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.

Advertisements

Man Utd vs Real Madrid – Decisions, decisions.

An enthralling encounter at Old Trafford that produced a fascinating tactical battle. Whilst much debate will surround the referee and the dismissal of Nani in the 56th minute, that was not the sole reason why this contest altered direction. This article will focus on three issues in the game and a fourth topic on the fall out.

Man Utd Shape – As Madrid play Barcelona, so too will Man Utd play Madrid.

Even allowing for Ferguson surprising many with his starting eleven and the decision to keep Rooney on the bench, the key point from the outset was the strategy being employed. Just as Real Madrid approach clasico’s now, allowing Barcelona to have possession with a mid-level block and only pressing when they enter your territory, Man Utd would perform a similar tactical ploy against them. A tactical “what goes around comes around” from Ferguson albeit without the desired final outcome.

One of the key issues pre-match focused around the ability of Man Utd to play a patient, disciplined defensive form the outset to frustrate Madrid. The side selected produced a tactically superb performance for 56 minutes.

Giggs, making his 1,000th career appearance, began on the right to support Rafael who was tracking Ronaldo. In the first leg, Rooney had let Coentrao escape his attention on three separate occasions and the side narrowly avoided punishment. These were errors which Giggs would not replicate.

The graphic below shows Man Utd interceptions:-

Man Utd Interceptions

Man Utd Interceptions

The majority of interceptions arrived on the Man Utd right where Rafael and Giggs performed well. They were also aided by Madrid’s passing coming via the central defenders and not Alonso as discussed later.

The central midfield composed Carrick and Cleverly with Nani on the left, stationed higher than Giggs on the opposite side in an attempt to take advantage of Arbeloa’s lack of attacking intent. The full back is more conservative enabling Nani to focus more on his offensive ambitions.

Wellbeck was behind Van Persie with the task of suppressing Alonso. It was a task which he performed extremely well whilst still offering an attacking outlet, bursting from a deep position at pace.

Xabi Alonso – The Conductor

Has Xabi Alonso ever produced a quieter first half?

The deep lying playmaker attempted just 20 passes and completed just 14 as he found himself being squeezed, principally by Wellbeck with assistance from Van Persie.

Man Utd were content to allow both Varane and Ramos to have possession and bring the ball forward with Wellbeck and Van Persie positioned either side of Alonso and ready to close him down. Mourinho must have anticipated this to an extent, as Alonso seldom altered his position during the first half, remaining deep and allowing Arbeloa and Coentrao to move higher on the flanks.

The graphic below shows Alonso’s first half passes:-

Alonso Passes First Half

Alonso Passes First Half

The majority of passes are very short and any longer passes tended to be inaccurate, a consequence of being pressed quickly but also Man Utd controlling space effectively in their final third.

As the first half wore on, the quality which Alonso brings to the side becomes more prevalent. Build up play slows down as they enter the Man Utd half and there is no pattern to attack. The orchestra has lost its conductor.

As soon as Man Utd were reduced to 10 men, Xabi Alonso immediately benefited. His shadow, Danny Wellbeck, was repositioned onto the left wing and Alonso had space to move forward, collect passes and begin probing and building play with his customary diagonal passing which stretches opponents.

The man who would benefit most though, was still on the bench but would be quickly introduced at the expense of Alvaro Arbeloa.

Luka Modric – Impact and Effectiveness

As soon as Man Utd were deuced to 10 men, Mourinho responded by withdrawing Arbeloa and introducing Modric.

The Croatian had an immediate impact with a driving forward run, easily side stepping Michael Carrick and scoring the equaliser from 22 yards out. He was able to link play and stretch Man Utd across the whole pitch as he completed 32 passes out of 33 attempted.

The graphic below shows his passes:-

Modric Passes

Modric Passes

Yet it’s worth considering why this was Modric’s best performance in a Real Madrid jersey. Why was he able to influence the game so effectively when he has struggled in La Liga. The answer is probably that he was facing only 10 men and had space to play as Man Utd collapsed onto the edge of their penalty area after a period of about 10minutes incessant pressure from Madrid. Modric found the space that he is so often denied in Spain.

The decision to introduce Modric was the correct one. Arbeloa was sacrificed an Khedira moved to a right wing back position but this performance from Modric should mark the beginning of his Madrid career and not the high point. He must build upon it.

Prophets of the Past – The Revisionist Perspective

And now enter the Prophets of the Past. Those individuals who will assess the game entirely and it’s pivotal moments purely in the light of the result and the decision to dismiss Nani. Decisions before and after that moment become inconsequential as the narrative is altered to suit the pre-determined agenda.

The acquisition of Modric will be vindicated despite his inconsistent domestic form and Ferguson will avoid more probing questions regarding his tactical decisions during the game.

The outcome of this game was not decided by the red card. It was a key moment but the outcome thereafter was not inevitable. The resulting space in the midfield area was a direct consequence of a Man Utd tactical reshuffle, enabling Madrid and primarily Alonso and then Modric to begin constructing play.

That Modrid was only introduced after the red card is worthy of closer scrutiny. Why not introduce him when Di Maria was removed through injury? Why was Kaka chosen to come on when both play centrally and Ozil was shuffled to the right? Does Mourinho still not rate the Croatian that highly? Or does he recognise that in tight spaces, the effectiveness of Modric is reduced?

Man Utd played Madrid perfectly; to a point. By closing out Alonso and allowing Madrid possession in safe areas, they reduced the effectiveness of Madrid and falling back to a low block greatly altered Madrid’s tempo when they entered the final third.

In the aftermath of this game, the tactical success that Man Utd enjoyed until the dismissal of Nani must not be forgotten. Ferguson has established a template for defeating Real Madrid. True, some sides such as Jurgen Klopps’ Borussia Dortmund will attack them but for the vast majority, the plan to be followed has now been clearly identified.

But equally, should questions not be asked of Ferguson’s response to his side being reduced to 10 men?

Just as Mourinho reacted quickly, introducing Modric and seizing the initiative, could Ferguson have taken an alternative course of action? Given how crucial controlling Alonso had been, should Wellbeck have remained positioned on him leaving Khedira free on the right wing instead?

The German does not possess the same passing range as his midfield counterpart. It would have been a risk enabling Khedira and Ozil to combine on the right but it was a significantly greater risk allowing Alonso time and space. Evra would have been told to stay back and retain shape with assistance from Cleverly.

Could Van Persie have been sacrificed with an additional player such as Kagawa in midfield to enable Man Utd to hold out? Perhaps even introducing Evans as a third centre back for 30 minutes permitting Celverly and Carrick to run and harass the Madrid pairing of Alonso and Modric.

It’s all entirely hypothetical of course but there is the lingering thought that as good as Ferguson’s initial team selection had been, when key decision were made correctly, when Mourinho reacted and forced the issue, allowing for the mitigating circumstances, Ferguson failed to respond.

Mourinho’s assertion following the match that:-

“Independent of the decision, the best team lost. We didn’t deserve to win but football is like this”

is easy to say when you win. Would he have been so magnanimous if Madrid had vacated the tournament?

For Madrid, there remain questions. Mourinho has built an excellent side but has he now tweaked his side to achieve one aim and one aim only; the defeat of Barcelona.

And in doing so has Madrid lost sight of the requirements to break down sides who adopt a defensive approach with a low block?

Does Madrid possess an alternative course of action? When Man Utd tightened up during the second half in the Bernabeu and followed a similar gameplan for 56 mines last night, Madrid were bereft of ideas.

Mourinho and Madrid still have time to address this area as they enter the quarter finals, their pursuit of la decima still intact following a thorough examination.

Real Madrid vs Barcelona – Tactical Analysis – Deja Vu

After Madrid’s convincing win over their rivals in the Copa del Rey fixture midweek, the clubs renewed hostilities in the league albeit with little at stake due to Barcelona’s 16 point lead. Both sides minds were firmly fixed on forthcoming Champions League games.

And it appeared to be a serous case of Deja Vu. It was as if the midweek clash in the Copa del Rey had never occurred. Barcelona changed a couple of players yet set about their task with the exact same game plan which played perfectly into the hands of a mainly fringe Real Madrid side.

Line Ups

As expected, both sides made a number of changes to their respective starting line ups for this game but the extent to which Mouirnho made changes surprised many observers.

Madrid chose to rest Alonso completely as he continues to nurse a minor injury whilst Arbeloa, Khedira, Di Maria, Higuain, Ozil and Ronaldo all began life on the bench

Essien moved in at right back with Pepe in a defensive midfield role.

Real Madrid vs Barcelona Starting Line Up

Real Madrid vs Barcelona Starting Line Up

Roura brought Mascherano and Thiago into the side for the injured duo of Puyol and Xavi. Villa started with Cesc on the bench.

For Madrid, this game, as important as a clasico is, was entirely secondary to Tuesday night in Manchester. Whilst Barcelona needed a performance more than anything in this game following recent disappointments.

Possession, Possession, Possession

Once more in a clasico, Barcelona dominate possession but Real Madrid possess a much greater attacking threat. The possession stats look anomalous. Barcelona made 631 passes from 701 attempted as they gained 63% possession they they scarcely looked like scoring aside from their one goal. Madrid meanwhile, only made 186 successful passes but carried a real attacking threat borne out by their 14 attempts at goal. Strangely, all of their attempts came from the left to centre positions. No shots originated from the right.

David Villa started but is becoming increasingly marginalised and wasted in a wide left position. This may offer Barcelona tactical width but Madrid were unconcerned by him and retained their defensive shape. The lack of a central reference point, somebody who can make runs and occupy and stretch opposing central defenders is a major obstacle now.

The inability or reluctance to to shoot at goal is becoming something of an issue for Barcelona. The graphic below shows their shots at goal in this game:-

Barcelona Shots

Barcelona Shots                       http://www.squawka.com

Barcelona managed five attempts in 90 minutes yet Ronaldo could muster six attempts in a brief 32 minute cameo.

Quite simply, Barcelona appear to be content with possession for possession’s sake but there must be an end product. There is no point in passing the ball. The 30th minute summed up Barcelona’s approach. Messi and Iniesta exchanged a series of passes about 10 yards inside the Madrid half under no pressure. Why should Madrid charge in and press their opponent thus opening up space?

Apart from Messi’s goal, the only other shot on target from Barcelona arrived due to an error by Madrid.

The heat map below is further evidence of Barcelona’s inability to enter the opposition penalty area. Barcelona dominate the middle of the pitch:-

Barcelona Heat Map

Barcelona Heat Map                     http://www.squawka.com

There are two issues for Barcelona to address.

1. If Barcelona are intent on continuing such an approach then they must tempt the opponent out by building play deeper. They force the opponent deep and contribute to their own downfall. Construct play deeper and allow the opponent to move forward. It carries risks but also rewards.

2. Barcelona must develop a greater sense of dynamism and verticality to their game. Too often the movement is lateral. They need to adopt a little of what makes Real Madrid so good; the explosive pace and movement on counter attacks. Barcelona will not counter like Madrid with the players they presently possess but they can increase the tempo and counter. Forgo the control for that riskier pass every now and then. Take the chance.

Work Ethic

Real Madrid set up with a broadly similar set up to that which worked against Barcelona midweek. The main difference this time being that whereas Ronaldo and Higuain were less inclined to track back, Morata and Benzema recovered position quickly and dropped deep.

The performance of Callejon was one of complete discipline and intelligence. The forward sacrificed himself for the team, undertaking his defensive tasks with diligence and completely nullifying Alba in the process. Callejon made two successful tackles in the game, both occurring deep within his own half.

The heat map below shows his time more or less split between both halfs:-

Callejon Heat Map

Callejon Heat Map

There was something almost Saachian about this Real Madrid performance today. So often the side was very compact with the whole team being within about 25 meters from defence to attack. Lines were compact and the team defended as one unit before bursting forward when they became more open.

The graphic below shows the Real Madrid side in position when Barcelona have possession at the halfway line:-

Real Madrid Defensive Positions

Real Madrid Defensive Positions

To retain discipline and organisation for the full 90 minutes requires a superb collective effort from all the players. And yet again, a Madrid side prevented Barcelona from creating many genuine opportunities. This was not a park the bus performance, it was a Rolls Royce performance.

The Goals

Madrid opened the scoring after just five minutes. Ramos intercepted a Thiago pass near the halfway line and released Morata who making his clasico debut. The young forward beat Alves far too easily on the left and whipped in a cross to the far post where Benzema had run off Mascherano and knocked the ball home. Alba was five or six yards further back when he should have been much closer to his central defender. It is a goal so typical of Madrid. Gain possession and swiftly attack before the opponent can regain shape. It’s the exact sort of goal that Barcelona seldom score.

Too often recently Barcelona have lacked penetration with no player making runs in behind an opponent to stretch their defence. David Villa provided this to an extent against Sevilla even though he spent considerable time on the left. The equalising goal arrived when Messi made a surging run forward and latched onto Alves through ball. Cutting to the inside of Ramos, Messi beat Lopez at his near post far too easily. The keeper really should have saved the effort.

Messi becomes the first player to score in 16 consecutive Liga games and also equalled Di Stefano’s record of 18 goals in the clasico. It was the one bright spot for Barcelona.

Sergio Ramos scored the winning goal. For the third clasico in a row, Barcelona concede a goal via a header. The ease with which Ramos beat Pique in the air was considerable,demonstrating a gap in the physique and power between the sides.

Where Now?

With two wins in a row under their belts, Madrid can head to Manchester in fine fettle for the real game that matters to them against Man Utd in the Champions League. Having said that, it will be a strong boost that a team containing to many squad players, albeit hugely talented squad players, can see off Barcelona without any real examination.

For Barcelona, a period of greater introspection is needed.

The illness of Vilanova had pushed Jordi Roura into the limelight. Clearly uncomfortable with the role and now clearly struggling in the role, the primary concern Barcelona face is overcoming Milan in the Champions League. To do so though, requires recognition of the issues facing the side and an ability to make key alterations mid-game. Thus far, Roura has not demonstrated either skill.

At this precise moment, decisions that Barcelona take off the park could prove to be as important as decisions they make on it.

Conclusions

For such a meaningless game, as if any clasico could ever be completely meaningless, there are significant ramifications for each partner.

Despite being a game with lower than normal intensity, a win is still important. The 16 point gap between the sides being narrowed to just 13 points will have no bearing on the title but this game, and midweek, is further confirmation, if it were needed, that there is no inferiority complex from this Madrid side when the face Barcelona. It is now Barcelona who are left to wonder how they will defeat their rivals from the capital.

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.

Real Madrid vs Rayo Vallecano – Perfect or Perfunctory?

Following their midweek exertions in the Champions League, Madrid returned to domestic duty with a derby against Rayo Vallecano. Madrid entered this game confident of victory as you would expect when they play at home with comfortable home wins over Rayo in  each of their last five meetings with 19 goals being scored in their favour.

Arbeloa, Higuain and Modric were all suspended for this game but Mourinho was still able to surprise people with his line up. Morata began the game for his first league start with Benzema on the substitutes bench, where he would remain for the entire game.

Six wins in their last eight league games had catapulted Rayo into contention for a European slot. Paco Jemez had no injury or suspension issues for his squad ahead of this game, the most pressing concern being his own suspension following his expulsion in last weekend’s 2-1 home win over Atleti. There was one change for the game with Jordi Amat being replaced by Figeuras in central defence

The Game

Depending upon your viewpoint, this was either a perfunctory win for Madrid or a perfect win given the prevailing circumstances such as injuries and suspensions. This game was much easier for Madrid than perhaps anticipated and even the dismissal of Sergio Ramos did not distract los blancos from the task in hand.

A night of mixed emotion for Sergio Ramos. The defender was making his 250th La Liga appearance, scored a goal and collected the 16th red card of his career. There was something inevitable about the red card after Ramos was harshly cautioned for an innocuous foul on the halfway line in the 16th minute. Following his complaints, he attempted to block a cross from Rayo and with the ball striking his hand, he collected his second caution in just one minute.

The red card saw Madrid revert to a 4-4-1 for much of the game and drop deep, allowing Rayo to dominate possession but ultimately create few meaningful chances

Kaka delivered another good performance in only his third La Liga start of the season. Again, his willingness to help out defensively was a bonus for Madrid as he won the ball for the opening goal before releasing Ozil on a diagonal run to cut back for Morata to open the scoring.

The Madrid Midfield – Who Takes Control?

Even prior to the dismissal of Ramos and the reduction of Madrid to 10 men, there was legitimate concern over how the midfield would function. With Essien and Khedira as the central pair and Kaka ahead of them, who would assist Madrid with the construction of play and retain possession?

Or does that matter for the best counter attacking team in the world?

Madrid completed 163 passes from just 227 attempts translating to 40% possession against a Rayo team comfortable on the ball but lacking penetration when they entered the final third. Madrid were never exposed in this game as Rayo offered little to trouble their defence or Diego Lopez in goal therefore should the inability to retain possession be a concern for Madrid or should the result be all that matters here?

As ever, Madrid looked extremely dangerous during transitions but against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey and then Man Utd in the Champions League, adopting a similar position will not be sufficient as Madrid need to at least score in both games. If Man Utd were to consider a defensive position such as that adopted during the second half at the Bernabeu, Madrid could find their dream of la decima ending abruptly.

It’s a difficult balancing act over the next few games prior to Man Utd. Alonso must be handled carefully to recuperate from his niggling injury whilst Modric need further game time to bed down at Madrid but with a double header against Barcelona on the horizon, what are the solutions?

Would Mourinho rest players for the league match given the circumstances to ensure that players are fresh for the two games that really matter?

Rayo – Dare to Believe?

Faced with playing 10 men for 73 minutes and with those 10 men falling back into a 4-4-1 formation with two deep banks of four, Rayo should have offered something better in attack. In some situations though, it’s not a lack of technical quality which can adversely affect a team. It’s a lack of belief. Too few Rayo players believed that they could get something from the game even though they trailed 2-0 at this point. It’s a significant departure from their performance at home last week against Atleti when they seized control of the game.

Baptistao was unable to become involved in the game sufficiently leaving “Chori” Dominguez with the bulk of attacking duties. The Argentinean is on a season loan from Valencia and performed well with two efforts had goal although he should have produced something better with his first attempt which went narrowly wide.

The graphic below highlights Rayo’s failings. Too little activity within the Madrid penalty area:-

Rayo Vallecano Heat Map

Rayo Vallecano Heat Map                          http://www.squawka.com

Paco Jemez acknowledged his side’s failings:-

“I’m not leaving here happy. We should have been able to cause their ten men more problems. We lacked something in the final third.”

Were Rayo so preoccupied with avoiding the concession of goals during transitions that they altered their own set up? Certainly in the first half, they seemed reluctant to produce their normal game.

Conclusions

For Mourinho, it’s another league game out of the way and the Copa del Rey semi final and Champions League are a step closer.

The red card for Ramos may present problems in the league  but a suspension should ensure he remains fresh for the game at Old Trafford, the key game at this point of the season.

A very disappointing performance from Rayo. The red card for Ramos presented an opportunity for Paco Jemez’s men that they never seized. Their away form remains very poor and will probably be the reason that they fail to secure a European berth at the end of the season. It’s now four wins and eight defeats in their twelve away games this season.

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.