In military theory, after a defeat, an excess of self-reflection and analysis of exactly what went wrong is seen as healthy, but only up to a point. This is because there was an adversary, and the adversary prevailed. You lost the battle – but it wasn’t all down to you. In psychology this is called ‘chronic analysis’ and it tends to be so self-absorbed that you fail to see the other factors – perhaps you know where this is going. If you just lost 0-3 to Barcelona, as Eibar did on Saturday, you probably wouldn’t need to spend the rest of the week self-flagellating. Eibar played okay, but Barcelona simply took advantage of their different level of quality. Analysis over, and move on. Real Madrid, however, were drowning in chronic analysis over the weekend, or at least their friends in the Spanish mainstream press were. Maybe the squad flew home from Mallorca after their 1-0 defeat thoroughly aware of what went wrong – and what did go wrong?
Basically, Mallorca played with a plan and stuck to it. They scored early, shut up shop, closed Madrid down and tried to scare them on the break. Their athleticism and fitness are useful weapons, and they used them to maximum effect. Madrid suffered from the poor-final-pass syndrome and the give-it-to-Vinicius-and-see method, which has not been working for some time. The miracle is that Madrid are still 2nd in the table, and this was their first league defeat, but if things go wrong in Istanbul on Tuesday night- and well they might – then the crisis will assume interesting proportions. Madrid’s fear of playing in the Europa League and attitude towards the competition is like a king who fears exile. Lonely Thursday nights in some far-flung, half-empty stadium. Oh the horror! Let them eat cake!
But to return to the theme of self-absorption, trying to find a match report in Spain which actually mentioned Mallorca was impossible. Even Lago Junior’s goal was allegedly Odriozola’s fault. One imagines that the local Mallorquin press managed to praise their team for the victory, although even that could not be guaranteed, given the fact that half the island supports Real Madrid anyway. See Rafa Nadal for the most public example, even though he managed to get married on Saturday in Sa Fortalesa, the very day that Real Madrid came to the island. Poor planning I say.
Anyway, the national chorus was that Mallorca’s victory was down to Zidane’s bad choices, Vinicius’ inability to decide what to do once he has dribbled past the entire opposition’s defence, Isco’s disinterest, Courtois being rubbish…you name it. Praise for Mallorca’s grit and discipline was nowhere to be found, and whereas self-reflection is necessary in order for a team to improve, the press might help by actually suggesting that the other side played well, and that it’s valid to lose sometimes. Sport is supposed to be like that. We don’t all have to buy into the LaLiga duopoly – a commercial conspiracy of outrageous proportions, but there you go. C’est la vie, and neither are Barcelona exempt from this mind-set , where a single defeat brings the usual cries – that the job is too big for Valverde, there is Messi-dependence, De Jong isn’t as good as they said he was, Griezmann is fly-by-night, and so on and so forth. Snore. Meanwhile, nobody else gets so much as a mention.
I went along on Sunday to Anoeta (I’m still not used to calling the excellent new stadium by its silly new name) to see another team rarely mentioned in the national football discourse, Real Sociedad. They were playing Betis, and it’s usually a good game because the southerners like to play football and open things up, and so do the Basques, which often culminates in a goal-fest. Real won 3-1 and moved into the Champions League places, but the reason I bring this into the narrative is that every time the Spanish press alights on Real Sociedad now it is to lavish praise on Martin Odegaard, a wonderful player indeed, but one who just happens to belong to Real Madrid. So well is the Norwegian playing that there are obvious longings in the capital to get him back and dressed up in white as soon as possible, and the more the press emphasises his wondrous feats, the sooner he is likely to go back. The logic is very simple. The desultory sub-headline in Marca on Sunday that Zidane is awaiting the return of the great Lucas Vazquez with anticipation was enough to get the commentary thread burning like a bonfire, the trolls almost falling over their keyboards in agreement that Odegaard should come back as soon as possible, to save the empire from ruin.
The problem with this is that although Odegaard is indeed playing out of his skin, he is also benefitting from a team that supports him, and a tactical strategy that enables him to prosper. He is not sitting on the bench, or playing with the ‘B’ team. He is an important element in Sociedad’s good form this season, but he is far from being the only one. And yet Marca, working hard to ensure that the world remains white, has mentioned him in all nine games so far this season in their match-report headers, to the apparent exclusion of the rest of the excellent squad. As a perfect example this Sunday, the best player by far was Real’s Navarran midfielder, Mikel Merino, who turned in an exhibition of central midfield play, tackling, heading, passing, dribbling – Betis couldn’t cope with him at all. And yet Marca awarded him only one star in their match report, as if the reporter had not even noticed. Odegaard (two stars) played well, but he was not the main man. LaLiga is the kingdom if not of lies then of self-deceit, and in the end it probably benefits no-one. And hey – we like Lucas Vazquez. We don’t like Javi García though, Betis’ no.3 and no.1 butcher. His foul on Odegaard was surely a straight red, followed up by an equally cynical one on Portu. And this from a guy who used to play for Real Madrid but who left via the back door. Maybe he’s jealous of Odegaard who is destined to return through the front? The referee was from La Rioja. Obviously had a few bottles before the game that blurred his vision.
And what of the clásico, I hear you say? Well, it’s all fairly amusing, and one would smile if it weren’t so serious. The postponement of the game until December 18th is probably a good idea, given the level of nastiness that the Catalan situation has assumed over the last week, but of course, one week from Christmas Day and the two warring factions will have kissed and made up, the prisoners will be on the streets and all will be socio-political peace for ever more. Given that the problems date back to the early 18th century (well….further back actually) that’s going to be some achievement by the Spanish league authorities. Even better, with Madrid taking a break, Real Sociedad could go above them if they win at Celta, and Granada, another non-mentioned David among the Goliaths, could go top. In fact they probably will, because they’re playing Betis at home, whose defence resembles a discarded colander. The top four could look much prettier by the end of the next weekend. I’m looking forward to it, unlike the vast majority of the Spanish sporting press who will of course blame the Catalan independence movement for equalling up the league table, albeit temporarily .