Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Role Reversal

Happy New Year Everyone!
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Sadly, for Real Madrid, the mid-point of the 2017-2018 season… the beginning of 2018 hasn’t been a happy one. I am honestly sick and tired of all the ‘celebrating’ over what a great calendar year 2017 has been for Real Madrid. This is football people - and in football, we measure time by ‘seasons’, not by calendar year. To be endlessly talking about what a great 2017 Real Madrid had reeks of propaganda. Perhaps that’s the good part of the new year: that we can finally move on out of this phase where the club has been in denial over how awful Real Madrid has been since September.
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Squad Building: Pride Before the Fall
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I am of the view that missing out on the signing of Kylian Mbappe was a catastrophic error on the part of Real Madrid.

After convincing wins in 2 Supercups against Barcelona and Manchester United, Madridisimo had been bursting with pride. Not only did we have a team that won the Champions League back-to-back for the first time (with 3 in 4 years), the club also seemed to have emerged as a model for squad development. We had a bonafide world super star who won yet another Balon D’ Or, after peaking at the season’s business end (following an agreement to be rested during stretches of the season) and he was surrounded by a starting XI of players who were all among the world’s best in their positions. And to top it all off, we boasted to having the best group of young reserves in our bench all ready to take over.
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On the other side of the divide, we sneered at Barca’s aging squad, their loss of form (Suarez), the loss of one of their superstars (Neymar), their decision to overpay (by a LOT) for an exciting young prospect (Dembele), their failure to land their primary target (Coutinho) and their having to settle for a Premier League bust plying his trade in China (Paulinho).
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Fast forward to today, following his recovery from injury, Dembele is now back playing again, Paulinho has turned into a good player for them… and they’ve just signed Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool. They have now regrouped with a starting XI as good as any in world football. And did I mention that they have a 16-point lead at the top of the La Liga table?
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Looking at ourselves in the mirror, we stacked the world’s best midfield with Spain’s best youngsters: Dani Ceballos and Marcos Llorente, allowing the 2 to mostly rot on the bench (or in the stands!). While upfront, we sat on our laurels, allowing both our 2nd and 3rd choice strikers Alvaro Morata and Mariano to leave, contented for the 2 to be replaced a youngster returning from a largely unproductive loan spell in Wolfsburg (2 goals in 21 mostly bit-part appearances). And when the opportunity came to sign the world’s best young striker (Kylian Mbappe), many arrogantly believed: “he wouldn’t have had a chance to play in our team anyway!”, “why upset Ronaldo by paying him a high salary when we don’t really need him?” it wasn’t just complacency, it wasn’t just pride, it was arrogance.
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The Players’ Disease: Fat Cat Syndrome
Apart from the arrogance of believing in our squad’s invincibility, the players who remained also began to contract the Champions’ disease: “Fat Cat Syndrome.” I’m not suggesting that our boys have become willfully lazy. Fat Cat Syndrome mostly operates in the subconsciousness: less 1% here, 2% there… results in the loss of that all-important extra 5-10% you get out of sheer hunger, and when you multiply that across an entire squad, the drop, though minimal, makes a difference.
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Coaching Blues: Unpaid Faith and Clunky Tactics
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Is it blind faith in the players and his system? Is it towing the company line? Or is it all Zidane knows to do as a coach?

Zinedine Zidane is not only the reason why I am a Real Madrid fan, he is also the reason why I am a football fan. It is for this reason that I tread with much care and conflict (in my heart) as I examine what’s gone wrong with the team’s coaching). I see 2 critical and related issues that’s wrong with the team set up.
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The first is his seemingly blind faith in his players. I understand that Zidane is no tactical master. That he is, for the most part, a man manager, a superstar-whisperer. In his first season and a half, the combination of his motivational ability together with his faith in his players, had paid massive dividends. It was a positive cycle: Superstar players agreed to be rotated for recovery purposes while hungry youngsters eager to prove did the job. This in turn made the superstars buck up even more, taking full advantage of their rest days to turn in triple-A performances when called upon.
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Bereft of quality depth across the squad (except midfield), there has been no antidote to the fat cat syndrome. Without Pepe, Ramos and Varane are now 100% sure they will play unless injured or suspended. With Bale injured and without Morata, Cristiano and Benzema can look Zidane in the eye and tell him ‘we’re your ONLY chance of scoring in this game’. To make things worse, the midfield has seen little rotation (those on social media will know the #FreeCeballos movement). The result is a negative cycle instead: starters with fat cat syndrome enjoying the coach’s blind faith with reserves resigned to not getting their chance which magnifies and reinforces the Fat Cat Syndrome.
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Injuries (Bale) and blind faith have also resulted in tactics where the coach relies on his ‘chosen ones’ to win them the game, rather than a good hard look at the how the team performs tactically. We are now playing solely to win on talent. Playing a midfield diamond with Casemiro, Kroos, Modric and Isco with a front 2 of Benzema and the 2017-2018 version of Cristiano Ronaldo (who can be beaten by Atleti’s Juanfran in a sprint), offers too much of the same thing: endless possession, a slow tempo with a midfield clusterfuck and an over-reliance on the fullbacks to provide width and penetration. There was a time when the most frightening thing to see in world football was a Real Madrid counterattack. Those days are gone. Without Bale, there is no one capable of running into space to receive an outlet ball, beat defenders on 1-on1s, or suck multiple defenders. All we do now is an endless drone of (mostly) sideways passing, relying solely on fullbacks to provide penetration and making them extra vulnerable on the counter. .
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Finding a Path Forward
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The time has come for us to accept that the era of the BBC has come to an end

Though La Liga is lost, the season isn’t. There is an achievable consolation prize remaining (Copa Del Rey) and a month to prepare for Neymar and Mbappe’s visit for the Champions League. The path forward is in the hands of those in the club. For Uncle Flo and his men-in-suits to work those phones for the summer transfer window... For the players to wake the hell up, shed the arrogance, and play with the hunger that the shirt demands… and for Zizou remove the rose-tinted glasses he views his ‘scared cows’ with.
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On the pitch, as controversial as it may be, I’d like to see ZZ try a lineup where only 3 out of Casemiro, Kroos, Modric and Isco gets to play. Yes, I said it: I would like to see ZZ try having one of Kroos, Isco or Modric on the bench for each game. It is my opinion that the team’s ability to dominate possession and control the tempo of the game will not be greatly diminished if one of them were on the bench. And with the objective of giving the team more penetration and verticality, the time has also come for Ronaldo to learn to play without his personal assistant (Benzema). The now-slower and pace-less Ronaldo should instead be played with Bale (who hopefully can keep himself fit) and the young Asensio.
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In the boardroom, it is time for Uncle Flo and his men-in-suits to plan for the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era. The first to go sadly ought to be his loyal assistant Benzema. When Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in 2009, apart from being a goalscoring monster, he was a pacy and explosive dribbling wizard. Karim Benzema was the perfect partner: an unselfish, technical, intelligent and cultured forward. 9 years later, without his pace and explosiveness, the job description for Cristiano Ronaldo’s assistant has drastically changed - rendering Benzema redundant. His virtues and tendencies have contributed to the current ‘too much of the same thing’ tactical malaise of the team. Without pace, incisiveness, physical power and natural goalscoring ability, Benzema fails to offer anything that the team is currently in short supply of.
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With regards to Ronaldo, while acknowledging his greatness, it also is time to admit that his current contract with Madrid ought to be his last. And should a suitable place to depart to is found, it is my opinion that moving his massive wages off the books would be the wise move too. Since the beginning of the 2017-2018 season, Cristiano Ronaldo has not done anything on the pitch to demonstrate that he deserves to be on the same pay bracket as Messi and Neymar. Though this may sound like blasphemy to Real Madrid and Cristiano fans, this is also the truth.
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It is also not lost on me that I contradict myself when I identify Gareth Bale’s play as the key to salvage something from the season and yet say that if a good offer comes, that he too, should be allowed to leave. I have also said many times that Gareth Bale is Kaka v2.0: a wonderful player because of his directness and explosiveness, whose time at the top will come to an end as soon as the jets leave his legs. With his injury history, and with the age of 30 coming soon for him, a suitable offer must be sought and accepted for him in the summer window.
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If you haven’t figured it out just yet, it is my opinion that Real Madrid move on from the BBC. It brought us a Copa Del Rey, a La Liga title and 3 Champions League titles. Yet the writing is on the wall - there are very few things left for us to achieve with the team built around them.
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New Beginnings
In the world of new emerging powers in football (PSG, Pep’s Man City, even more Premier League money), the thought of imagining a post-Cristiano Ronaldo Real Madrid (a team that may still involve him, but not necessarily built around him) is a terrifying but necessary one. It is my opinion that we have now reached a point where we need to choose between mindlessly harking back to past glories, or fearlessly facing the world, looking into its eyes and accepting the realities of today for what they really are. It is time for new beginnings. After all, it is a new year.

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