Friday, 24 August 2007

How not to build a new squad

With the arrival of Heinze (12 million euros) and Robben (36 million euros) from Manchester United and Chelsea respectively, Real Madrid have taken their summer transfer spending spree to a staggering 119 million euros. This, just on five signings (Pepe, Drenthe, Sneijder, Robben, Heinze). A further three (Saviola, Metzelder, Dudek) came 'for free', or at least for no transfer fee. Add to these the two returning from loan (Soldado, Baptista) and you find yourself with an almost brand new starting eleven (and almost all positions on the pitch would be covered, too).

A strange strategy for a club that has just won the league championship, you might think. Well, you would not be alone, but this is Real Madrid and normal rules never apply here. If you take as a given that the club needed an infusion of fresh talent and a change in playing style, then there are still several issues which suggest the whole thing just has not been planned at all:

  • Replacing the manager took far too long; consequently the club was late getting the transfer strategy under way. The signings have come so late they have not had time, for the most part, to integrate into the squad. The manager has not yet instilled a recognisable style of play either.
  • Paying well over the odds for an unknown central defender, thus signalling to all and sundry that Real Madrid was in the market to get fleeced. Even if Pepe turns out to be the next Paolo Maldini, the damage was done, hence the ridiculous sums of money that have been spent this summer.
  • No clear direction in the signings. The left side certainly needed reinforcing, but they then went and signed three left-footed players (Heinze, Drenthe, Robben) and got rid of a young right back (Cicinho), leaving that position half-covered (Salgado should probably have gone and Ramos is better in the centre).

Neither Robben nor Heinze will play in tomorrow's league opener against Atlético. Torres and Higuaín are still injured, and Cannavaro picked up a knock in training. It looks like Casillas might be fit in time to see whether Reyes makes good on his promise to score against Real.

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Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Capello lashes out

Marca has an "exclusive" interview today (continued tomorrow) with Fabio Capello, but you won't find it on their website, only in the printed edition. He has some choice words for the management, led by Calderón and Mijatovic, especially about the manner of his dismissal after winning the league title:

"Mijatovic lied to me and (assistant coach) Franco Baldini, who had a very important offer from another team. He said: 'You will stay here, we will all be staying here.' I never heard anything from him (Calderón). He has never called me... I think I deserved some respect from someone who came to get me from Italy, someone I helped to win the elections and succeed as president."

Harsh words, and yet not surprising. It's been fairly well documented that Mijatovic initially wanted Capello to stay, but probably buckled under pressure from Calderón and the rest of the board who wanted 'exciting football' at the Bernabéu. To save his own skin, he stabbed Capello in the back so that the decision was seen to be unanimous.

"What hurt me most was that they appointed me to do a serious, tough and difficult job and we had a very difficult dressing room to deal with. There were many conflicting groups and each one had its leader who blamed the others when things weren't going well. But we pulled the team together, recovered the team spirit and they played with great enthusiasm and belief."

All true. This is my main gripe with the management. They had no class. You do not set objectives for someone, knowing full well how they intend to deliver them, and then proceed to remove them when those methods become unpalatable. They may have had the excuse they wanted, had Capello not won the league (one almost senses that they would have preferred this), but they went ahead and did it anyway. This may come back to haunt them.

Capello also blamed the management for the decision to exclude David Beckham from the squad. "The decision was taken because the club management said that he had negotiated with them, having already agreed a contract with Los Angeles. They said that they couldn't count on a player that wasn't going to remain at the club."

At the time, I suspected this may have been the case. However, it cannot be the whole story. Capello must take responsibility for either bowing to pressure or agreeing that the punishment was adequate. That he eventually recanted when things got tough is not necessarily to his credit, if it's not accompanied by an apology for his earlier decision.

Capello also praised AC Milan for signing Emerson from Real Madrid for 5 million euros. "Milan have made a fantastic signing in Emerson. He is a champion that can give a lot. He struggled at the start of his adventure with Real Madrid but then he recovered well. Emerson is a complete midfielder, able to interpret to perfection all the roles in the centre of midfield."

He would say that, wouldn't he, given that Real brought him from Juventus on his advice. But, to be honest, Emerson never really completely clicked at Real, no matter how many chances he was given. It is true he brightened a little towards the end of the season, but his overall performances never justified his price tag. Presumably this is why he has been let go for a fraction of his original cost (both he and Cannavaro signed for around 20 million euros last summer). Emerson himself had harsh words for the management at the club: "During the hard times I lived through last season I never had a call from the president. He did not behave correctly towards me. There is a huge gulf between the players in the squad and the management."

It'll be interesting to see what Capello says in tomorrow's second instalment.

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Monday, 20 August 2007

Capello would not approve

When Capello was sacked after finally bringing the league title to the Bernabéu following four trophyless seasons, Calderón justified the "unanimous" board decision on the basis that they needed "to find a more enthusiastic way of playing". In other words, attractive football would reign over the expediency of results at any cost.

Last night he got his wish, although not perhaps in the way he might have hoped: a crushing home defeat at the hands of Sevilla in the return leg of the Spanish Supercup saw eight goals scored at the Bernabéu. Sevilla proved to be superior in pretty much all aspects of the game as they picked up their fifth title in 15 months (2 UEFA Cups, 1 Spanish Cup, 1 European Supercup and now 1 Spanish Supercup).

What is surprising is that under Bernd Schuster, Getafe tied Barcelona for the least number of goals conceded (33) during last season's league championship. In other words, he built his team around solid defensive principles. With Real Madrid, he doesn't seem to have decided on a playing style or scheme, or even a fairly consistent starting eleven. This is fine in the middle of the preaseason, and there's been a fair amount of movement in the transfer market, but the league opener, the Madrid derby against Atlético, is only five days away, and the Bernabéu crowd can turn nasty very quickly if he doesn't deliver.

The Madrid press so far have been fairly forgiving of Schuster. This is hardly a major shock, given that they were the ones hounding Capello all of last season and demanding his presence at the helm. Their criticism so far has been mild, but this will quickly be forgotten if Real's performances don't improve soon.

There are worrying signs that the pressure is getting to Pepe. Following his provoking a Cadiz player by spitting at him (getting both the Cadiz player and his team-mate Diarra sent off in the process), he topped this by a truly unfortunate display last night where he gave away a penalty resulting in Sevilla's third goal, was partly responsible for three of the other four, and ended up getting sent off in the dying seconds of the game. Not the best way to justify the 30 million the club spent on you during your home debut. Drenthe, on the other hand, did get a cracking goal, but it was all for naught.

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Thursday, 16 August 2007

You can't trust anyone

"... and even less at Real Madrid". So said Iván Helguera, in his usual uncompromising manner, demonstrating that he won't be winning any prizes for diplomacy any time soon.

The quote comes from an interview in this week's Don Balón, following his move from Real Madrid to Valencia this summer. For the benefit of non-Spanish speakers, I've translated selected extracts.

Do eight years club as big as Real Madrid leave a big impression?

Yes, I played nearly 300 games there and won many titles; there's no doubt that leaves its mark. Almost everything was good, although I've also had many disappointments.

Did the club behave well towards you or did you leave with a sour taste in your mouth?
The vast majority of what I went through there was good, but I've also had many bad moments in the past few years. In spite of everything, I cannot leave with a bad taste in the mouth, because, as a footballer, Real Madrid have given me everything and for that, I will always be grateful.

Were you surprised by Fabio Capello's departure at the end of the season?
In truth, yes, because he was asked to win the League and he won it. After he arrived, the team progressed upwards. But you know what football is like. You can't trust anyone and even less at Real Madrid. They opted for a change and I wish Schuster lots of luck, although obviously not at Valencia's expense.

Without Roberto Carlos, Beckham, Helguera... it looks like Real Madrid will be very different to what we've seen in the past few years.
I think so. Schuster replacing Capello already makes it a different team. But, at the moment there's not been that many signings given the "revolution" that had been promised.

[This interview most probably took place before Real's Madrid very recent signing of Drenthe and Sneijder]

They say Schuster is a guarantee of attractive football; do you think it's a risky approach?
I don't know, because, aside from Getafe, Schuster has coached Cologne, Levante and Xerez. I believe that out of those four teams, he hasn't done too well in three. He was a great player and he will be a good coach. Time will tell either way.

Is it a mistake to say that Helguera is looking for a golden retirement at Valencia?
Yes, because I had offers from clubs abroad who were less demanding than Valencia and who paid more money. I decided to join this club because I like it, I respect it, it has ambition and they've put their faith in me.

Do you think your honesty has ever cost you dear?
Yes it has, but I don't care because that is my character, you can't change people. I always try to say what I think; it's my way.

Are central defenders at Real Madrid cursed?
Not at all. What happens is that people think that Real Madrid has to win every game 4-0 and that is no longer feasible. It's absolutely not cursed, and especially not for Spanish defenders. You only have to look at my figures there, as well as Hierro and Sanchis, for example.

But you cannot deny that when Sanchis retired it was a struggle to fill his position, the same happened with Hierro, and perhaps the same will happen now that you've left.
Perhaps it's cursed for foreign players. The problem for a central defender at Real Madrid is that the team has to play attacking football, which leaves gaps in defence. The same thing happens at Barcelona and that is a disadvantage for defenders.

What did it mean to you to leave the Bernabéu having won the League title?
It was a tough victory. Noone was betting on us and we ended up silencing a lot of people. Real Madrid was a disaster who was never going to win the league, but we did it through hard work.

Was it a triumph based on self-belief?
Self-belief and desire, but especially character. We gave everything on the pitch.

Barcelona has signed up some first class reinforcements. Will that many stars intimidate the rest
The Real Madrid of the galácticos, as Florentino used to call them, was also intimidating, and we went three seasons without a title. Barcelona has great players but they are not unbeatable. Last year both Real Madrid and Barcelona had lots of problems both in the League and the Champions League and Barcelona won nothing. This means that hard work is an important element and that makes Valencia one of the favourites.

Pepe will be your replacement. Do you think 30 million euros is too much to pay for a central defender?
That depends. You can pay that for a striker so there's no reason not to pay it for a central defender. It's not a crime. If they pay that much for him it's because they have a lot of confidence in him. This is just to do with the way the market is, nothing more. What is really tough is to find first class central defenders. There are many, and young, in Spain.

If you could erase anything of what happened to you in the past few years, what would it be?
I can't change anything, that is all in the past. I've tried to give everything when I play. What I would change is the way they behaved towards me; that was not right.

Does Real Madrid treat players like human beings?
It's not a Real Madrid thing; we're now seeing that football is changing and when players are surplus to requirements they are treated differently. It happened to me, but I'm not the ony one, unfortunately.

On a final note, I'm not ignoring Real's fifth defeat of the preseason last night at the hands of "nearly relegated" Real Betis; it's just that there really is very little to take away from the fact that the team is not yet gelling together, and it's hard to know whether this is because the players don't know each other and they don't know the manager, or the manager doesn't know what he's doing. Unlike Capello, who clearly didn't give a fig about the preseason results this time last year, Schuster hasn't asked for 50 days to get his team together. He might be justified in doing so, but then he was taken on to get Real playing attractive football, rather than going all out for results. Right now, he's delivering neither.

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Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Finally seen the back of him?

Bari bad-boy Antonio Cassano is Sampdoria-bound on a season's loan. Real have desperately been looking to offload him all summer (and probably since his falling out with Capello in October last year). He did not join his team mates in celebrating the winning of the 30th league title and was left out of the squad visit to Austria for preseason training. He even allegedly threatened legal action against the club, although this was later denied.

A number of clubs have been linked with Cassano throughout the summer, including Premiership sides Bolton, West Ham and Manchester City. However, his current wage bill of around 4 million euros was too rich for most clubs to consider. In the end, Sampdoria has reportedly agreed to pay one third of it, with Real covering the remaining two thirds.

At the end of the loan period, Sampdoria will have the option to buy the player (if they're still talking to him by then). Though this is probably Cassano's last chance to make any sort of impression, I do not doubt his ability to royally screw it up once again. Frankly, I think if this is the best deal that Real could get, it would have been better to let him go for next to nothing, rather than pay nearly 3 million euros of his salary this season and then wait (and hope) that they can sell him on next year.

He won't be missed.

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Monday, 13 August 2007

Going Dutch

Bernd Schuster's Real Madrid is acquiring a distinctive Dutch flavour. Two Dutchmen have joined the club in recent days to keep Ruud van Nistelrooy company: Royston Drenthe and, as of yesterday, Ajax midfielder Wesley Sneijder. Typically, his countrymen have gravitated towards Barcelona over the years; he is only the fifth ever Dutchman to join Real Madrid:

  • Johnny Metgod (1982-1984) - currently assistant coach at Feyenoord, so he knows Drenthe's game well.
  • Clarence Seedorf (1996-2000) - only player to have won the Champions League with three different clubs (Ajax, Real Madrid and current club AC Milan)
  • Ruud van Nistelrooy (2006-) - most expensive Dutch signing when he signed for Manchester United for PSV Eindhoven in 2001 for 30 million euros
  • Royston Drenthe (2007-)
  • Wesley Sneijder (2007-)

If Robben also arrives, there'll be almost a many Dutchmen as Spaniards in the starting 11! Sneijder will be the second most expensive Dutch signing ever, at 27 million euros, according the the Ajax website, and 25.5, according to As (the devil will be in the detail, I expect with additional payments for trophies won, goals scored, or other such things).

Last week, Ajax publicly announced that negotiations had stalled at around 24 million euros, when they were looking for 27 (after initially asking for 30), and that if Real wanted the player, they had better hurry, or he would be cup-tied in Ajax's upcoming qualifier Champions league tie. Real responded with an ultimatum and a withdrawal of their offer on Friday. Clearly this was just a bit of posturing, as Mijatovic travelled to the Netherlands over the weekend to finalise terms and give Schuster the playmaker he's been asking for. Sneijder has, at 23, already several Champions League ties under his belt, quality and technique, scores goals (18 last season) and is a specialist free-kick taker. On paper, he's probably the best signing so far this summer, in my opinion. He should also alleviate some of the Guti-dependency that Real has had in the preseason, which can be no bad thing. Hopefully he will adapt to the new league, team-mates and language quickly enough to make an impression.

Both Drenthe and Sneijder will be officially presented later today. They are both reportedly potential starters in next Sunday's Spanish Supercup 2nd leg at the Bernabéu against Sevilla. It may be too soon to expect them to fit in; however, given the Dutch season starts earlier than the Spanish, they should at least be physically ready.

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Friday, 10 August 2007

Drenthe-d for success?

Official confirmation of Royston Drenthe's joining Real Madrid finally came yesterday evening, though the story had been one of those on/off culebrones since June, when he impressed a number of scouts in the European under-21 championships he won with Holland. Both Chelsea and Barcelona were reportedly also following his progress closely.

Negotiations with Feyenoord stalled over price, and, in a surprise move last week, Drenthe announced that he was willing to take Feyenoord to the Court of Arbitration to be released from his contract. He argued that Feyenoord was setting an unrealistic price for the transfer (around 18 million euros) and thus preventing him from plying his trade freely. Interesting argument, that. After all, who decides what constitutes an unreasonable price? I don't know whether he would have had any success in court, but he was under contract (recently renewed) and more "insane" prices have been paid for players with the same or less level of experience (the case of Pepe springs to mind). Real Madrid's role in all this is unclear, but it does add to their reputation for unsettling players in order to force their clubs to negotiate.

The big question mark at the moment is where Schuster will play him. He said last night, after Real's defeat to Deportivo in the Teresa Herrera tournament, that Drenthe's arrival, made him "happy as if it were Christmas", but gave no further clues as to how he intends to use him, other than he is still hoping for some more arrivals. Ostensibly Drenthe is a replacement for Roberto Carlos as left back, given Marcelo's relative inexperience and the fact that Torres, although he has covered that position well, is not a naturally left-footed player. Drenthe has played in all positions on the left flank, but, more recently, for the Dutch under-21 side, has been playing further up front, where he has particularly impressed with his pace and technical ability. If no other left-sided players arrive this summer, Drenthe may get to play in midfield, but otherwise, he may be asked to display a more defensive nature. One wonders what his expectations are.

The club will most likely wait until after the first leg of the Spanish Supercup against Sevilla this Saturday for the official presentation.

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Monday, 6 August 2007

From Russia with goals

Rather than go into details about the two matches Real Madrid played in Moscow, I'll concentrate on a few of the things to take away from the performances we've seen in the preseason so far.

Results-wise, it's not been too bad (the exaggerated 3-0 scoreline against Hannover aside). All the teams faced so far are at least a couple of weeks further along in their preseason training than Real Madrid; this makes a big difference at this stage. In the case of Lokomotiv, they are actually half-way through their season (which must be worrying for them, given the 5-2 score, but then again, perhaps their attention was focused elsewhere). Also it's clear Schuster is moving all the pieces around to see how well they fit into his scheme. He clearly still has some work to do. Whether new signings will come in to supplement what's already there remains to be seen, the bleatings of the sports press notwithstanding.

  • Dudek showed off his impressive reflexes, although he could've done better in the second goal against PSV, but Casillas now knows he cannot rest on his laurels. I still see him as second-choice, though.
  • Metzelder has had a worrying lack of opportunities: he did not play against Hannover or PSV and only part of the game against Lokomotiv, where his performance was not up to par. Let's hope this is not the shape of things to come.
  • Pepe, on the other hand, is looking settled already and shows perhaps why Real paid so much money for him. However, if Cannavaro and Metzelder don't pull their socks up, Ramos may be joining him in the centre of defence, rather than on the right wing.
  • Twelve months on, there is still no replacement for Guti (not Gago or de la Red). Capello had similar troubles last season finding someone else with the creativity to open up defences and link up Real's midfield and forward lines.
  • Saviola got off the mark in both games, although the first came from the penalty spot. He's also been doing his set-piece homework, connecting with Guti's inch-perfect set-up from a free kick to score Real's only goal against PSV. However, Real are clearly still missing Van Nistelrooy up front.

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Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Back to earth with a thump

Let's get the excuses out of the way first: It's only the preseason, the players have only been together for a week and some of them had not yet arrived from their holidays, Hannover kicks off in the Bundesliga in 10 days, whereas there are over 3 weeks to go to the start of the Spanish league.

The above are all valid, but they do not take away from the aptness of the saying pride comes before a fall. The hubristic hype peddled by the usual suspects (As, Marca) heralded a new, more attractive offensive football. Carlos Queiroz remarked in a recent interview that when he managed the squad back in 2004 he played attractive football and lost: "Real Madrid is extremely sensitive to external pressures. It was so in the past, it is the case now, and I don't know if it will continue to be, but it's something they need to address". He pointed to the fact that Manchester United managed to win the Premiership playing the type of football that is both effective and attractive, and expressed his disappointment that di Salvo, the fitness coach, has left Manchester for Madrid, while saying that Real have got themselves an excellent professional.

Valter di Salvo has his work cut out then, to get the squad's fitness levels up to scratch, if the evidence of last night's performance, particularly in the second half is anything to go by. They started the game brightly (and offensively) enough, with De la Red orchestrating in midfield and threading a number of passes through to Higuaín, who was not at his most inspired, missing at least three clear cut chances.

However, the defence, which had attained some measure of robustness under Capello, did a passable Swiss Cheese impersonation, especially Cannavaro, who will have to work hard this year to retrieve any kind of credibility (he hasn't got the excuse of poor preparation last year following a World Cup campaign). The wings were non-existent; this is a problem, especially on the left (Robinho at least should be back on the right, now he's returned from the Copa América), but there's as yet no movement on the reported negotiations for Robben (is he really worth over 30 million to Chelsea?) and Drenthe. Maybe Marcelo will feature in Schuster's plan after all, although his extended holidays have been the subject of some anger back at the club.

It's not a disaster; it was just a preseason friendly after all, but it was a wake-up call: the first real test (Spanish supercup) is a mere 10 days away and there's a hell of a lot of work to do, new signings or no new signings.

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