Thursday, 27 September 2007

The dangerous legacy of attacking football

A fascinating tactical analysis in today's El País uncovers some of the historical reasons for Real's defensive woes, typified in recent games by the squad's inability to maintain possession. This is aggravated by the fact that the midfielders do not push back to help defend and the central defenders stay too close to Casillas's goal. The Real Madrid technical team is trying to rectify the situation but "it is not easy because this squad is accustomed to have possession. When a team is constructed for attack, the players get out of the habit of also performing defensive duties."

Back in 1999, the then Real Madrid captain and central defender, Fernando Hierro (confirmed on Tuesday as the new sporting director of the Spanish FA and officially presented earlier today), perhaps conscious of the fact that his speed was not one of his best attributes, argued with the defensive midfielder of the day, Fernando Redondo, about how far back the central defenders should stay. With the arrival of Florentino's era and the emphasis on attacking galáctico signings, Hierro found an ally in Iván Helguera (not a particularly fast footballer either), who argued that "with so many players attacking, you have to be very coordinated at the back to push forward. If you leave too much space behind you, they can hurt you on the counter."

That worked fine when Real with Zidane owned the midfield and kept control of the ball, but three trophyless years brought Capello back to the Bernabéu and a renewed rigour to the squad's defensive duties. This was mostly accomplished by keeping defenders and midfielders in the Real half waiting for the opportunity to counter-attack. This also explains why Real Madrid had a much worse home than away record, given the fans' expectations when playing at the Bernabéu.

The new manager now finds that he has a problem. He wants to be able to play attacking football, but still be solid in defence. This poses problems for the midfield, who have far too much ground to cover, as the defenders play too close to Casillas. Diarra complains that "The space between defenders and midfielders is too great. When we lose the ball it is very hard to get it back."

Schuster's challenge is to convince his defenders that they can play further forward and not put additional pressure on Casillas to perform his usual heroics. Barcelona, who have been playing the same way for five years, have far better defensive statistics: Touré steals a ball every 12 minutes, compared with 18 minutes for Diarra. Similarly, Iniesta has better numbers than Guti, and Xavi is far more effective defensively than Sneijder. The transition won't be easy, if it happens at all, but it may go some way to explain the curse of the central defender which has plagued Real Madrid for years.


Linda said...

Great post.

Barcelona, who have been playing the same way for five years,

I wonder if that's not one of the factors involved. Real have had so many coaching changes, and each have tried to impose their own system, which can't have helped either.

Sanchopinky said...

Amazing post, great info. I never looked at it that way. It seems like they want to do everything to try to get a perfect team, but in chasing all those goals (a more dynamic and functioning team) they seem to get lost and end up with nothing.

Houshmazilla said...

I haven't posted yet, but I just wanted to say as a Madrista in central Pennsylvania, your blog is my life blood. Blog on.

Gonzalo said...

I can't take credit for the analysis, but it does have the ring of truth about it. Schuster does have the players, but can he get them to play more cohesively? More to the point, if he's unsuccessful, we'll just have another manager, with different ideas. Without continuity, it ends up being the players who have the most influence on the squad.

Houshmazilla, welcome to the blog. Please feel free to post comments. It's the only thing that lets me know people are actually reading this!

Sergio said...

I agree with Linda.

Real Madrid needs to stick with a manager for at least 5 years or so.

Get a coach that has the style we want for Real Madrid, hire the players to work on that system and stick to that long term plan.
Rather than re-inventing a new team every few years.

Know some years will be better than others. But the result will be good!