Monday, August 21, 2017

Opening Salvo (Deportivo La Coruna 0 – Real Madrid 3)



Another La Liga Season, another Sergio Ramos double-yellow = Red Card. What is up with El Capitan? Is he operating with the mindset of “If I don’t score a goal that wins us a trophy, then I must find a way to get myself sent off”?
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Kidding aside, last night, Real Madrid put in a commanding performance to kick start the La Liga campaign with the comfortable 0-3 demolition of Pepe Mel’s pretty good Deportivo La Coruna. It was a performance that showed a Real Madrid that oozed the confidence of title-favorites. Each player played embracing this idea of being the title front-runners: from our best-in-the-world midfield, to non-first-choice Nacho, to just-back-from-a-long-injury-spell Gareth Bale and of course the super-in-form Isco.
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Midfield Diamond
Though there were stretches of the match where it looked like we were playing a 4-3-3. With Isco on the left and Benzema on the right, I’d say though we played mostly as a midfield diamond: with the #22 floating across the pitch to receive the ball at pretty much any area and move across / make plays at any area he fancies. To put it simply: Zidane had given him the license to roam to any area of the pitch which we wanted to influence the match as he saw fit. There were many times of course that he chose to be on the left flank, prompting Benzema and Bale to adjust accordingly, but all in all, the role Isco was given was one which any aspiring footballer would day dream of: to put on Real Madrid white and be allowed to pretty much do anything you want on the pitch. And based on how he’s been playing these past months, it was a role he deserved too.
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Real Madrid’s dominance of the midfield was so absolute that we’ve also started to see some ‘twists’ and ‘wrinkles’ being tested out by Zidane and his midfield boys. Last night, we saw a few phases of the game where Toni Kroos was manning the central pivot role, while Modric and Casemiro (!) were pushing forward. The conservative-minded might view this as arrogance, but I’d say that the occasional switch up has its benefits. When the opponent is in ‘Park the Bus’ mode, seeing a defensive midfielder (who has scored 8 goals in 2017!) burst through your lines can be unsettling. Sending Casemiro up the pitch can also have benefits if we choose to press high up the pitch.
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Real Madrid’s midfield dominance was encapsulated in that second goal: a 40+-pass sequence that ended in a Marcelo cross turned into the net by none other than, surprise! Casemiro.
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The Role of the Front 2 in a Diamond
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Casemiro scores AGAIN. He's becoming more than ball winning midfielder.
The inherent weakness of the midfield diamond is that while a team is able to concentrate its resources at the center of the pitch to dominate possession, a team that plays its defensive cards right can blunt the attack. This then forces the team playing the diamond to deploy its fullbacks to create width, leaving space behind vulnerable on the counter. With Isco leading the tip of a diamond comprising of the world’s best midfield, and with arguably the world’s best full backs too, a Real Madrid attack brings an unbearable amount of pressure on an opposition’s penalty area. I will say though, that it won’t take long before someone can organize a team well enough to resist our attacks for a period of time that’s enough for them to release a free man behind our bombing fullbacks to hit us on the counter.
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With this inherent weakness in the flanks that comes with the diamond, it becomes important to review the role of the front 2 to see if there is a way to mitigate this weakness…. And Zidane has the right idea. Apart from being the world’s greatest goalscorer, CR also used to be the greatest winger. With his tendencies to drift wide and cut in remaining intact (see his goal vs. Barca in the supercup), his skill set is suited to the system. Karim Benzema not being a traditional ‘9’, with his tendency to move between the lines, occasionally going wide, deep, or into the box also works well for the system.
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Many are asking however why Gareth Bale seems to be struggling in the system. His similarities with CR7 are obvious: he is gifted with pace and explosiveness and is a capable goal-scorer, even in the air. His best season at Spurs saw him play behind the striker, able to roam free as he pleased. On paper, there is little reason for him to struggle in his role in this system. One thought I had was the nature of the opponent: Deportivo played it tight defensively, suitable for players with sick technical skills in tight spaces like Isco and Benzema, and not so for the gazelles like Bale who like wide open spaces to run to. If that was the case though, then why did Bale struggle against Barcelona in the Supercup? We were all waiting for him to embarrass Pique the way he did Bartra.
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The fact that Cristiano did was no surprise… the fact that Asensio did too however can / should be seen as writing on the wall. More and more, it is becoming obvious that Marco Asensio will be a Balon d’Or contender (possibly a winner) in 5 years. Assuming everyone is fit, Bale’s place in the pecking order is now at 50/50 vs. Isco. It would not surprise me if he lost his place to Isco entirely as the team’s first choice player next to CR7 and Benzema, pushing him down to ‘first attacking player off the bench’ status. But here’s the scary part: it shouldn’t surprise us too if Asensio pips him to that role too. At Asensio’s current rate of growth, he should make that role his own this season.
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The fact that Bale scored tonight (a tap-in off a rebound) might temporarily keep the questions about him out of people’s minds, but they will come soon enough.  It is time for the Welshman to unleash the dragon in him Game-of-Thrones style (see Season 7, Episode 4: ‘The Spoils of War’). Because at age 28, the clock is ticking for him.
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The Playmaking Striker
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If you're an Apex predator goalscorer, you're gonna LOVE having Karim Benzema playing next to you.
‘Play-making Striker’ – now that’s an oxymoron. After the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup, I called on Karim Benzema to change his mindset in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo on the team – that he needs to become the goal-scoring predator out there. Last night, he blatantly refused this call and taught me a lesson on what Karim Benzema does.
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We live in a world where for elite football clubs, strikers who are ‘just goalscorers’ are not enough (see Chicharito Hernandez). If you are curious as to what else a striker is supposed to do for an elite team, then you only need to look at what Karim Benzema did last night.
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Benzema possesses a languid, slowly-jog body language of someone who exudes laziness. This is highlighted even further when he’s playing next to Cristiano Ronaldo who foams at the mouth on the possibility of scoring a goal. The opposite however is true. Karim runs the channels, makes diverting runs, presses his opponents and is always available for an outlet pass for a teammate attacking the opponents’ goal. Along the way, he’ll give you 15-20 goals / season. 

What Karim Benzema might be however, is the world’s greatest play-making striker. He’s big and strong enough to receive ‘outlet balls’ from deep to hold up play, tall enough to be a target of a looping pass or cross. His pace is also decent enough to make him the target for through balls. All of this however is not done in service of becoming a dominant 30-40 goal striker, but is done to link the play of his teammates.  So perhaps it’s time to stop expecting him to turn into his idol Ronaldo Nazario.
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All of his skills were on full display last night: creating the chance for Bale’s opener and being part of Real Madrid’s dizzying 40+ pass sequence that led to Casemiro’s goal. His contributions however are embodied in Madrid’s 3rd goal as his ability to retain possession and control in the Depor danger zone naturally sucked the entire team towards the opponents’ goal: encouraging his midfielders to make late runs into the box to score. Last night, it was Toni Kroos who was tee-ed up for a strike.
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It is now time for me, and the rest of us to stop measuring Karim Benzema based on the traditional standards of what is expected of a striker (goals, conversion rate, etc.). To do so would be to ignore his true qualities as a footballer and a disservice to the beautiful game.   

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