In the wake of Real Madrid's second disappointing loss to FC Barcelona in a row, many madridistas have been calling for head coach José Mourinho's head on a platter. OK, fine, that might be a little unfair. It is fair to say, however, that many fans (and some higher-ups and analysts) are calling on Mourinho to alter his tactics, to try to answer Barcelona's tiki-taka attack with his own version of a possession-oriented, creative offense. In particular, they say, this Real Madrid side isn't "creative" enough to beat Barcelona.
I disagree. And here's why:
In both losses against Barcelona, Real Madrid has shown extended periods of dominating play. Despite some mental slip-ups (and some very unlucky bounces), Madrid has been at Barcelona's level--but in a different way. Take the first 45 minutes of last night's clasico: Real Madrid came out with a defensive scheme that Barça has had trouble with in the past--the defensive midfield trivot--and essentially shut down their high-powered creative offense. Los blancos forced Barcelona, arguably the greatest passing side in the world, to try to play over-the-top passes in the air, and eschew their traditional between the lines diagonal game. Barça's best chance came on one of these plays, when a lofted ball found Aléxis Sánchez's diving head; the chance came bouncing off the post.
In fact, the Barcelona's first goal--and the goal that really mattered--came on a set piece, a corner, something that Barcelona rarely converts well. Madrid's defense was on pace to win the game for Mourinho until that mental slip up--unfortunately for them, the blaugrana converted it.
So, what does this all mean?Well, essentially, Real Madrid's defense was their best offense yesterday, setting up lethal counter-attacks, while shutting down Barcelona's all-powerful ground passing game. One of the best ways to beat this Barça side is to frustrate them into making a mistake, as Madrid did in the 11th minute when Cristiano Ronaldo slotted a ball past Pinto. Do I even need to remind you that the goal came thanks to a brilliant play in defense?
The truth is this: for much of the game, Madrid sat back and defended. People don't like to see that. But sometimes that's the best course of action, especially when your team is playing a possession-oriented side that plays the diagonal through ball better than anyone in history. In many cases Madrid's defense set up attacks that their offense couldn't capitalize on--but I don't blame the strategy (the trivot) or the defense for that!
Mourinho's biggest problem yesterday wasn't in his defense, or even in his defensive philosophy: it was his offense that let him down. And that's where the injuries come in to play: the all-important creator of the counter-attack, Angel Di Maria could have easily slotted in for Gonzalo Higuaín (completely lost), and Madrid would have been 100x better. Injured Sami Khedira runs a much more efficient game on offense than Lassana Diarra, while they play a similar level of defense. Mesut Özil could have played at Higuaín's position, as he is completely at home running a high-paced counter. The point here is that it's not the counter attacking, defensive trivot strategy that didn't work, it's that the players failed to execute it properly.
More than anything, as Real Madrid fans, we should be disappointed in Mourinho for his player selection rather than his strategy. This Real Madrid side runs the lightning-counter better than any side I've ever seen--it would be ridiculous to abandon that, especially against a side that is so vulnerable to it. The problem is that Mourinho didn't select the best offensive players to run that system: playing two strikers when you only have three true offensive weapons is a major mistake.
We'll see how the next leg plays out. But before we do, I would seriously reconsider attacking Mourinho for his strategy.
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