Spanish Debate: Why Madrid Were Better With Nine

Wednesday August 27, 2008 - 08:16:15
Shaafici Muxyidiin
Ewan Macdonald looks at why Real Madrid, who struggled with eleven men, so convincingly outplayed Valencia on Sunday night despite having just nine men on the pitch...


It was the second leg of the Supercopa last night, and commiserations if you missed it.

Often these early-season, not-quite-an-important-cup matches have the air of a glorified pre-season fixture, with little by way of risk from the players and not too much excitement from the fans. This two-legged Super Cup series, though, broke the mould. As if a 3-2 win for Valencia in the first leg wasn't enough, the second leg had it all: two-footed tackles, 25-yard strikes, some dazzling footwork, dodgy defending, questionable refereeing - the lot.

It also had red cards - two of them, in fact, both for Real Madrid. And the strangest thing happened as these were dished out. With each sending off came a marked improvement from Madrid, in terms of attitude, ambition, and even end product.


The Way They Were

First let's look at how the game started for Madrid. For around forty minutes they played with eleven men - and played fairly badly. While they were largely untroubled by Valencia they still contrived to go a goal down, David Silva's accurate drive leaving the unsighted Iker Casillas rooted to the spot. Los Che actually deserve quite a bit of credit for that goal: it was a fine passing move in Madrid's "dead zone" - ahead of Diarrà but behind the attacking quintet - that set it up, and they did it well.

At the other end some nice wing play from Arjen Robben - so impressive on the ball but somewhat disappointing playing the final pass - almost bore fruit, but nonetheless Valencia couldn't exactly say that they had their backs to the wall.

Then home debutant Rafael van der Vaart went in with a stupid, vicious tackle on Mata, and Madrid were both down to ten men and two goals down on aggregate. That's when the first wave of improvement began. Robben, already out on the right, was given plenty of space to work in as the team adapted to something of a 4-1-2-2, himself and Guti having a full third of the pitch to work with. Guti, while quiet, was generally in the right position, hassling Albelda and Baraja (who, incidentally, formed a rather useless double pivot after setting up Silva's goal - where did they go in the second half?) and worrying a typically shaky Valencian back line.

It was this freedom of movement, as opposed to the crowded, backline-hugging 4-2-3-1, that gave Madrid their first goal. It came from the penalty spot, but the actual cross that led to Albiol's handball - for which he should have been sent off, by the way - was borne of having space to run into the box without having to time a pass to a marked man or, worse yet, trip over one's own teammate.

Nine Lives

Then came the second sending off. Ruud van Nistelrooy's may be judged as slightly harsher than his countryman's, but lunging in on Baraja like he did was ill-advised when already on a yellow card. Off he went, and Madrid's chances of a further goal seemed to go with him.

Or so it seemed. In fact the blancos went on to enjoy their best period of the match from back to front. Sergio Ramos was, as Marca put it, "en su salsa" (roughly translating to "in his element.") Without too much to deal with defensively - and with the pace to ensure he was present when he had to be - he was given free reign up the flank to support Robben or otherwise get involved. Madrid often operated with what looked like three at the back - even substitute Royston Drenthe knew when to sit in and when to go forward - thus making up for the lack of an attacking midfielder while not crowding the area with bodies.

Raúl, who won't count this game as one of his all-time greats, will feel that he did OK in that he was able to hold the ball up and distribute it simply. His actual striking play was poor, but strangely enough he got away with it. And, above all else, Madrid's confidence never wavered.

Looking Ahead

It's not too often that Madrid will go down to nine men, but they can still draw lessons that can be applied in each game. Firstly, against the more sprightly sides of the Liga a 4-1-3-2 may work, but against teams that come to the Bernabéu and sit back it may be a case of 'too many cooks' if Madrid deploy their entire attacking arsenal in what essentially can become a straight line. For one thing, there simply isn't enough physical space for them all to work, at least not if Schuster doesn't have them in for quick-passing training four days a week. For another, guys like Robben thrive on being able to deal with two or even three defenders in a thirty yard area, and their talents are wasted if they are given a shorter space and fewer men to beat.

The most important lesson of all, though, might be that Madrid haven't shown any sign of surrendering their "comeback kings" tag. Madrid last season would have won this game, and they did so again here. The idea that Barcelona have a clear path back to the top after their own summer successes, then, is one that we'll be hearing a lot less of, because Madrid have still 'got it'. That's key, and away from all the tactical concerns, away from Robinho-gate, away from the booing and jeering, this Madrid side goes out and wins.

(Oh - and let's not forget Valencia's role in this. They are, quite simply, a poor side with great players. They've done surprisingly little to strengthen the problem areas from last season: sure, they've made some good signings, but generally they're in places that don't have too many problems. Their double pivot doesn't work; their central defence was, and remains, a bit of a running joke; Timo Hildebrand has yet to fully convince; Emiliano Moretti was shown once again to be a fairly limited full-back. Unai Emery, a fine manager though he is, clearly is only just getting to grips with the scale of the task on his hands. This is not the kind of side that can take and defend a lead, and that was his key error: to play such a slow game in the second half when the match was crying out for Villa and Silva to lead the charge on the break was a colossal error, but it's one that he was, in some ways, powerless to prevent. Expect to see the line-up changed for the Liga opener next week.)

But, yes, back to Madrid. What do you think?

Ewan Macdonald,

ALSO: Regular readers will note that the Debate has been very much Madrid-centric of late. Rest assured that, starting tomorrow, clubs such as Barcelona, Valencia, Atlético, and more, will be back on the agenda.

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