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.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

What a Difference a Week Makes...

After a historic victory, in which Madrid thrashed Valladolid 7-0, the team came back and lost with an unimpressive performance against Real Betis. The loss, combined with Barcelona’s controversial victory against Zaragoza, has once again opened up the league by shrinking Madrid’s lead to five points in the table.

After a very quick lead, Madrid began to sit back and Betis put in two in five minutes, mostly due to two blunders by Marcelo. After that Betis parked the bus in front of goal and Madrid couldn’t get anything going offensively.

It might not be a bad thing to get humbled heading into the Champions League. Coming off a 7-0 victory, the team might’ve been experiencing a little euphoria, especially with all the talk that the league was over. Now they know that they are going to have to work really hard and step up their game both in league and in Europe.

One positive that I took from the last two games was the emergence of two Dutch giants. One is already one of soccer’s elite, the other is emerging into one. I’m talking about Arjen Robben and Royston Drenthe.

We here at American Madridistas had become very critical of Robben, saying that his purchase may have been one of the biggest blunders in recent transfer windows. While this is still entirely possible, he showed everyone that he wants and deserves a place in Madrid. We mostly criticized the economic side of the transfer, we all know that he is a world class player when fit, but if he can give the team what he gave over the last two games then he will be worth every penny. With the addition of Robben in the squad Madrid have an actual winger who can provide service into the strikers. This gives the team more options on the attack and it gives the opposition more to deal with. This is especially important considering that it is only a matter of time before more teams figure out that to stop Madrid you simply have to shut down their center midfield.

Speaking of Madrid’s future, we were all shown a glimpse into one of the future stars in Royston Drenthe. He was signed to the team after a dominant performance for the Dutch Under-21 team. He scored in Madrid’s last two games, and has shown the pace and flash for which he was brought.

The two Dutchmen combined to score Madrid’s only goal over the weekend.

I didn’t agree with Schuster’s decision to take out Drenthe because at that point the wings became nullified and Guti had been wholly ineffective throughout that entire match. The problem is that without wings, Madrid relies too much on Guti’s through passes. When he has the space he needs he is deadly but when opposition shut him down the offense basically stops. Julio Baptista has been a good second option but with the injury to Ruud Van Nistelrooy, the Beast has been pushed forward. Madrid needs wing players to expand their attack.

Let’s see what Schuster decides for the clash in Rome.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

They Just Keep on Winning

With style or with out, Madrid are on a historic run right now. They have the most league points to this stage of the campaign in their history. They almost have a double digit point lead on the second place team Barcelona. Not only that, but they have a confidence and a swagger that can’t be seen in any other side at the moment in Spain. They are coming off a crucial victory in La Liga in which all of their closest rivals dropped points while they gained three very valuable points. The game was not only important from a league table perspective but also from a performance basis. This was the first game in a while where the regular starters played and won with a true team performance. The last few weeks they had been relying too heavily on miracle saves from Iker Casillas and deadly strikes from Robinho and Ruud Van Nistelroy. However on Sunday everyone stepped up their game.

One player that made a very significant improvement was Fernando Gago. He was winning balls and making excellent passes, including a phenomenal flick to Sneijder which led to the game winning goal.

Also in the middle of the park, Guti had a very positive performance. He tends to be on and off but on Sunday he was most definitely on. His assist to Robinho was brilliant and his overall game play and passing was spot on.

As has been the case lately, Robinho is to be commended for a brilliant performance. He has transformed into a phenom on the pitch. Finally all the promise is coming to fruition.

The defense was rock solid and a special recognition should be made to Michel Salgado who played his heart out and only came out due to injuries.

There are a few out there who are beginning to whisper that with the victory over the weekend, Madrid may have all but wrapped up the league. I for one don’t agree with this sentiment and in fact it is this type of thinking that could ultimately lead to the team’s demise. However that fighting spirit that was kindled under Capello has lingered with this bunch and one gets a sense that they’ll continue to fight for every game until the season ends.

One interesting thought about this game and the next few to come. What is Schuster to do with Arjen Robben? The team is solid right now and throwing Robben in the mix could hurt the chemistry that is building between the regular staring eleven. Also with no more Cup games, Robben will have to build back his form and confidence in league games or heaven forbid a Champions League tie.

Things look good and are going well but let’s not forget to stay humble because at this time last year we were looking up to Barcelona.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

First Half in Review

Now that the the dust has settled in the Nou Camp and the first half of Madrid's season has ended, let's review what the team has done up to this point:

Best Game:
Madrid v. Villareal September 2, 2007

The best game of the year was only the second game of the season for Madrid. Coming off an impressive debut against Atletico Madrid, the team put on a show at El Madrigal.

The game was the complete package for fans as the first half was thrilling back and forth action between two very even teams. But then in the second half Madrid completely dismantled their opponents and put five balls behind the net. This game was not only visually great, but it was also huge psychologically because it put all of Europe on high alert; no one really knew at this point what Schuster's Madrid were going to be like.

Best Signing:
Wesley Sneijder

The young Dutchman came much to the relief of Madrid fans as he filled two critical areas for the team: a creative midfielder and a dead ball specialist. He quickly became a fan favorite when he was instrumental in Madrid's early victories and after the first few games was the leading goal scorer in La Liga. After his initial goal scoring explosion, he cooled down a bit and instead has taken a more supportive role, but he has nonetheless become a vital member of the squad.

Most Improved:

This was a very difficult category to choose but in the end, Robinho gets the nod for several reasons. Before this season Robhino was constantly criticized for his inability to turn his potential into a reality. This seemed to all change during the Copa America where he was made one of the central figures in Brazil's offense and Robinho absolutely flourished in the role. He brought that confidence and spirit back with him to Spain when the season commenced and hasn't looked back.

The man is everywhere on the attack, looking dangerous when he shoots and when he creates for others. His pace, power and finesse make for a deadly combination on the pitch. Watching last year's Clasico over the weekend, where Robinho was having trouble cracking the starting eleven, and comparing that to this year made it very clear who the most improved was.

Best Player:
Iker Casillas

Another extremely difficult category to choose considering what great performances many on the squad have turned in, in the end "San Iker", as he's been called for his miraculous saves, wins out.

No other player has changed the outcome of games as Casillas. He is often forgotten because he doesn't put the ball in the back of the net but without this rock in between the posts Madrid would not find themselves atop La Liga. This is especially true when one considers how shaky Madrid's defense was in the beginning of year.

So far this has been a list of only positives so here are some areas for improvement:

Inconsistent Play:
One week they'll look dangerous and free flowing, the next they'll grind out a one nil victory and not impress in the least.

Schuster and Calderon's Comments:
Schuster comparing Madrid to Roger Federer and Calderon saying that Messi wouldn't crack Madrid's starting eleven are both ridiculous and irritating. The only thing they are accomplishing is adding fuel to the fire for Madrid's opponents. As if they aren't already fired up to play Real Madrid, teams now have the incentive to make management eat their words. Please just shut up and let the scores do the talking.

Signing Arjen Robben:
All that needs to be said has been said in a prior post so it need not be repeated now, but the fact that it is late December and he has yet to play a game completely match fit is alarming. Hopefully he will have a second half that makes all the critics take back what they've said.

It's been a fantastic first half of the season for all the right reasons. Last year's first half was fascinating but mostly because of the saga that was Capello. This year the focus has been on the pitch where it needs to be.

Here's to an even better second half.