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Gareth Bale’s Galactico expectations require time

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Gareth Bale is encountering an arduous situation at the Santiago Bernabeu. It’s been two months since Bale made the move to Real Madrid, and the Welshman has been vilified and harshly scrutinized by the Spanish media. The rapid influx in fans, owners and the media demanding immediate success has somewhat tarnished modern day football, as players and manager’s are continuously under severe pressure. Despite all the negativity surrounding Bale, it’s shocking to know that he was a household favourite a few months ago.

Tottenham Hotspur supporters were on the edge of their seats when Bale received the ball on the right flank in their final game of the season against Sunderland. Had it been a few years ago, he may have opted to pass the ball or attempt a pacy dash towards the byline to provide a cross – but not this time. His confidence was oozing off his sweaty skin and fear was expressed in the Adam Mitchell’s eyes, as there was only one logical outcome.

The 24-year-old Welshman cut infield with his fancied left foot and curled the ball with precision and pace, humbling Simon Mignolet as could do nothing but watch the ball fly into the top corner, despite his efforts to make a save. White Hart Lane erupted. Spurs faithful adapted to Bale’s brilliance throughout the season, and this was just another piece of magic to add to the highlight reel.

Bale ran towards the Spurs supporters jubilant, knowing that this would be the last time he’d share a moment of this magnitude at White Hart Lane. The celebration was more of a ‘come get me NOW’ opposed to a sign of hope that relied on their London rivals dropping points on the final day of the season to solidify fourth place.

Daniel Levy’s most prized asset was ready to make the big jump abroad, despite the North London side earning a club-high 72 points. Truthfully, it was foreseeable. Bale’s vast growth into a world-class player couldn’t be ignored. He thrived in a no.10 position under Andre Villas-Boas that handed the Welshman a free role to roam around the final third searching for gaps and openings in the opposition’s backline. However, he maintained defensive responsibility by quickly closing down centre backs to complement Spurs’ high-pressing game.

The pressure of living up to the ‘galactico’ billing is insurmountable. However, Bale – the 11th galactico – had bigger shoes to fill as his summer transfer to Real Madrid made him the world’s most expensive player. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to know that on two separate occasions, Bale’s career hung by a thread.

Bale’s athleticism was evident at a young age. The Welshman excelled in rugby, hockey and track-field throughout school, but football was Bale’s top priority.  The Welshman’s PE teacher Gwyn Morris was aware of the Welshman’s talent and challenged him to improve other aspects of his game by forcing Bale to play one-touch football and predominantly use his weaker right foot, as he was superior to the rest of his schoolmates.

Southampton youth scout Rod Ruddick spotted the Welshman when he played for Cardiff Civil Service in a U-9 five-a-side tournament in Newport, Wales. “Even at the age of eight Gareth had fantastic ability. When you sign a player at that age it is because they have great potential and he has just kept getting better,” Ruddick said.

“You could see his pace and quality on the training pitch but I think his left foot helped him stand out. What we saw then we knew he was going to be something special,” he added.

Bale worked his way through Southampton’s satellite academy, but his recurring back injuries sustained from a growth spurt, nearly prevented him from receiving a full-time scholarship.

The Welshman signed with Spurs for £10m in 2007 – a year after breaking into the Southampton first team – and he endured 24 consecutive losses when he featured for the North London club. Bale’s frail build was his downfall, as he struggled to stay fit, which saw Alex McLeish attempt to pursue to the Welshman to join Birmingham in 2009. “Gareth wasn’t in the Spurs side at the time and Harry Redknapp wasn’t able to get him a game for whatever reason,” McCleish said.

“What if he had come to Birmingham and enjoyed it? We were in the Championship at the time but eventually got promoted to the Premier League. That would have changed the picture for us financially. You just don’t know. Unfortunately, this time, for us it didn’t, he said.”

Bale worked hard over the next few years to become stronger physically and mentally – with help from former Spurs manager Harry Redknapp’s tough love approach in training – and the football world witnessed glimpses of his brilliance. He took the world by storm through his two performances against Inter Milan in 2010, where he singlehandedly terrorized Brazilian fullback Maicon. Bale’s ability was never questioned – it was whether he could replicate his performances on a consistent basis.

Under Andre Villas-Boas, the 24-year-old winger flourished, and took the first chance to move abroad to challenge for trophies, opposed to spending another year at White Hart Lane, fighting to secure a Champions League spot. It was his childhood dream to play for Madrid, but scrutiny and ridicule followed him like a shadow.

More so, Bale’s transfer fee has been the focal point during his sluggish start at the Santiago Bernabeu. Had Bale set the valuation, or publicly stated he was worth £85m, then it would be understandable – however he didn’t. The inflated transfer market has been beneficial to teams with lesser financial power, as they now possess the power to hold out until they receive their required price tag.

Is Bale a £85m player? No.

At the time, was Bale worth £85m? Possibly.

Considering his remarkable performances throughout 2012/2013, the three years remaining on his contract, and the fact that Spurs initially weren’t willing to sell the Welshman, the valuation isn’t far-fetched.

Consequently, the Bale saga, and a few niggling injuries, prevented the Welshman from participating in pre-season activities. Given the circumstances, it’s absurd to label the Welshman a ‘flop’ based on the first two months of the season. Adapting to a new league, culture, country and style of football is never easy. While some players settle quickly into a new environment, others need time and patience – and based on the abundance of turnover that transpired at Madrid this summer, it’s rational.

Carlo Ancelotti, known for his possession-based philosophy has struggled to find his best starting eleven, and has been adamant on fitting Bale into the equation. But the rise of Angel Di Maria – arguably Madrid’s best player this season – has highlighted the need of natural balance in Ancelotti’s attack, specifically in their 7-3 victory against Sevilla.

“The team lacks little offensively, but lost concentration when at 3-0, but then continued to play well. We need more balance because you cannot open up a game when you are winning 3-0,” Ancelotti said.

“We played faster and more vertical. We need more offensive balance, but the game was fantastic,” he said.

Bale displayed glimpses of old, grabbing two goals and two assists. Sevilla’s shape without the ball was diabolical for large portions of the match, which benefitted a Madrid side that prefers to attack on the break. The Welshman was allowed space to isolate defenders, use his blistering space to stretch the match by running towards the byline, make darting runs into the box and combine with his teammates in wide areas.

Likewise, Bale has struggled to impose his authority on matches against sides that prefer to sit deeper, and defend with nine men behind the ball. Opposed to England, La Liga sides are precise with their overall shape without the ball, as they aim to be organized and compact. With Cristiano Ronaldo playing a free role, Bale has less space to work with, is more likely to drift out of games via isolation, and is a conventional winger, which will explain his inevitable statistical decline.

Coincidentally, Bale and Madrid, are going through a transitional period. Ancelotti is searching for balance, a preferred formation and a cohesive unit – whereas, Bale is settling into life abroad, which will expect him to thrive with less space, in a natural wide role.

An £85m transfer fee guarantees high expectations, but if Madrid supporters and owners are patient, then Bale can prove to be an intelligent investment in the near future.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in FIFA, Published Work

 

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Atlético Madrid 2-1 Real Madrid

Atlético Madrid won their 10th Copa Del Rey title, as they defeated cross-town rivals Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu.

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Jose Mourinho made several changes to the side that drew Espanyol last week. Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 saw Karim Benzema lead the line, while Mesut Özil, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric played behind the French striker. Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira formed a midfield two, and Raul Albiol replaced the injured Raphael Varane at centre back.

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Diego Simeone made three changes to the side that was defeated last week by Barcelona at the Vicente Calderón. Diego Costa, Arda Turan and Koke formed an attacking three behind Colombian striker Radamel Falcao. Mario Suarez replaced Tiago to form a midfield two with Gabi, while Felipe Luis started at left back.

Real Madrid end their third season under Mourinho trophyless, as Simeone’s men were effective in wide areas.

Atletico Shape

Over the course of the season Real Madrid has struggled to break down teams that allow them to hold possession. Its been one of the many issues Mourinho has been unable to solve during his tenure at the Bernabeu, and it has led to multiple points dropped away from home. Simeone’s men allowed Madrid to have the ball, as they often dropped off into a 4-5-1. Although Atlético sat off, they closed down spaces well, and often kept a compact shape. With Madrid playing without any natural width, Los Colchoneros sat narrow and soaked up pressure.

Going forward Atlético’s aim was to win the ball in midfield, and counter with pace. Diego Costa often surged forward when Simeone’s men won the ball, as Fábio Coentrão was eager to get into advanced positions. This approach led to Los Colchoneros equalizing goal, as Falcao displayed his quick feet and unbelievable strength to break free, and play in Costa – The Brazilian’s first touch was superb and he fired his shot past Diego López.

Atlético’s shape stifled Madrid when they had possession – when Simeone’s men won the ball, they looked to expose the space available, mainly through Costa.

Madrid Narrow

Madrid started the match without a natural winger – Özil played on the right, while Ronaldo started on the left. Both players drifted centrally and were unable to carve open an already narrow Atlético defence.

Yet again we witnessed a reoccurring situation with Özil, as the German playmaker failed to have a significant impact on the match when another playmaker is sitting in the hole. Although Özil starts on the wing, he laterally glides across the pitch looking to pick up the ball in between the lines. With another playmaker on the field, Özil’s space is restricted, and once again in a monumental match, he failed to impress.

Without natural wide players, Madrid depended on their fullbacks to provide width. Coentrão and Michael Essien were cautious when getting forward – Atlético looked threatening on the break due to Costa’s constant forward/diagonal runs, and Felipe Luis was eager to attack the space behind Essien. Initially Ramos covered the space that Costa was looking to attack, but after the goal, Coentrão rarely got into advanced positions. Essien didn’t offer much going forward, and with Özil drifting centrally, Luis was able to run past Turan and get into Madrid’s final third. Luckily for Essien, Khedira and Alonso shifted over to the right to prevent overloads and clear breaks.

There was no surprise that Madrid took the lead from a fantastic Ronaldo header off a set piece, as Mourinho’s men were unable to create openings through the middle.

Modric

The press has scrutinized Luka Modric’s time at Madrid, as the Croatian midfielder has failed to reach the heights, which saw him become one of the top midfielders in world football at Tottenham. Modric is an element that Mourinho was deprived of in Madrid’s Champions League exit against Bayern Munich last season. He’s a nifty midfielder, that is good at finding space across the pitch to receive the ball – he can also drop into the midfield to create a midfield three, rather than just looking to receive the ball in between the lines.

Unlike the first leg against Borussia Dortmund, Modric thrived in the hole, behind the striker. The Croatian was picking up the ball in between the lines, skipping past defenders, spreading play from deep positions, and working hard to win the ball back in the midfield. Modric controlled the game during his time on the pitch – in advanced and deep positions he was dangerous, and his will to retain possession was vital.

Width

As the game wore on, Madrid looked favourite to find a winner – many would say they were unlucky not take the lead, as Mourinho’s men hit the post three times. Although those who make that claim are slightly correct, Madrid’s approach can be blamed as well.

Ronaldo’s free kick that hit the post in the 67th minute was unfortunate, and on another day it may have rolled in. But Ozil and Benzema’s chances were perfect examples of Mourinho’s tactical imperfections. Both chances stemmed from Madrid succeeding in wide areas, as Coentrão and Ronaldo provided cut back passes that resulted in shots off the post. In extra-time Ángel di María, who was introduced to provide width, played a sensational ball across the box to Mesut Ozil, but Thibaut Courtois denied the German playmaker. Mourinho could have introduced Di María earlier or ordered Ronaldo to hug the touchline, but the Portuguese manager failed to do so, despite his side creating their best chances from wide areas.

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Courtesy of Майоров Владимир

On the other hand, Atlético used width to their advantage, and provided Madrid with a few scares throughout the match. An unmarked Luis got forward twice at the start of the second half, but was unable to get his shot past López. Costa was the other threat on the flank, as his diagonal runs harmed Madrid’s back line. In the first half it led to a goal, and in extra time he made the same run behind the Madrid defence, but López came to the rescue.

Unfortunately for Madrid, Miranda gave Atlético the lead in extra time, as Mourinho’s men failed to clear their lines, and Miranda nodded Koke’s cross from the right flank past López. Not only did Madrid fail to provide natural width, but they were unable to cope with Atlético’s.

Substitutions

Madrid made a triple-substitution at the start of extra time. Di María, Gonzalo Higuain and Alvaro Arbeloa were introduced. Higuain was brought on to offer something new in attack – Di María provided the natural width that they lacked throughout the match, while Arbeloa was brought on to help nullify Costa’s runs. Higuain and Di María were involved in two great chances for Madrid in extra time, but Courtois made vital stops to preserve Atlético’s lead.

Simeone made player swaps, as Koke, Turan and Costa had worked their socks off. Atlético were holding on to their lead, and were able to do so, as Madrid’s substitutions didn’t have a significant impact on the match.

Conclusion

Atlético Madrid ended their 14-year winless drought against cross-town rivals Real Madrid, as they claimed La Decima.

It was a match that lacked a tactical theme – one side failed to use width, while the other side did and succeeded. Simeone’s men stuck to their approach, despite conceding early on in the match, and it paid off.

“They finally lost their fear and the hearts of each player combined to win the match, and it was amazing. We were fortunate because in football, teams that win have a slice of luck. We believed that we’d win the game,” Simeone said. 

“What brought us these achievements has been this – you see Diego Costa running 50 metres back, see Koke, [Radamel] Falcao and Gabi all sacrificing themselves for the team,” he said.

 

Simeone highlights that his side fought for the team, while on the opposing end we failed to see that – Mourinho losing the backing from majority of the players has played a factor.

Once again in a high profile match, Mourinho failed to make tactical alterations to change the result. Mourinho’s arrival to the Bernabéu three-years ago, saw him put the final pieces to a side that’s lethal on the counter attack, but he failed to provide them with another tactical identity during his tenure – virtually Madrid were simply a counter-attacking side that lacked a plan B.

The Portuguese manager was hired to win La Decima – ironically his last game as Madrid manager saw his cross-town rivals achieve that feat at his expense.

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2013 in Match Recaps

 

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