Monday, February 22, 2016

Andalusian Blues (Malaga 1 - Real Madrid 1)

The Eraserheads: Andalusian Dog

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I thought I'd start with that with a semi-obscure song (to their casual fans) from the Eraserheads (a legendary rock band from the Philippines I worship), Andalusian Dog - given that trips to Andalusia have constantly been giving Real Madrid fits of trouble. Last night's trip to Malaga, which ended in a 1-1 draw was no different. It was a result that leaves us 9 points behind Barcelona - making it practically official that we are only just playing for pride in La Liga from this point forward.
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And here's the thing: we shouldn't even be just looking at the result. We should be looking at the performance too - and it was awful! Last night's match was a rare instance I could catch Real Madrid at a decent hour (11pm) - and their performance still had me dozing off during stretches. That first half seemed like it was taking forever! Make no mistake about it - last night's match was not 2 points lost for Real Madrid - it was 1 point won. We played awfully, scored an offside goal (granted that 'justice' was done with Ronaldo missing the penalty - perhaps he should have tried that Messi-Suarez trick?) and had Keylor Navas saving our skins yet again. 
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I get that it was a tough match on the road (a second consecutive one at that), but this is a team that claims to be title contenders. And title contending teams either play well but lose the odd road game, especially if it's the second of a back-to-back... or they win playing ugly with a massive dose of luck (e.g. an allowed offside goal against the run of play).
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Tactics & Personnel
The days before the game were brought unpleasant news of Karim Benzema being injured and unavailable for last night. I thus found myself wondering how Zidane would set the team up expecting both James and Isco to play with either Kovacic or Jese getting the nod in the starting XI. I will admit that I applauded Zidane's brave move to bench James (probably against Florentino's will) and start with Kovacic with Modric and Kroos at midfield. This was Zizou recognizing the fact that we were playing a serious team on the road and that we needed more solidity at midfield (Kovacic) and pace on the flanks (Jese). The game started with me wondering whether Jese would be played in his favored left wing position (where he could cut in and shoot), or whether Isco would be given this task. I always expected Ronaldo to move into the center to be the #9.
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Except this wasn't the case. Last night, it looked to me like Isco was deployed as a false 9, who looked to play CR7 and Jese into space - much like Diego Perrotti for Roma midweek. It was an experiment Ancelotti tried on numerous occasions which just didnt' work. Last night, Zidane tried it again and the outcome was similar. It disappointed me even more that after 45 mins. of the system not working, Zidane, perhaps encouraged by the (offside) goal we scored, persisted with the system. It didn't work. Malaga's equalizer came past the 60th minute and at the point where we were chasing the game, having a focal point to our attack would have been needed. We didn't have it. I was disappointed with how we managed our tactics to get back into the game.
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Performances
It's funny how small circumstances can completely change the narrative. By the 33rd minute: Cristiano Ronaldo had scored in consecutive away games against a good level team. That was the narrative, if you had chosen to ignore the fact that he was a yard offside.  By the 36th minute, he had won a penalty that would have had the storyline say: Ronaldo carries Madrid to victory in tough road game. But alas he misses the penalty, and with it the feel-good narrative about his road to recovery and Madrid's declaration of its championship credentials. 
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A closer look must go to the 2 beneficiaries of Madrid's injury crisis as well: Jese and Mateo Kovacic. Both gave good accounts of themselves in their substitute appearances midweek and logically, both were expected to provide a positive spark to their team last night after being rewarded with an opportunity to start. Instead, it was disappointment everywhere for the 2. Kovacic failed to add the invention and verticality his runs with the ball normally had and lost the ball in many of his touches with it. Jese too lost the ball on many occasions and hardly beat anyone off the dribble and gave the game very little of the pace which he was introduced into the game for.
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Lucas Vasquez later came on (for Jese) and seemed to add a bit, but it was ultimately not enough. Zidane also did the logical thing of 'trying' James in Isco's role (who was graciously applauded by the Malaga fans). But is there perhaps a merit to trying Casemiro? It seems the counter-intuitive thing to do, but I find the idea of sending Casemiro in to sit as the sole holder at midfield, to allow Kroos and Modric up the pitch to have some merit. 
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The simple truth to it however is that the team as a whole were just not at the races today - particularly the defense. After an imperious performance in Rome, Ramos looked as shaky as ever last night at La Rosaleda, sloppy with the ball and somehow always a step behind the pace of the match. 
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Finding Purpose
It's embarrassing to admit: but La Liga has become like Ligue 1 with Barcelona romping through un-opposed. As Real Madrid fans, it's not wrong to expect our team to put up a stronger challenge to them than what we've shown so far. 

La Liga is the latest league to follow the Bundesliga and Ligue 1: in that the league leaders are essentially romping through the competition unopposed. In Germany and France though, the economic might of the leaders (Bayern and PSG) when compared to the rest of the competition, is an easy explanation for the situation. The same can be said about Atleti in Spain - who are punching above their weight thanks to the work of Simeone. The same however, cannot be said about Real Madrid.
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For a club that prides itself as the top dog in Deloitte's Football Money league, it's an embarrassment that we've practically surrendered the league title to Barca in Feburary. There is no excuse. We are not a club with budget constraints. Madrid is not an industrial wasteland or some rural backwater. It is a beautiful, modern cosmopolitan city with lovely weather, offering the world's best footballers and their families the absolute best quality of life. Our squad deficiencies are an outcome of poor planning, the lack of a sporting vision and a childish fickle-mindedness in the making of sporting decisions. 
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Unless the Monstars from Space Jam 'steal' the powers of Barca's players, particularly the MSN, La Liga is practically gone. 
This season is a writeoff. The Copa Del Rey is gone because we eliminated ourselves from it. Unless the Monstars from Space Jam 'steal' the powers of Barca's players, particularly the MSN, La Liga is practically gone too. Zidane now has a massive problem on his hands. Though we still have a chance at the Champions League, the only way you can win it is if the team reaches a level of hyper-focus, sharpness and motivation. And the only stage to facilitate this is the League campaign, where the players can compete on a weekly basis. But despite the 'We will fight to the death' statements, how are we to believe that the players will genuinely have the highest level of motivation whilst faced with the common sense knowledge that Barca are too far ahead already? This will be Zidane's challenge.
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But even before we can even begin to explore these questions about the players' levels of motivation and focus, we have to get down to an even more basic and simple question: How do you even get them to play better?

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.