Lessons to be Learned?

It’s not like sections of the media to overreact. Is it? Yet that’s precisely what happened recently following events in Brazil. The home side took the Confederations Cup on home soil with as comprehensive a competitive win over the Spanish as there has been for many years. It left del Bosque and La Furia Roja to admit that their period of domination was coming to an end. The Spanish have had a good run. Two European Championships and a World Cup yet the prize upon which you are now seemingly judged, the Confederations Cup, has escaped their clutches twice. Its now back to the drawing board for the Spanish. They must navigate the remainder of their qualifying campaign to claim a place in Brazil next summer but their powers are on the wane already.

Why bother though. The World Cup appears to be a foregone conclusion. Spain won’t win it and it seems a few semi decent performances from Brazil has secured their name upon the trophy. The Seleção have the better of their counterparts. It was a technical and tactical triumph overseen by Scolari.

Wasn’t it?

Brazil Press High And Go Direct

The final against Brazil was notable for two reasons. The style of game that Brazil used against their opponents and the manner in which certain aspects of the Spanish system, whether it be the system itself or components within that system, were problematic.

From the outset of this game, Brazil pressed and harassed Spain high up the pitch in an effort to disrupt their game and prevent them from settling down and finding any rhythm to dictate proceedings. This worked as Spain was slow to move the ball and find space, enabling Brazil to close them down and force misplaced passes.

The question that was apparent from midway through the first half was whether Brazil could sustain the same tempo and level of intensity in their play for the entire game. If the game had been played in the stifling heat and humidity of Fortaleza, this tactic would not have worked. In the cooler, fresher surroundings of Rio, this was an entirely viable tactic.

The pressing succeeded and once Brazil had taken the lead it enabled them to drop deeper on occasion to recover and counter attack Spain. It does highlight the changing face of the Brazilian team at international level. The days of open, flowing football are now long gone. A distant memory consigned to be shown as a montage containing the best World Cup goals ever scored, most probably on BBC3 or ITV2. Primarily a counter attacking team, Brazil struggled to break down opponents who sat deep themselves. Their tactical strategy appears to revolve around getting the ball to Neymar quickly and waiting for something to happen. The midfield lacks creativity and is purely functional, a consequence of the domestic games desire to produce functional defensive midfielders. It wielded a trophy though but Scolari will have taken notice of the stodgy performances that were produced in the process.

For Spain, is the loss important? Yes, if you want to win the Confederations Cup that continues to elude them. More importantly, it provides an opportunity for del Bosque to see what must happen on and off the pitch if Spain is to march to an unprecedented fourth successive international tournament win.

Issues to Confront

This tournament has provided a welcome jolt to remind del Bosque and his players of the challenges that lie ahead in trying to defend their crown in 2014. It’s not just about what happens on the pitch that will decide the World Cup next year but also how you prepare for the tournament itself and how you adapt to the diverse climatic conditions that exist in Brazil.

The tournament will be hosted by a vast country that experiences different conditions dependent upon where you play. The problem for the qualifying sides is the ability to control factors is only partial. Acclimatising to those conditions by arriving early and preparing is within your powers to an extent. Gaining a favourable draw to avoid extensive travelling around the country is not within your powers.

The Spanish must look at the system and the players who are chosen to enable that system to function. Have some vital parts become worn and need replacing?

Does The System Still Work?

Surprisingly, despite the loss to Brazil and the relatively poor performances against Nigeria and Italy, there has been no outbreak of Plan B syndrome in the media. No cries for the ball to be launched high into the air aimlessly. Perhaps after three tournament wins, people are a little more circumspect when considering Spain.

Spain was a little more direct in this tournament. The deployment of a traditional no9 for the games aided this process. Teams have adjusted once more against Spain and now use a mid level block against La Roja in recognition that the sit deep and hope tactic was futile. It provides space behind that Spain can attack but it hinders their build up play in the midfield area. Opponents can close them down quicker in a densely packed area. Spain needed to recycle possession faster and be more direct themselves. Look for the runs in behind the opposing defence but there was a lack of supporting runs from the midfield area during this tournament. The verticality and thrust that was needed never arrived.

There were reasons why it never worked. Fatigue was a constant issue for the side. Only against Uruguay in the opening 45minutes did Spain produce a level of football normally associated with them. Leaving that aside, Spain possesses players with the technical and tactical proficiency to ensure the system is a success.

It needs players to move quickly in midfield, recycling possession. The full backs must push high and offer themselves when the middle of the pitch becomes too congested and the attacking players must be prepared to drive in diagonally between opposing centre backs and full backs to offer the opportunity for through balls. There must be options from the second line of attack. The system is built upon control but that is precisely what Spain lacked. La Roja often looked unsure defensively and opponents able to attack their defence too easily in the central areas. The Spanish possess these qualities but failed to show them.

If the system does work, then it may be the components that need adjusting.

Succession PlanningLife After Xavi

Central to whatever del Bosque chooses will be how Spain adapt to life without Xavi. Its an issue that is vexing Barcelona right now and one to which they appear to have no credible answer.

Xavi is nearing the end of his career and if he continues to play over 60 games per season then the twilight of his career will fade quicker than necessary. Xavi can continue but only if he plays fewer games for club and country. Such a position is only a short-term solution however and Spain must look beyond Xavi and begin the process of reconstructing the midfield. As the lynchpin of the side ages and slows, his passing becomes more horizontal and safer. It lacks penetration and so opponents are safer. The runs into the opposition penalty area decrease. And his ability to track back and share defensive duties pushes his tired limbs too far. Xavi plays within the middle of the pitch. Unable to hurt opponents and unable to stop opponents hurting his team. It leaves Busquets overexposed at one of the pitch and Iniesta lacks someone to share the creative burden for the side. With Alonso to offer greater control, Spain were exposed in the central areas.

Can Xavi stay in the light?

Can Xavi stay in the light?

The maestro needs time to rest and recuperate. If he receives it, he still has a pivotal role to play for club and country. If he doesn’t then it becomes a real dilemma.

Indeed, when you consider that Iniesta is 29 and has suffered numerous injuries, Xabi Alonso is also the wrong side of 30 then Spain really need to find and identify who will step into the void for all three players. It’s not simply a case of saying “look at all the quality players Spain can choose from”. It’s identifying and saying that these are the players who can step up regularly and claim a starting berth.

Spain has extremely talented midfield players within their U21 squad. The next 12 months must see the process of integrating a few of these players into the senior side.

The Future of Spain's Midfield?

The Future of Spain’s Midfield?

The likes of Isco, Thaigo and Illarramendi must be called up to the senior squad and enjoy playing time. It will be difficult but crucial to aid their development and Spain’s during this transitional period.

Loyalty: How Far Should It Go?

How Far? One thing that del Bosque has shown time and time again is his loyalty to the players who have delivered for him previously. It could be suggested that the loyalty is partly a result of Spain lacking credible alternatives in a few key positions. The loyalty to Alvaro Arbeloa and Fernando Torres at both the World Cup and European Championships may be questioned but were there really credible alternatives at the previous tournaments?

Too loyal?

Too loyal?

Who could have replaced Arbeloa at the World Cup? Iraola would have been in the squad were it not for an unfortunate injury whilst Juanfran is more attack minded but lack defensive nous. And does Arbeloa’s more conservative nature not provide greater balance for the team? That was the argument before but the full back offered neither defensive nor attacking qualities in the final. The player’s international career should not hinge upon one poor game but his lack of technical quality on the ball is becoming an issue for Spain on the right. Too much of their thrust comes from the left and the attacking qualities are lop-sided. Is it time to remove Arbeloa from the squad? Azpilicueta is ready and what of Carlos Martinez at Real Sociedad or even Carvejal or Montoya as deputies? The options exist for a more balanced right full back who can attack whilst also providing the defensive solidity required.

At centre back, is it time to remove Raul Albiol from the squad and replace him with Inigo Martinez? The youngster from Sociedad is the future whilst Albiol seldom gets playing time. Make the change now and provide Martinez with 12months to bed in before the World Cup.

Despite the depth of quality within the Spanish ranks, they arguably lack a genuine goalscorer for the No9 jersey. Negredo has had opportunities and now Soldado has been deployed yet neither truly convinces and del Bosque returns to Torres on occasion. Will Torres get playing time at Chelsea under Mourinho?

Morata - A possible solution?

Morata – A possible solution?

Is the time right to experiment with an alternative? Could Morata be granted an opportunity if he secures playing time in Madrid? This may seem ludicrous to suggest that a player with such limited playing exposure at Madrid be given a call up to the senior squad but Morata possesses the qualities that the national side lack in attack. He is very direct and moves immediately towards goal. This vertical nature is what Spain needs allied to his aerial ability. He is not some form of panacea to their attacking problems as such but must be considered a real alternative now.

The Return to Brazil

There are flaws present both within the squad and within the system. To ignore these problems would be foolish but just as foolish would be to overestimate the damage they could cause and pretend they are insurmountable.

Vicente del Bosque cannot afford to be too loyal to some of the players who have brought them this far. All great teams enjoy a period of success before their cycle comes to an end. If Spain wishes to prolong their cycle of dominance, some hard choices face the coach. He must not shirk from these but equally he must not overreact. Addressing such matters will not guarantee success next summer but it will provide Spain with the optimum opportunity to succeed but so many other factors will come into play. The Confederations Cup highlighted just how important location will be in Brazil to avoid extremely hot and humid conditions. Arriving in time and acclimatising as well as can be expected will be important.

In 2009, Spain lost to USA 2-0 in South Africa. The European Champions were humbled and their credentials were questioned. Twelve months later they returned to South Africa and claimed the World Cup.

Would you really bet against lighting striking twice?

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That Was The Season, That Was.

And then the season was over.

Like that.

A football season that commenced in late August and concluded in early June. Vilanova won the title in his debut season as coach, a season punctuated by treatment for his cancer and despite Barcelona often not playing as fluently as they may like. Madrid continued to have the upper hand over Barcelona in clasico’s but seem to have forgotten how to approach games against more defensive teams. So Barcelona and Madrid finish in the top two. Same old, same old.

The real story in Spain, as ever, lay elsewhere. The battle for the European spots and the struggle to avoid relegation.

La Real enjoyed a superb second half of the season suffering just two defeats in the league to return to Champions League football for the first time in 10 seasons. Even a momentary lapse in form as the season concluded could not prevent them from pipping a Valencia side who were slumped in mid-table when Valverde replaced Pellegrino in December. Boardroom instability and financial problems reign supreme at the Mestalla once more. At least with the appointment of Djukic as Coach, Los Che have the chance to rebuild provided he is supported adequately.

When the Champions League campaign ended in controversial circumstances, the glue which Pellegrini had used to bind Malaga together began to peel away and the Andalusian’s form shaded. With an exodus likely and European football increasingly unlikely due to a UEFA penalty for financial irregularities, the side simply ran out of gas. Holding off Betis to finish in 6th place all things considered is still an achievement.

The entertaining Real Betis return to the European arena with Pepe Mel, so close to being sacked last year, still guiding them. How the squad copes over the close season will be crucial. Will Joel Campbell remain on loan? Will Benat stay at the club?

Subject to Rayo being excluded from European competition, again over financial irregularities (although given what Paco Jemez has achieved on a miniscule budget and the manner in which he has achieved it, exclusion is so harsh but could actually be a blessing) Sevilla take the final Europa League spot as Del Nido states that at least 30% of the first team should comprise cantera products in the future.

As some sides appear to be making tentative steps towards resolving financial problems, another three are plunged back into financial crisis.

Depor started the final day of the campaign in 17th position and with their fate i their own hands yet succumbed to a second relegation in three season as their Galician neighbors Celta, managed to avoid the drop under the gaze of coach Abel Resino who has since departed to be replaced by Luis Enrique.

Manolo Jimenez could not perform the same heroics he had done just last year and Real Zaragoza went down following a dreadful run of form in 2013 with two wins, six draws and 12 defeats sucking the Aragonese side down into la Segunda. Where they will be joined by Mallorca. It all seemed so far away for the Islanders when they briefly led the division before Caparros paid for the rapid decline with his job. Manzano could not stop the rot sufficiently either.

How all three cope off the pitch will be just as important as how they cope on it in over the next 12 months.

And so to the team of the season.

It’s important to note that my team of the season contains no Barcelona or Real Madrid players although given how some performed this season, maybe I should have allowed their selection purely to then not select them based upon their performances.

Instead, my team comprises players from others sides. This is, of course, an entirely subjective assessment. There will be some you agree with and some selections which you completely oppose. It’s players who have performed well within their team and who I enjoy watching. I also attempted to find players who would fit the preferred system. Therefore, with inverted wingers, I needed string overlapping full backs. The side will line up in the ubiquitous 4-2-3-1.

Goalkeeper

Courtois (Atleti)

It’s really a straight choice between Willy from Malaga and Courtois from Atleti with the Belgian getting the nod. Whereas Willy performed heroics at times, with Courtois you sense he is always capable of such feats. A dominant presence in goal for Atleti despite his young age. Atleti’s loss will be Chelsea’s gain in the longer term although in terms of his development, he is ready for first team action in London right now.

Right Back

Carlos Marinez (Real Sociedad)

A position where a player from the big two would have secured a starting berth via Dani Alves. This should not detract from the campaign that Martinez has enjoyed. Its demanding being a full back for La Real. You must provide the defensive solidity that Montanier required to use as a platform but equally, you must contribute to the attack with overlapping runs beyond an inverted winger, normally Vela. Martinez did both and not only that, he often excelled at both.

Left Back

Filipe Luis (Atleti)

Whilst Martinez’s team mate de la Bella had a great season, it was probably eclipsed by Luis Filipe from Atleti. Again, Atleti employ a system that requires the full backs to provide the width and Filipe is more than capable of providing such width. Not as attacking as the likes of Jordi Alba but substantially better defensively.

Centre Back

Demichellis (Malaga)

A defender who many will have thought had seen his best years. Never the quickest, his lack of pace could have been an issue instead his experience at the heart of the Malaga defence was one reason why the Andalusian’s gained such good results during the season. His ability to marshall the defence that maintained a disciplined, organsied offside line covered his main deficiency.

Centre Back

Inigo Martinez (Real Sociedad)

Currently starring for the U21’s in the European Championships in Israel, it seems only a matter of time before Martinez is plying his trade elsewhere. Another product of the La Real cantera, Martinez is composed on the ball but can also mix things up when needed. An excellent combination of skills to possess and the reason why he is so highly valued.

Defensive Midfield

Javi Fuego (Rayo Vallecano)

Javi who? Javi Fuego. Paying for Madrid’s 3rd or 4th team depending upon how you classify Getafe, Javi Fuego has gone under the radar of many now for some time but has just secured a well deserved transfer to Valencia. Occupying a deep midfield position, Fuego is a robust, combative figure unafraid to commit to the tackle. Yet that sells his game short. With a high interceptions rate showcasing his reading of the game, he is also a vital component for recycling the ball for a Rayo team that played neat, attractive football.

Defensive Midfield

Illarramendi (Real Sociedad)

Partnering Javi Fuego is Illarramendi from La Real. Like his team mate Inigo Martinez, Illarra is displaying his skills in Israel right now. String in the tackle, mobile, aggressive but capable of fine passing, he has been compared to Xabi Alonso who came through the La Real cantera too. Illarra offers greater defensive cover but lacks the same range of passing that Alonso possesses. Again, like his team mate Martinez, Illarra combines a range of desirable qualities and is possibly a more unique player in the Spanish game for that combination.

Left Wing

Jonas (Valencia)

The selection of Jonas ahead of the likes of Griezmann on the left may raise some eyebrows but the Brazilian had the unnerving habit of popping up in central areas with crucial goals for Valencia as the side made a surge for the final Champions League spot. His 13 goals and three assists helped maintain Valencia’s challenge through to the end of the season. What is key is his willingness to move centrally and support both the attacking midfielder and the striker.

Attacking Midfield

Banega (Valencia)

There are a plethora of players who could be utilsied in this position. The likes of Isco, Verdu, Xabi Prieto and even Leo Baptistao have all enjoyed fine seasons. My own selection goes to a player who has not always displayed the correct attitude towards his career or his club but who, when on form, is capable of producing moments of real quality. Step forward, Ever Banega, a man who helped drag Valencia forward when it looked as if they would remain in mid table. Freed from a deeper position, the advanced placement which Valverde offered him together with team mates ready to link, provided the key pass. The Argentinean weighed in with four goals and four assists from his 29 appearances

Right Wing

Vela (Real Sociedad)

Real Sociedad’s top goalscorer despite operating for much of the season as an inverted right winger. The position enable the Mexican to drift inward, often into space, and onto his favoured left foot. Vela had 14 goals and 9 assists for La Real and his versatility enables him to play across the front line including operating as the central striker, even during games too. He was most damaging though when moving at pace down the right.

Striker

Falcao (Atleti)

In his final season for Atleti prior to his move to AS Monaco, el tigre once again proved why he is one of the most feared strikers in the game. Scoring 28 goals in 34 appearances, other facets of Falcao’s play are sometimes overlooked. He has become much more rounded at Atleti and links with teams mates far better often moving wide to find space before moving centrally into the area. The assist he provided in the Copa del Rey Final for Diego Costa an exampled of this growing awareness in his game. He is becoming the complete striker.

Roll on season 2013/14.

Building for a Real Future?

So often this season, games at Anoeta have produced superb technical and tactical games with one key ingredient. Goals, and lots of them. And in their final home game of the season, La Real once again served up a tremendous spectacle.

A game in which an unfamiliar looking Real Madrid appeared to have somehow secured all three points despite Real Sociedad carving out chance after chance only for Xabi Prieto to secure a point in injury time. Just how crucial that point will be is likely to be determined next weekend.

La Real Dominate

With Real Sociedad now only holding onto fourth place courtesy of the head to head record, there was no margin for error against Madrid. With Madrid and Mourinho announcing his departure when the season concludes and the Madrid team missing a number of key players, this was the chance for a hungry, motivated La Real side to seize the initiative.

La Real edged possession with 53% but time and time again this season, Madrid has shown that they are not a side that cares for possession when they possess the best counter attack in world football. A problem emerges though when you withdraw key components of that counter attack. When that attack lacks the same pace and verve as it normally contains, its’ effectiveness is substantially reduced. The opposition can recognise the weaker attack and commit more men forward.

Sociedad seized the initiative but were undone by defensive errors. Not huge errors but against a side with the quality of Madrid, even minor errors can be punished. Madrid had just one shot at goal in the first half and Higuain scored.

The graphic below demonstrates the ability for La Real to create, and miss, a sizeable number of chances against their visitors:-

Sociedad vs Madrid Shots

Sociedad vs Madrid Shots

From 27 attempts at goal, Sociedad hit the target on 12 occasions. Will Madrid and Mourinho be concerned about the number of chances that La Real managed to create and the manner in which the point was earned?

Madrid may. For Mourinho, his judgement value of this game was demonstrated in his starting line up.

Player Selection

With Jose Mourinho leaving Real Madrid after the season ends, and with nothing left to play for given they have already secured second place in the league, what was the key objective in San Sebastian?

Winning didn’t matter but you still want to win the game of course but considering the prevailing circumstances, what was the key consideration here. To secure three points or to consider Madrid’s development beyond the end of this season?

Carvalho, Essien and Kaka are all likely to depart the Bernabeu shortly. Higuain could follow. Pepe remains benched following his dispute with Mourinho. Could Mourinho not have played the likes of Nacho or Morata or even Casemiro? Players from the Cantera who will be around next season and are likely to be part of the first team squad?

Sociedad vs Madrid Line Ups

Sociedad vs Madrid Line Ups

Madrid gained a point which, on the balance of play, they were probably fortunate to get but given they led 2-0, they should probably have gathered all three points. Does it matter though? It’s a point gained but is it an opportunity lost? A game that could have aided player development substantially.

Playing a weaker team may have resulted in Real Sociedad winning all three points and leaving them in pole position to finish in 4th place. Valencia would have complained but that’s not Real Madrid’s concern. Madrid must focus on themselves.

And they did so but with a distinctly short term focus.

Montanier Departing?

With Montanier departing the Basque Country to coach in Rennes, it leaves the question of who next for Real Sociedad and can the next incumbent build upon the foundations that have already been laid?

The Board’s resolve may well be tested during the close season with figures such as Inigo Martinez, Illarramendi and Griezmann attracting attention but another season together could reap rich dividends for La Real.

If the squad remains largely intact, the tactical issue for the side is to improve defensively without losing their attacking edge. The side have the 6th best defensive record in the league but a small improvement on their nine clean sheets could make a huge difference. The difference could be in those 12 games that La Real have drawn such as Sunday evening. One of those games converted to a victory would seem them level with Valencia but leading thanks to the head to head record.

Is 5th a Success?

And how should Real Sociedad be judged this season if they do finish in 5th and “only” gain a Europa League place? Is the season still a success or would it be deemed a failure by some given their five point lead over Valencia with the end of the season in sight? Had you offered La Real a 5th place finish at the start of the season, it would have been accepted with great appreciation. Only now, when 4th is so close, does 5th seem like a disappointment. Should the side be disappointed with a 5th place finish, it illustrates the progress made since their return from La Segunda just three seasons ago. Remaining grounded is now the key. La Real may well have over achieved this season.

Does the story revolving around La Real detract from the work undertaken by Valverde over at the Mestalla?

Valverde has dealt with uncertainty over his own future, as has Montanier also, but with instability in the boardroom whilst a club that is financially stricken desperately chases the riches that the Champions League has to offer. Montanier has built a foundation in his time at La Real whilst Valverde has been fire fighting for the past six months. Who has the better achievement?

La Real travel to Deportivo needing to win to have any opportunity of finishing 4th. Yet Depor must also secure a result to maintain their survival chances. Valencia meanwhile will travel to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan and face a Sevilla side with nothing to play for or a European place still at stake. That depends entirely upon how both Malaga and Rayo Vallecano are judged for next season in terms of satisfying European criteria.

So who will claim 4th place? In April I backed Los Che to edge 4th place here. For the first time this season, they have the advantage and should hold onto the advantage this weekend.

Style Over Substance?

Does the end justify the means?

If you achieve your goals and objectives, does it matter how you went about it?

If one side dominates their opponent, creating but not taking their chances whilst playing a stylish brand of attacking football yet losing to a stubborn, resolute defensive display, which team should we celebrate?

The pragmatic winners or the idealistic losers?

Is the team that adapts to the situation, deploying itself in the manner most likely to deliver victory, even if that requires a highly defensive approach, entirely correct? Or should the team that seeks to impose itself and its vision of football upon its opponent, remaining true to their overarching principles be praised irrespective of the outcome? In football, what do we prize above all else?

It must surely be the result. For the result is the only thing that matters.

Will Real Madrid fans really care about the football they produced under Mourinho if he delivers la decima? Mourinho is a winner. He wins, that what he does. How Madrid get to that result will be irrelevant.

Or, is there something greater than the result. Something that lasts longer. A legacy as Xavi Hernandez, lynchpin of the Barcelona side and ultimately the ideologue of tiki taka, states so eloquently. Xavi echoes the musings of a decent footballer who once said “there is no greater prize than being acclaimed for you style”.

Of course. Style.

The prize which the gallant loser must fervently cling to. It’s the fallback position. The defence mechanism. We lost but we still have style of play to grasp. The dream of a football idealist. An elitist caught in a time warp believing things were always so much better in previous years. Players were so much more innocent and stuck to their beliefs, attempting to play the beautiful game with no thoughts for the repercussions. The oft quoted cliché of players playing for the sheer love of the game, which was true, to an extent. Their innocence lost and tarnished by the continued rise of a cynicism and the win at all costs mentality of the professional game as the modern era developed.

We can all remember the great winners. The Brazil team in 1970, the Ajax team under Rinus Michels, Liverpool in the early 1980′s, Saachi’s Milan who were the last team to successfully defend the European Cup. More recently, Barcelona under Guardiola during the past four seasons. Spain under Aragones and now del Bosque winning three successive international tournaments, creating history in the process. The creation of the legacy that Xavi speaks of. Teams that dominated their era and became the benchmark. And teams that all had a finite lifespan.

But what about the other great teams? Those teams who came so close to the prize yet fell just short. Are they worthy of our praise too?

The Holland team of 1974 and 1978 who failed in two successive World Cup finals. And of course, the greatest team never to win a World Cup. The Brazil team of 1982. The team of Falcao, Junior and the truly great Socrates. The grainy images flickering across our TV screens of exotic footballers playing with a swagger and style seldom seen. And losing.

Were these really great teams? If so, why did they not win? Why are we cherishing losers?

They must have delivered something though, otherwise why would they still be recalled so fondly after all of these years. Are the teams mentioned above more worthy than winners such as Steau Bucharest in the 1986 European Cup Final, Greece in the 2004 European Championships or even Chelsea in the 2012 Champions League Final?

What did the above teams do so badly that means we chose to denigrate certain winners? Why do we attack certain teams approach to games? Why was the achievement of Milan in defeating Barcelona 2-0 rounded upon in some quarters? This was not an exercise in parking the bus; this was a Rolls Royce performance. A performance perfectly executed individually, collectively and above all, tactically. Yet, in years to come that performance will be reduced to a footnote partly owing to Barcelona’s comeback in the second leg and partly by the slavish devotion to aesthetics.

Is a defensive approach really less worthy than an attacking approach? What qualities do we find most attractive in football? Defensive structure and organisation or attacking creativity and guile? Is a quick one two which beats two of three static defenders a greater piece of skill than a perfectly timed sliding tackle? How about a defensive block executed by superb positioning? Or a pair of central midfielders naturally, attack minded and yet sacrificing themselves for the team and performing considerable defensive duties.

Do we accept such qualities were they are displayed by our own team but question their legitimacy when implemented by opponents to the detriment of our footballing heroes? In 10 years or 20 years time, who will we remember from this time period? The Inter team of 2010, who adopted a counter attacking philosophy against Barcelona in the Champions League semi final and then again against Bayern Munich in the final yet were successful, or the Chelsea team of 2012 who seemingly defied the odds to overcome a first leg deficit at the hands of Napoli in the quarter finals, were outplayed yet held on for victory against Barcelona in the semi final before triumphing on penalties against Bayern Munich in the final?

Or will we remember the Barcelona team under first Rijkaard and then Guardiola who delivered trophies with a panache and style seldom seen and yet, who twice succumbed to arguably weaker teams in Champions League semi finals? Or the Bayern team under Jupp Heynckes who were committed to attacking football yet saw the great prize of European club football elude them? So far.

Both Inter and Chelsea demonstrated tremendous workrate and concentration in the face of seemingly superior opponents. They defended resiliently throughout, working diligently to limit their opponents attacking potential. Were the performances really that similar though? Do we not fail to see the elements which differentiate them? It’s convenient to label them both as defensive teams that parked the bus but that’s lazy and incorrect. The difference between just parking the bus and hoping and defending well is control of space. Inter controlled space and were remarkably comfortable despite extremely limited possession. Chelsea clung on through poor finishing, last gasp defending and an element of luck. Both approaches gathered victories but only the former could be seen as a coherent plan which could be implemented again. Both won. Both became European Champions. Is that not enough to celebrate?

Or were they simply two expensively assembled teams who were afraid to face up to quality opponents. Surely we always want to win and in doing so, exhibit qualities which the opposition lack and which they can only aspire to? Or is 1-0 carved out by luck, skill and sheer workrate sufficient for us?

Perhaps it will be determined by our outlook.

It’s the nostalgic look back in time, the ability to only recall those teams and games which fit neatly into our own paradigm. A reflection that conveniently overlooks episodes which we find distasteful as determined by our own views. We watch football yet we chose what we want to see.

When our team wins 1-0 through a dogged defensive display, we applaud their determination, their commitment, and their endeavour. When our team is foiled by a defensive display, we attack the negative approach of the opponent for killing the game using spoiling tactics. We only seeing footballing history through a revisionist perspective tainted by our own footballing ideology. We celebrate those who fit into our accepted views, offering at best grudging praise when a team wins but does not conform to our values. We recall the great moments, those that define a particular episode or era and conveniently forget those moments which tarnish or belittle our memories.

Yet we should not see the game in such reductionist terms. Somewhere along this journey we have lost sight of the variations within the game in an effort to celebrate only one type of football. In doing so, do we not realise the inherent pragmatism within tiki taka itself? It’s firstly a defensive strategy. If we have the ball, you cannot score. It brings about moments of creativity interspersed by periods of sterile domination.  It’s become the ubiquitous stick with which to beat Spain by those who want to see more transitional based football with less control. Rather than seeing football in a simplistic dichotomy of attacking football versus defensive football, we should instead consider the vast range of subtle tactical and non-tactical nuances which occur during a game.

The small details.

The movement of a defensive midfielder closer to the centre backs to eliminate a pocket of space. The central midfielder pushing further to the right to link with his right winger and overload the opposing full back. We should embrace the volume of possibilities which football presents us with.

Football was, is and will always be a series of proactive and reactive battles.

The great tactical innovators like Saachi and Guardiola created new methods of playing the game which spawn imitators and eventually, the new brand of football is overcome. We move on. Football will always exist in cycles, formations which were once seen as unbeatable, are discarded for years only to later re-emerge, reinvigorated by new ideals and playing methods. Within all football formations there is an element of pragmatism. Teams play a brand of football that they believe will provide them with the best opportunity to achieve their objectives, adapting and deploying their resources accordingly.

In football, the winner does not automatically take it all. For sometimes, a game of football is not played to determine who wins a trophy, sometimes it represents something more. Sometimes, it dictates what direction football will take in the coming years. We are witnessing the present battle of possession based football against a reactive, transition based game. The path we will tread for the next few years has not yet been decided. The outcome of the Champions League may help decide which route we take.

Shared Differences

In so many ways, the fixture at the Camp Nou last night went according to plan on many levels. Barcelona dominated possession but created very little. Real Madrid were content to defend before counter attacking quickly, utilising space on the flanks exploiting Barcelona weaknesses during transitions.

Did we learn anything new?

Yes, and no.

For the game raises more questions than it manages to answer for both sides.

In their last five visits to the Camp Nou , Madrid has an impressive record of one win, one defeat and three draws. Mourinho made a mistake in his first visit to the Camp Nou with Real Madrid, believing his team to be the equal of Barcelona in terms of the production of a stylish possession based performance. He suffered heavily for such a belief. The 5-0 defeat remains Mourinho’s biggest loss as a manager. Since then, the tactical plan has been more conservative, more pragmatic. With each passing clasico the perceived gap between the sides, never as significant as many claimed, has narrowed. Tactical plans were hatched and repeatedly tweaked as Mourinho sought the perfect gameplan. Sometimes Madrid would press high; sometimes they adopted a low block.

Last night’s result is not the outcome of a few ideas hastily cobbled together on the training ground this week. It is the result of considerable thought, hard work and ultimately, trial and error, sometimes costly error for Madrid on the pitch. But the recent results at the Camp Nou demonstrate that Madrid is now consistently achieving results against Barcelona .

The inability of Barcelona to break down disciplined, organised, defensive teams employing a low block in key games has been highlighted before but Milan and now Madrid have not parked the bus. Far from it. They have controlled space and prevented Barcelona having shooting opportunities. There was no luck involved in either victory.

Leaving aside the issues surrounding team selection etc for Barcelona , there is something more fundamental to address. Why does Barcelona inevitably seek to attack even when there is no compulsion to do so? The tactical alteration to include an additional midfielder was designed to give control first and foremost. Why does FCB eschew that control by pursuing victory? There was no requirement for Barcelona to push forward or attack with such vigour as they did in the early stages last night before being undone by a typically swift and lethal Madrid counter.

When exploring the present tactical issues, there are two which need consideration. Firstly, the current Blaugrana attack lacks vertical penetration. The inclusion of Cesc Fabregas at the expense of an attacker and the propensity for Messi to drop deeper has eroded the dynamics of the attack. A cutting edge has been traded for greater control through possession. This has incresingly become sterile domination. Secondly, the attacking thrust of Alba allied to Alves leaves Barcelona vulnerable on attack / defence transitions. The left side in particular is weak. Milan exploited this as did Madrid last night

And yet if the victory of Madrid at the Camp Nou last night highlighted the inadequacies of Barcelona sharply, what does it say of Madrid in the process? What if the roles were reversed? Could los blancos have broken down their rivals?

The victory at the Camp Nou must not be allowed to conveniently conceal the issues presently existing within the Real Madrid side.This is the same Madrid side which performed so abjectly as they crashed 1-0 away to Granada just under four weeks ago. A Madrid side that has also lost away to Getafe , Real Betis, Sevilla and Malaga. A Madrid side that finds it difficult to break down disciplined, organised, defensive teams employing a low block who allow Madrid to set the tempo of the game and take the initiative.
The question for Madrid is not how to face up to Barcelona anymore. The question is now how Madrid should tackle lesser sides such as Granada . Sides who adopt the very same approach that Madrid use against Barcelona albeit with less talented players but more of a collective focus. The game plan which Madrid uses to such effect against Barcelona is broadly the same plan which undermines them.

And whilst possession is so necessary for Barcelona , for Madrid the opposite is true, the side don’t require possession to win their games. Indeed there is an argument that Madrid are closer to Simeone’s Atleti team who maintain their shape above all else forgoing possession in the process. Madrid is at their most dangerous without the ball, awaiting an error by their opponent to exploit. Is there a better counter attacking side in world football? What other team can take an opposition corner, a potential weakness, and transform that into a strength?
For as diametrically opposed as their present footballing philosophies may be, the clash of proactive and reactive football, there is shared ground between both sides when it comes to their Achilles heel.

Both sides struggle when faced with deep lying and organised defences for differing reasons. Whilst Barcelona seeks to weave passing patterns around their opponents, they are easily crowded out. Madrid , meanwhile, look to utilise their pace and power during fast transitions but struggle to construct meaningful possession. Both sides need space to break toward, to offer dynamism, offer opportunities and above all, to create.

Whilst Mourinho is happy to vary his tactics, to allow pragmatism to reign supreme and always focus on the result ahead of the performance, the reverse is true, to a degree, in Barcelona where the performance matters just as much as the result. Where, as Cryuff stated, “there is no greater prize than being acclaimed for your style”. This is not an idealistic dream however, for Barcelona believes that their style of football presents them with the greatest opportunity of winning. They style is still a means to an end.

If Barcelona perform yet succumb to defeat, they can cling to their belief in still adhering to their philosophy of delivering stylish, aesthetically pleasing football. If the present Real Madrid side fall there is a vacuum built around Mourinho’s mantra that he is a winner above all else. When he fails to win, there is no fallback position.
In football, it is always easier to destroy than it is to create. Barcelona has found that out often in the recent past. It may be Madrid ’s turn to discover it next week at Old Trafford.

On and Off the Pitch

This promises to be an interesting few months for both Real Madrid and Jose Mourinho. With their league title effectively gone, attention will now turn to the two remaining prizes on offer for los blancos; the Copa del Rey and the real prize, the Champions League. Madrid now finds themselves at the midway point in their clash with Barcelona in the Copa del Rey with the tie delicately poised at 1-1 after the first leg and about to face Man Utd in the Champions League with a place in the quarter finals awaiting the winners.

The success of Madrid this season will dictate how Jose Mourinho is remembered when, if as widely expected, he departs the Santiago Bernabeu in June 2013. In his two seasons thus far, Mourinho has delivered a Copa del Rey and a La Liga title. If he can deliver the Champions League, la decima for Madrid , then irrespective of his own personal position and reputation, Mourinho’s place amongst the pantheon of Real Madrid greats will be secured.

Where will he sit if he fails to deliver any trophies this season?

The Portuguese coach has more power than any previous incumbent of the hot seat at the Bernabeu having gained Florentino Perez’ backing in his struggle with Jorge Valdano. Yet if he fails to add to his two trophies this season, would his tenure at Madrid be considered as a failure? It’s doubtful if another Copa del Rey would satisfy the Madrid faithful or even Mourinho himself for that matter. It’s the Champions League that everyone at Madrid covets. It’s been ten long years since they last claimed European club footballs greatest prize. The club remaining with nine titles to their name as they wait for their tenth title. Will this be the year for Madrid ?

If there is considerable debate over what is happening on the pitch, there does seem to be a greater sense of structure off the pitch.

Heading into this season, many Madridista’s were wondering who the new shirt sponsor would be for the start of season 2013/14 as it was clear that bwin was on the way out as sponsor.  Fortunately, the fans soon found out that discussions had reached fruition and a new deal was in the works with that one of the team’s partners and official airline, Fly Emirates, would be the team’s new shirt sponsor starting in August 2013.

Fly Emirates first signed a contract with Real Madrid in 2011 when they became an official partner and the official airline of the team but they did not become the new official shirt sponsor at that time.  That deal was worth around $7.2 Million per year at the time. However, things changed around April 2012 when it was revealed that Fly Emirates had negotiated a deal with Real Madrid to become the team’s shirt sponsor.  The new deal with the team will see Emirates shell out $26.7 Million annually to the club.

That number could have been a lot larger had the team agreed to new stadium naming rights.  Emirates offered the club $60.8 Million a year to rename the Santiago Bernabéu stadium.  The club, understandably given the history and tradition of the stadium and it’s name, turned down that proposal but reportedly did leave the door open for a corporate sponsor’s name preceding the stadium name.

Real Madrid ‘s changing of sponsors is just another in a string of changes that bwin has been going through in the past year.  The first came when the company’s merger with Partypoker was completed, with the new company now known as bwin.party.  Later, bwin.Party sold a surplus asset in the Ongame Network.  The network was a top five poker network, but bwin.Party wanted to focus on their own brand, currently number two in the world for online poker. 

Finally, bwin.Party signed a new team to a shirt sponsorship deal.  In August, bwin.Party signed a shirt sponsorship deal with Madrid ’s opponents tomorrow evening, Premier League club Manchester United, a deal that will begin in 2013.

Fans can now look forward to the future as the team has a solid sponsor in place with Fly Emirates.  The cash influx from the new sponsor will enable the new manager to strengthen the first team and the squad as a whole, as they continue to compete for trophies both at home and abroad.