Friday, May 8, 2009

Fiesta, Siesta and Iniesta

Posted by: A Spaniard in the works, India.

Okay. I have to tell the truth here. I have been hurt as much as every one of you here because of the match result. The blog had a very good preview for the El Classico, but the match report (more of a post mortem I guess) was conspicuously absent. I am still hurting from the loss. I will be even more honest here. I wanted to write an article that night itself about how we should learn from Barcelona and how I would not begrudge them a victory in the champions league and how Nadal's victory in Rome was an omen that a Spainsh team would triumph again. But, due to my fraility I waited. Why? All my words of praise and judgement would come crashing to the ground had Barca lost on the pitch in London yesterday. In a way, I was bothered about what my peers would think of me because of my actions. It is sometimes convenient to think of football clubs and managers as massive personalities. Some of the decisions taken about playing style and tactics is also about personalities and public perceptions. And that is why I believe it was a huge difference in the style of the match and also the result. Which one did you like?

......2-6- Game, Set, Match, Championship

It did indeed read like a tennis scoreline. I had a dilemma here. Our match was right in between the two legs (now, now lets all be adults here.) of the two champions league semi final fixture. Yet, here I will treat it as one event and deal with it later. In reality, there was much to learn from the way Chelsea played the game, atleast tactically. But again, did we go wrong so much? The two scenarios were very different. Chelsea were playing to get a result. We were looking for pride and probably dent our rivals' chances. In hindsight, Barcelona approached all the three games in the same fashion. Looked comfortable in possession and were not afraid to play one touch football even if it was to play out of trouble. It was another matter that Real had some baffling tactical stupidity behind some of its decisions. Juande Ramos has disappointed me tactically in all the big games this season. Let us take this game and dissect where we lost the game:

a) Extremely high backline- Juande thought that Real was a popular actress going to one of these red carpet events and used an exposed high backline. This is of no use against a team with extremely fast attackers like Messi, Henry and Eto. When a ball is played to a frontline, it is common knowledge that the attackers face the goal and defenders have their backs to goal. Beating the offside trap means that a forward has an advantage of not having to turn for the ball and hence has the edge. The problem is compounded if it is a fast forward scenario (pardon the pun!!). The goal being a game changing event, the offside rule was recently tweaked to protect a defender. Now, any part of the forward must not be ahead of the last defender when the forward pass is made for a non offside call. Earlier, the line used to be drawn at the feet. Leaning in would create a major advantage for the forward. Even then, when you are playing a very fast attacking team, you don't play a high backline unless you have very fast defenders who have the legs to recover the ball. We have Pepe and Ramos who are quick. The rest of them would not win a sprint for sure. In that scenario, how do you explain having a high backline? Most of the attacks were because of the lack of pace in defence. One more essential quality of a high backline is co operative forward movement to lay the offside trap. In the Classico, that was absent. The positioning of the fullbacks was abysmal. They lagged in pushing up and paid the price.

b) Absence of a central offense- All our attacks barring a couple of passes lacked invention in the centre. Most of it was directed through the wing. Higuain was left to dribble past three players multiple times and most of it was directed through the wing. If the wingbacks are busy in trying to cope with torrential rain, you are not going to receive much help from them either. I don't understand his reluctance to play Van der Vaart. I believe he has not got enough chances to play in his preferred position behind the strikers. In too many games he has played on the wing or come on too late. If I were Ramos, I would have played VDV alongside Lass. He is a a handy passer for the Netherlands. Raul was invisible except for two chances as a consequence of that.

c) Sergio Ramos- He has not been looking like himself of late. Looks jaded and surprisingly looks suspect defensively. I used to rate him alongside Maicon and Alves as one of the 3 best right backs in the world, but his form has been disappointing to say the least. And, to make things worse, we have no viable alternative in his position. Gabriel Heinze was worse.

I sympathise with Juande Ramos. He has done well in his spell but has failed in all the big matches. But we should not forget why we gave Barcelona this kind of space. We had to win the match. And if we had won it in Chelsea style, the fans at the stadium would have never forgiven us for playing soporific football. Even though they were vastly outnumbered in the Bernabeu, the strengh of (her)cules took them through. There was no necessity of Real yelling "Eto'o brute?". He did not show up, much to my delight. Barcelona could have scored more if Messi was more clinical and Iniesta not that unselfish.

Stamford Bridge has fallen down, my fair lady....

"As we say in Portugal, they brought the bus and they left the bus in front of the goal." -Jose Mourinho

It is sort of ironic that a former Chelsea manager came up with this iconic quote for occasions where lower teams played for not conceding against the big teams. This is the funny thing about the world. When lower teams do this men behind the ball approach, they are ridiculed for being afraid and very defensive. Yet, when a big team like Chelsea does it, it is tactical superiority and super commitment. It is not just in sports. I would like to highlight the power of perception in two other real world scenarios. I must warn a discerning reader that these are stereotypes and not necessarily true:

a) A rich guy drinks for culture. A poor guy who drinks is a wifebeater.

b) This is a question and answer scenario to a person X.

Q: Why is the sky blue? A: I don't know.

Let us see our reactions for two cases who are the people who have given the answer.

X= Nobel prize winner= "Ooohhh..... he is so modest! He has an attitude of wanting to learn everyday".

X= Tenth standard student= " What? You don't know that? You are retarded, man!"

Unfortunately, the power of perception happens to be real and that is why life is so interesting so many times. Anyway, the matter of how we come across as a football club and philosophy is worthy of a lengthy article in itself.

I will not mince my words. I have massive respect for Guus Hiddink and Fabio Capello as I believe they have the ability to get the best out of even limited resources. Guus Hiddink has shown time and again that he can overachieve even with the most modest resources in the case of PSV, Australia, Russia and South Korea. In many of these cases, he had a job to do- to qualify. And it was obvious in the first minute with any of these sides that they were the weaker team when they slayed fancier opponents. So, it was almost second nature to him to ask his players to stay behind the ball and not give any space whatsoever. Chelsea actually defended in two lines- the midfield right in front of the penalty box and the backline was extremely deep to sweep any through balls. It also served another purpose; it negated all the movement and pace by Barcelona in the box. In my opinion, it was anti football. I don't like this approach. To be honest, I almost had an aneurysm at the end of the match. But, this approach exists solely because it is successful, even though a lot of fans might feel it is boring. Chelsea are not afraid to bruise their opponents in the EPL. But here, only Messi and Eto were marked heavily. They were happy as long as the ball did not come close to their box. They did not come snapping at the heels. Eric Abidal's sending off was a pivotal point in the game. For more than twenty minutes, Barcelona played without a defensive midfielder- just Xavi and Busquets- and Chelsea did not capitalize. They took off Drogba who could have caused some problems. Chelsea played only in the counter attack which was mostly off the wing. This signalled lack of intent to kill the game for me. Iniesta's goal was very good. Essien's goal was even better. Chelsea will feel hard done by. They have been to five semifinals in six years now and have not won the trophy even once. They have a set of talented players who will probably never lift the trophy- like the game's biggest bridesmaid- Michael Ballack. But this is a victory for the game of football. Barcelona have clearly been the best team in Europe and it would have been a shame not to watch them play in the finals. So, the decisions taken by managers are a product of their environment and their situations. I am sure SAF will not follow the same tactics as Hiddink. I personally believe that doing so gives an impression that you feel that you are a weaker team. Many might disagree with me, but I am interested to know which of the two approaches would any footballing fan prefer? I would love it if fellow madridistas gave me their opinions on this one.

32-26-36? Va Va Voom!

This is the vital statistic this season, with Barcelona playing sexy football in popular footballing parlance. These are the number of goals scored by Eto'o, Henry and Messi in all competitions this year. Even though this number looks humungous, it is easy to forget the under rated Andres Iniesta. Not too long ago, he was Ronaldinho's understudy. He has been instrumental in getting the ball moving on the pitch. His biggest weapon is his two footed dribble, which allows him to keep the ball not too far away from his body and that makes it very difficult to dispossess him. Due to this, he can move both inside and outside the fullback with equal ease. I will not forget the way he danced around Essien in both the legs. He is extremely unselfish as well. I have seen numerous occasions where he is happy to grab the assist. The Classico had two such examples. Against Valencia too, he had a chance and he passed to Messi. It is players like these who win matches. In fact, there is a legend that our own Ferenc Puskas was one such man. He made many goals for Di Stefano when the latter grew insecure about the top goalscorer status.

Iniesta the Redeemer.

Any resemblance to the statue in Rio is simply coinicidental. Here is to a man who I believe is one of the modern wonders of the world!

Barcelona's high possession, short pass football has been nice to watch. What is interesting is the unusually high pass percentage. A team with 60% has had a very good day. Yet, in all the three matches, it was more than 80%- something that would be associated with a defensive midfielder or defender. United are going to trouble them with set pieces. I feel that the balance has shifted slightly to United as Barca are going to miss their regular fullbacks and I just hope Barcelona's victory against Chelsea was not pyrrhic. I am hoping for one good football match. Hopefully, we can reach such a stage next year at home!

Hala Madrid!

A Spaniard in the works.

P.S: I kindly request those of you who have managed to read through the whole article and are somehow awake to give me feedback about what sort of tactics should Real have employed? Our attempt at attack failed. Should we have taken a Chelseaesque route? I don't think so. Let me know what you think!


  1. Excellent Article.

    Iniesta, IMO is one of the most underrated players in world football. I thin the reason for that is his unselfishness. And it is this unselfishness that makes him a very dangerous player. While everyone generally focuses to mark out the players who are in the limelight, players like Iniesta are left free to weave their magic and dent a team so badly that it cannot recover.

    If I was asked to quote a moment that summed up the match (or the difference between the two teams for that matter), I would quote the "Iniesta Roulette" (Zidane owned the "Marseille Roulette"), where he took the ball to his own end on the pitch with Lass and Gago converging on him and then turned inward in a full 360, leaving both of our midfielders totally foxed. That was THE moment of the match and THE gap in quality between the two teams.

    One cant really hate a player of this caliber who's so humble and goes about doing his work without the right kind of appreciation from the right quarters to back his performances.

    - Ashay K

  2. class act....all i can say....both iniesta and the article.....i may drew aome flack...but i rooted for barca in the cl semis....only one team played football and thats not chelsea....
    god football won at the end of the day.
    iniesta (and messi)is one guy all youngsters shud try to emulate....not just on the field...but off it ass is a guy who i have seen never complain...asking better contracts...or making inflamatory statements..or sulking when left out of squad...we shud not forget ...not long time he was playing right back....but never really happy all the success that he is getting.


  3. Thank you folks. I would rather go down with an attacking approach. People like Iniesta are like a breath of fresh air. His passing and movement have been very good this season. He is very flexible and can play across the midfield. Spain has a wealth of talent in the midfield and they use central midfielders in wide positions. In the EURO 2004, they were relying on genuine wingers and now they are more flexible!

    Xavi too walked on water against us man. They were able to change direction at will. Maybe I would have applauded them more if this game was not against us!

    I too rooted for Barcelona in the UCL. They have been very good this season and in my opinion it would have been a pity to see them go out to tactics employed by Chelsea.
    One good thing about Barcelona is that they have enough patience to try out home grown products. We have not had a neat defence all these years and so have ended up chasing our games most of the time, with less time for experimentation.
    And I agree about Iniesta's attitude off the pitch as well. It was also heartwarming to know about Bilbao's Etxeberria giving up his salary while playing his last year at the club at the age of 32! Something that is refreshing

    -A Spaniard in the works.

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