Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Mourinho damned either way

The fall-out from last week’s Clasico battle has centred almost entirely around Jose Mourinho and his influence on the current Real Madrid side. Although the club remain five points clear in La Liga and could well win the title the fact that they remain so far behind their eternal enemies Barcelona in terms of quality is proving too galling for many to accept.

For possibly the first time in his career Mourinho maybe made to vacate his position before world domination is obtained. It is a peculiar situation given all that he has achieved during his tenure in Madrid but the fact remains that the club are still languishing behind their most bitter rivals. He has seen off Jorge Valdano, he has broken club records left, right and centre and could even win La Liga this season, but it is still not enough.

During the pre-match build up last week former Madrid player Michel Salgado was debating his former club’s plan for the match with the Skysports panel. He stated that this club is not somewhere where win at all costs counts; the fans and board demands a certain style is adhered to and currently Mourinho is falling short of this when they play Barca. However, at half-time, with Madrid one nil up he changed his stance and praised the players, and the manager. Clearly the fact that I don’t reside in Madrid limits my ability to have my feelings on the pulse of supporters’ thoughts but I would imagine this echoes their thinking too; they play great football against all other sides but then become incredibly negative when playing Barca.

However, only last season Mourinho took his Real side to the Camp Nou with an attacking edge and plans in place to beat Barca. This couldn’t have turned out any worse as they were humiliated five nil. They were simply outclassed in every aspect and were taught a lesson in some senses. It was during that embarrassment that he decided he could not compete with them on an attack minded front. The majority of the Barca players have played together for years and have an incredible understanding that simply cannot be bought. The likes of Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro and Xavi know each others game inside out which makes them incredibly difficult to play against.

Rumours have also surfaced of a training ground altercation between Casillas, Mourinho and Ramos which could be the beginning of the end for the Portuguese manager. Those two players are stalwarts of the club and will not take kindly to disagreements with their manager. Over the course of history players have always been more powerful than the coaches at this club and although it has changed slightly I cannot see it being any different this time.

Tomorrow night’s game will be a fascinating watch, although one already feels like it is a forgone conclusion; Barca should win the game and advance to the next round. Mourinho left out several of his more defensive players at the weekend and could do again tomorrow night. If he goes there and attempts to contain Barca he will be criticised and if he goes there and attacks they will be ripped apart; he simply cannot win. What seems clear is that things are not well in Madrid and although they still remain top of the league the main goal still appears to be toppling Barca, with or without the Special one.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The modern day defensive midfielder

There was a time in the not too distant past when the defensive midfielder was thought of as an unskilled position. It was where you would deploy your terrier, someone to harry and disrupt the opposition. In recent times however, it has become one of the most important roles within the side and when done well is an integral part of a successful team.

Although the position suggests it is predominantly defensive we are seeing more instances of players becoming far more offensive. In fact in some cases there is even cause to suggest the position can be undertaken by the playmaker, which is probably best demonstrated by Andrea Pirlo of Juventus and Italy. He is able to make space for himself in tight situations and then dictate the pace of the passing when his side breaks forward. Being blessed with a fantastic range of passing enables Pirlo to truly pull the strings for his team.

I still remember the first time the defensive midfield role really made me sit up and take note; it was Fernando Redondo’s performance for Real Madrid against Manchester United in 2000. The way he conducted his team was like something I had never really seen before; he tackled, he passed, he did an amazing trick to assist Raul for Madrid’s third at Old Trafford and became my favourite player overnight. It was a complete contrast to seeing someone like Roy Keane or Patrick Vieira who were the leading exponents of that role in the Premier League. Its not that they were bad players, both are probably two of the leading examples of central midfield play in England but they didn’t have that little bit extra; they would not have had that extra thought to outfox an opponent and provide that creative spark.

This position is now more crucial that ever before with the advent of the ‘false 9’ position which is becoming ever more popular. With fitness levels ever increasing the space between the midfield and defence is getting increasingly hard to marshal with runners coming from central and wide positions. The finest defensive exponent of this was Claude Makelele who has been paid the biggest compliment of all by renaming the position as the ‘Makelele role’. The best players are always the ones who make things look easy and Makelele made the defensive midfield position integral to Madrid’s Champions League triumph in 2002. Their defence was not the best and it struggled often for numbers as the full backs were usually found rampaging up the wings. The discipline Makelele had enabled the side to play to their attacking strengths and with him in place the defence was not exposed as frequently as it could have been.

Having mentioned some notable players already it is now time to look at the latest of the leading defensive midfielders in world football. Although he is not the most potent attacking threat his ability to read the game, change position and to keep the ball moving makes Sergio Busquets the ideal modern day player. Of course he is aided quite considerably by playing for Barcelona who are currently the best club side in the world. His manager Pep Guardiola is continually trying new tactics and testing new formations. He is extremely lucky that Busquets is such an intelligent player; often when the Barcelona full backs attack he will drop deeper to form a defensive trio alongside Pique and Puyol. For a side that dominates possession and generally play in their opponents half this ability is so vital to the way they set up and play.

Everyone was able to witness how Manchester United were torn apart by Barcelona in the Champions League final last year and how they lacked someone to shield the back four. This position is specialist and there are very few truly great players in that position playing at the moment. With football evolving and adapting as the years go by it will be fascinating to see how the role develops in the coming years. I for one would imagine that the role will become more creative as the game evolves; the game is moving away from the defensive side of things and goals are what everyone wants these days.