Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Are you Almeria in Disguise?

That was better than sex. Or at least as good. I’m not certain. The last 20 minutes were certainly afterglow, the contentment of a job well done after Barca had plundered the net repeatedly. The Catalan sports dailies both agree, dubbing this Barca the Orgasm Team.

In retrospect, Real Madrid were beaten when Jose Mourinho announced in the lead-up to the match that Real needed to give the world a show. Since when have Mourinho’s teams ever been able to do that? Jose has shown the ability to do one thing right against the Blaugrana: park the bus. Using super-aggressive tactics, his Chelsea side escaped with a 2-1 defeat in 2005 that they were able to turn into a second leg win. Likewise, his Inter side scraped through with a 1-0 defeat last May using the same approach. When Real’s lineup contained “only” two anchor midfielders – Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira, neither of whom are true Makeleles – they were done. From the outset, Barca heaped pressure on Los Merengues because Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets had time on the ball in the center. That time allowed them to pick out the three Barca forwards. It even allowed Xavi to make a run himself to put away Iniesta’s pass for the opener. I was expecting Real to play a tight backline with assistance from a midfield three and one forward dropping back. Instead, Real got stretched and Barca punished them time and again. This game was 5-0 and it could have been ten. Ray Hudson was raving by the end that it is unfair to compare this Barca side to the Zico-Socrates-Falcao ‘82 Brazil side, or any other team in history for that matter. The performance was that good.

The indispensible Michael Cox of Zonal Marking makes several excellent, specific points about the tactical decisions that turned the match into a massacre:

Mourinho started the game with his wingers on the opposite flanks to usual – Ronaldo out on the right and Angel di Maria on the left, presumably to work around the problem of Real defending against Dani Alves, as Di Maria is the better defensive player. Whilst Mourinho is generally a reactionary manager anyway, in a sense Guardiola had won the first battle of the match without a ball being kicked, since Mourinho felt the need to play his most dangerous player somewhere other than the position where he had been turning in incredible performances so far this campaign.

Ronaldo is not alien to the right wing, of course – it is the position where he established himself at Manchester United. However, Mourinho is clearly a fan of stability – he’s changed his starting XI as little as possible so far this season, and considering how well Ozil (who plays left-of-centre) links up with Ronaldo, breaking up that combination was a surprise, and was (a small) part of the reason why Ozil wasn’t very effective in this game. There’s also an argument that Ronaldo playing high up the pitch on the right indirectly opened up space on the flank for Iniesta, who often moved to Barca’s left.

Far be it from me to ever defend Cristiano Ronaldo, but this game was a little unfair as a referendum in the debate as to whether Ronaldo or Messi is the best player on the planet. (We resolved this a while ago, didn’t we?) Ronaldo was reduced a pile of useless tricks, a shove at Pep Guardiola, and one instance of penalty box theatrics. Carles Puyol put Ronaldo on a leash and took him for a stroll, not unlike the 2008 Champions League Final. (Having a center back who can play as a right or left back is a huge advantage. Puyol played on the outside of the back three and was able to run with Ronaldo all day. A conventional center back would get eaten alive in open space by Ronaldo.) That said, Ronaldo had precious little support. He was decoupled from Ozil, who was totally absent from the match, and he got very little from the midfield or the fullbacks. When Ronaldo had the ball, he either didn’t have options in the form of intelligent runs from Benzema and Di Maria or he didn’t pick those runs out. (I’m leaning towards the former.) In contrast, Messi got service from his midfield and Villa kept popping up in dangerous spots. Thus, Messi had a major impact on the game without scoring in that he assisted on the third and fourth goals. The game underlined the point that Messi is a far better passer than Ronaldo. Real didn’t quite know how to handle him, which was a surprise after Mourinho was able to use Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso to shackle their countryman in last year’s Champions League semifinal. Cox makes this point:

Sometimes you simply cannot stop Messi. How could Real have done it? Well, they could have used another holding player, and the introduction of Lassana Diarra for Ozil at half-time was nothing more or less than the obvious – an admission Mourinho got his starting line-up wrong. Against truly top-class opposition, especially a team playing a player ‘in the hole’ (as Messi often was, despite nominally playing as a forward), Alonso as the deepest midfield doesn’t work – he is neither particularly mobile nor a good tackler, and needs an enforcer alongside him. The Champions League final of 2005 showed that particularly well.

So Mourinho is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, part of Real’s failing tonight was that their offside trap was totally ineffective and they can remedy that issue simply by playing more games together. (This explanation isn’t entirely convincing because Ricardo Carvalho is the only new member of the back line, but he was the weak link tonight.) On the other hand, Mourinho cannot play for a draw when the teams meet again in Madrid on April 16. The fans at the Bernabeu will not stand for negative tactics as that will be an admission that Real cannot go toe-to-toe with their arch-rival. (Then again, this point is patently obvious. Barca have won five in a row against Real by a margin of 16-2 and haven’t conceded in over 300 minutes against Franco’s favorite team.) Moreover, if Barca come into the game with the lead in La Liga, then Real will have to go for the win. Can Real play the tighter, more defensive style that appears to be their only hope against the Blaugrana and still go for the win? Is the answer no more complicated than that Real don’t have the same defensive personnel as Inter? Jose can take a trip to the local theatre to ponder.

As for Barca, this win answers a number of questions. Will David Villa fit in with his new team? Two goals and an assist say yes. Will Pep figure out his best XI? I’d say that the unit tonight will be the starters in crunch matches going forward, especially because Abidal provides defensive balance opposite Dani Alves. (Note that Javier Mascherano is not part of the preferred XI. I still don’t know why Barca spent so much on a guy who provides depth behind Busquets.) Can the youngsters fill out the bench? Jeffren’s coup de grace goal set up by Bojan is a good sign. Will the boardroom political fighting between the Laporta and Rosell factions undermine the team? Maybe someday, but that day is not today. Can Xavi’s Achilles tendon hold up? Time will tell, but he looked great tonight. Will Mourinho’s move to La Liga unsettle the team? Eh, seems unlikely.

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