Week 8 Observations

Some thoughts from week 8 of La Liga.

Whatever Happened to La Real?

The side that played with such verve and guile last season finds itself languishing in 15th position. The opening day victory over Getafe must seem like a long time ago. The home and away wins over Lyon in the Champions League that offered such cautious optimism for the European Campaign ahead must seem like a false dawn now with defeats from Shakhtar and Leverkusen leaving La Real at the bottom of their group.

Just four goals have been scored in the seven league games since defeating Getafe yet, excluding the four goals conceded against Barcelona in a heavy defeat, La Real have conceded only 5 goals in the other 6 league fixtures. The Basques are falling on the wrong side of fine margins.

La Real average 13 shots at goal per game but are conceding almost 14 per game. It’s only a small change from last season where they averaged 1.7 shots per game more and conceded 0.5 shots per game less. The side are playing well at times but they are too open. A slight deviation from last season’s formation has seen the side open up but the attacking talent on offer is not performing as well as they did last season. Vela struggles for goals and Griezmann only opened his league account against Sevilla last week.

Further back the loss of Illarramendi has affected the balance in midfield and new coach Arrasate has not yet addressed that issue. Do Sociedad become more adventurous or retain the more cautious style that has taken them this far?

It’s only October and Sociedad languished in 13th position at the International break last season with 3 home wins and 4 away defeats. Montannier then oversaw a fantastic run of form to propel them to the Champions League. La Real won’t struggle in the bottom half of the table and they will improve. Just don’t expect another run of form like last season.

A Triumph of the Individual over the Collective

And that neatly summarises the season thus far for Real Madrid. We all knew Ancelotti had significant work on his hands when he took the reins in the summer but the extent of the job is only now becoming completely apparent.

Ignore the late comeback against Levante. It’s simply placing some wallpaper over a large crack. Real Madrid will always have more talented players than a club like Levante. The teams are operating in a different league financially and that gulf in resources is transferred onto the pitch. That three points were gained is arguably the only positive from the game. What occurred on Saturday night was one side playing to their maximum as a team unit whilst the opposition struggled to perform and have any clear identity of what they were actually trying to achieve. Madrid was reliant upon individual moments to drag the team across the finish line.

How does Ancelotti deal with this?

The Italian has always been able to squeeze talented players into the starting eleven throughout his career. The problem at Madrid is two fold; the change in system and the skill sets of the players at his disposal. Can Madrid really change from a counter attacking side to one that builds and retains possession? How does he get players to complement each other? How can he squeeze Ronaldo and Bale into the team without both simply wanting to run with the ball into space? Maybe he already has the solution to both problems even if Xabi Alonso is still on the injury list.

This could be Ancelotti’s biggest challenge.

The Race for 4th

Did anyone see Villarreal beginning the season this well? Returning to the top flight after a one season absence, Marcelinho has the side playing a fluent brand of football that is almost synonymous with the yellow submarine. With a few slight differences.

This side are now a counter attacking team. A team that is content to allow the opponent to come forward before striking. The submarine average 46% possession per game as the opponent probes away before the submarine attacks with pace and mobility in wide forward areas with willing runners from the second line of attack. The middle of the park is ably marshalled by Bruno and Cani.

A trip to Bilbao and a home game against Valencia will test the character of the side later this month. Come through both unscathed and maybe people will seriously consider Villarreal as challengers for a European position.

Their opponents later this month, Athletic and Valencia, played out an average 1-1 draw at the new San Mames. The endeavour on display outweighed the quality significantly.  Meanwhile, Sevilla actually won a game and reclaimed some ground on most teams above. As Emery chops and changes his side, an element of consistency of selection has to emerge over the coming weeks. With a further two winnable games coming up against Valladolid and Osasuna, sides likely to be facing relegation battles later in the season, Emery and his side must take full advantage. The narrow and somewhat fortuitous home win over Almeria courtesy of a 92nd minute goal from Rakitic secured the first 3points of the month. The Croatian must be played further forward. His creativity is wasted in a deep lying role. A further minimum of 6 points needs to be gathered this month to drag Sevilla back into the race for 4th position.

The Arrival of the Armada

The current financial mess that clubs in La Liga find themselves in means there is little transfer spending in evidence in the domestic game. Aside from Barcelona and Real Madrid, only Villarreal, Granada, Valladolid and Elche have a net spend in transfer dealings. Cumulatively, the four clubs have a net spend of approximately £12m, enough to buy you half of Roberto Soldado. Spanish clubs have had to improve their scouting network and youth development to secure players for their squads. The days of big transfer fees in Spain are long gone except for the big two. Free transfers and loan are the order of the day. With high debts to service, it’s a buyer’s market for clubs willing to shop in La Liga. If you shop correctly. And a number of Premiership sides are showing exactly that. So far this season Premiership clubs have acquired 17 players from La Liga. And with over two weeks still to go until the transfer window closes, who would bet against other players arriving from Spain?

The list below shows the 17 players who have left La Liga behind to begin a new chapter in their career in the Premiership. For the likes of Joel Robles and Jonathan de Guzman who spent last season on loan, they will already know what to expect and no adaptation phase will be required. From the remainder, some are known whilst some will be complete unknowns to the average fan but one question will be on everyone’s minds. What will the players offer to their new clubs and more importantly, will they be a standout or will they be a flop?

The La Liga Influx
The La Liga Influx

Sevilla Selling

The Andalusian’s have sold six players to Premiership clubs this summer with four of these players having been developed in the club’s cantera. The loss of their prized asset, Jesus Navas, may well have seemed an unlikely event a few season ago. The problems of his severe homesickness overcome; Navas has left his hometown club where he has played since he was 15 to join ManchesterCity.

What Navas offers is fairly simple. He’s very fact and very direct. Navas runs, beats left backs and creates chances. Last season the winger averaged 2.1 key passes per game. If those are the plus points for Navas, the negative points can be neatly summed up but his apparent inability to shoot well. His finishing can be quite woeful at times and despite making some 393 appearances for Sevilla, Navas scored just 34 goals. Whilst that can be derided, what cannot be is the volume of chances that Navas creates. A European and World Champion, Navas is entering the peak of his career and the strikers at Man City should be the ones to benefit. Just don’t expect him to score.

Overpriced

Two of the top scoring Spanish strikers from La Liga over the past few years, both full internationalists, will have their eye upon challenging for top goalscorer in their new league. Alvaro Negredo moves to the Etihad whilst Roberto Soldado arrives at White Hart Lane. The two strikers both spent time at Real Madrid before moving elsewhere, scoring goals and moving on to higher profile sides in Sevilla and Valencia respectively. Despite their goalscoring records, there is a view that both have been overpriced. At a cost of £22million for Negredo and £25million for Soldado, neither is cheap and suggests that both Spanish sides were the real winners in negotiating such lucrative sales which enabled them to reduce debt and acquire replacement players.

What he does best.

What he does best.

Soldado has the better career scoring record with 193 goals from 397 appearances and is a typical penalty area striker who needs to improve his link up play outside of the box whilst curbing his penchant for dissent. Yet at 28, Soldado is unlikely to radically alter his ways now. For Negredo, there is more to his all round game and his lower scoring record with 139 goals in 328 appearances can be tempered by his other qualities to an extent. He can be used during quick counter attacks or as a central reference point in a crowded penalty area but he is very wasteful and frequently squanders good chances. Both will score goals, the real issue is whether they take the chances presented to them in key games.

Combined they have 25 appearances for Spain and 12 goals. That neither can establish themselves in an International side which, for all of its talents lacks a genuine world class striker, on a regular basis hints at an inability to make that final step to the very top level.

Premiership More Physical?

Spanish football is renowned for being physically weaker than the Premiership. The game is slower, there are fewer tackles and everything is just a little soft, isn’t it? The arrival of Fernando Amorebieta at Fulham and Gary Medel at Cardiff City will swiftly demonstrate that stereotypes should be avoided. Both are extremely physical players with Amorebieta collecting four yellows and one red in 11 appearances last season whilst Medel surpassed that with seven yellow and three reds in 32 appearances.

The Pitbull

The Pitbull

Both should have no problems settling into the higher tempo of the Premiership or will they wince under a hefty challenge. Amorebieta has a decent passing range on him for a central defender and long crossfield passes are a feature of his game. Medel can help set the tempo for his team by pressing and harassing the opposition quickly but he can be just as adept at collecting the ball and moving possession quickly. He is no Xabi Alonso but his passing ability is often overlooked. The problems both will encounter may lie elsewhere. For Amorebieta, the Venezuelan Internationalist is weak when pulled wide and can be beaten easily for pace and mobility when he is isolated. He needs protection from his full back. The Chilean Medel, meanwhile, has an extremely quick temper and is prone to making rash, impetuous challenges especially when the tempo of a game rises.

Swansea Under the Radar. Again.

Last season it was primarily Michu along with Pablo and de Guzman who arrived from La Liga and shone in South Wales. This season, Laudrup has again returned to Spain and acquired shrewdly. Alejandro Pozuelo, Jose Canas and Jordi Amat join the ever growing ranks of Spaniards at the Liberty Stadium for the combined sum of roughly £3million.

Pozuelo and Canas were key figures in helping Real Betis to defy expectations and finish 7th in the league.  Pozuelo made 29 appearances and scored 3 goals over two seasons for Betis. An attacking midfielder who rose to prominence whilst still in the Betis B team, his performances earned him several call ups to the senior squad before eventually joining the side, his first team action may be initially limited. Canas is a defensive midfielder who does the simple things well. He can tackle, intercept and make passes. His impact should be more visible from the outset and adds to the depth of options that Swansea now enjoy in midfield.

Bad hair. Good player.

Bad hair. Good player.

The two players from Betis will be used to a slightly more direct style of game than that which Swansea play. Betis tended to have less possession than their opponents and counter attack swiftly. This should present no problems to their third acquisition, the young central defender Jordi Amat. Although purchased from Espanyol, Amat spent the season on loan at Rayo Vallecano. At just 21, Amat is still raw as a central defender but has decent pace and intelligence.

Future Promise?

Three summer signings that may have been more low key over the last few weeks yet potentially could be excellent signings for their new employers.

The cliché may be well and truly worn out now, but this season there is the possibility of a former Barcelona player slogging it out on a cold wet winter night in Staffordshire. with Stoke City securing the Barcelona centre back Marc Muniesa on a free transfer. Touted as a future first team player a few season ago, he failed to make the step up and has seen injury blight his career over the past season with a torn cruciate ligament. Handed his top team debut by Guardiola, although he was subsequently sent off shortly after taking the field, the defender can operate as a left back but prefers to play in central defence. Part of the Spain side that has just defended their U21 European Championship, if Muniesa can recapture the early promise he showed in his career, Mark Hughes and Stoke City may have picked up a quality addition to the squad for free. How he handles a significantly more robust style of play though will be a determining factor in any success.

Another youthful arrival from La Liga will take his place at Selhurst Park this season under the watchful, if a little erratic, gaze of Ian Holloway. Jose Campana was captain of the Spanish U20 side that reached the quarter finals of the U20 World Cup. An excellent prospect in midfield, the technically proficient youngster leaves Sevilla after a fall out despite the club placing faith in him. Whilst his technical quality may not be in doubt, his temperament of the pitch is and whether the bright lights of London are the ideal place for him to regain focus remains to be seen. If Holloway can curb his more exuberant side, Palace may have found a gifted midfielder.

The Barcelona Starlet

The Barcelona Starlet

Roberto Martinez has secured something of a minor coup with the season long loan of Gerard Deulofeu from Barcelona. One of the most promising youngsters in European football, the loan is also represents a display of faith in the regime that Martinez is trying to instil on Merseyside. Deulofeu scored 18 goals in 33 appearances last season for Barcelona B playing in La Segunda. Able to play on either wing or behind the main striker, the young Spaniard is versatile and very direct. Those have been questions asked over his decision making however with a tendency to shoot rather than pass being notable but entirely understandable given his age. If the rough edges can be quickly polished, Everton may well have a considerable gem on their hands this season.

The last time an armada this large arrived from Spanish shores, a hasty retreat followed shortly thereafter. It’s safe to assume this fleet is likely to harbour in England for some time to come.

The Year of Los Merengues?

It’s time for that split decision again. Sometimes you would be as well just flipping a coin to decide as the difference is minimal. Despite having 20 teams, La Liga will be won by either Barcelona or Real Madrid this season. Again. The remaining 18 teams are simply competing for positions 3 – 20. Atleti may harbour ambitions of breaking this duopoly but their squad is still someway short of a successful season long challenge. With regard to the remaining teams, there is no credible challenger in sight.

So pick up that coin and flip it. Or are things not quite as tight between the big two as some would have you believe? Is there actually a gap developing between the sides? And one that becomes more apparent as the clock ticks down to the start of the season? If I were a betting man, my money this season would be on Real Madrid to reclaim the La Liga title. Why?

Here are five reasons why los blancos will recapture the title from their rivals and win La Liga this season:-

Carlo Ancelotti – A Unifying Force

Stepping into the managerial cauldron that is the Santiago Bernabeu is Carlo Ancelotti. Whilst replacing Mourinho has proven to be a tough challenge elsewhere, the limited success that the Portuguese enjoyed in Madrid coupled with the fractious nature of his final season means the Italian may find a hospitable reception awaits him. Combine this with his much easier going demeanour and the dressing room wounds of last season are likely to heal over quickly.

A key attribute of Ancelotti has always been his ability to squeeze major players into his starting line up often in an effort to satisfy the demands of overbearing Presidents. At Milan, Chelsea and PSG, Ancelotti has succeeded in shoe horning a number of seemingly incompatible players into his starting eleven. To accomplish this successfully, altering his tactical set up has become a necessity. The Italian has used the 4-3-2-1, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 although interestingly, he has seldom used the 4-2-3-1 which was the default starting line up for Madrid under Mourinho. More of the same or a departure for Ancelotti?

Pragmatism and the lack of adherence to a particular system are his strengths. He will assess the players at his disposal and design a system around their skills. In that respect, Ancelotti is not your typical Italian coach who is married to one system. His versatility and flexibility will aid a Madrid side that became increasingly one-dimensional last season. Opponents knew how to close Madrid off. They were a reactive, counter attacking side. In truth, not that dissimilar to the PSG side that Ancelotti was building. At Madrid though with greater resources at his disposal, Ancelotti will construct wisely.

With league titles from Italy, England and France, who would bet against Ancelotti adding Spain to that list?

Tactical Options

This brings us to how Ancelotti will shape Madrid up this coming season. Ancelotti has utilised the 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation in pre season and is known to favour this formation but his versatility has enabled him to deploy various formations over the years to maximise the players at his disposal. Assuming that Ancelotti does decide to primarily use the 4-3-2-1 formation, one of the key questions would appear to be the deployment of Ronaldo. If Madrid acquires Gareth Bale, it wouldn’t be to play him at left back which would mean a position behind the sole striker. This would surely mean Ronaldo as the no9 to avoid conflict between the two. Even if Bale does not arrive, serious consideration must be given to Ronaldo being the striker.

Carlo Ancelotti - Reassuringly unimpressed

Carlo Ancelotti – Reassuringly unimpressed

Alternatives at the moment for the striking role remain Benzema, Morata and Jese should he be elevated from the B team. Yet given his goal scoring ability in Madrid with 201 goals in just 199 appearances, it makes sense from an attacking perspective to place Ronaldo at the tip of the tree. Could Ronaldo outscore Messi if he is given the opportunity of being the central attacking player? It also makes sense from a defensive perspective too with Ronaldo frequently failing to undertake defensive duties and leaving his left back exposed when he has been deployed on the wide left position, a matter that has been capitalised upon by opponents most notably Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League semi final in April.

Further back, the midfield trio can incorporate two holders and a more creative force. The burden upon Xabi Alonso to build and create from deep should be eased and Madrid can become a more fluid side as a consequence. Width can be provided by Di Maria operating from a deeper starting position or by the full backs safe in the knowledge that there is a strong platform behind them to compensate when they push forward.

The basis for the greater tactical options now open to Madrid is also partly attributable to the quality and depth of the squad.

Quality and Quantity

The squad has seen the departures of Callejon, Albiol and Higuain. The loss of Albiol and Callejon who both had very limited playing time last season will not be missed but both the goals and assists that Higuain provided could be more of an issue particularly as it leaves just three players for the striking role in Benzema, Ronaldo and Morata. The squad is strong and could become even more so if the proposed acquisition of Gareth Bale proceeds as Madrid clearly want it to. It’s not a necessary signing though. Even without Bale, Madrid is strong throughout their squad.

Cast your eyes across the squad and you see position after position has quality and alternative options available. Who will start the season in goal, Casillas or Diego Lopez? There is Carvajal or Arbeloa for right back whilst Marcelo and Coentrao will do battle for the left back slot. Only really in central defence could there be a slight weakness with perhaps one more centre back being required to provide cover for Ramos, Varane and Pepe.

In midfield there is Alonso, Khedira, Modric, Ozil, Isco, Illarramendi and Di Maria all challenging for positions. The strong has genuine quality throughout and gradually now shows a stronger Spanish core too. Quality and identity now exists.

Spanish Acquisitions

In a surprising turn of events, Madrid is the side showing foresight and vision in their transfer policy with the acquisition of Carvajal, Isco and Illarramendi. Three members of the Spanish U21 side that just defended their European crown and potentially members of the Spain squad that travels to Brazil next year have joined their ranks. That three young Spanish players have been acquired signals an intent by Madrid to secure a core set of Spanish players over the longer term. A set of players who will form the heart of both Madrid and potentially the Spanish national side for years to come. It’s also about buying players who shone for the respective clubs last season within a system. Madrid has been a club that relies upon individual talent over the team but these signings indicate a tempering of that philosophy.

Isco - The Future Part 1?

Isco – The Future Part 1?

The fourth member of that victorious U21 side is already in the first team squad. Alvaro Morata continues to impress and will surely be granted valuable playing time this season to hone his skills. Will the names of Carvajal, Illarramendi, Isco and Morata soon be known for their exploits with both los blancos and la roja? This optimism should be considered cautiously though. It wasn’t that long ago that Madrid were signing the likes of Canales only to use him sparingly and effectively stall the players career during a key development phase. The same mistakes must not be repeated.

Illarramendi - The Future Part 2?

Illarramendi – The Future Part 2?

Barcelona’s Structural Problems

And this brings us neatly to the problems facing Barcelona. Whilst Madrid strengthens, their rivals appear to be caught in the headlights. They have already sold David Villa and Thiago and speculation continues to surround Fabregas. Somebody, somewhere in the whole Fabregas scenario is not telling the whole truth and the debacle rumbles on. Meanwhile, the circus of their failure to strengthen their defensive position continues. It’s unlikely that Puyol will last another full season without either succumbing to another injury or substantial rest and rotation. Bartra has been given limited first team exposure to date and add to this the departure of Abidal and the defensive fragility becomes clear.

The arrival of Gerardo Martino as coach should see a strengthening of the defensive unit but reinforcements are a necessity and not a luxury. It’s not just one centre back Barcelona needs, it’s two. Martino must also address the structural problems that Barcelona experienced last season. The player who could enable Xavi to rest has been sold to Bayern Munich.  Barcelona has to regain that freshness, the intensity to their game that has faded and gain a greater element of thrust and verticality to their attacking play.

The acquisition of Neymar could prove to be an excellent signing but it was in an area of the team not needing surgery. Are Barcelona falling victim to the cult of the galactico as Madrid demonstrate a commitment to younger players.

Whilst Barcelona sits and fails to resolve problems, Madrid strengthens. The negativity that engulfed Madrid as the Mourinho era came to a close will be eradicated with the arrival of Ancelotti at the helm. Harmony and balance can be restored both on and off the pitch. The balance of power is shifting once more. The title is heading back to Madrid.

Lessons to be Learned?

It’s not like sections of the media to overreact. Is it? Yet that’s precisely what happened recently following events in Brazil. The home side took the Confederations Cup on home soil with as comprehensive a competitive win over the Spanish as there has been for many years. It left del Bosque and La Furia Roja to admit that their period of domination was coming to an end. The Spanish have had a good run. Two European Championships and a World Cup yet the prize upon which you are now seemingly judged, the Confederations Cup, has escaped their clutches twice. Its now back to the drawing board for the Spanish. They must navigate the remainder of their qualifying campaign to claim a place in Brazil next summer but their powers are on the wane already.

Why bother though. The World Cup appears to be a foregone conclusion. Spain won’t win it and it seems a few semi decent performances from Brazil has secured their name upon the trophy. The Seleção have the better of their counterparts. It was a technical and tactical triumph overseen by Scolari.

Wasn’t it?

Brazil Press High And Go Direct

The final against Brazil was notable for two reasons. The style of game that Brazil used against their opponents and the manner in which certain aspects of the Spanish system, whether it be the system itself or components within that system, were problematic.

From the outset of this game, Brazil pressed and harassed Spain high up the pitch in an effort to disrupt their game and prevent them from settling down and finding any rhythm to dictate proceedings. This worked as Spain was slow to move the ball and find space, enabling Brazil to close them down and force misplaced passes.

The question that was apparent from midway through the first half was whether Brazil could sustain the same tempo and level of intensity in their play for the entire game. If the game had been played in the stifling heat and humidity of Fortaleza, this tactic would not have worked. In the cooler, fresher surroundings of Rio, this was an entirely viable tactic.

The pressing succeeded and once Brazil had taken the lead it enabled them to drop deeper on occasion to recover and counter attack Spain. It does highlight the changing face of the Brazilian team at international level. The days of open, flowing football are now long gone. A distant memory consigned to be shown as a montage containing the best World Cup goals ever scored, most probably on BBC3 or ITV2. Primarily a counter attacking team, Brazil struggled to break down opponents who sat deep themselves. Their tactical strategy appears to revolve around getting the ball to Neymar quickly and waiting for something to happen. The midfield lacks creativity and is purely functional, a consequence of the domestic games desire to produce functional defensive midfielders. It wielded a trophy though but Scolari will have taken notice of the stodgy performances that were produced in the process.

For Spain, is the loss important? Yes, if you want to win the Confederations Cup that continues to elude them. More importantly, it provides an opportunity for del Bosque to see what must happen on and off the pitch if Spain is to march to an unprecedented fourth successive international tournament win.

Issues to Confront

This tournament has provided a welcome jolt to remind del Bosque and his players of the challenges that lie ahead in trying to defend their crown in 2014. It’s not just about what happens on the pitch that will decide the World Cup next year but also how you prepare for the tournament itself and how you adapt to the diverse climatic conditions that exist in Brazil.

The tournament will be hosted by a vast country that experiences different conditions dependent upon where you play. The problem for the qualifying sides is the ability to control factors is only partial. Acclimatising to those conditions by arriving early and preparing is within your powers to an extent. Gaining a favourable draw to avoid extensive travelling around the country is not within your powers.

The Spanish must look at the system and the players who are chosen to enable that system to function. Have some vital parts become worn and need replacing?

Does The System Still Work?

Surprisingly, despite the loss to Brazil and the relatively poor performances against Nigeria and Italy, there has been no outbreak of Plan B syndrome in the media. No cries for the ball to be launched high into the air aimlessly. Perhaps after three tournament wins, people are a little more circumspect when considering Spain.

Spain was a little more direct in this tournament. The deployment of a traditional no9 for the games aided this process. Teams have adjusted once more against Spain and now use a mid level block against La Roja in recognition that the sit deep and hope tactic was futile. It provides space behind that Spain can attack but it hinders their build up play in the midfield area. Opponents can close them down quicker in a densely packed area. Spain needed to recycle possession faster and be more direct themselves. Look for the runs in behind the opposing defence but there was a lack of supporting runs from the midfield area during this tournament. The verticality and thrust that was needed never arrived.

There were reasons why it never worked. Fatigue was a constant issue for the side. Only against Uruguay in the opening 45minutes did Spain produce a level of football normally associated with them. Leaving that aside, Spain possesses players with the technical and tactical proficiency to ensure the system is a success.

It needs players to move quickly in midfield, recycling possession. The full backs must push high and offer themselves when the middle of the pitch becomes too congested and the attacking players must be prepared to drive in diagonally between opposing centre backs and full backs to offer the opportunity for through balls. There must be options from the second line of attack. The system is built upon control but that is precisely what Spain lacked. La Roja often looked unsure defensively and opponents able to attack their defence too easily in the central areas. The Spanish possess these qualities but failed to show them.

If the system does work, then it may be the components that need adjusting.

Succession PlanningLife After Xavi

Central to whatever del Bosque chooses will be how Spain adapt to life without Xavi. Its an issue that is vexing Barcelona right now and one to which they appear to have no credible answer.

Xavi is nearing the end of his career and if he continues to play over 60 games per season then the twilight of his career will fade quicker than necessary. Xavi can continue but only if he plays fewer games for club and country. Such a position is only a short-term solution however and Spain must look beyond Xavi and begin the process of reconstructing the midfield. As the lynchpin of the side ages and slows, his passing becomes more horizontal and safer. It lacks penetration and so opponents are safer. The runs into the opposition penalty area decrease. And his ability to track back and share defensive duties pushes his tired limbs too far. Xavi plays within the middle of the pitch. Unable to hurt opponents and unable to stop opponents hurting his team. It leaves Busquets overexposed at one of the pitch and Iniesta lacks someone to share the creative burden for the side. With Alonso to offer greater control, Spain were exposed in the central areas.

Can Xavi stay in the light?

Can Xavi stay in the light?

The maestro needs time to rest and recuperate. If he receives it, he still has a pivotal role to play for club and country. If he doesn’t then it becomes a real dilemma.

Indeed, when you consider that Iniesta is 29 and has suffered numerous injuries, Xabi Alonso is also the wrong side of 30 then Spain really need to find and identify who will step into the void for all three players. It’s not simply a case of saying “look at all the quality players Spain can choose from”. It’s identifying and saying that these are the players who can step up regularly and claim a starting berth.

Spain has extremely talented midfield players within their U21 squad. The next 12 months must see the process of integrating a few of these players into the senior side.

The Future of Spain's Midfield?

The Future of Spain’s Midfield?

The likes of Isco, Thaigo and Illarramendi must be called up to the senior squad and enjoy playing time. It will be difficult but crucial to aid their development and Spain’s during this transitional period.

Loyalty: How Far Should It Go?

How Far? One thing that del Bosque has shown time and time again is his loyalty to the players who have delivered for him previously. It could be suggested that the loyalty is partly a result of Spain lacking credible alternatives in a few key positions. The loyalty to Alvaro Arbeloa and Fernando Torres at both the World Cup and European Championships may be questioned but were there really credible alternatives at the previous tournaments?

Too loyal?

Too loyal?

Who could have replaced Arbeloa at the World Cup? Iraola would have been in the squad were it not for an unfortunate injury whilst Juanfran is more attack minded but lack defensive nous. And does Arbeloa’s more conservative nature not provide greater balance for the team? That was the argument before but the full back offered neither defensive nor attacking qualities in the final. The player’s international career should not hinge upon one poor game but his lack of technical quality on the ball is becoming an issue for Spain on the right. Too much of their thrust comes from the left and the attacking qualities are lop-sided. Is it time to remove Arbeloa from the squad? Azpilicueta is ready and what of Carlos Martinez at Real Sociedad or even Carvejal or Montoya as deputies? The options exist for a more balanced right full back who can attack whilst also providing the defensive solidity required.

At centre back, is it time to remove Raul Albiol from the squad and replace him with Inigo Martinez? The youngster from Sociedad is the future whilst Albiol seldom gets playing time. Make the change now and provide Martinez with 12months to bed in before the World Cup.

Despite the depth of quality within the Spanish ranks, they arguably lack a genuine goalscorer for the No9 jersey. Negredo has had opportunities and now Soldado has been deployed yet neither truly convinces and del Bosque returns to Torres on occasion. Will Torres get playing time at Chelsea under Mourinho?

Morata - A possible solution?

Morata – A possible solution?

Is the time right to experiment with an alternative? Could Morata be granted an opportunity if he secures playing time in Madrid? This may seem ludicrous to suggest that a player with such limited playing exposure at Madrid be given a call up to the senior squad but Morata possesses the qualities that the national side lack in attack. He is very direct and moves immediately towards goal. This vertical nature is what Spain needs allied to his aerial ability. He is not some form of panacea to their attacking problems as such but must be considered a real alternative now.

The Return to Brazil

There are flaws present both within the squad and within the system. To ignore these problems would be foolish but just as foolish would be to overestimate the damage they could cause and pretend they are insurmountable.

Vicente del Bosque cannot afford to be too loyal to some of the players who have brought them this far. All great teams enjoy a period of success before their cycle comes to an end. If Spain wishes to prolong their cycle of dominance, some hard choices face the coach. He must not shirk from these but equally he must not overreact. Addressing such matters will not guarantee success next summer but it will provide Spain with the optimum opportunity to succeed but so many other factors will come into play. The Confederations Cup highlighted just how important location will be in Brazil to avoid extremely hot and humid conditions. Arriving in time and acclimatising as well as can be expected will be important.

In 2009, Spain lost to USA 2-0 in South Africa. The European Champions were humbled and their credentials were questioned. Twelve months later they returned to South Africa and claimed the World Cup.

Would you really bet against lighting striking twice?

That Was The Season, That Was.

And then the season was over.

Like that.

A football season that commenced in late August and concluded in early June. Vilanova won the title in his debut season as coach, a season punctuated by treatment for his cancer and despite Barcelona often not playing as fluently as they may like. Madrid continued to have the upper hand over Barcelona in clasico’s but seem to have forgotten how to approach games against more defensive teams. So Barcelona and Madrid finish in the top two. Same old, same old.

The real story in Spain, as ever, lay elsewhere. The battle for the European spots and the struggle to avoid relegation.

La Real enjoyed a superb second half of the season suffering just two defeats in the league to return to Champions League football for the first time in 10 seasons. Even a momentary lapse in form as the season concluded could not prevent them from pipping a Valencia side who were slumped in mid-table when Valverde replaced Pellegrino in December. Boardroom instability and financial problems reign supreme at the Mestalla once more. At least with the appointment of Djukic as Coach, Los Che have the chance to rebuild provided he is supported adequately.

When the Champions League campaign ended in controversial circumstances, the glue which Pellegrini had used to bind Malaga together began to peel away and the Andalusian’s form shaded. With an exodus likely and European football increasingly unlikely due to a UEFA penalty for financial irregularities, the side simply ran out of gas. Holding off Betis to finish in 6th place all things considered is still an achievement.

The entertaining Real Betis return to the European arena with Pepe Mel, so close to being sacked last year, still guiding them. How the squad copes over the close season will be crucial. Will Joel Campbell remain on loan? Will Benat stay at the club?

Subject to Rayo being excluded from European competition, again over financial irregularities (although given what Paco Jemez has achieved on a miniscule budget and the manner in which he has achieved it, exclusion is so harsh but could actually be a blessing) Sevilla take the final Europa League spot as Del Nido states that at least 30% of the first team should comprise cantera products in the future.

As some sides appear to be making tentative steps towards resolving financial problems, another three are plunged back into financial crisis.

Depor started the final day of the campaign in 17th position and with their fate i their own hands yet succumbed to a second relegation in three season as their Galician neighbors Celta, managed to avoid the drop under the gaze of coach Abel Resino who has since departed to be replaced by Luis Enrique.

Manolo Jimenez could not perform the same heroics he had done just last year and Real Zaragoza went down following a dreadful run of form in 2013 with two wins, six draws and 12 defeats sucking the Aragonese side down into la Segunda. Where they will be joined by Mallorca. It all seemed so far away for the Islanders when they briefly led the division before Caparros paid for the rapid decline with his job. Manzano could not stop the rot sufficiently either.

How all three cope off the pitch will be just as important as how they cope on it in over the next 12 months.

And so to the team of the season.

It’s important to note that my team of the season contains no Barcelona or Real Madrid players although given how some performed this season, maybe I should have allowed their selection purely to then not select them based upon their performances.

Instead, my team comprises players from others sides. This is, of course, an entirely subjective assessment. There will be some you agree with and some selections which you completely oppose. It’s players who have performed well within their team and who I enjoy watching. I also attempted to find players who would fit the preferred system. Therefore, with inverted wingers, I needed string overlapping full backs. The side will line up in the ubiquitous 4-2-3-1.

Goalkeeper

Courtois (Atleti)

It’s really a straight choice between Willy from Malaga and Courtois from Atleti with the Belgian getting the nod. Whereas Willy performed heroics at times, with Courtois you sense he is always capable of such feats. A dominant presence in goal for Atleti despite his young age. Atleti’s loss will be Chelsea’s gain in the longer term although in terms of his development, he is ready for first team action in London right now.

Right Back

Carlos Marinez (Real Sociedad)

A position where a player from the big two would have secured a starting berth via Dani Alves. This should not detract from the campaign that Martinez has enjoyed. Its demanding being a full back for La Real. You must provide the defensive solidity that Montanier required to use as a platform but equally, you must contribute to the attack with overlapping runs beyond an inverted winger, normally Vela. Martinez did both and not only that, he often excelled at both.

Left Back

Filipe Luis (Atleti)

Whilst Martinez’s team mate de la Bella had a great season, it was probably eclipsed by Luis Filipe from Atleti. Again, Atleti employ a system that requires the full backs to provide the width and Filipe is more than capable of providing such width. Not as attacking as the likes of Jordi Alba but substantially better defensively.

Centre Back

Demichellis (Malaga)

A defender who many will have thought had seen his best years. Never the quickest, his lack of pace could have been an issue instead his experience at the heart of the Malaga defence was one reason why the Andalusian’s gained such good results during the season. His ability to marshall the defence that maintained a disciplined, organsied offside line covered his main deficiency.

Centre Back

Inigo Martinez (Real Sociedad)

Currently starring for the U21’s in the European Championships in Israel, it seems only a matter of time before Martinez is plying his trade elsewhere. Another product of the La Real cantera, Martinez is composed on the ball but can also mix things up when needed. An excellent combination of skills to possess and the reason why he is so highly valued.

Defensive Midfield

Javi Fuego (Rayo Vallecano)

Javi who? Javi Fuego. Paying for Madrid’s 3rd or 4th team depending upon how you classify Getafe, Javi Fuego has gone under the radar of many now for some time but has just secured a well deserved transfer to Valencia. Occupying a deep midfield position, Fuego is a robust, combative figure unafraid to commit to the tackle. Yet that sells his game short. With a high interceptions rate showcasing his reading of the game, he is also a vital component for recycling the ball for a Rayo team that played neat, attractive football.

Defensive Midfield

Illarramendi (Real Sociedad)

Partnering Javi Fuego is Illarramendi from La Real. Like his team mate Inigo Martinez, Illarra is displaying his skills in Israel right now. String in the tackle, mobile, aggressive but capable of fine passing, he has been compared to Xabi Alonso who came through the La Real cantera too. Illarra offers greater defensive cover but lacks the same range of passing that Alonso possesses. Again, like his team mate Martinez, Illarra combines a range of desirable qualities and is possibly a more unique player in the Spanish game for that combination.

Left Wing

Jonas (Valencia)

The selection of Jonas ahead of the likes of Griezmann on the left may raise some eyebrows but the Brazilian had the unnerving habit of popping up in central areas with crucial goals for Valencia as the side made a surge for the final Champions League spot. His 13 goals and three assists helped maintain Valencia’s challenge through to the end of the season. What is key is his willingness to move centrally and support both the attacking midfielder and the striker.

Attacking Midfield

Banega (Valencia)

There are a plethora of players who could be utilsied in this position. The likes of Isco, Verdu, Xabi Prieto and even Leo Baptistao have all enjoyed fine seasons. My own selection goes to a player who has not always displayed the correct attitude towards his career or his club but who, when on form, is capable of producing moments of real quality. Step forward, Ever Banega, a man who helped drag Valencia forward when it looked as if they would remain in mid table. Freed from a deeper position, the advanced placement which Valverde offered him together with team mates ready to link, provided the key pass. The Argentinean weighed in with four goals and four assists from his 29 appearances

Right Wing

Vela (Real Sociedad)

Real Sociedad’s top goalscorer despite operating for much of the season as an inverted right winger. The position enable the Mexican to drift inward, often into space, and onto his favoured left foot. Vela had 14 goals and 9 assists for La Real and his versatility enables him to play across the front line including operating as the central striker, even during games too. He was most damaging though when moving at pace down the right.

Striker

Falcao (Atleti)

In his final season for Atleti prior to his move to AS Monaco, el tigre once again proved why he is one of the most feared strikers in the game. Scoring 28 goals in 34 appearances, other facets of Falcao’s play are sometimes overlooked. He has become much more rounded at Atleti and links with teams mates far better often moving wide to find space before moving centrally into the area. The assist he provided in the Copa del Rey Final for Diego Costa an exampled of this growing awareness in his game. He is becoming the complete striker.

Roll on season 2013/14.

Building for a Real Future?

So often this season, games at Anoeta have produced superb technical and tactical games with one key ingredient. Goals, and lots of them. And in their final home game of the season, La Real once again served up a tremendous spectacle.

A game in which an unfamiliar looking Real Madrid appeared to have somehow secured all three points despite Real Sociedad carving out chance after chance only for Xabi Prieto to secure a point in injury time. Just how crucial that point will be is likely to be determined next weekend.

La Real Dominate

With Real Sociedad now only holding onto fourth place courtesy of the head to head record, there was no margin for error against Madrid. With Madrid and Mourinho announcing his departure when the season concludes and the Madrid team missing a number of key players, this was the chance for a hungry, motivated La Real side to seize the initiative.

La Real edged possession with 53% but time and time again this season, Madrid has shown that they are not a side that cares for possession when they possess the best counter attack in world football. A problem emerges though when you withdraw key components of that counter attack. When that attack lacks the same pace and verve as it normally contains, its’ effectiveness is substantially reduced. The opposition can recognise the weaker attack and commit more men forward.

Sociedad seized the initiative but were undone by defensive errors. Not huge errors but against a side with the quality of Madrid, even minor errors can be punished. Madrid had just one shot at goal in the first half and Higuain scored.

The graphic below demonstrates the ability for La Real to create, and miss, a sizeable number of chances against their visitors:-

Sociedad vs Madrid Shots

Sociedad vs Madrid Shots

From 27 attempts at goal, Sociedad hit the target on 12 occasions. Will Madrid and Mourinho be concerned about the number of chances that La Real managed to create and the manner in which the point was earned?

Madrid may. For Mourinho, his judgement value of this game was demonstrated in his starting line up.

Player Selection

With Jose Mourinho leaving Real Madrid after the season ends, and with nothing left to play for given they have already secured second place in the league, what was the key objective in San Sebastian?

Winning didn’t matter but you still want to win the game of course but considering the prevailing circumstances, what was the key consideration here. To secure three points or to consider Madrid’s development beyond the end of this season?

Carvalho, Essien and Kaka are all likely to depart the Bernabeu shortly. Higuain could follow. Pepe remains benched following his dispute with Mourinho. Could Mourinho not have played the likes of Nacho or Morata or even Casemiro? Players from the Cantera who will be around next season and are likely to be part of the first team squad?

Sociedad vs Madrid Line Ups

Sociedad vs Madrid Line Ups

Madrid gained a point which, on the balance of play, they were probably fortunate to get but given they led 2-0, they should probably have gathered all three points. Does it matter though? It’s a point gained but is it an opportunity lost? A game that could have aided player development substantially.

Playing a weaker team may have resulted in Real Sociedad winning all three points and leaving them in pole position to finish in 4th place. Valencia would have complained but that’s not Real Madrid’s concern. Madrid must focus on themselves.

And they did so but with a distinctly short term focus.

Montanier Departing?

With Montanier departing the Basque Country to coach in Rennes, it leaves the question of who next for Real Sociedad and can the next incumbent build upon the foundations that have already been laid?

The Board’s resolve may well be tested during the close season with figures such as Inigo Martinez, Illarramendi and Griezmann attracting attention but another season together could reap rich dividends for La Real.

If the squad remains largely intact, the tactical issue for the side is to improve defensively without losing their attacking edge. The side have the 6th best defensive record in the league but a small improvement on their nine clean sheets could make a huge difference. The difference could be in those 12 games that La Real have drawn such as Sunday evening. One of those games converted to a victory would seem them level with Valencia but leading thanks to the head to head record.

Is 5th a Success?

And how should Real Sociedad be judged this season if they do finish in 5th and “only” gain a Europa League place? Is the season still a success or would it be deemed a failure by some given their five point lead over Valencia with the end of the season in sight? Had you offered La Real a 5th place finish at the start of the season, it would have been accepted with great appreciation. Only now, when 4th is so close, does 5th seem like a disappointment. Should the side be disappointed with a 5th place finish, it illustrates the progress made since their return from La Segunda just three seasons ago. Remaining grounded is now the key. La Real may well have over achieved this season.

Does the story revolving around La Real detract from the work undertaken by Valverde over at the Mestalla?

Valverde has dealt with uncertainty over his own future, as has Montanier also, but with instability in the boardroom whilst a club that is financially stricken desperately chases the riches that the Champions League has to offer. Montanier has built a foundation in his time at La Real whilst Valverde has been fire fighting for the past six months. Who has the better achievement?

La Real travel to Deportivo needing to win to have any opportunity of finishing 4th. Yet Depor must also secure a result to maintain their survival chances. Valencia meanwhile will travel to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan and face a Sevilla side with nothing to play for or a European place still at stake. That depends entirely upon how both Malaga and Rayo Vallecano are judged for next season in terms of satisfying European criteria.

So who will claim 4th place? In April I backed Los Che to edge 4th place here. For the first time this season, they have the advantage and should hold onto the advantage this weekend.

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