What is a ‘tactical masterclass’?

I recently asked on Facebook how people like to define ‘trolls’ and ‘trolling’. I was surprised that everyone had different interpretations of the word, ranging from anyone who disagrees with you online to fake profiles that resort to online abuse. My reaction to the Sunday night’s social media reaction to Jose Mourinho’s ‘tactical masterclass’ against Chelsea bears distinct similarity with my doubts on trolling – how do you define a ‘tactical masterclass’?

I had discussed about this in Jorge Sampaoli’s masterclass vitory for his Sevilla side against Real Madrid and I’m forced to come back to the question again after United’s victory and the subsequent social media tirade.

But first, let’s talk about what Mourinho got right yesterday. And as much as I wouldn’t like to admit it, he did get a lot of things right. Benching top-scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a brave move (blah I said he should do this some 5 months back) and utilising Marcus Rashford’s pace to play behind the relatively-slow Chelsea back-line was a smart move. Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard made a quick dynamic front-three which the make-shift Chelsea defence struggled to cope with (again I said it). Ander Herrera produced a typical dogged display to keep the ‘Hazard’ (see what I did there?) in his pockets but it beats me why Eden was not advised to take up a wider role and draw the Spaniard away from central midfield.

Maybe Antonio Conte hasn’t still realized a player needs to make around 5-6 fouls to earn his first yellow card in the match. Very few leagues in the world would have allowed Herrera to keep kicking at people’s heels throughout the match.

But apart from these strong individual displays, United and Jose Mourinho did not do anything that suggested any tactical brilliance. That Chelsea defence is susceptible to high-intensity pressing was shown to us by Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham way back in November when Chelsea was playing its best football under Conte. Then, and against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Chelsea was bailed out by some individual brilliance. Not to forget that Conte was playing with his favoured XI.

While Thibaut Courtois’s freakish ankle injury during a commercial commitment must have pissed off Conte, it was Marcos Alonso’s absence that hurt him the most on Sunday. The Italian had two ready-made replacements in Nathan Ake and Kenedy but opted to start Kurt Zouma, who has played very little time in a back-three, and push Cesar Azpi to the left wing-back position. The move back-fired the Spaniard offering very little in attack and the lack of symmetry in the shape meant Victor Mosses’ attack was stifled as well. Zouma looked clue-less in the defence and struggled as a RightBack when Chelsea switched to 4 in the back to accommodate Cesc Fabregas in the second half.

On a day of poor performances from the entire Chelsea squad, Diego Costa’s and Nemanja Matic’s incompetency stood-out the most. The Chelsea striker missed opportunities to hold up the ball, was terrible with his passes (Chelsea didn’t complete a single pass in United’s penalty box) and looked like he was just interested in a brawl with Rojo and Bailly. The Serbian midfielder meanwhile played a match that made Paul Pogba’s 100 million tag justifiable (almost).

 

This was more of Chelsea’s undoing itself than a Manchester United tactical masterclass, much like Sevilla’s victory over Real Madrid.  Chelsea had a very poor game and once again showed it has its rivals to thank for the relatively trouble-free stay at the helm of the Premier League so far. The opposition teams haven’t really put up a string of good performances and the Blues have somehow managed to survive at the top with its super-thin squad. Conte’s 3-4-3 will not work without proper wing-backs (like on Monday) and this team has forgotten how to play a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 because of its unparalled success with the current system.

Where Mourinho was perhaps different from Klopp or Pochettino is that he convinced his team to forget their natural abilities and flair to win the match. Even though Liverpool and Spurs pressed Chelsea with great intent, they could not sustain that throughout the match, because it was trying to attack Chelsea at every given opportunity, which finally played into the hands of the Blues. Mourinho meanwhile, didn’t press with his entire team. He wanted to win the midfield, not go all-out and attack when in possession like Spurs. And in classic Mourinho style, he hand-picked the players to execute his plan – Herrera to take out Hazard, a dynamic front-three to run past the slow Chelsea defence and Rojo/Bailly to irritate Costa. The rest of the team were just happy to just sit back and ensure Chelsea never got into the match.

This is the very ‘anti football’ that made Mourinho what he is – a winner. A team like Manchester United is bound have some of the best athletes in the world and Mou has the ability in him to convince talented players to give up what they love doing to execute his plan.  This is where a Stoke City or West Brom struggles – the quality of the players doing the dirty jobs for United (or Chelsea, Real, Inter before this) are different. He is all-about man management and getting what he wants out of the players. Not a Carlo Ancelotti who takes pride in forging a team that best utilizes the talent of all its players. While this wins you matches, curbing the natural abilities of these super human footballers to do one particular thing in the football field does not deserve to be called a tactical masterclass. And it is something that is bound to backfire in the long run (ever wondered why footballers start revolting in his third year at every club?).

If football is a way expression, Mourinho is its antithesis. I agree there is something romantic about a Barcelona-schooled manager coming up with anecdote to the ‘pure football’ the Catalans proudly preach. You need a Heath Ledger Joker to make the story of Gotham city and batman great.

Don’t get me wrong. Manchester United was the better side and deserved to win the match. But does it deserve to be called a ‘tactical masterclass’ in the mould of Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola or even the forgotten Brendan Rodgers? Let me not answer that. I’ll instead put a different question forward – do we ever call a Sam Allardyce or a Tony Pulis victory over the big teams a tactical masterclass? Or was the United victory called a tactical masterclass simply because it was Mourinho?

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A Real Head-Ache – Time for Madrid to dismantle the BBC?

Three points clear from Barcelona at the helm of the La Liga and well positioned for a semi-final slot in the Champions League after an impressive away-performance at Bayern Munich. You would be forgiven for thinking all is well at Real Madrid.

Yet with summer inching closer, a squad overhaul is the most talked about subject in the stands of Santiago Bernabeu, especially with fans expressing their discontent with the expensively forged front-trio of three-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, once-upon-a-time highest transfer fee holder Gareth Bale and French forward Karim Benzema. The BBC, as they are popularly called, has frequently been blamed by the Spanish media for Real’s unconvincing attacking displays this season and Madrid might look to shake-up the attack torejuvenate the squad.

Bale, albeit while missed three months of action through injury, has endured his worst season since joining Real with nine goals in all competitions, while Ronaldo, with 19 in the league, is on course for his worst domestic tally since 2010.

Benzema, meanwhile, has also been far less prolific in domestic matches this year but is the team’s top scorer in the Champions League with five goals to four from Ronaldo and two from Bale.

With the likes of Spanish youngsters Alvaro Morata and Marco Asensio warming the bench in hope of a more regular role, we asses what Real’s board should do to the fluttering BBC this summer.

Karim Benzema

There are few natural centre-forwards in the same league as Karim Benzema. While the French striker has struggled this season with injuries, he still remains a vital cog in the attack with his ability to link-up well with Ronaldo in the left side. While Benzema is definitely on the decline he has a lot to offer and Madrid will be vary of selling its striker, especially considering what Gonzalo Higuain has gone on to achieve after being shipped off.

The problem with Madrid is the presence of Spanish striker Morata in the bench. Alvaro, a Madrid academy product, was bought back from Juventus last summer after his stellar performances for the Old Lady of Turin. But his comeback hasn’t exactly been rosy, with the Spanish first-choice striker playing second fiddle to Benzema at the club. The media has been ruthless with its crucification of Benzema, often accusing coach Zinedine Zidane of showing French bias, and the Real board will be under pressure to come to resolution of this problem. But the problem could be solved if Antonio Conte and Chelsea come in for the Spanish striker. Conte was the manager who signed Morata for Juve and the striker recently expressed his desire to team up with the Italian coach again. While the move would not be popular in Spain, Zidane might be able to use the money and the free slot to lure teenage striking sensation Kylian Mbappe from AS Monaco FC.

Verdict: Keep. At least for a year to smoothen the transition for Mbappe. There are few strikers with the same quality as Benzema in the market and it will also be difficult for Real to fetch a decent transfer fee for the axed Frenchman.

Gareth Bale

When on form, there are very few players who can match the panache Bale brings to the football field. The problem, though, is that the Welsh forward has had an injury-marred career at Madrid so far. Bale has struggled to hit the purple patch and the fans are growing more frustrated with his contribution in the attacking.

In Isco and Asensio, Madrid already has potential replacements if Bale is shipped off, and the time might be right for Madrid to let go of Bale. Though interest from Premier League sides such as Manchester United and Chelsea have faded since last summer, Bale will still be a welcome figure in England if he decides to make the move.

Real Madrid could also use the Morata deal as bait for Chelsea to let go of its talisman forward Eden Hazard, who is apparently the prime target for Zidane this summer. The Belgian forward has expressed his admiration for Zidane and might fancy a Los Blancos shirt though he has publicly denied any such interests. Hazard, far less injury prone than Bale, will bring consistency to the Madrid side and has also the potential to be the marquee signing the fans want to see.

Verdict: Sell. Premier League experience means Bale will fetch decent money, if not the full 77 million pounds Madrid paid to Tottenham in 2013. Asensio already looks world class and Madrid has Isco to fill the void if need be. Add Hazard to the line-up and it would a major enhancement to the 2016-17 squad.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo is 32 but why would you still want to sell a forward who has scored 100 European goals? The Portuguese was Madrid’s most decisive player against Bayern and proved his doubters wrong once again when he scored his 99th and 100th goals in European competition on Wednesday night in Real’s 2-1 win against Bayern.

There is no doubt Ronaldo is declining. His physical gifts, such as tremendous acceleration and powerful standing long jump, are not as they once were. He has scored, by his extra-ordinary standards, just 19 league goals this season.  Also not to forget, these were Ronaldo’s first goals in the Champions League in 197 days, the first time he found the net in Europe since scoring against Borussia Dortmund in the group stages back in September.

But a diminished Ronaldo is still better than almost everyone else and there are very few footballers in the world who can potentially replace him. Unfortunately for Real, three such candidates play for its fiercest rivals Atletico Madrid (Antoine Griezmann) and Barcelona (Neymar, Lionel Messi).

Not to forget his off the field impact. He is according, to Forbes, the footballer with the biggest brand value and Real Madrid merchandise sales will take a big blow if he leaves the team.

Verdict: Keep. Hazard brings guile and industry to a side but he isn’t anywhere as ruthless as Ronaldo in front of the goal. With no potential replacements available, Real would be unwise to let go of its Portuguese forward, even for a record-defying transfer amount.

Plotting the storm: The story behind India Baja 2017

“Not one recce,” Raj Kapoor, one of the architects of India Baja 2017, assures us. “We do something like 25 recces. If the route is 650 km long then every metre is mapped. Each driver has a route map which tells him metre-by-metre what to expect… where is the turn, what is the marker on the left, are there special features like trees around the region… Each and everything on the 650 km stretch is marked graphically and if you take the scroll notebook for the bike riders and open it, it will go close to about 50 feet.”

The story of India Baja, the nation’s first Dakar Challenge (the winner in the two-wheeler segment here automatically qualifies for the 2018 Dakar Rally in Peru), is about meticulous planning, years of fine-tuning and the sheer will of a bunch of enthusiasts that wants to mark India — a country still coming to terms with the potential of motorsports — on the world motorsport map.

“The India Baja is kind of a marker,” says Raj. “In terms of credibility, in terms of difficulty quotient, in terms of organisational excellence and global operating procedures, getting a Dakar Challenge is as good as it can get.”

The origin

It was a quiet period for rally in the country in the late 1990s, after the Himalayan Rally, an iconic event held in the Himalayan region between 1980 and 1990, and the subsequent Mountain Challenge had died down. “There was a lull and hence there was a desire to own the motorsport intellectual property, and the Raid de Himalaya was born in 1999,” recollects Raj, who had won the Gypsy Class and finished second overall in the inaugural edition of the Raid de Himalaya. (The event, incidentally, is the world’s highest rally-raid.) After the success of the event, Raj got together with Jayesh Desai, who was part of the organising team of the Raid de Himalaya, and founded the Northern motorsport.

The Northern motorsport started an autocross event under its banner in 2001 and later launched the Desert Storm Rally in 2003. “We started the Desert Storm and slowly built it up into the longest rally in India. And once we reached there, the next logical milestone was to try and emulate something that was at the pinnacle of cross-country rallying — the Dakar Rally,” recalls Raj.

To associate with the Dakar, India Baja had to make certain adjustments to the format it followed in its inaugural season. Baja rallies are conducted in two different formats: one is the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) format, governed by the cross-country rally championship regulations, which the Dakar follows, and the other is the American way of running the Baja, which is similar to the Baja 500 or the Baja 1000 events in Mexico. Basic difference between the two is that the American format runs day and night and has multiple drivers driving the same vehicle, while the FIA rule does not allow bikers in the night.

“Last year, we were trying to find a middle path between the two because the marathon concept is very exciting with multiple drivers sharing one car. So we were partly following that and partly the FIA rule. Now that we are a part of the Dakar Challenge, we are bound to follow the FIA rules. So no biker will race in the night,” informs Raj.

An intense challenge

The second edition of the India Baja will be held between April 7 and 9 in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. Apart from qualifying for the 2018 Dakar Rally, the winner of India Baja will also get a ticket to the Sonora Rally in South Africa and the Afriquia Merzouga Rally in Morocco. The complexities of the Baja and the attractive prizes have drawn a host of international drivers such as Joaquim Rodrigues (Portugal) and Adrian Metge (France).

According to the organisers, the India Baja will be the most challenging rally in India till date. “I’ll give you a comparison to put things in perspective,” says Raj. “The Baja is basically running 1.5 days of competition. In those 1.5 days, it is doing 430 competitive kilometres and 150-odd transport kilometres. What it means is that, in say 36 hours, we are doing 430 km of competitive sport. In comparison, in the 1.5 days in Indian national rally championship, you do 70 km. In the Raid de Himalayas, over six days we do 600km. In the Desert Storm, over six days we do 730 km. So in comparison, the Baja is very intense.

“The amount of pressure on the car and the driver is very high because you hardly have any time to breathe and you are perpetually under pressure. That is what this entire game is about — to put a competitor under tremendous pressure on a terrain that is extremely hostile, and where the weather is absolutely against him and his machine. The weather is going to completely dehydrate you and affect your ability to think or focus. The machine is going to over-heat and it will be always under pressure. So how you manage to overcome these obstacles and challenges is the game.”

According to Raj, the entire format has been designed in such a way that only the fittest, the most experienced and the strategically brilliant driver with the most reliable machine can come through. But it is equally difficult for the organisers to stage the event, challenged as they are by a highly populated country.

“What gets done in South America, Africa and Europe with 50-70 people would require around 250 volunteers here. In India, because we have more population and higher density of towns and villages, we would need far more man power to be positioned at various points along the route to ensure that the route is sanitised and has no external influences coming in.

“Laws of the land do not allow us to have certain technology, so again technology is substituted with man power and more man power. We’ve been running an event in Rajasthan for almost 15 years and we understand how the local scenarios unfold on the ground. We know that at a certain time of the day there will be more influx of man power and human interference, so the security needs to be beefed up. Eventually, the aim is to try and replicate some of the regulations and safety requirements. And even then it’s not absolutely foolproof,” informs Raj.

Vehicle manufacturers have traditionally used motorsports to experiment with their designs and Raj is of the view that India Baja will offer them a great opportunity to test their machines. “All they learn in motorsport will find its way into production today, tomorrow or the day after. motorsport helps manufacturers figure out how reliable a particular research and design idea is – the kind of testing that happens in this condition is very difficult to replicate.”

While getting the Dakar Challenge tag was important, the organisers believe the event will only be a success if it can prompt Indians to start viewing motorsports as a mainstream sport. “People have never understood the method of entering the races, the related costs, the path of growth and the reward matrix. It’s always been hazy and people have always perceived it as something not possible by the majority, something expensive… If motorsport is adopted and there are proper guidelines and steps generated for everyone to enter and experience it at low cost and as well as less effort, the growth will be exponential. And there are methods of doing this — you can experience the sport in terms of karting, in the form of an autocross, it will cost less than Rs.10000 — in fact less than Rs. 5000. It’s perceived as something that is unattainable and that is not the case,” concludes Raj.