The new tactical identity of Real Madrid.

-Pgs

Image result for julen lopetegui

Under Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid won a frankly stupid three UEFA Champions League titles on the bounce. On the way to those three titles, Real Madrid faced a plethora of teams, teams such as Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli, Diego Simeone’s Atletico, Allegri’s Juventus, Heyneckes’ Bayern etc. These teams varied greatly in the tactics they employed and the level of individual talent they had. For example, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Real Madrid’s opponent in their third final employed a high press that aimed to win the ball as high up the pitch as possible and constantly attack. Diego Simeone’s Atletico on the other hand sat in a very deep block that aimed to afford the opponent’s attack as little space as possible and catch them on the break. Liverpool’s front three constantly harass their opponent’s defenders while Atletico only start to press vehemently when the opponent is in their half.

From a macroscopic point of view, the fact that Real Madrid beat teams with such varying levels of tactical identity may seem to be an indication that they employed tactics that led them to outplay their opponents, but in reality, this was not the case. Of course, Real Madrid weren’t bereft of tactics, but the ones they did use were very simple and usually involved in game changes. For example, in the 2018 final vs Liverpool, even though the line ups showed Real Madrid lined up in a 4-3-1-2 diamond, Isco often drifted to the left wing to support Marcelo against Liverpool’s wingers and fullbacks. Against PSG in the second leg of the round of 16 tie in the same campaign, Real Madrid started in a 4-4-2 with Asensio and Vazquez starting on the wings because of the absence of some key midfielders and to counter PSG’s strengths on the wings (even though Neymar was injured). The main philosophy of Real Madrid during Zidane’s tenure was to get the best out of the available players, and when the available players include the likes of Ronaldo, Modric, Ramos, Marcelo etc, the results are spectacular. However, just relying on individual talent did come at a cost. Those who followed Madrid closely know that they played some pretty drab football at times and won matches they had no right to because of the sheer quality of players they had. This was evident more than ever in the league. In Champions league nights, everyone turned up, but this same level of motivation was hard to maintain week-in-week-out in the league and the club suffered. Due to the lack of a proper system in most league games, the club managed to win only 1 in 3 under Zidane.

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However, when Zidane left in the summer of 2018 and when Ronaldo followed suit, massive changes were underway at the Bernebeu. Julen Lopetegui, the then manager of Spain was appointed as the new head coach of Real Madrid. Under Lopetegui, Spain had eased through qualifying and were on a 20 game streak in which they hadn’t lost. Spain used a possession based style that brought out the best of their technical midfielders, especially Isco. Isco started on the left wing for Spain but had considerable license to move inside. In this system, Isco had some of his best performances ever, such as the one against Italy which prompted Marco Verratti to compare Isco to Messi.

Under Lopetegui, even though the sample size may be small, Real Madrid seem to be a side reborn tactically. Real Madrid have won 4, drawn 1 and lost 1 game (his first game in charge against Atletico). They have lined up predominately in a 4-3-3. While the front three of Bale-Benzema-Asensio and the back line of Carvajal-Varane-Ramos-Marcelo have stayed the same in most games, Ceballos, Isco, Modric, Kroos, Casemiro have all played in midfield in different combinations.

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Under Lopetegui, Real Madrid have become a possession based side. In the five league games they’ve played, they’ve averaged 69% possession, with the highest amount of possession they’ve had in a match being 77% (on two occasions) and the lowest being 60%. In addition to this, the team averages 691 passes per game, a massive increase on the 445 they completed last season.

To maintain said possession, Real Madrid have undergone certain changes. Kroos has started as a single pivot in midfield more than once. Kroos’ excellent passing range and unflappability under pressure makes him the perfect player for this role. He is often the deepest midfielder, with his partners Ceballos and Modric having more license to move forward . This has often created odd looking shapes on the field, in which all three midfielders are positioned at different areas in the field. This happens especially when Ceballos or Isco play, as both of them naturally roam all over the pitch. Kroos controls play from deep by setting the tempo. Even when Casemiro has started or come on, Kroos has often been the deepest midfielder. Kroos and Casemiro seem to form a pseudo-double pivot which allows both Kroos to control from deep and Casemiro to protect the center backs. Another change is that in this new system, Real Madrid overload the side with the ball. This has occurred on the left hand side more than the right. Marcelo as usual is positioned very high while Kroos, Asensio and Benzema present themselves as passing options. Whenever Isco or Ceballos start, they too move to the area with the ball to form a triangle that helps to maintain possession. Due to this, the opposition is forced to move toward that side as well, freeing up the opposite wing. When the opposite wing is free or understaffed, it creates an opportunity to attack from that side. Usually Carvajal is free on the right and when the left hand side gets too crowded, a Madrid player, more often than not Ramos finds him with a cross field ball. By switching play, pressure is alleviated while an attacking opportunity is created.

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Lopetegui has also change how the front three operate. The fullbacks still provide support and are usually the widest players on the pitch, the wingers stay wider than before. Under Zidane, Ronaldo was a winger only in name. He occupied central areas in the box more than he occupied the wings. Benzema usually moved into Ronaldo’s area while Marcelo often had the whole wing to himself. In the 4-3-1-2 diamond, there were no wingers, even when both Bale and Ronaldo started. All the width was provided by the fullbacks while Bale and Ronaldo presented themselves as aerial targets in the box. In the new system, the wingers, especially Asensio are stationed wider and Benzema occupies spaces that a normal striker would. Asensio often moves inside with the ball from the edge of the box and has already won a couple of penalties this way. Bale on other hand does move inside to present himself as an aerial target but also does the things a normal winger would. The wingers also interchange more often. Bale and Asensio swap wings depending on the situation. Asensio on the right wing creates a new problem for the opposition; his ability to cut inside and score from range, while Bale can just outpace is marker and cross with his stronger foot from the left wing.

Defensively, Real Madrid have started to counter press, something that was virtually non-existent under Zidane. The team presses high up the field immediately after losing the ball. The back four are still pretty high and Ramos does have to occasionally cover Marcelo when he moves up field. However, the whole team defends under Lopetegui and seems much less vulnerable than before.

It is still very much the beginning of Lopetegui’s reign as the coach of Real Madrid, but the changes are very much evident. Real Madrid play more as a unit in attack now than before, partly because of Ronaldo leaving and forcing all the other attackers to step up to fill the void he left behind and partly because of the new system. They press more than before and hold on to the ball longer as well. All these changes are positive and all signs point towards Madrid having another successful campaign.

 

 

The best midfielder in Premier league history.

-Pgsscholesy gerry and lamps

The above three are undoubtedly the three greatest midfielders to ever play in the Premier League. One was a charismatic leader who could drag his horrendous teammates out of unwinnable situations through sheer force of will alone, one was a complete midfielder who could control, create, defend and produce the spectacular while the other was a midfielder like no other who often chalked up numbers that would’ve made strikers proud. So who among these three can claim the title of being the best midfielder that has ever graced the English game? The answer: neither one of the three. You may say I’m being contradictory to my own point, but read the very first line of the article again. The three players in the picture are the three greatest to play in the Premier league, not the best. If you look at their careers, very few players, let alone midfielders can come close to them, but if you look solely as their abilities as a footballer and their respective peaks, there is one midfielder who is better than them all.

The midfielder that I’m talking about is one of the most complete midfielders to have ever played the beautiful game. At his peak, he was a hulking presence who could out muscle everyone but had the technical ability of a classic Spanish midfielder. He could carry the ball from one side of the pitch to another, beating people with ease while shrugging off opponents as if they weren’t there. He could also station himself right outside the box to smash home a rebound, curl a shot into the top corner or make a late run and score. He could also put in a good defensive shift whenever his team needed him to. During his peak, this midfielder completed 68 passes per game at a success rate of 90%, completed 1.30 take ons at a success rate of 75% (higher than Messi), won the ball back approximately 2.3 times a game, created 1.23 chances per game, but most incredibly, scored 0.62 goals per game and gave 0.28 assists per game. For context, Toni Kroos, one of the best passers in world football completed on average 73 passes per game last season at a success rate of 93% while most top strikers average around 0.8 goals per game. The midfielder I’m talking about is non other than the multi-talented Yaya Toure.

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The 2013/14 season was arguably the most entertaining Premier League season of all time and due to this reason, Yaya Toure’s achievements could’ve been given less attention than they warranted. After all, the headlines were dominated by Luis Suarez’s 31 goal haul, Sturridge’s 21 goal haul, that infamous Gerrard slip and the title battle between Liverpool and Man City.  However, what Yaya Toure did that season deserved just as much praise and attention as the exploits of Suarez and co.

Yaya Toure wasn’t purely a statistical freak show that year. He started most of Man City’s attacking moves from their own half. He was the driving force behind Man City’s attack that year. Something that is even more impressive when you consider the fact that he played as a central midfielder behind attacking talents such as David Silva and Sergio Aguero.

Moreover, the quality of goals he scored that year was incredible. He scored an absurdly high number of long range strikes that season. He scored 10 free kicks alone that year. Ten free kicks. This proficiency from range was one of the primary reasons city could beat teams that parked the bus against them. In addition to his long range golazos, he scored numerous goals by driving at the opponent with the ball at his feet. He ran straight at his opponents, forcing them to back off and he either shot and scored or gave a pass to a player on the wing and scored from the cut-back. Just watch the video at the end of the article and see the sheer quality of goals he scored that year.

The 13/14 campaign that Yaya Toure is the best individual season a midfielder has ever had in the Premier League and is one of the best individual season any player has ever had in the Premier League. To have a season as complete as he did is no mean feat. That season was the zenith of his career. That season was the best version of Yaya Toure ever, and is the reason Yaya Toure is the best midfielder to have ever played in the Premier league, just not the greatest.

 

The Raumdeuter role.

-Pgs

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The Raumdeueter, or space interpreter in English is a pretty new concept in the world of football. The term for this role was coined by its inventor, Thomas Muller in an interview in 2011. The Raumdeueter role involves a player, who is highly intelligent and possesses great spatial awareness to identify and utilize space to maximum effect. Due to the nature of the role, it is not a fixed position and cannot be carried out by many players. Till now, only three players can be given the title of “Raumdeueter” and they are Thomas Muller, Dele Alli and Jose Callejon. All three aforementioned players are not exceptional dribblers, passers, are not super fast nor are they especially strong. However, what all three players have in common is an acute sense of space and how to utilize it, a fact highlighted by their high outputs and importance to their respective teams.

Thomas Muller, the creator of the Raumdeuter role has 10 goals in world cups and has reached double figures in goals in every season besides the 16/17 season. He has also played in a plethora of roles for his teams. He has started right behind the striker, as a right winger, as a lone striker and even as a sort of central midfielder. In all of these positions, he has performed the same role, finding pockets of space and operating in them, but not in the way a no.10 like James or Ozil does, but in his own unique way. Whenever the striker in front of him, mainly Robert Lewandowski, is occupying the central defenders, he stations himself in the space vacated by the defenders marking the striker. Usually, he stations himself in zone 14 (the central area right outside the box) and starts his run when the defenders go to block the cross or the winger, creating a small amount of space for him to attack. However, he isn’t limited to this type of run only. He often starts his run in between the left back and the left sided center back when he starts as a right sided forward. Whenever he starts in this position, he often occupies the space between the center back and left back, creating an awkward situation for the defenders as the left back is unsure whether to mark him or the attacking fullback. The center back on the other hand will be occupied by the striker, leaving Muller free. If the left back does mark him, then Bayern or Germany’s right back (Joshua Kimmich) has the time and space to send in a cross.

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The other Raumdeueter currently plying his trade in Europe is Jose Callejon. The former Real Madrid man possesses more pace than Muller and has a slightly different interpretation of the role. Though both play/played in possession orientated systems, Callejon almost exclusively starts in one position; the right wing. Callejon makes similar runs to Muller as he too runs the channel between the fullback and the center back, but unlike Muller, is more inclined to move centrally. With Lorenzo Insigne cutting in from the other side, he presents himself as an extra target in the middle for a through ball. His runs often position him right next to Dries Mertens. However, unlike Mertens who plays as an out and out striker (even though he is wrongly classified as a false 9), Callejon shifts out wide as well, creating overloads on the right side, forcing the opposition defense to switch to that side, leaving the left wing exposed and giving Insigne space to operate in. Callejon not only attacks space, but creates it as well.

Tottenham’s Dele Alli also performs a similar role for club and country as he often acts as the beneficiary to Harry Kane’s movement inside the box. Alli positions himself either behind Kane or on the edge of the area, ready to either poach a rebound or an Eriksen cross or make a dangerous run inside the box. Harry Kane occupies defenders in a similar way to Lewandowski, freeing up Alli to wreak Havoc in the box.

The Raumdeueter role has benefited the players performing the role and their teams greatly. Thomas Muller and Dele Alli are consistent goal scorers who often reach double figures in their leagues. Their intelligence and awareness have lead them to exceed what they would be able to do based on their physical attributes. Dele Alli, who isn’t a particularly imposing presence is a frequent scorer of headers, a direct result of the way in which he moves to find space. Thomas Muller is one of the all time leading scorers in World Cup history and has even scored 32 goals in a single season. The nature of their roles make it very hard for defenders to defend against them, but it also makes it difficult for players to simply adopt the role. It requires a very high footballing IQ that very few posses.

The role is not flawless though. It is highly reliant on the teams overall structure and system. Muller’s peak was during Pep Guardiola’s reign. Under the tutelage of the Spaniard, Muller hit his peak, scoring 20 in the league. He had the freedom to roam in a relentless system that always presented him the ball. Dele Alli too plays in a possession orientated system in which the team presses high and each player has his special role carry out. He acts as the secondary goal threat and is the target of crosses in the box. Jose Callejon operated in Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli, the team most similar to Pep Guardiola’s in the sense that both teams made use of quick passing and retained the ball for most periods of play. When Pep left and Ancelotti took over, Muller scored a paltry 9 league goals. Alli was one of the worst performers in England’s World Cup campaign as the system employed by his nation forced him to play deeper and was more direct than Spurs’ system. Callejon could never establish himself at Real Madrid and warmed the bench for the majority of his stay at the Bernebeu.

 

The Raumdeueter role is one that is ultimately very unique in nature and as more and more teams adopt high pressing and possession based systems, it is sure to see a rise in the number of players that perform the role.

 

 

The underlying reasons behind Ronaldo’s transition from a winger to a striker.

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-PGS

The end of the 2013-14 season was when the world started to witness the transformation of one of it’s greatest ever players from a winger to a striker. In the next few seasons, especially the 2015-16 season, the transformation became more and more apparent until he started to be classified as a striker altogether. The days of Cristiano Ronaldo bombing down the wings, using his incredible pace and skills to get past his marker and unleash a venomous strike were over. He started to play closer and closer to the opponents area. The number of long ranged goals decreased while the number of bullet headers went up exponentially. His underlying stats went down as well. In between the 2012-13 and 2017-18 seasons, Ronaldo’s dribbles completed dropped from 2.5 per 90 minutes to 1.3, chances created dropped from 2.5 to 1.69 per 90 and passes completed dropped from 35.61 to 28.79 per 90. However, the number of shots he took per 90 slowly increased from around 4.9 a game to almost 7 a game during the same period of time. In fact, he shot 5.5 times from within the area alone in the 2017-18 season.

The primary reasons for this drop off in actions outside the box were age and injuries. As players get older, they get slower and get tired more easily, everybody knows this. But age did not have as much of an effect as injuries did. Until Zidane came along in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Ronaldo consistently had 50+ game seasons. His speed didn’t decrease much as well. According to official FIFA statistics, contrary to popular belief, the fastest recorded speed at the 2018 world was Cristiano Ronaldo who was clocked running at 33.98kms per hour and not the ridiculous, and false, speed of 37km by Mbappe vs Argentina. However, unlike before, Ronaldo could not produce these gut busting sprints on a regular basis. Moreover, injuries played their part. His left knee was vitiated during the 2013-14 season. An injury obtained on his left thigh against Almeria in the 2013-14 season was the start of it all. Since then, small, niggling knee problems bothered him for the next couple of seasons. Then the infamous Payet tackle came in the 2016 Euros final. His left knee suffered ligament damage due to the tackle and he was out for 8 weeks. This injury forced him to play even more conservatively in the seasons to come. But injuries and age were not the only reasons he adopted a new role.

During the Mourinho era, Real Madrid was a much different team than what it is now. The main aim of the team then was to soak up pressure and obliterate teams on the counter. The team more often than not lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot of Xabi Alonso and Khedira, Mesut Ozil occupying the no.10 role, Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria on either side of him and Benzema or Higuain leading the line. This team could not keep possession of the ball as well as the current crop of Real Madrid players could. It’s main strengths were transitions because of it’s wingers. Ronaldo or Di Maria (mainly Ronaldo) would latch on to an Ozil or Alonso pass and would run forward would the ball. There were no natural ball carriers in the team and play started much closer to the Real Madrid box so it was their responsibility to progress the ball. This wasn’t much of a problem because of their incredible pace and dribbling abilities. However, it was very reliant on Ronaldo, a fact that was particularly clear during the 2012-13 season when the whole team under performed and Ronaldo had to do almost everything. Ronaldo is great, even the greatest of all time for a lot of people, but he can’t do it all as this system required him to. The system was flawed, especially in the Champions League. It’s a testament to Ronaldo’s ability that he consistently scored over 50 goals in a system in which he had to progress the ball and provide the end product. The build up play of this team consisted solely of running down the wings with an intermediary (Ozil or Benzema) switching up play during counters to create unpredictability and relying on Ronaldo’s superhuman abilities to get on the end of everything. Ozil, as good as he is, is not a controller. Di Maria is a winger. The two of them could not aid Alonso in cotrolling the ball. The beginning of the 2012-13 season was also the beginning of the end for this system because of two reasons; the signing of a certain long haired Croatian and the fact that it was Mourinho’s third season at the club.

Ancelotti arrived the next season and his very fist signing was Isco, an exceptional dribbler and creator who could hold on to the ball. Soon after, Gareth Bale arrived, a player who was incredibly similar to Ronaldo with respect to his speed and ball carrying abilities on the counter. The system changed as well. Di Maria, Modric and Alonso became the midfield three in a 4-3-3 and Bale started on the right wing. This midfield could control the ball because of Modric and Alonso. Both set the tempo of the game and very rarely lost the ball. Having Di Maria in the three created a numerical superiority as well. In addition to this, playing Di Maria in midfield was a stroke of genius by Ancelotti. His ball carrying abilities shone in this role as he constantly broke the lines with his dribbling. Bale also contributed to this as he progressed the ball on the wings. Behind Bale was Dani Carvajal, a much better attacker than Arbeloa. With Di Maria and Modric in the middle of the park, Real Madrid had two players who could carry the ball forward. Even though Di Maria left the next year, this role was carried out by other players such as Isco, James (who did it more with his quick passes than his dribbling), Kroos with his long passes, Marcelo etc. Ronaldo no longer needed to start counters. He could wait for the ball further forward and just score.

Furthermore, the main ideology of the team changed with Ancelotti and later Zidane. Ball possession was the name of the game. With the arrival of Kroos, Real Madrid had more control of the ball than ever. A midfield of Kroos, Modric, Casemiro and Isco with Benzema acting as a false nine increased the amount of possession Real Madrid had while progressing the ball. The plays started higher in the pitch and Ronaldo did not have to run as much. Benzema, as selfless as ever would float to the wings to create space for Ronaldo. With a midfield of such quality behind him, coupled with supreme fullbacks, chances kept on coming and he kept on scoring. The amount of chances he got and his efficiency was so great that the team won 4 out of 5 Champions Leagues. He alone outgunned Pep’s Bayern, MSN, broke Atletico’s and Juve’s supreme defences while breaking almost every possible record on the way.

The reasons for Ronaldo turning into the greatest striker in history can be summarized to the results of injury, age and a change in system, but in truth the reasons are much deeper. A lot can be said about this change, but no one can deny the fact that which ever role he played, he was the best in it.