Monday, March 21, 2016

Warm-Up (Real Madrid 4 - Sevilla 0)

Real Madrid-Sevilla in pictures
Keylor Navas was brilliant AGAIN last night for us.
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Applause is in order for Real Madrid last night. Nevermind that we faced Sevilla at home (who are terrible on the road) - we were always the favorites to win anyway. Let's make no mistake about it: Zinedine Zidane is doing a 'live practice season' as we speak: we are out of La Liga (nevemind that both Atleti and Barca dropped points this weekend) and we are out of the Copa Del Rey. We did we get lucky avoiding Barca, Atleti, Bayern and PSG in the Champions League Quarter-final though, facing one of them in the semi-final however, is an inevitability. And let's not kid ourselves too much about having the ability to beat them. The moment we get to the CL semi-finals, when we begin to tread in the waters of Barca and Bayern, it's good to be honest with ourselves as to the team's current capability. We as fans are not playing for anything any longer. Zidane and the boys however are: they are playing for their places in the team next season. So when Sevilla turns up in town, it's best for them to be on their best 'behaviour' - most especially if it's a prelude to a clasico. 
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Letdowns
Real Madrid-Sevilla in pictures
It was good to see Jese get on the scoresheet again last night. I did notice though that Vasquez was warming up too: I'm pretty sure it would have been Vasquez to play had Madrid not scored that late flurry of goals last night.
One of the things that I have found curious about Zidane's few months in charge is that he has displayed a tremendous amount of pragmatism in his spell as manager. His early weeks in charge have displayed a preference to work based not on the foundations laid out by Rafa Benitez at the start of the season, but on the principles of Carlo Ancelotti. We saw a 4-3-3 on attack that switched into a 4-4-2 on defense, featuring Kroos as the team's central 'pivot' with Modric pushing up and down to the German's right, whilst accompanied by a '10' on this left. We saw Gareth Bale deployed on the right wing and we also saw the  resumption of  the "Jese development project". 
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Specific to Zidane however was the selection of Isco over James in the '10' spot beside Kroos, presumably over James' injury and fitness issues. But then things started to go badly... the Isco/James-as-part-of-the-midfield-3 experiment was only ever going to work if the 2 were willing to put in the sort of effort that Angel Di Maria applied into the role. And neither did so. Isco was, to use basketball terminology, a 'ball-stopper' too: that player who dribbled too much instead of making the necessary quick touch passes to create momentum for the team on attack. So as far as Isco was concerned, he essentially reached a point where he wasn't giving what the team needed on attack (because he was a 'ball-stopper') and neither was we giving what the team needed in defense. Jese wasn't doing enough to merit his 'development project' status as well. He became too inconsistent and stopped taking his playing opportunities with both hands like he used to. To put it simply, many of these guys were not repaying Zidane's faith in them. They were becoming letdowns.
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'Re-Discovering Rafa'
Real Madrid-Sevilla in pictures
Casemiro's performances have necessitated for us to to re-open the conversation again: Should Real Madrid play with a specialist defensive midfielder again? I'm on the 'yes' camp.
So to put it simply, Zidane began 're-discovering' Rafa Benitez's findings. Lucas Vasquez got playing time and repaid Zizou's faith in him with a couple of assists. And most importantly, Carlos Casemiro was unearthed from the bench to give the team that much-needed player who would happily sit in front of the back 4, tackle and make the 4-yard pass. Yes, yes,, yes, he is no Xabi Alonso. But he is no Lass Diarra either. Remember him? The 'great' tackling midfielder who asked for the '10' jersey and would suffer fits of hallucination on the pitch where he thought he was Zidane and dribbled the ball on solo-slaloming runs to the opposition third - only to be dispossessed and concede a counterattacking chance to his opponent?  Yes - I remember him. He was the one some delusional fans used to describe as 'Lass is Class'. 
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Carlos Casemiro isn't Claude Makelele just yet either. The young Brazilian however is happy to play the role and nothing more. He will tackle anything that comes near him (even if after the referee blows his whistle, which was how he got his yellow card yesterday), he will recover balls to keep the momentum of the attack, and he will make simple passes no longer than 10 yards to the guy next to him (who most frequently are Kroos or Modric). Having played with Makelele, Zidane knows not just the value, but the absolute need for a player like Casemiro on the team.
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At our team's very best, we've always had great players in this role for us everytime we won titles: Redondo, Makelele and most recently, Khedira (for Mourinho's 100 point, 100 goal league-title-winning team). Most recently, this role was equally shared by Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria. Neither are still with us and we are in season #2 of trying to re-create the combination. Perhaps it's time to search for Makelele, or Khedira again - and that Casemiro might be the man for the job. When on the pitch, Casemiro allows Kroos to push up higher allowing Real Madrid's 'attacking platform' to be a good 10-15 meters closer to the opponents' goal. 
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I really believe that Kroos can still deputize in that role for games without Casemiro. But more and more, I am becoming convinced that if we are in need of a proper defensive midfielder out there. Isco and James will have to wait for their turn as alternatives to Modric and Kroos for the rest of the season. 
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The BBC Broadcasts again
Real Madrid-Sevilla in pictures
The BBC was at it again last night

In this season of Barcelona's South American (a unique combo of Argentine, Uruguayan and Brazilian talent) ''MSN' trio destroying everything in its wake. it's too easy to forget that this has been the season where our own European (a Portuguese, A Frenchman and a Welshman) 'BBC' trident has had an injury-plagued season. And when Benzema hasn't been hurt, he's been embroiled in a sex-tape scandal, and now in a drug-trafficking scandal. I know that Messi's had to miss a part of the season and that Neymar owes the taxman 45m Euros (or dollars?), but Madrid's trident have missed a bigger part of the season and have had to play larger parts of it only partially fit.
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But let's not argue. On talent alone, the MSN are in my opinion easily better than the BBC. Messi is better than Ronaldo, Neymar is better than Bale and Suarez is better than Benzema. Yeah, I said it. being better on talent alone however doesn't make a better team. After all I watched the 'Fantastic 4' (Etoo, Ronaldinho, Messi and Henry) fall against a squad that featured an ageing Raul, RVN and a young 'can't hit the wide side of a barn' Gonzalo Higuain. What is key the the team's chemistry and its ability to function TOGETHER as a unit. At the moment, the MSN is better at this than the BBC too.
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Last night's performance however showed glimpses of the BBC re-synchronizing with each other again: with Benzema's goal assisted by Bale, and Bale's goal started by Ronaldo and assisted by Benzema. It's a good start.
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Warm-Up
I will leave it to you the reader whether you prefer to see last night's game as a good warm up for next week's clasico or if like me, you prefer to see last night's match as a positive step for Zidane for his warmup for next season (where things will really count for him). What I choose to take heart from is that the team is taking steps towards the right direction under his guidance. His principles of attacking, attractive football are there to see - but the clarity of this thinking and his willingness to immediately act on problems he identifies are there to see as well. Philosophy alone (that which purists in the Blaugrana camp obssess about) will not impress me - the ability to apply pragmatism when a situation calls for it is just as important to me. Above all, those who currently play for the team are playing on merit, not on reputation, pay grade, sentiment, color of passport or 'philosophy'. 
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These may be small steps in the right direction for the team. But many of these small steps put together can establish and rework the team's dressing room culture. It is an approach for the long haul - and it is an opportunity that Zidane knows he enjoys which no other Madrid manager in the immediate past has ever enjoyed (how many coaches do you know have a brief that states: this season is a goner, now take the next 6 months, work something out for us to achieve things NEXT season?). Looking long term has never been Madrid's strength, and whether by design or accident, the opportunity to do so is in Zidane's hands. And based on how he's been handling things these past few months, I can only say that I'm mostly getting a nice warm feeling inside.