Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Need to Grow: The 2011-2012 Season Was Great But...

Real Madrid, the first team to reach 100 points; We have the most league wins in a season with 32 out of 38, breaking the previously held record of 31 wins by Barcelona's; We scored the most number of goals away from home in la liga history with 51 goals; Not to mention the 121 goals we scored in total- most number of goals scored by a Spanish team in one season in La Liga history. The stats are endless but do they tell the complete story?

I'd hate to burst the Madridista bubble, but a good number of these stats are inflated. The fact that we reached a historical one hundred points is very impressive- we should be proud. However, ignoring the sad state of the league would be rather delusional of us. When Cristiano Ronaldo broke the record for most number of goals scored in one league season, it was hard to envisage anyone (including himself) breaking that record. Fast-forward 12 months later, and Messi has crushed the record by ten goals; Ronaldo beat it by 6. This is not to say that there is no quality in the league, but most teams cannot afford to have squads deep enough to compete on more than one front. Next season, I fully expect one of Real Madrid or Barca to beat the 100 point mark.

But back to Real Madrid... Here we will try to analyze what we did well this season and what we failed at, however few.

I would be stating the obvious by saying we had no problems scoring goals. Even when we got knocked out at the hands of Barcelona from the Copa Del Rey, we manged 3 goals over two legs. Against Bayern, we managed 3. 121 league goals speak for themselves. Even more impressive was that it was not a case of bullying small teams and struggling against the big ones. We won at every "big" stadium, and in most cases scoring more than one goal. In terms of taking chances and scoring goals, we were an example for the rest of Spain, and Europe.

Our pass completion rate increased from 83.2% in 2011, to 85% in 2012- a clear sign of improvement in a part of the beautiful game that has evolved over the past few years. Long balls are frowned on, and short passes lauded. But in a desperate attempt to not crack a Xavi joke at this juncture, I will go ahead to add that our improved pass completion rate has not had enough of an impact on another important facet of our game. This brings me to my next point:

Pep Guardiola brought with him, a new way of seeing the game of football. Whether your average "Pep critic" is willing to accept this or not, the former Barcelona coach and player revolutionized certain aspects of the sport, some of which included the emphasis on short passes and an obsession with possession. A football team's performance is no longer judged on solely the number of goals scored (which incidentally is the only stat that really matters), but on the style of play, which usually involves how well they kept possession. Seeing as Real Madrid has traditionally been viewed as an attack-minded team, Mourinho was faced with the task of yielding to modern day tactics, and getting the results. In 2011 the team averaged 56.3% in possession, which increased to 58.8% this season. Good improvement, but not quite good enough. Against some of the "big" teams we struggled to keep the ball for sustained periods of time. At home to Malaga, we managed a mere 47% ball possession; Barcelona reduced us to just 28% Ball Possession; Away to Athletic Bilbao we managed 49%; and over two legs against Bayern we averaged 45% of the possession. The possession based system is also the new way to defend. Since keeping good possession of the ball involves staying compact as a team, and utilizing spaces effectively, it tends to rub off on the team defensively. Defending was not Real Madrid's forte this season, and to compete against some of the best in Europe, it is imperative that the team improves. If the system is going to evolve next season we will need to address this issue. But to solve it we have to know what the problem is in the first place:

Tactics vs Fatigue:
How much of our inability to hold the ball for sustained periods of time was down to the coach's orders and possibly ignorance, or just fatigue? From the end of March until the penultimate game of the season against Granada, the boys played more than a game a week-  with fixtures that were sure to wear them down. Did Mourinho intentionally make the players defend deep and reduce their tempo to conserve energy for the more important games? There was an obvious drop in energy during this period as was evident against the likes of Rayo Vallecano, Real Betis, Malaga, Villarreal, and the like. We narrowly survived the first two thanks to individual brilliance but we were not so lucky against the latter two. The "broken press" as Micheal Cox of Zonal Marking calls it, was something we saw very often with Real Madrid this season. It happens when the forward players are asked to press high up the pitch while our central midfielders and defenders sit deep. This season it often led to embarrassing amounts of space in the middle of the pitch for opponents to work with, which in turn led to poor ball possession and overwhelming of our CMs. A clear example of the Coach's tactics gone wrong.

Conventional belief states that the problem is the formation; that the double pivot does not leave enough players in the middle of the pitch to control play or even defend. I would disagree. Apart from Barcelona, most of the other possession-based teams play a double-pivot: Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and Arsenal, to name a few. However what most of these teams have that we don't is discipline.

4-2-3-1 vs 4-3-3 
With the speed of our play, and the number of goals we racked up this season, I would advise against a complete restructuring of our formation by switching to a 4-3-3. This will compromise our speed on the break. That speed happens to be one of the main strengths of our current group of our players.  

I sat down to re-watch the Borussia Dortmund-Bayern Munich German cup final to see what it was that Die Borussen have done so well to enable them dominate Bayern Munich consistently (They've beaten them 5 times in a row now). What struck me was the way they defended. Every time they lost the ball, they dropped deep and covered spaces, countering Bayern every time they dared to cross the half way line. Dortmund played a 4-2-3-1 formation with Gundogan and Kehl as the CMs. To illustrate the strengths of a properly executed 4-2-3-1 formation defensively, I took a screen photo of Borussia's shape at the 45:24 minute mark; a point where they had to defend against one of Bayerns attacks.

Good execution of the 4231 formation defensively
It must be said that for all the praise Jurgen Klopp gets for his possession football, they are actually an effective counter attacking team. When Philip Lahm proclaimed that despite the scoreline his side were the better of the two, football fans wondered how they had missed the news of Xavi signing for Bayern. However, having watched that game twice now, the skipper actually had a point. Borussia countered well but a good number of their goals came down to luck. But their defending was excellent.
At the 45:24 minute mark (as seen above) Kroos lays off the ball to Lahm, who's guarded by Schmelzer, then Kroos makes a dashing run forward, but is tracked by Gundogan. Kehl runs to support Schmelzer in guarding Lahm. Notice that both central midfielders have already been dragged out of position so naturally there should be wide open space in the middle for Bayern to work with. No, Kagawa drops deep to occupy the space between Robben and Gustavo, thereby limiting Bayerns passing options. Eventually Lahm finds Robben who then has to make a long diagonal pass to find Ribery, but the pass is intercepted by Piszczek; they counter, and Lewandowski gets Borussia's third goal of the night.
The problem with having super stars is that often times they lack discipline, and efforts to forcefully instill that discipline in them could prove counter-productive- Point and case AVB at Chelsea. For the double pivot to work, our forward players must be willing drop deep and cover up space especially when both of the central midfielders (Alonso-Khedira) are drawn out of position either by wingers or due to our full backs being outnumbered. Ozil should be able to drop deep in such instances and cover spaces. Ronaldo and Benzema should not be too high up the pitch either. Whoever is playing the No. 9 role could be the highest of the front 4 to be prepared for counter attacks, but ideally the remaining three should be behind the half way line when the opponents have found their way into our own half of the pitch. The key is to defend as a team and be compact. To actually have possession of the ball, we must win it back, and the way we win it back is crucial to how likely we are to keep it. The problem with the broken press is that when the ball is won back, the midfielders are outnumbered, and in cases where they are composed enough to actually hold on to the ball, they are faced with the task of making a long pass to one of the forward men. As was mentioned earlier, Borussia's defending directly led to their third goal of the night. It was due to the fact that their compactness gave them viable outlets when they eventually won the ball back.

 There is a reason Barcelona has consistently conceded the least number of goals for the past three seasons or so. They win the ball back quickly and effectively. In fact, the purists prefer Pedro to Fabregas as part of the forward three, for this reason. Pedro has the speed to close down players which Cesc does not have. The way Barcelona defended under Pep was different from the example I gave of Borussia in the sense that the Spaniards defended much higher up the pitch, but the similarity in both methods is the compactness. We tend to lack that compactness when we defend.  There's an obvious oversimplification of things here, but the main point remains that for this team to evolve, they must be willing to learn and adapt. Mourinho is often criticized for being a defensive coach; a reputation he has done well crush so far at Madrid, but this is where he should make his money. Great season we had, but he must figure our a way to grow this team, not just statistically, but in our style of play.It will be fascinating to see what changes he makes this summer in terms of buying, selling and promoting players.

The 4-3-3 is an option, but not exactly a solution. The concept of "having more bodies in the middle" hasn't exactly worked out on the few occasions that we employed that strategy. Against Valencia at the Mestalla we had no control of the middle whatsoever, and the same was the case against Malaga, at home. I would also mention that when we lost by 5 goals to zero against Barca, our switching to a 4-3-3 in the second half did not exactly help matters as we conceded 3 of the 5 goals during that period. "If it ain't broken don't fix it". In our case we have a crack that needs to be patched up by way of closer attention to detail, and adaptability on the path of the coach; and discipline on the path of the players.

"Barcelona is living the dream, but when they wake up, Real Madrid will be waiting"- Jorge Valdano's eloquent words in reference to Barcelona's dominance. But we must realize that this works both ways. It was exhilarating to see the boys celebrate the 32nd after such a long, and often times, heart-wrenching season. The team worked hard all season long and got its just reward, but we will be competing with Barcelona again next season. Losing the league to us will have rejuvenated their hunger and thirst for blood. We will also be facing tougher opposition in Europe with the likes of Juventus, Man City, and Borussia coming into the competitions stronger than ever. It is for this reason that we have to grow and evolve. The 2011-2012 season was great but... we must improve.

Hala Madrid

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