Friday, April 17, 2009

The pepper at the gates of dawn

Posted by A Spaniard in the works, Bangalore

Real have missed many tricks once again. It is that time of the season when a fan looks back and sees if the optimism and excitement at the start of the season was worth all the trouble. Time and again, we have fallen due to the same set of weaknesses and have ended up looking like a bland dish served cold. It is time that we admit our shortcomings and work towards spicing things up so that it leaves a taste in our imagination. Hence the weird title. I also hope that next season can be the start of a new beginning.

Us and Them
Football is like no other game in the world. It has an unparalleled worldwide audience due to an air of approachability. Most sports are very inward looking- i.e. they believe that people who have played the game at the highest level are only fit to be involved with it. For example, in cricket, some of the old timers (my uncles in my family) have a problem with, say, when someone like a Ravi Shastri has something to say about technique. They ridicule him for not having been a player worth his salt in his day and now having the nerve to talk about players who are much better than him. I must warn a reader that Ravi Shastri is just a placeholder in the previous sentence. It could apply to any pundit. Cricket is very inward looking and it is cultured that way. Many sports have such attitudes. In fact, cricket is finding it very difficult to get commentators that will be taken seriously by armchair critics around the world. There are no new faces to fill the voids left by giants like Richie Benaud. On the other hand, football is a unique game. The manager is also a very important element in the game. What is surprising to note is that football does not have such pretentiousness. There are very few world class managers (a handful) in the game who have been the world's best players in their era. Good players do not necessarily make good managers. This is an important as it draws more fans to the game and also leads to unnecessary clashes with rival fans who claim they are more knowledgeable. The other side of the coin, as one may call it. Football is the perfect blend of individual artistry and team ethic. This has also agreed with many political philosophies and also contributed to its widespread popularity. A capitalist nation would identify with individual talent- it only seems natural that they believe in a pecking order; the communist nations respected the team ethic as it represented proletarian values- the backbone of their system.

Since there are multiple ways of looking at the same picture, there are variations as to how the game is played in various countries and how the fans approach it. In Spain, we see showboating on a regular basis. Spain as a nation respects individual ability. The fans have to be won over before they start cheering for a home team. A rival player with a good move would be appreciated and very often, we have seen jeering of our own players and also cheering for the opposition team. Teams are a bit slow to close down. A good goal is necessary to get the crowd moving- mazy runs and no recollection of where the play started in the first place- much like the plot of Memento. On the other hand, in England, the teams follow a team approach. The fans are behind the team from the first minute. The football is very direct and played at a frenetic pace- reliant on long balls. Every home attempt is cheered- even a misplaced cross to row Z! I am not a huge fan of this method, but it does have its own advantages. It helps the team to settle quickly. I have lost count of the number of times that English supporters have egged their teams for a response and that percolates to even small time clubs like Barnsley. That is the sort of romanticism that is associated with the FA cup. The reason why I raised this point is that it might be worth considering what attitude we fans must take towards our own players. The Santiago Bernabeu was a fortress in its time and now in the past few years it has resembled an incontinent elderly person- leaking at the first sign of pressure. The first task that Juande Ramos has to do is to get back the respect of the Bernabeu (with the help of the fans, of course). During his time at Sevilla, he did make the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan a scary place to visit. Sevilla three seasons ago were a free wheeling team that would throw the kitchen sink at the opposition in their backyard.

Run like hell or Learning to fly?
Football is cyclic in nature and the various tactics have been slow to evolve. Earlier, the leagues had a lot of local players and as a result, the continental competitions had a bit of nationalism attached to it. Today's football clubs are more like corporations- Liverpool had more Spanish players playing compared to Real. But, it is one of the major advantages of exposure nowadays. In the old times, Latin American teams were known for technical ability and European teams were known for physical ability. Nowadays, the gap has gone down. The clubs are more multicultural nowadays and it exposes players to different conditions. The Brazilian team today is a lot more physical than what it was sometime back. They are not afraid to bring down a player- tactical fouling. Players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kaka, Tevez, Messi all have bulked up in terms of physique to handle the physical conditions of Europe. So, for Real's own benefit, we need players like Higuain and Gago to be able to compete physically with some of the best players in the world. Like it or not, today's game is played with a lot more pace and power compared to the older days. The average football player in an average football game runs around six to eight kilometres today, compared to around three to five twenty five years back. As a result, we see athletes peaking a lot earlier. The Spanish league was known to get players from Latin American countries due to language, cultural and climatic similarities and hence had a distinctly technical flavour to it. But, the game has changed in ten years time. The English league has come a long way from being a joke in the late nineties. It was a matter of ridicule that nobody had won the World player of the year until Ronaldo did last year. The English league is more open to foreigners. It is without a doubt, the most diverse league in the world. But, it does have its own pitfalls. One reason that was attributed for the failure of English and Spanish teams to win any major international competition was that the players were too fussy to move abroad. With the exception of Steve McMananam, David Beckham and Owen Hargreaves, no other English player plied his trade outside his country when he could still offer a lot to the game in the last ten years. Is it surprising that Spain winning the Euro has come at the same time that many Spaniards have moved over to greener pastures at the EPL? It also helps that there are successful managers of different nationalities which can be a factor in getting overseas players.The English league has a lot of money due to investments from foreigners and this has been channelled to get players from different nations, more so at the cost of promoting their own players. This matter is worth another debate.

One more approach that has resulted due to the English league is the heavy work rate. Players with pace have an inherent advantage in that league & players who are no more in their physical peak like Deco or Shevchenko have little to offer. Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko had expressed their reactions about the frightening pace of the English premier league. Closing down by everybody is mandatory and also, creative freedom is a luxury. It is this high tempo direct approach that has set the ball rolling for the EPL now. Skill and technique come into the game once it is slowed down. The EPL teams are now dominating the apparent skill deficiency with increasing the tempo. This is something that the continental teams are yet to come to grips with. Football, despite all the arguments of it being a team sport, it is still the players ahead of defence that claim most of the headlines- as there is no other statistic in the game itself that can compete with a goal in terms of importance and outcome of the match. But, of late, the anchorman in midfield has been given the spotlight. This position being one of the most ridiculed positions in world football for being least technical is now, in my opinion, the most game changing due to the high work rate. Players like Mascherano, Lass, Essien, Gattuso are all respected for their abilities to heckle the opposition players into giving the ball. This has crept into other positions as well. One of the casualties of this tactic is that very few players have creative freedom. The role of a winger is almost erased from the books of football. WIngers are viewed as luxury elements as they do not necessarily defend. Even if a team plays with them, it is more of a 4-5-1 approach like the Netherlands or with false wingers like Barcelona with a safety first approach. The width is more or less brought by a fullback. Wide midfielders are expected to track back and defend and clog the centre of the pitch rather than go down the line, outside a fullack and pull in one of the most dangerous passes in the game. How many genuine world class wingers are there in the game today? Just make a list of them and you know exactly why this has happened.

Maybe Real need to approach the game in a way that Barcelona does- use wide midfielders who play as false wingers. These are players who play off the wrong foot and essential cut inside for a pass. We have tried it before. Just that our approach fails as Robben and Higuain, Sneijder are not as comfortable with the ball like Messi and Iniesta. They are equally adept at going outside and inside of a full back. On the other hand, Robben has a heavy bias towards his left foot. It makes it that much easier to defend against him. Figo was the last true winger whom we had. Robben is yet to learn crossing in the air and he does not have much reason to! This brings us to the next point- we have never been a threat in the air. Morientes, RVN and now KJH are three people who could head the ball in. This has been a major weakness with Real. The long ball has almost never been used and we seem to keep buying people who are quick on the ground. That might be ok when you have people like Ronaldo who are exceptional talents, but it will not work when you have back ups like Saviola. We as a team need to challenge airtime. Juve has three strikers- Amauri, Trezeguet and Iaquinta who are all amazing in the air. Milan has Pippo, Shevchenko and even Gilardino sometime back. If we have to compete globally, we cannot continue to ignore one aspect of the game. KJH is a step in the right direction. He is a perfect striker except that he is slower than many. This is not such a major handicap as long as he has a partner who can do all the running.

The show must go on
What must be our approach to the game then? We are no longer able to attract the best players on the planet like we used to sometime back. More on why it might be so in a later post. Clearly, we have no system in place to identify and procure talent. Or, the one we have is not working the way we want to. How do we modify our game then? I am all for a gung ho approach in every match. But, would we prefer attractive football without the results? I don't think so. As long as we have the ability to win a game by bulldozing opponents, we can do so. But, we are not able to play to potential more often than not. It might be worth trying a safety first approach when we are no longer at the peak of our abilities. In the last eight years, there have been only three teams that have won using their virtues of pure attack alone- Real and two Barca squads. Even these sides which were blessed with talent came to a stop when they faced some defensive teams. Even though I am not a fan of defensive football, I feel we may have to consider it as it is a successful tactic. Knowing when your number is up and adapting is a hallmark of any champion and I feel swallowing our pride and plaiyng for a win is better of a larger picture. It is not that we do not know these things. Our attitude towards Capello showed that. We clearly stood in line when we needed a dose of bitter medicine both times and got rid of the doctor with the first signs of recovery.

We have a decent squad depth and I propose that we must play different teams home and away- the midfield, especially. I have said this before and I say it again- we are in dire need of a central midfielder. I was hoping for DLR to step up and Gago to do something or Sneijder do what he does for the Netherlands, but we seem to be missing a tempo setting midfielder in away games. Sneijder did a decent job of being a box to box midfielder last season, but he has not been the same ever since his injury. I feel we need to play:
Home games- Lass/ Gago+ VDV/ Guti+ Marcelo at left back
Away games- Lass+ DLR/ Sneijder+ Heinze at left back.
The biggest problem is that we do not have a decent left back for sometime now. Torres might be worth a try. This way, we can battle fatigue as well. The attitude of learning to scrape when you cannot milk the opposition is what is costing us dearly in knockout competitions, not to mention the Copa del Rey being an embarassment. This way, we can use the squad depth and clearly assign roles to players in order to achieve the results that we want. Teams like Croatia, Turkey, Germany have an excellent work ethic and we must be able to pick fringe players from there who will fit into our system.

The Dark side of the Goon
In the last segment, I hope to address our "big bully" attitude. We have been guilty in the past of unsettling people by using the media. Most recently, the Cristiano Ronaldo saga comes to mind. While such an attitude is deplorable in my opinion, I have to agree that it has yielded results in the past. I am happy to say that we, as a club, have no double standards in this respect. For example, Manchester United did the same in the case of Berbatov, Rooney and Rio Ferdinand. But, they had a problem when we kept pursuing Cristiano Ronaldo using the same tactics. We were also on the receiving end in the Robinho case. We did take offence to it only when Chelsea sold some away jerseys bearing his name. We also have a big reputation for getting referee decisions in our favour, rescinding of punishments and all dirty attempts to change the rules. Some of these charges are common to other champion clubs, but, these don't look good on any of them. We need to make sincere attempts to reduce such "pants down" scenarios as perceptions in the eyes of the world is very important. "Too big to fail" is an attitude associated with some of the biggest empires. One actually wonders what the magnitude of a punishment might have been if the culprit were to be someone more hapless. For example, big companies get tax cuts and extremely favourable lending rates for big projects as compared to an ordinary person who might actually benefit more with a fraction of the money. The bailout plan for the multiple US companies also highlights the "above the system" image that some of them flaunt. Muralitharan's suspect bowling action had implications in the interpretation as to what a legal delivery in cricket was. We need to take more responsibilities for our actions on and off the field as we are the people who can make a difference. With great power, comes great responsibilities! Hopefully, our club should use the power to set right the club vs country debate, foreign player issue, protection of youth team products (ironically!) and so on.

Hala Madrid!
A Spaniard in the works


  1. Fantastic article. This guy is blessed.

  2. I absolutely second that. :D Are there any vacancies in the Real Madrid management. No Jokes, but this is a darn good analysis.

    - Ashay K