Mourinho's midfield experiment
Real Madrid's 2-0 Copa del Rey quarter-final first-leg win over Valencia at the Bernabeu can be seen as another game in which Jose Mourinho's team struggled to regain their best form, but also as a pointer to how the team might shape up for what must now be the Portuguese's next real target - the upcoming Champions League last-16 clashes with Premier League leaders Manchester United.
With La Liga now almost certainly beyond them given Barca's 18-point advantage in the table, Mourinho appears to now be using games, at least in part, to work out his best team and shape for tougher matches ahead, particularly against Sir Alex Ferguson's side, but also against Barcelona in what even at this stage looks the likely Copa del Rey semi-final.
This means evolving from last year's team, which was really set up to destroy weaker opponents with the aim of taking the domestic title, and at least trying to put together a team more capable of controlling games against top-level opposition.
Apparently with this in mind Mourinho sent out a Madrid line-up which contained five players who can be seen as central midfielders: Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, Sami Khedira, Michael Essien (at right-back) and Mesut Ozil (on the right wing). Valencia coach Ernesto Valverde took a similar approach, fielding four: Tino Costa, Dani Parejo, Ever Banega and Jonas (on the left wing). With nine of the 20 outfield starters preferring to play centrally, the chances were it was always going to start out as a tight, tactical midfield battle.
Madrid's starting central trio lined up - as during the poor 0-0 at Osasuna on Saturday - with Alonso deepest and Khedira and Modric in front of him, with license to both press Valencia's defenders when they had possession and to break forward as soon as Madrid retrieved it. Former Spurs man Modric should have scored on nine minutes, but dragged a shot wide with just Vicente Guaita to beat. Moments later Khedira was furthest Madrid player forward breaking into the box to try and get a rebound after Cristiano Ronaldo's shot was beaten out by the Valencia keeper.
Both shuttling 'interiores' also had shared defensive duties. Modric usefully nicking the ball off Jonas' foot as the Brazilian readied a through-ball to Roberto Soldado, while Khedira was soon appearing in his own box to cover when reserve centre-halves Ricardo Carvalho and Raul Albiol had been caught out of position. Ozil also had to fill in defensively on the right, so Madrid often left just Karim Benzema and Ronaldo up front when Valencia had the ball.
Meanwhile, Valverde was doing something quite similar with his side. Valencia's midfield shape placed a lot of responsibility on ex-Madrid midfielder Dani Parejo, 23, who had David Albelda's holding role in front of the defence, charged like Alonso with both covering across the pitch to snuff out attacks, and taking the ball from his centre-halves to get moves started. This half-worked, with Parejo mixing a few clever interventions to win the ball back with a tendency to get caught out of position on occasion, but his passing helped Valencia just edge control of the midfield during the first 30 minutes.
Parejo's withdrawn role (and that of the less influential Tino Costa) pushed Ever Banega, who has been increasingly productive in recent games, further forward into an 'enganche' supporting role behind centre-forward Soldado. The Argentine's flicks and passes were not all coming off, but his danger did require full attention from Alonso, meaning Jonas could get space when he drifted in from his station on the left wing.
With midfields this tight it was likely that a counter-attack, before defensive shapes got set, would be each team's best chance to score. Valencia almost managed it - when Andres Guardado got down the left, pulled the ball back and Jonas let fly only for Iker Casillas to make a superb reflex stop.
Madrid were more clinical when their chance soon came. While the "Iker, Iker" chants were still resounding round the Bernabeu, Essien led a charge up the field (through space which in theory Parejo should have been guarding) and Khedira played in Karim Benzema first time to finish coolly from 15 yards for his 11th goal in all competitions so far this season.
So Madrid were ahead, but even with their best ball-players on the pitch they were not able to control the game, and Valencia kept pressing after half time. Another long spell of possession led to an expertly delivered Tino Costa free kick which exposed Madrid's (or Casillas'?) weakness at set-pieces, only for Victor Ruiz to head wide of an open goal.
Mourinho decided to change things and again hooked off Modric with just 62 minutes gone, sending on Angel Di Maria. The former Tottenham man has now made 26 appearances for Madrid, but completed the 90 minutes just eight times. In his absence, however, Valencia constructed their best move of the game, with Banega brilliantly turning past two players in midfield to start a move which ended with Casillas saving from Soldado and Jonas firing wide with the keeper stranded.
Madrid again took advantage of a miss by the Brazilian to score their second soon afterwards, with half-time substitute Fabio Coentrao make an overlapping run down the left and his cross ending up in the net via the unlucky Guardado.
The game now became stretched and ultimately it was Valencia's missed chances - and also some erroneous offside decisions - which were more decisive than the adjustments of either coach. Ronaldo missed two clear chances to add to Madrid's total, while the visitors increasingly threw players forward to try and grab an away goal ahead of next week's second leg. The main tactical interest of the game though had been before the second goal, and even more, before the first.
Mourinho's decision to use three central-midfielders, with Modric playing not in Ozil's roving playmaker role of last season, but with Khedira as a pair of up and down shuttlers, looks a nod towards the bigger tasks to come. The Special One is correct if he thinks that his side need to learn how to better manage games from midfield, but the evidence of this game's opening hour - where Valencia's trio more than matched Madrid's but could not make their upper hand count on the scoresheet - suggests the experiment still needs more work.