Wednesday, 19 November 2008

And the scales tip yet again...

It's obvious, but perhaps it needs to be stated from time to time, and Xavi, the Barcelona and Spain midfielder put it succinctly the other day when he said that "Barça and Real are like a set of scales, when things go well for one, they go badly for the other, and viceversa".

Just think back six months: Real Madrid were running rampant in a league championship they eventually won with an eighteen-point lead over Barcelona. When the Catalan club visited the capital, Real had already won the title and the Barcelona players had to do the traditional pasillo.

Key players like Eto'o were accused of forcing a yellow card in their previous game so they wouldn't have to face the humiliation in Madrid. Barcelona went on to lose the game 4-1. Club president Joan Laporta had to face a motion of confidence, which he narrowly defeated.

Fast forward to the last few weeks and you can see the scales have truly tipped. After six wins on the trot in September, Real Madrid have lost both Champions League ties against Juventus, been dumped out of the Copa del Rey by a third division side, and have managed just three wins in their last six league games, conceding ten goals in the process.

Conversely, Barcelona are riding high, with a five-point lead at the top of the standings, and a truly breathtaking start to the championship. They have scored thirty-six goals in eleven games and Eto'o is the current pichichi with thirteen. Confidence is clearly with the men in red & blue as the two sides look to their first meeting of the season in mid-December.

It's always been thus, but the roots of this particular debacle can clearly be traced to the disastrous way Real Madrid managed their summer transfer campaign. Having won the league early, and being in the enviable position of planning for the coming season with several months in their back pocket, they decided to base their entire strategy around the signing of one Cristiano Ronaldo (remember him?).

Ramón Calderón has always felt the long shadow of his predecessor, Florentino Pérez, and his failure to match the galáctico-signing antics of the Florentino years has always weighed heavily on this much-criticised president. Only yesterday, he hit out at Florentino's being photographed at a charity match organised by Zinedine Zidane: "It's sad. I would have loved to have seen that photo when we won two league titles and the supercopa. It illustrates that badly kept secret that he has spent the past two-and-a-half years obstructing and trying to discredit the Real Madrid board. He only thinks of his own personal gain."

Calderón must have reasoned that the only way to make people forget about Florentino was to secure the services of one of the most sought-after players in the world. Well, we all remember what happened, which is that not only did Real Madrid not manage to sign the tricky Portuguese winger, but they also managed to enrage their most creative player (Robinho) to such an extent that he upped sticks and left them for Manchester City.

In all of this, Mijatovic has aided and abetted his boss, and Schuster claims to have been a mere spectator. However, while he may have a strong case to claim he has been handed an unbalanced squad, and taking into account a number of injuries in key positions, Schuster still cannot expect to be seen as purely innocent.

There is no excuse for conceding six goals and being eliminated from the cup by a third division side, not with this squad. There is no excuse for claiming he has "no idea" why his side is letting in a record number of goals.

We knew what we were getting when Schuster was signed. He's always been temperamental and difficult with the media, but when you barely get involved in a game you're losing and then go AWOL for several days without explaining what your strategy is to get the team out of the mess it's in, then, frankly, it's all downhill from there.

So the recent vote of confidence in the coach from the Real Madrid board is as convincing as Mijatovic's press conference to announce it. Fielding a question about what would happen if Real lost again this weekend at home to Recreativo, he avoided saying that the result was not linked to Schuster staying at the club: "I can't be certain as to what would happen. We would have no problem in taking difficult decisions if we have to, but we won't rush into them".

We just need to keep watching to see whether the scales have any further to tip before they start heading back the other way...


Anonymous said...

The scales thing is a very poignant analogy.Interestingly, aside from Alvés,Barça haven´t really made any reinforcements that are impacting on their current line ups, and yet are playing so much better, so down to coaching we should assume.Neither did RM (for the reasons you accurately have pointed out)but now suddenly can´t defend, so again must be down to coaching.Additionally and most importantly Casillas for some reason has hit a real low, and while you could argue that a lot of the goals that he´s let in were impossible to have saved, the point is, Casillas did use to save them thereby making up for a wobbly defence.Not now however, he´s let in more goals already than he did all last year. There is no real threat to his starting position from the bench. An observation you could pretty much make for every other position, and if you compare that to top four sides in the other major leagues, this doesn´t apply. To guarantee quality, players need to fight for a place, something that is not happening right now. Apparently they are looking for a striker now RVN is out, which to me is the position best covered, more important would be a creative mid fielder (Guti has gone missing again and De La Red seems to have some mystery heart problem) right winger and centre back.

john said...

Great article and great comment from 'anonymous.' I do, however, take issue with the statement that the striker 'is the position best covered.' Yes, we have Higuain, but after that...

I've defended Raul many times, and will continue to do so as long as he keeps scoring. But part of his success in recent years has been his partnership with van Nistelrooy - and the competition that insisted form from the veteran. At the moment, Saviola has been ineffective and Bueno untried: who else do we have? I see this as a serious problem, and a long term one.

I feel Benzema should be our primary goal for that position, but in the meantime a short term winter signing would not be a bad idea.

I do agree, however, that wingers should be our winter targets: players that can spread the field. We have plenty of creative talent in the midfield with Guti, Sneijder and the soon to return De la Red. But with the center of the pitch crowded as it is, it becomes a matter of too many cooks in the kitchen.

Gonzalo, I know your usually mum on the subject of transfer targets, but I'd love to hear who you think would help.

Anonymous said...

As an outsider can you explain Mijatovic to me. He looks like a spiv and had a rep as a playboy when a player, what qualifies him for such an important position?
(albeit you can say that for a lot of people in football)

Anonymous said...

Why can't our club be managed in a way clubs like Man Utd or Arsenal are run? Hell it seems even Milan are run much better than us.

Gonzalo, what do you think about those people behind Plataforma Blanca? Do you think they have a chance of winning the election?

Gonzalo said...

The problem with signing players in the winter transfer window is that the best players are not often on the market at that point, or are cup tied in some way - unless you look for young players outside Europe (as Real did with Gago, Higuaín and Marcelo a couple of years ago)

Real Madrid's main problem is not an inability to score goals. Of course losing Van Nistelrooy for the whole season is a massive blow, but there's plenty of goalscoring power in both the forward and midfield line.

The side is unbalanced - there are huge spaces between defence and midfield, and this is what needs to be addressed. There's also the issue of confidence, as anon #1 mentioned, Casillas is simply not his old self, and that is having an effect, not just on results, but probably also on his team-mates. Finally, aside from Robben (who seems to be on his way back - but for how long?) there are no true natural wingers on the squad which blunts many of your options in attack.

John, I don't talk about specific transfer targets very often, because I think it's mostly a waste of time. The names mentioned by the press are more often than not out there to sell papers and I don't feel the inclination to analyse what might be - I prefer to concentrate on what we do have and how it might be improved - in a generic or strategic sense.

Anon #2 - Mijatovic is where he is because Calderón picked him as his sporting director. As a former Real Madrid "legend" (he scored the winner against Juve in the '98 Champions League final) he had some credit with the fans, and I think he had been acting as an agent for a few years previously.

Anon #3, Plataforma Blanca strike me as a protest group, rather than a well thought out alternative. There are many things wrong with the current system and it does attract some pretty unsavoury characters. However, I think the first thing that needs to be changed is the voting system, which has been the subject of much manipulation and outright rigging in the past. At least then there is no question that socios will be getting the president they voted for (and therefore deserve) no matter how good or bad they end up being at the job.