Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Madrid Win the League, Destroy What's Left of Barcelona and Relegate Zaragoza

It has been a very strong finish to the season for Real Madrid. They’ve won their last three games and oh yeah also happened to win La Liga for the second consecutive season. They won the league in very dramatic fashion, reminiscent of last year’s unbelievable finish which saw Real Madrid winning the league on the last game of the year (which I had the fortune to see in person at the Bernabeu). I plan on writing a more in depth year in review for Real Madrid after the season officially ends where I’ll really touch on the championship aspect of their season but for now I’ll just focus on the last three games.

The league winning game against Osasuna was a good representation of Real Madrid’s season. At times the play was beautiful, at others it was awful but it was always loaded with heart. When things looked dire, they came together and won a match that they deserved to win. You could see how truly excited the players were when Higuain scored the winner and it was nice to see the whole team celebrate.

After that win, the team was still euphoric and it showed against Barcelona. One really couldn’t find two more different teams on that day. Madrid looked confident and happy, Barcelona looked uninterested and slightly afraid. By the end of the game I honestly felt bad for Barcelona. I really do hope that day clean house and come back strong next year because things in Spain are so much more interesting when they are as strong as they have been in the past. I would never root for Barcelona but there’s no doubt that they bring out the best in Real Madrid.

The most recent game against Zaragoza was a very interesting one for me personally because secretly, I kinda hoped Zaragoza would pull it out against Real Madrid. Having gone to Zaragoza’s stadium last year to watch them play Real Madrid, I could sense the pride and strong support they had from their fans and it is always sad to see a team get relegated. Madrid had absolutely nothing to play for and to their credit they played a good game that was very entertaining.

For me, aside from winning the league, one thing that stood out from all these games was the fact that finally most of the squad is healthy. I realize some players were out of the Zaragoza game due to injury, but there were no long term injuries to be found amongst the players. It was especially nice to see Ruud Van Nistelroy and Christoph Metzelder back and playing well.

Arjen Robben continues to impress with his great play out wide. He has literally began to take serious playing time away from Robinho, which I personally don’t like as I would like to see the two of them out there at the same time, but it is a testament to how well Robben is playing at the moment. Let’s hope he can come back healthy from the Euros this summer. Another player that has come into his own of late is Marcelo. What a terrific attacking left back he is becoming. He was just sensational against Zaragoza and I expect big things from him in the future.

Now that the season is basically over, everyone’s focus will turn to next year. Who will stay? Who will go? It seems like Madrid are keen on only signing a few players and trying to keep this core together for next year. I must say that they are doing this exactly right. A few of the players being linked right now are very exciting (David Villa, Ricardo Quaresma, Klass Huntelaar) and others are just unrealistic and need to be put to rest (Cristiano Ronaldo, Cesc Fabregas) but for now we’ll just have to wait and see. Once the dust settles and the euphoria from winning the league dies down, I’m sure the transfer window will become as exciting as the season was.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


It’s been a very long time since I’ve decided to sit down and write about Real Madrid. The reason for this is quite simple; the team has been so dull I didn’t find anything worth writing about. Things changed this weekend and as a result here I am again.

With their win over the weekend, against a tough Racing Santander, Real Madrid has basically won the title in Spain. Mathematically, the league has not been decided. However, with a 10 point lead and only 15 points left to play for, Madrid’s chances of winning the title are very good. To add to that bit of good news, Madrid played well against a tough opponent. The victory was not stylish or flashy by any means, but the team looked organized and tight with crisp passing and a majority of possession. The defense was also top notch.

In my opinion, this is the kind of football to expect from a Bernd Schuster team. Keep in mind that he was hired to bring attractive football to the team, despite the fact that Shuster’s previous team Getafe held the best defensive record in La Liga last year. I think the team will certainly be more attractive than Capello’s team but nowhere near the type of free flowing game that Madridistas were promised.

I realize that there are many who have criticized Madrid for being lucky or boring and generally not playing like a champion. While there is some merit to these statements, I think many (myself included sometimes) have become too immersed in a narrow view of the team, instead of looking at the big picture.

This is a new project for the team. Let’s not forget that they just finished the Galactico era last year. This is a new era, one with new faces and new ideas as to where the team is going. The fact that they won the league last year and are poised to win it again is actually very impressive. The team currently has a nice balance of youth and veterans and with probably one or two more additions can become a major European threat.

Speaking of the squad, Phil Ball, who is the Spain correspondent for Soccernet, wrote a very interesting piece in which he discussed one of the more talked about players for Real Madrid, Mahamadou Diarra. Ever since his return from the African Nations Cup, Diarra has found it difficult to find consistent playing time and has been very highly criticized by fans for what they perceive to be a lack of quality. Phil Ball makes the argument that Diarra does everything he’s supposed to right. Ball argues that it can’t be a coincidence that Diarra is about to win his sixth consecutive league title. This Diarra situation could cause a headache for Schuster during the summer as he will have Gago, Diarra and Ruben De La Red all for the same position. Obviously someone will have to move and I would actually move Diarra. The reason for this is that De La Red and Diarra will give the team the highest financial return, but De La Red is only 22 whereas Diarra is 27.

Another player of note, though he is noteworthy for his absence, was Guti. While the team passed the ball well and controlled the game, they didn’t really create too many dangerous opportunities. This is Guti’s role and it’s clear that when he is missing, a spark is absent in the Madrid attack.

I think the team really needs to have a more consistent creative midfielder who can share the role with Guti. I would prefer to see Guti come off the bench and Madrid go out and sign a top creative midfielder. As the summer transfers heat up I’m sure there will be many disussions about players to sign and not sign, but of the names I’ve heard so far I think Diego from Werder Bremen would be best. He is a great creative mid who also has the added bonus of being great friends with Robinho. They’ve already both said they would love to play together and I think their linkup could be exactly what’s missing in the Madrid attack.

If nothing else the performance over the weekend rekindled my desire to discuss the team. Let’s hope the team inspires more discussions from here to season’s end.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

No Champions League, No Plan B...No More Schuster?

At about this time last year, despite being in the midst of a historic championship run, there were many who debated whether then coach Fabio Capello should continue at the helm of Real Madrid. In the end, he was let go and I think the situation worked out for the best for everyone. However this does not change the fact that I think he was unjustly let go. Capello was hired to win a championship, he did just that and was promptly fired.

After the team got knocked out of the Champions League this season, Capello’s replacement, Bernd Schuster, now finds himself under the same scrutiny as his predecessor. Almost immediately following the defeat to Roma, the Spanish media started to call for his head. Now there are talks that ex-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has been in contact with the higher ups at Real Madrid. As if Schuster’s problems weren’t big enough, he now has to deal with Mourinho nipping at his heels.

Once again, I find this entire situation to be very unfair to the manager. The performance during and result of that Champions League defeat was unexpected and unacceptable from a team of Madrid’s stature. However, I don’t think it should be the basis for an overhaul in leadership.

To be fair, the team has not looked good for a some time now, and some of that definitely has to be blamed on the manager. Schuster was responsible for that defensive minded “double pivot” formation that paired Fernando Gago and Mamadou Diarra in the 1-2 loss to Roma. If someone watched that game and didn’t know the result of the first leg, it would not be unreasonable to think Madrid was up a goal or two with that formation. Gago and Diarra in the midfield is just unnecessary when the team is down a goal.

It’s important to also remember that Madrid is simply an injury filled squad at the moment. Add to that all the suspensions and now we’re talking about a thoroughly depleted side. Ironically, Madrid were knocked out of the Champions with almost the same starters and tactics as the Capello era.

I think that the people who run the team as well as the fans are too short sighted. They want victories, titles, flash, and goals and they want them now. They need to understand the importance of letting a project grow and breathe. Madrid changed their signing philosophy over this last transfer window, swapping the Galaticos for talented youth in the development stage.

Players like Drenthe, Robben, Marcelo, Pepe and Metzelder need time to develop into the players they are destined to develop into. In order to do this they need to get used to a manager and a system. Constantly changing the game plan might hinder their growth. Simply look at Robinho for proof of this. As soon as Schuster said he was going to become an integral part of the attack, he flourished.

With a victory over the weekend Schuster has bought himself some time, but another defeat and the talks for his dismissal will no doubt reignite. I believe that Schuster should be judged when the side is healthy and completely match fit.

This entire health situation has shone a spotlight on a major problem that both Schuster and the administrative staff at Real Madrid have not addressed; a plan B.

What I mean by that is that when the team is hurt, they are basically caught with their pants down and have no idea what to do. All the great sides in Europe are rich in talent. Teams like Manchester United, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Barcelona can all survive when their starters get hurt or are suspended. This has not the case with Madrid. When starters are hurt the drop in talent is significant. The best example is the right back position, which goes from Sergio Ramos to Michel Salgado. Salgado’s best days are behind him, and he is unfortunately prone to injuries, so he’s far from an ideal backup.

Please don’t misinterpret my position on the managerial issue as pro-Schuster; he has not had enough time with a full squad to state with surety what his managerial merit is. My position is one of sticking with someone and letting him run the team his way for more than a season. Once players are healthy and settled for more than a campaign one can begin to form informed opinions with an appropriate sample size.

It’s obvious that results alone won’t save Schuster from this point on. As a minimum he has to win the league and if he doesn’t do it with the style that Ramon Calderon sees fit, then heaven be with him. Let’s just hope that however the season ends, we as fans can see the healthy and fit starting eleven that we were all were so excited about when the season began.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Things Start to Even Out

After their third consecutive loss, things are looking quite dismal for Real Madrid. Their most recent loss to Getafe has been the most painful as it was the result of an embarrassing lack of attention by the players. What has happened to the team? Has all the talk of the league being over gone to their head? Is Robinho that important to the squad? Have the players collective taken a dip in form? While all those factors have contributed, the main cause for this situation is a little thing called statistical regression.

I realize that statistics are not a major part of soccer, but having been raised following baseball, I can’t help but be interested in the numbers of the sport. The basic idea behind statistical regression in sports is that a team or player can’t escape its natural talent level. There will always be peaks and valleys, but over the course of a season, teams and players will end up where they belong as far as stats and results (usually). Simply put, statistical regression means that the high and low points of a season even out to place a team where it should be.

Looking at Real Madrid’s season with this in mind, one finds a few things. First of all, Madrid is a good team but not a great team. In the first half of the season, they were getting the results of a great team. They were winning games where they were getting outplayed, getting all the breaks, and frankly getting a little lucky. Granted, there is a little bit of luck in winning any competition, but after a certain point the luck runs out.

This is where statistical regression comes to play. Now it seems like Madrid is outplaying their opponents but can’t win. All of a sudden, Madrid seems to be creating chances but the team is not able to finish them. The injuries, the bizarre goals given up, and the few goals created are all a result of this regression phenomenon.

This statistical regression is being seen by two of the other big clubs in Spain; Barcelona and Sevilla. Sevilla have quietly been shooting up the table and are only two points away from a Champions League spot despite a horrific start to the season. Barcelona have reaped all the benefits of Madrid’s drop off and now find themselves only two points down in the league, and are sitting quite comfortably in their Champions League tie. This after the team was mired in player controversy and general lackluster play.

Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that statistical regression is the only factor in determining a season for a team because that is obviously not the case. There are plenty of intangibles that have a heavy hand in determining a league or a cup. However, statistical regression does have a part in explaining why teams play over their head or under perform, and then magically seem to end up where they should at season’s end.

Recently the Spanish newspaper “Marca” published an article stating that Real Madrid has statistically shot and defended better than their last few opponents, yet the results haven’t come. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be reading the phrase “Regresion Estadistica” in the paper any time soon.