Funny things midfields. I don't know if they're more significant in Spain than in other countries, but here, it seems to me, teams live and die by them. I saw quite a few games over the weekend, and they all confirmed the same message. Get the middle wrong, and you'll struggle. It seems such an obvious mantra, but maybe I'm in danger of simplifying matters here. Whatever, it seems a decent enough way to frame this week's column.
For starters, I went along to the Real Sociedad v Eibar game in the Segunda División on Saturday. Since it was an historic occasion, it seemed only right to go. These two sides, although separated by only about 35 miles of motorway, have never met before in the league in San Sebastian. We're talking of almost seventy years here, during which the two have never coincided in the same division.
There'll be similar cases from other countries, where teams from the same region have been separated more by financial and historical factors than by geographical ones, but they nevertheless grow up as separate entities, as chalk and cheese. Eibar have done well to hang around Segunda 'A' for so many years, given the limits of their smaller population and lack of glamour. It would have been nice for this derby to have taken place in the top flight, but as far as Eibar are concerned, that's always been a pipe dream.
So it was a nice day out for about half the town's population, and their team - famous for stifling opponents and then hitting them on the break, read the game far better than their more illustrious opponents, who were strutting around the pitch as if they were reluctant to run and harry too much - as if it were somehow beneath their superior quality as a squad.
Sociedad picked two central midfielders who were both creative types, with two wider players in support. Eibar, noticing the gift, simply flooded the centre and nullified their opponent's middle department, tackling hard and closing spaces down with ruthless efficiency. As a result, their wingers started to get the ball, and they began to look the better side - which they're not, of course. But as a spectator you're sitting there thinking 'I can see what's wrong. Why can't they?'
Well eventually they did, but only after Eibar had opened the scoring. The same thing happened in Almería, where the home side beat Real Madrid 2-0 and did us all a favour by opening up the league - just a little bit anyway. Mind you, Barcelona almost blew it by taking 88 minutes to defeat lowly Osasuna, but anyway, back to midfields.
Almería are actually a decent footballing side, with enough quality to worry anybody on their day. Melo, Ortiz, Juanito and Mané are fine players, and keeper Alves is one of the revelations of the season so far. Unai Emery is also Spain's most promising young manager, with a host of big clubs beginning to look his way. And of course, Emery will have looked at Real Madrid's season so far and tried to see some sort of hole in their dyke, some sort of fissure in their sea-wall. He probably noticed that although they won away at Barcelona and then had little trouble against the other big sides (except at Sevilla, but there they blamed it on the ref), they failed to beat either of the other two sides who were promoted with Almería, namely Valladolid and Murcia. Significant? Well it looks like it now. Teams who try to play Real Madrid by attempting to compete with their quality have all emerged with their tails between their legs. Teams who stop them playing have had more success. But what does this mean?
Against Almería, Schuster stuck Diarra in the middle, there to do a protection job on Guti. Sneijder played in front of them, to the right, in a rather vaguer role, with Raúl tucked in behind Van Nistlerooy. All well and good, except that Juanito followed Guti everywhere, whilst Melo and Ortiz took it upon themselves to niggle Diarrà into giving the ball away almost every time it came near him.
It's all very well assuming that a player like Diarrà, whose basic role is to destroy, will do just that and as a result, the creators will create. But what if the other team decides to suffocate both the creator and the destroyer? That's exactly what Almería did, and they did it so effectively that both Sneijder and Robinho, the latter so effective of late, were starved of the ball, at least in the sort of positions they wanted to have it.
I was once in the Bernabéu when Makelele was playing for Madrid a few years ago. At one point, the destroyer sine qua non of the football world passed a ball to the left that was intercepted by an opponent. The crowd groaned and I turned to my friend from Madrid. 'Why are they groaning at him?' I asked. 'Look' replied my friend, 'Mak's a great player, but he gives the ball away too much - really.' That was a strange comment, since any observation of Makelele since he went to Chelsea would be quite the opposite. He robs it, then passes it a few yards, always with intent, but always keeping it simple. It's been a joy to behold, and it's been the shield that has made John Terry into the defender he is. But in Spain, players had got the measure of him, and had tried to turn the tables on him by doing to him what he did unto others. Effective though he was, his lack of passing creativity did for him in the end, and he was sold on. That's why Diarrà won't last. Real Madrid might gain possession through him, but they cannot trust him to distribute the ball, even simply.
And just like Eibar, Almería started to look the better side because they were winning all the bouncy balls and their wingers were getting into spaces. Scoring after 15 minutes didn't exactly hinder their cause either, and then their second goal after 46 minutes knocked the wind right out of Real's sails, just as they were trying to come to terms with the fact that their talisman, Van Nistlerooy, had gone off injured. His replacement Higuian is a good player, but he needs ten chances to score once. The Dutchman needs one chance to score ten, or so it sometimes appears.
Then again you could argue, with some justification, that Real Madrid lost their first game in three months because Cannavaro was completely useless, slipping over for the first goal and giving away a daft penalty for the second. Whoever made him Balon de Oro want their heads examining, but Cannavaro too can look good when others around him do the donkey work. Ramos tried his best, but found himself overrun.
Barcelona also went for this 'hard man soft man' idea this season, buying Touré from Monaco to cover for the ailing Marquez, seemingly always injured. With Thuram and Abidal offering a physical counterbalance to the more delicate skills of Deco, Iniesta and Xavi in the midfield, the mixture looked promising. But it hasn't quite worked out to plan. Barça have gained in defensive solidity - with Milito also a less anarchic presence than Puyol, but they have consistently failed to sweep teams aside this season, despite the creative riches at their disposal. It's as if there are two teams playing under one roof, but without the twain ever really meeting. It's a curious state of affairs, as if Rijkaard's thinking goes something along the lines of 'Well, there are so many great players out there that something has to happen'.
Teams don't even try to stifle Barça, because they can't. As Ziganda said this weekend, even three players can't stop Messi, if he's running at you with the ball under control and there is space to move into. That's why Osasuna decided that the best way to play in the Camp Nou was by trying to get the ball and by keeping hold of it. Messi, as a result, saw little of the action, and Barça suddenly found themselves having to readjust their tactics, having expected Osasuna to try and stifle them in the middle. In the end, it almost paid off, until another midfielder, Xavi, came on for Deco and within six minutes had won the game for the home side.
Finally, I saw Tottenham and Man Utd on the telly at the weekend too. It's a hard life. But in that game, it was a completely different story. Tottenham almost won the game not because their midfield was on top but because they simply played at a faster pace then United, who looked shell-shocked by Spurs' approach. It was exactly like the Sevilla of old, with Juande Ramos now having transferred the approach to London. Players were attacking from all angles, moving around at a dizzying pace and being as unpredictable as possible. But Sevilla under Ramos were like that too. They renounced a fixed midfield and played a more 'total football' game, but they were the exception that proved the rule.
Normally in Spain it's all about the middle, because the game is much slower here, but none the less attractive for it. If Real Madrid blow it now, it will be because their lack of a true midfield plan will be exposed, unless Gago really gets it together and emerges as the saviour.
It ain't over yet. Thanks Almería!