Archive for September, 2010

Master Tactician Alex Ferguson comes out of the Mestalla with a 1-0 win.

I grew up in an era of attacking football. Being a Real Madrid and La Liga supporter, I had the privilege of seeing Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Raul, and Ronaldo playing together and picking teams apart with no mercy; while their relinquished defence saw the ball go into their net on a few occasions. They never seemed bothered when they let in goals. Their philosophy was one that read ‘We’ll just score more goals than you’.

That same era we witnessed the ‘Super Depor’ team which had Juan Carlos Valeron, Djalminha, Mauro Silva, and Diego Tristan. It was a team that beat Milan 4-0 and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League to play another entertaining La Liga team at the time, Valencia. That era was the most dominant that La Liga has ever been in Europe and one that was pleasing to the eye. It seemed like ‘Joga Bonito’ had stamped out ‘negative football’ for good.

Football goes through phases. The era of flair and gung-ho offence is dormant for the time being. In the past year, we’ve seen defensive football emerge from it’s slumber (it was actually always there, but not everyone used it, and it wasn’t always successful).

Last season we thought Barca was unstoppable. And then we realized that the only way to beat them was to pressure them high and keep the defensive shell compact. That’s exactly what happened the two times they were conquered last season. Rubin Kazan did it in the Camp Nou in the group stages of the Champions League (ironically, they held Barca to a 1-1 draw today in similar fashion), and then Jose Mourinho came to the Camp ‘Mou’ and played some of the most unattractive yet efficient games of football I have seen to knock Barca out of the Champions League.

One month later, Vicente Del Bosque and Spain started their quest for their 1st ever World Cup trophy. La Seleccion this year is virtually Barca 2.0. It’s literally FC Barcelona plus Casillas, Ramos, Alonso, and Capdevila. The amazing thing is that Del Bosque took this team and totally changed it from the style of play that Pep Guardiola has Barca playing. He dropped Torres, and inserted a second DM -Xabi Alonso- to accompany Sergio Busquets. A simple switch that completely changes the system. Spain went from being an attacking team, to one that builds and solidifies at the back while trying to snatch a goal somewhere and then killing the game off with their possession.

Needless to say, La Roja went on to win the World Cup with a team that focused more on defensive stability than attack. This was evident as they won their last 4 games of the tournament by 1-0.

Mourinho - Impressive at the back

Jose Mourinho has Real Madrid playing more defense than they’re used to, but it seems to be working. Last night Mourinho decided to play with three defensive midfielders – Lass, Alonso, Khedira – against 17th placed Ligue 1 side Auxerre. A formation that is unheard of in Real Madrid. Mourinho’s philosophy is one that emphasizes defensive organization. To his defence -no pun intended-, Real Madrid has been playing the best defence I have ever seen them play, and although they aren’t scoring as much, I’m sure the goals will come eventually. They have to. Especially when you have Higuain, Benzema, Cristiano, Ozil, Di Maria, Pedro Leon, and Canales in attack.

My only criticism of Mourinho thus far is his obsession with playing Karim Benzema at the right wing position. It’s a position that destines Benzema to failure. He’s most lethal when he’s closest to goal, and at that position he occupies valuable space that Di Maria and Ozil could be filling. I’m sure Eto’o understands Benzema’s frustration with his comment today after his hat-trick and Inter’s 4-0 win over Werder Bremen:

“I’m happy to win as a striker after winning as a defender last season,”

And finally, a surprising ending happened at the Mestalla today as Manchester United grabbed a 1-0 win over Valencia. After literally attacking Manu for 80 minutes and coming close to scoring on several occasions, they found themselves losing the match after Manchester finally broke out of their defensive shell late to score the only goal of the game. If there ever was a ‘perfect game’, Sir Alex came pretty close today. He had United lined up fantastic defensively and Valencia found it hard to penetrate the great partnership of Ferdinand and Vidic. The more Valencia pushed, the more Manchester absorbed, and just when it looked like Valencia might score, Ferguson came up with two genius substitutions bringing on youngsters Javier Fernandez and Federico Macheda. The later was the architect who set-up Fernandez for the winning goal. It was a lovely move that can be seen here.

So what is the answer? Is a defensive approach more efficacious than an attacking approach? There is no clear answer. What’s evident is that football goes through phases and different coaches are successful with different tactics. That’s the beautiful thing about football, every team plays differently and some of the most beautiful matches can come from two teams who have completely contrasting styles of play.

Defensive football = Attacking football.

Looks promising. These kids don’t always live up to it, but here’s to hoping.

Always Humble.

With each passing game, Real Madrid’s new looking team looks better and better. After a disappointing draw in their opening La Liga game against Mallorca and an under-performing home victory over Osasuna over the weekend, Los Blancos are finally starting to pull the strings together after completely dismantling Ajax in their opening Champions League group stage game.

For the first time in years we witnessed watching Real Madrid play the brand of football that we’ve come to expect from them. Madrid were able to create chance after chance without being bothered the least bit at the back.

The signing of Mesut Özil could prove to be one of Perez’s best signings ever if he continues his magnificent run of form. Ozil has been Real Madrid’s best player this season and has adapted impressively and instantly to his surroundings. His elegance with the ball reminds us of a younger version of Kaka, and his unselfish play makes him click easily with other team-mates.

Had Real Madrid had their finishing boots on, this game would’ve ended up much more lob-sided on the score sheet. Out of all people who missed the net so frequently, it was the main galactico Cristiano Ronaldo who wasted the most chances. It was a frustrating match for Cristiano. And as Cristiano tends to do, his desire to grab a goal became more desperate, and only seemed to make things worse.

Another player who didn’t have his finishing boots on tonight was Di Maria who missed a couple criminal chances. He started off sluggish but grew confident as the match went on and was a key contributor to Madrid’s second goal with a flick over the Ajax defence to set-up Ozil, who eventually set up Higuain who finally got over his Champions League slump.

The most impressive aspect of Real Madrid 2010/2011 under Mourinho though is the organization within the team. In three games, Real Madrid has hardly looked threatened at the back. They’ve been able to defend masterfully without parking the bus. They do so by attacking teams, keeping possession, and being tactically very organized. The combination of Khedira and Alonso in the middle has looked very harmonized so far. They both move without the ball tremendously, close down spaces quickly, and retain and maintain possession masterfully. The addition of Ricardo Carvalho has also been immense. Carvalho and Pepe form a great parternship at the heart of Real Madrid’s defence.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Kaka comes back. If he can return to the Kaka of old – which remains unlikely – then we could see an incredible quartet of Cristiano-Ozil-Kaka-Higuain. The depth that Real Madrid has in attack is truely one of the best in football today with Pedro Leon, Canales, Benzema and Kaka/Di Maria off the bench.

Having said all that, the season is young and it’s still pre-mature to judge if this team really has what it takes to take hold of ‘La Decima’. We’ve seen Real Madrid beat teams 5-0 in September for the past couple years only to see them fade away as the season went on. However with all the young talent they have and Mourinho as a motivator; this is a very promising season for Real Madrid.

To Golden Goal or not to Golden Goal?

FIFA can’t seem to be able to make up their mind about the golden goal rule. It was a rule that was introduced at Euro ’96 which meant that that team who scored the 1st goal in extra-time of a knockout game would automatically win the match and advance to the next round. A crude way of losing which Italy found out the hard way in the Euro 2000 final:

By 2004, the golden goal rule was completely scrapped. The reason being that it ‘promoted’ defensive football as both teams would stay safe and avoid being scored on before the penalty shoot-out after 120 minutes.

And now, after 6 years and a sup-bar World Cup in South Africa (during the group stages anyway); Sepp Blatter is considering re-introducing the golden goal rule.

Blatter wants more goals. That is evident. But his view is misrepresented and his plans are untenable. His concern seems to be directed at critics from non-football fans who deem the sport boring. Although the World Cup in South Africa started off quite sluggish, it was transformed dramatically into a tournament of incitement and turmoil.

Aside from being a World Cup which saw a new champion, the tournament will be remembered for its controversy, drama, and bad officiating rather than its aridity. It’s an area of concern which Blatter should focus more on instead of of tinkering with the unbroken rules of the game. We need goal-line technology. It’s time to stop living in Di Stefano’s era and time to start bringing ourselves in line with modern thinking:  Hence taking advantage of technology that is there to be used. It’s much more important to have a fair outcome, than an exciting outcome.

Whether we like it or not, there is absolutely nothing wrong with defensive football. It’s a style of play and a strategy that suits certain teams more than others. The World can’t expect every team to play like Spain, Argentina, and Brazil (my apologies if your country wasn’t on this list). Every team plays to its strengths.  Some are strong in attack, and some are strong at the back. What’s evident is that the game is always changing and tacticians are becoming more masterful at what they do. As much as some people enjoy ‘Tiki-Taka’ Spanish football more than Catenaccio football; I must admit that I always enjoyed the way Nesta and Cannavaro made defending look like an art for Italy.

I’m not particularly against the golden goal rule. However, if Blatter wants to promote attacking football over defensive football, bringing back this rule will not entice teams to come out of their defensive shell just because they have to score first before the penalty shootout.