managerial Chops
While it is true that Zidane has been greatly aided by an easy schedule to start his coaching career, there isn't much I can fault him with. His decision to re-implement Carlo Ancelotti's 4-3-3-on-attack-4-4-2-on-defense system has proven to be the right thing to do: It has brought out the the best in Modric and revived Kroos' poor start to the season. He has also revived the 'Jese Development Project', which was derailed by the poor kid's injury as well as Rafa Benitez.
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But Zidane didn't just pull the 'Ancelotti blueprint' out of a photocopying machine: he is also exhibiting an awareness of Ancelotti's mistakes. We've seen him sub Modric and Kroos out of matches with Madrid holding healthy leads to give the 2 key players a rest while giving the likes of Mateo Kovacic a chance to get their feet wet (he even gave the young Croatian a start last weekend where the #16 turned in a good performance).
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All this was in full display this morning. Zizou played the system to a first half stalemate in the first half, and kept the faith on his players' quality to come through. Not long after taking the lead, Zidane made the pragmatic (and in my opinion, correct) decision, to pull Isco out and introduce Kovacic in - providing fresher legs and his knack for pushing  the ball up vertically an added dimension to a more open game, less in need of Isco's lock-picking. Once again, the young Croatian played well alongside Kroos and his compatriot, Modric.  This was duly followed by the introduction of Jese - both as part of the 'Jese Development Project' and to add pace and directness to a game that saw Roma pushing forward in a bid to get something out of the game. The young Las Palmas native duly fulfilled his role, scoring a goal on a counter-attacking move thanks to his pace. And finally, with his 0-2 away lead, we were all shocked to see Ronaldo subbed off in place of Casemiro who was tasked to 'close the shop.'
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It was a great display of Zidane's management chops: a system that maximized his players' talent, patience after a goalless and cagey first half, the reconfiguration of his team to a more direct one following the lead, and finally pragmatically closing the shop to end the game.
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Zidane as a coach might not turn out to be some trophy-hogging genius like Pep Guardiola. But one thing's for sure, he's NOT a supermodel-figurehead-talking head-all-flash/no-substance coach. He knows what he's doing.  
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Time to Level Up
After starting our Zidane era mostly playing weak teams at home and away, at the beginning of the year, the time has come for the degree of difficulty to start rising. A tricky trip to Malaga awaits us this weekend, which is only a prelude to the Madrid derby afterwards. We've had plenty of time to settle in with Zidane. Now come the challenges of what's left of the season to test the team if it has found the road to recovery... or if this is just yet another of many false dawns. 

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