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Post by Magricos on Mon Oct 24, 2011 12:32 pm

Saturday night's the night I like, sang Elton John (that ages me), especially when you've got Malaga v Real Madrid followed by Barcelona v Sevilla on the telly. It sets you up nicely for the in-the-flesh Sunday game, ultimately something of a snooze-fest in Anoeta between Real Sociedad and Getafe (0-0). Perhaps it just paled by comparison, although that should never be the case when it comes to savouring the live experience. Putting your feet up on the sofa and popping open a half-decent Rioja is one thing, but getting down to the local stadium should always be the aesthetic priority


An intriguing weekend in La Liga saw Levante storm to the top of the table ahead of Barca
Perhaps it was the warm south wind blowing around the rafters in Anoeta that dulled proceedings, but the game never got out of first gear. The same could not be said for the two top-billed games on Saturday night. However, I'd like to make some connections between the three games, if you'll bear with me. Last week we were looking at the media punta, and the influence of this type of player on the modern game, particularly in Spain, and although it was never my intention to turn this into a mini-series, the Barcelona-Sevilla game inevitably brought to the fore the related issue of how La Liga goes about its defending too - and the type of player it prefers to employ.

Just to look back for a moment - Villarreal's excellent performance at Manchester City last week, and the injustice of a last-minute defeat that almost surely spells their exit from the competition - raised the general and age-old question of whether it is better to defend by attacking, or defend by defending. When you are 1-1 in the second half, away from home, with plenty of time remaining and facing a side with attacking options galore, do you settle for the point or do you go for broke? My feeling was that Villarreal went for the latter, sensing that they could win the game as Manchester City tired.

Our old friend Borja Valero took over the game in the second half with a display of counter-attacking midfield play that would see him gracing the national side, if there were room for him. But he was helped by his defence, who played a stubbornly high-line - a risky policy unless you have at least one central defender who is fast. Carlos Marchena is many things, but fast ain't one of them. Cristian Zapata is rather more so, and as soon as Villarreal managed to advance their defensive line and play in City's half, they looked as though they could win it. Maybe, in the end, that is the reason why they lost.

Poor Villarreal. Nothing is going right for them this season, although they're not exactly playing badly. It was their subsequent misfortune to come up against the most in-form side in the league, the old men of Levante, who continued their amazing run of form by winning 3-0 in the Madrigal and returning to the top of the table. Barcelona's draw at home to Sevilla means they dropped to third, a point behind behind Real Madrid.

On Saturday night, Sevilla, hailed before the game by Pep Guardiola as the best counter-attacking side in Spain (after Real Madrid), seemed keen on proving him right. Jesus Navas' speed and directness will always make opponents nervous of pushing up the line too far, which explains why Javier Mascherano played almost like a sweeper in the second half, when Sevilla abandoned their counter-attack game and decided to park the bus. Mascherano is playing wonderfully at the moment, and snuffed out most of the occasional fires that came his way, even without Sergio Busquets and Pique as extra protection.



Javier Mascherano has shone as a ball-playing centre-back for Barca
What is Mascherano? A defensive midfielder? Maybe. But when the occasion calls, he's essentially a centre-half, all 1.74 metres of him. His anticipation of the play is first-class, like an Argentinean Bobby Moore, and his passing is simple but effective. He's also very quick, and players like him, who are comfortable on the ball and who float somewhere between the defensive midfielder and the centre-back role, are the new vital ingredient in the post-modern game - as long as there's a big guy around too, to clear those corners.

Sevilla's defensive performance was a more traditional one, and one suspects that it might not have borne fruit without the astonishing performance of Javi Varas in goal. Varas is no spring chicken (he's 29) and can hardly be hailed as yet another up-and-coming Spanish keeper, but after playing second-fiddle for so long to Andres Palop it's nice for him to get his 15 minutes of fame. Oddly enough, he's the first Seville-born goalkeeper to play for the club since the famous Guillermo Eizaguirre, who last donned the jersey in 1936, before the Civil War. The penalty stop from Messi was one thing, but his performance was just one of those days when a goalkeeper is unbeatable. He made at least nine top-drawer stops and diverted the attention from Victor Valdes, whose clean sheet meant that he beat his own previous record of having gone 576 minutes without conceding, in consecutive official matches. Nobody really noticed, however. Sevilla played with two shields (Gary Medel and Jose Campaña or Ivan Rakitic) in front of their centre-backs, but Federico Fazio is another of the new breed, technically a centre-back but with the touch and positioning of a midfielder. Julien Escude can also pass a ball half decently.

It remains to be emphasised that despite all the hat-tricks and thrashings this season, the top four sides are setting out their stalls by virtue of defensive meanness. Levante head the list with three conceded in eight games, followed by Barcelona and Sevilla on four, and Real Madrid on six. Madrid's easier-than-expected dismantling of Malaga, with all the four goals coming in the first half, once again showed the virtue of playing the game in your opponent's territory. Madrid's offensive weaponry is so potent (Higuain and Ronaldo now have 19 goals between them, more than any other side has managed, save Barcelona) that the chances of maximising their possibilities are more than helped by playing 'the high line', to quote that phrase again. With Sergio Ramos at centre-back, where he looks an awesome player, as opposed to an inspired but undisciplined full-back, the ball is played out of defence with some criteria, usually into the feet of Xabi Alonso, who then marks the rhythms like a metronome. Like Pique, Ramos is comfortable on the ball and is perfectly capable of advancing into midfield positions to set up the attack. Pepe is perhaps less gifted in this sense, but is so fast and leggy that the team can afford to risk the high line, because he'll always cover for any lapses.

When a team begins to struggle in a game, it's often because, in coaching parlance, there is too much distance 'between lines'. Most professional footballers can pass a ball from one end of the park to another, but there is little point in doing this if it simply isolates the player receiving the pass. The lines become too stretched, and the cohesion of the team falls apart. This almost always happens when one team has pinned the other into its own half, as Madrid did to Malaga in the first half, and suffocates them with constant pressure, with or without the ball. Madrid have learned something from Barcelona, and are beginning to recover the ball more quickly, hunting in packs.

One of the greatest nightmares imaginable for a La Liga side is the sight of Xabi Alonso standing at ease in the opposition half and directing the play, fed constantly by defenders behind him and hard-working midfield companions in front of him. At least if he's further back you have a chance of reducing his effectiveness, but like Barcelona's Xavi, he is supported by an infrastructure that is dedicated to keeping up the communication between the lines. Without ball-playing centre-backs, this is difficult to sustain. It's also the main reason why Dmytro Chygrynskiy didn't stay long at the Camp Nou and why Manchester Utd looked a more complete side when Rio Ferdinand was fit and at his best.

In Anoeta on Sunday afternoon, the contrast was illuminating. Although Real Sociedad have chosen to staff their defence with two centre-backs who are reasonably comfortable on the ball (Vadim Demidov and Inigo Martinez), everything is relative. Neither of them is really capable of consistently bringing the ball out of defence with either comfort or vision - perhaps the young Martinez will improve in this respect - but the result is inconsistency in the patterns of the build-up, and not enough possession for the midfield players.



Real Sociedad pair Vadim Demidov and Inigo Martinez are restricted by their unglamorous ball-playing abilities
The limitations this imposes made the match on Sunday look like something from a darker and more distant planet than the Saturday night fare. For Getafe, a side who always try to play decent football, centre-backs Albert Lopo and Cata Diaz did it slightly better, but not to the extent that the visitors were any better served in the high-line stakes. In the end, the game fizzled out because neither side was more compact than the other, and neither of them had the technical confidence to advance their lines. Neither had a decent media punta either- but that's another story.

The ball-playing central defender is nothing new, I know. It originated with the sweeper concept, where the player would emerge from the ruck and re-set the patterns, 'free' from the restraints of the other positions (hence the libero tag). But these players were there to protect lumbering centre-backs from themselves, to clean up the mess they left behind. Now that the sweepers are history, the centre-backs, like the modern goalkeepers, need to be able to do more with their feet. In La Liga, to challenge for the top four positions without this type of player is now unthinkable. As Gregorio Manzano once memorably observed in a heated press conference, 'If you turn like the Titanic, you'll sink like it as well.

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Post by Doc on Mon Oct 24, 2011 12:39 pm

Was gonna make a thread about it but I figure ppl could just go over by soccernet and read it but still, always a good read and this week is no exception...


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Post by Mr Nick09 on Mon Oct 24, 2011 12:56 pm

The piece about midfielders is a must read, most important position in football.

It just makes me want to have moar midfielders, MOAR.

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Post by Magricos on Mon Oct 24, 2011 1:53 pm

St_Nick09_of_Goal wrote:The piece about midfielders is a must read, most important position in football.

It just makes me want to have moar midfielders, MOAR.

Yeah the media punta article is even better.

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Post by Adit on Mon Oct 24, 2011 2:05 pm

Our old friend Borja Valero took over the game in the second half with a display of counter-attacking midfield play that would see him gracing the national side


:bow:


btw fantastic article.

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Post by Adit on Wed Nov 23, 2011 4:39 pm

It was General Election day on Sunday in Spain, and as you can imagine, everyone was really interested in who the next Prime Minister was going to be. Well, as long as the football results were in first, of course.


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Spain's elections were won by the Spanish People's Party
The tabloid Marca has an occasionally witty back-page columnist by the name of Miguel Serrano, and he openly admitted in the Saturday edition for which PM he was intending to vote. He said that it would be for a guy with a beard, whose surname began with 'R' and whose party began with 'P'. Good one Miguel. And anyway, it wouldn't matter particularly, because both Rajoy and Rubalcaba (whose parties are PP and PSOE respectively) are both Real Madrid fans, which means that for the first time in eight years, La Moncloa will revert to being the White House. Does this matter?

Well, sort of, yes. Football has always been very politicised in Spain, and it's part of La Liga's spice. Age-old tensions between regions are often apparent in the simple denomination of the referee for the game, since the Spanish FA insists on publishing (as do most) the colegio (regional school) from where the referee hails. This means everything to some supporters.

"Ah! He's from Cantabria! That explains everything" goes the argument. As a mere foreigner, I wouldn't wish to dispute these things, but it goes deep here. Most Spanish football supporters are professional conspiracy theorists, and almost all of them are convinced that La Liga, though not entirely corrupt, is at the very least adulterated. They are all very suspicious of the Spanish Federation's head honcho Angel Villar, for example, and how he has managed to stay in power for 20 years, when Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, leaving the Moncloa on Sunday, is only allowed eight. Villar supports Athletic, by the way.

Real Madrid were born - but not thus named until 1920 (they entered as Madrid Foot Ball Club - and yes, the 'foot' and the 'ball' were separated) for a tournament in 1902 to celebrate Alfonso XIII's coronation, and as such have always been associated with central power, whether that is fair or not. Barcelona, who beat them 3-1 in that tournament, the first official game between the two clubs, were always keen to avoid such labels, and were founded by a young Swiss businessman, a fact that has always associated them with a more cosmopolitan air, looking out from the shores of the Med. And whisper it in the corridors of the Bernabéu, but the founders of Real Madrid were actually two Catalans.

Barcelona were always slightly uncomfortable with Jose Luis Rodrigo Zapatero's support for them, partly because of the ex-PM's remarkable resemblance to Mr Bean, partly because of his growing inefficacy, but also because in the end, he turned out to be a bit of a loser. Nice enough bloke, but hey - this is football. His predecessor, the right-wing Partido Popular PM Jose María Aznar, made no secret of his support for Real Madrid, and was rather more bullish in his assertion that being PM and supporter of RM were two entirely distinct matters. The problem with such an idea was that nobody bought it very easily. Aznar´s friendship with Florentino Perez, the latter's own politics, and the importance of Perez in the bricks-and-mortar world would make for some uncomfortable reading, especially with the sale of the club's training ground in 2001 to the City Council, which wiped out a 290m euro debt. Politics aren't important? Pull the other one.


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Mariano Rajoy and wife Elvira - Madridistas both - celebrate election victory with a kiss
Spain's first elected Prime Minister after the transition in the post-Franco era, Adolfo Suarez, was seemingly neutral when it came to football, which was just as well, given the volatile scene at the time. Real Avila's stadium does bear his name, but they're in the 3rd Division and nobody really gets to add that to their La Liga trivia questions.

Felipe Gonzalez, the one most foreigners remember, was important because he was a big Betis fan, and made no secret of his allegiance to the club, calculating (sincerely, most people think) that the club's reputation as the 'working-class' club of Seville would help to cement his reputation as a good socialist, as a man of the people. To some extent, it worked.

Prime Ministers aren't always the people that Autonomous Communities first look to, however, and the Catalan Generalitat seems to play very much by its own set of rules. But politically and culturally speaking, it would be very difficult for any leader of the Catalans to reveal him/herself as an Espanyol supporter. Jordi Pujol, the longest-serving leader of the Generalitat after the transition, sometimes seemed to be the president of Barcelona football club too. He seemed inseparable from it somehow, despite looking very much like Yoda from Star Wars. But now we're getting Mariano Rajoy, a Galician by birth (from Compostela), and not the sort of chap that you'd really want declaring undying love for your football team. As this column is not a political hustings space, I'll keep my opinions to myself, but he reminds me of my old Biology teacher. Just can't see him without a white coat on.

Talking of Real Madrid, I watched their game at Valencia on Saturday night with some interest. For the three previous seasons Madrid had won there, but there was a nagging feeling in the air that they might not manage it this time, partly because it seemed like it was time for their good run to end, and also because Valencia have a good home record and it's always hell playing at the Mestalla.

Madrid's win, in slightly controversial circumstances (was it a handball by Higuaín or wasn't it?...the clip will be replayed for several years now as evidence of aforementioned conspiracy theories) was actually an important one, ground out in circumstances that might have seen a lesser white-shirted collective fail.

Valencia played poorly in the first half, but once they changed personnel and tactics in the second they got on top, despite Sergio Ramos putting Madrid 2-0 up on 71 minutes. Their ex-forward, Roberto Soldado, (oddly overlooked by Vicente Del Bosque considering that Fernando Torres couldn't hit a bull's arse with a banjo) scored three minutes later and did so again later on to bring back the score to 3-2, after Cristiano Ronaldo had scored his customary goal.

The win gives Jose Mourinho an eleven-match run of successive wins, the best in his career, and brings him level with Pep Guardiola on that particular record. This is joyful news for madridistas too, accustomed as they have been for the past few seasons to clutching at straws, but now other circumstances also seem to be more favourable.

Of course, Real Madrid are desperate to remain three points ahead of Barcelona, with the clasico looming. It would all seem to be falling into place - the PM is once again RM, and there's a chance of going six points clear if they win the big one in December. Barcelona have Getafe and Levante as warm-ups, whereas Atletico Madrid at home and Sporting away may look a teeny-weeny bit more difficult for the leaders, but nothing to get too worried about, the way things are going.

How odd that Karim Benzema, so often the target for the fans' ire, and so often looking like a duck out of water, has finally settled into demonstrating just what an excellent player he is. He faded away in the second half at Valencia, but not before scoring a cracker and generally giving out a lesson in how to play the visionary centre-forward role.


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Karim Benzema: Now looks the Real deal after another matchwinning display
You can never be quite sure what he's going to do with the ball, and never quite sure whether he's going to eschew it altogether and make the run into space. His passing is excellent, and his movement a sort of threatening glide. Great player. It seems bizarre that anyone could ever have thought otherwise. It's the Gallic shrug and the timid body language. The Bernabeu prefers a good macho strut - but they will accept others if they prove themselves over time - Emilio Butragueño comes to mind, and he is Benzema's spiritual father.

Talking of other greats, Leo Messi was the subject of some controversy in midweek, the journalists at Pep Guardiola's press conference asking if he was to be rested, after flying home from South America quite late in the week. Guardiola, annoyed by the questions, asked the journalists if they preferred him not to play - which may well have been the case with several of them.

Of course, Messi did play against Zaragoza, and of course he scored. Which doesn't mean that (some of) the journalists don't have a point, but Messi is simply from a distant planet, in most respects. He is also very probably a Jedi. If he doesn't need to rest, he doesn't need to rest. It defies belief, after flying so many miles, cooped up in a pressurized cabin, but it would seem to be second nature to these guys.

I couldn't even make it to Anoeta for the lunch-time game against Espanyol. "There's a bug going round", as the English say, and the bug's got me good, sore throat and pounding headache. It could just be old age, but I couldn't even manage to stagger to the bar to watch it on TV.

Apparently, I didn't miss much, and Real Sociedad remain bottom, despite the fact that Granada's game against Mallorca was suspended after sixty-four minutes after one of the referee's assistants was hit in the face by an umbrella, bizarre though it sounds. The whole thing was doubly unfortunate because the game had previously focused the Spanish weekend, apart from the elections, on Granada's Carlos Martins, whose three-year old son Gustavo needs a bone-marrow transplant (donor) to survive.

To really cap the evening, Martins had just scored Granada's second goal, putting them 2-1 ahead. He was then booked a minute later for a foul, which seemed to be the spark for the incident - as if the spectator was protesting at the yellow card. They'll have to agree on a date to play the rest of the match.

In the Champions League this week, it's simply a case of Real Madrid and Barcelona trying to make sure they go through as top of their groups, with the Catalans' visit to Milan the rather more interesting of the two games, with the Ibrahimovic factor still intact. Madrid's game with Zagreb looks like a stroll, but you never know. Valencia must beat Genk, and hope that Chelsea get a result against Leverkusen. Whatever happens, their final game at Chelsea looks like a potential epic.

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