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?

Man Utd vs Real Madrid – Decisions, decisions.

An enthralling encounter at Old Trafford that produced a fascinating tactical battle. Whilst much debate will surround the referee and the dismissal of Nani in the 56th minute, that was not the sole reason why this contest altered direction. This article will focus on three issues in the game and a fourth topic on the fall out.

Man Utd Shape – As Madrid play Barcelona, so too will Man Utd play Madrid.

Even allowing for Ferguson surprising many with his starting eleven and the decision to keep Rooney on the bench, the key point from the outset was the strategy being employed. Just as Real Madrid approach clasico’s now, allowing Barcelona to have possession with a mid-level block and only pressing when they enter your territory, Man Utd would perform a similar tactical ploy against them. A tactical “what goes around comes around” from Ferguson albeit without the desired final outcome.

One of the key issues pre-match focused around the ability of Man Utd to play a patient, disciplined defensive form the outset to frustrate Madrid. The side selected produced a tactically superb performance for 56 minutes.

Giggs, making his 1,000th career appearance, began on the right to support Rafael who was tracking Ronaldo. In the first leg, Rooney had let Coentrao escape his attention on three separate occasions and the side narrowly avoided punishment. These were errors which Giggs would not replicate.

The graphic below shows Man Utd interceptions:-

Man Utd Interceptions

Man Utd Interceptions

The majority of interceptions arrived on the Man Utd right where Rafael and Giggs performed well. They were also aided by Madrid’s passing coming via the central defenders and not Alonso as discussed later.

The central midfield composed Carrick and Cleverly with Nani on the left, stationed higher than Giggs on the opposite side in an attempt to take advantage of Arbeloa’s lack of attacking intent. The full back is more conservative enabling Nani to focus more on his offensive ambitions.

Wellbeck was behind Van Persie with the task of suppressing Alonso. It was a task which he performed extremely well whilst still offering an attacking outlet, bursting from a deep position at pace.

Xabi Alonso – The Conductor

Has Xabi Alonso ever produced a quieter first half?

The deep lying playmaker attempted just 20 passes and completed just 14 as he found himself being squeezed, principally by Wellbeck with assistance from Van Persie.

Man Utd were content to allow both Varane and Ramos to have possession and bring the ball forward with Wellbeck and Van Persie positioned either side of Alonso and ready to close him down. Mourinho must have anticipated this to an extent, as Alonso seldom altered his position during the first half, remaining deep and allowing Arbeloa and Coentrao to move higher on the flanks.

The graphic below shows Alonso’s first half passes:-

Alonso Passes First Half

Alonso Passes First Half

The majority of passes are very short and any longer passes tended to be inaccurate, a consequence of being pressed quickly but also Man Utd controlling space effectively in their final third.

As the first half wore on, the quality which Alonso brings to the side becomes more prevalent. Build up play slows down as they enter the Man Utd half and there is no pattern to attack. The orchestra has lost its conductor.

As soon as Man Utd were reduced to 10 men, Xabi Alonso immediately benefited. His shadow, Danny Wellbeck, was repositioned onto the left wing and Alonso had space to move forward, collect passes and begin probing and building play with his customary diagonal passing which stretches opponents.

The man who would benefit most though, was still on the bench but would be quickly introduced at the expense of Alvaro Arbeloa.

Luka Modric – Impact and Effectiveness

As soon as Man Utd were deuced to 10 men, Mourinho responded by withdrawing Arbeloa and introducing Modric.

The Croatian had an immediate impact with a driving forward run, easily side stepping Michael Carrick and scoring the equaliser from 22 yards out. He was able to link play and stretch Man Utd across the whole pitch as he completed 32 passes out of 33 attempted.

The graphic below shows his passes:-

Modric Passes

Modric Passes

Yet it’s worth considering why this was Modric’s best performance in a Real Madrid jersey. Why was he able to influence the game so effectively when he has struggled in La Liga. The answer is probably that he was facing only 10 men and had space to play as Man Utd collapsed onto the edge of their penalty area after a period of about 10minutes incessant pressure from Madrid. Modric found the space that he is so often denied in Spain.

The decision to introduce Modric was the correct one. Arbeloa was sacrificed an Khedira moved to a right wing back position but this performance from Modric should mark the beginning of his Madrid career and not the high point. He must build upon it.

Prophets of the Past – The Revisionist Perspective

And now enter the Prophets of the Past. Those individuals who will assess the game entirely and it’s pivotal moments purely in the light of the result and the decision to dismiss Nani. Decisions before and after that moment become inconsequential as the narrative is altered to suit the pre-determined agenda.

The acquisition of Modric will be vindicated despite his inconsistent domestic form and Ferguson will avoid more probing questions regarding his tactical decisions during the game.

The outcome of this game was not decided by the red card. It was a key moment but the outcome thereafter was not inevitable. The resulting space in the midfield area was a direct consequence of a Man Utd tactical reshuffle, enabling Madrid and primarily Alonso and then Modric to begin constructing play.

That Modrid was only introduced after the red card is worthy of closer scrutiny. Why not introduce him when Di Maria was removed through injury? Why was Kaka chosen to come on when both play centrally and Ozil was shuffled to the right? Does Mourinho still not rate the Croatian that highly? Or does he recognise that in tight spaces, the effectiveness of Modric is reduced?

Man Utd played Madrid perfectly; to a point. By closing out Alonso and allowing Madrid possession in safe areas, they reduced the effectiveness of Madrid and falling back to a low block greatly altered Madrid’s tempo when they entered the final third.

In the aftermath of this game, the tactical success that Man Utd enjoyed until the dismissal of Nani must not be forgotten. Ferguson has established a template for defeating Real Madrid. True, some sides such as Jurgen Klopps’ Borussia Dortmund will attack them but for the vast majority, the plan to be followed has now been clearly identified.

But equally, should questions not be asked of Ferguson’s response to his side being reduced to 10 men?

Just as Mourinho reacted quickly, introducing Modric and seizing the initiative, could Ferguson have taken an alternative course of action? Given how crucial controlling Alonso had been, should Wellbeck have remained positioned on him leaving Khedira free on the right wing instead?

The German does not possess the same passing range as his midfield counterpart. It would have been a risk enabling Khedira and Ozil to combine on the right but it was a significantly greater risk allowing Alonso time and space. Evra would have been told to stay back and retain shape with assistance from Cleverly.

Could Van Persie have been sacrificed with an additional player such as Kagawa in midfield to enable Man Utd to hold out? Perhaps even introducing Evans as a third centre back for 30 minutes permitting Celverly and Carrick to run and harass the Madrid pairing of Alonso and Modric.

It’s all entirely hypothetical of course but there is the lingering thought that as good as Ferguson’s initial team selection had been, when key decision were made correctly, when Mourinho reacted and forced the issue, allowing for the mitigating circumstances, Ferguson failed to respond.

Mourinho’s assertion following the match that:-

“Independent of the decision, the best team lost. We didn’t deserve to win but football is like this”

is easy to say when you win. Would he have been so magnanimous if Madrid had vacated the tournament?

For Madrid, there remain questions. Mourinho has built an excellent side but has he now tweaked his side to achieve one aim and one aim only; the defeat of Barcelona.

And in doing so has Madrid lost sight of the requirements to break down sides who adopt a defensive approach with a low block?

Does Madrid possess an alternative course of action? When Man Utd tightened up during the second half in the Bernabeu and followed a similar gameplan for 56 mines last night, Madrid were bereft of ideas.

Mourinho and Madrid still have time to address this area as they enter the quarter finals, their pursuit of la decima still intact following a thorough examination.

Levante vs Real Madrid

At the end of the season, when the prizes are being handed out, there are inevitably a number of moments during the course of the season which, with hindsight, can be considered crucial. These are seldom games marked by technical proficiency or complete domination over an opponent and a large winning margin. Rather, these games are epitomised by displaying other qualities such as character and strength. Qualities traditionally associated with the British game and not those you would normally use in connection with a La Liga game.

Yet those are exactly the qualities which Real Madrid displayed in defeating Levante 2-1. In doing so, Los Blancos recorded Mourinho’s first win at the Ciutat de Valencia on Sunday evening.

How significant a win this was will be decided at the end of the season. What is certain is that had Madrid failed to win, it would most likely have been significant even at this stage of the season. To fall 10points behind Barcelona at this stage would have been a very significant hurdle which may not have been surmountable.

Postponement?

Should this game even have started? There had been torrential rain in Valencia for most of the day and it showed no signs of abating as kick off approached. With the pitch already waterlogged in places, particularly along the Main Stand side, this game should have been postponed. At a time when La Liga is trying to increase it’s appeal and enter into new markets around the globe, is this really the image which the authorities wish to send out?

Some will wrongly claim that the conditions are the same for both sides but such an assertion is based upon a belief that both sides adopt the same style. Clearly a waterlogged pitch will adversely affect a team with a short passing style more than a team with a direct style of play. Both teams must adapt but one side requires a greater shift in philosophy.

An incident early in the first half accurately captured the farce of the event. A Levante attack broke down and Di Maria gained possession on the left and sought to break forward quickly into space. Except that when he ran, the ball stuck in a puddle and as Di Maria adjusted to gather the ball again, he lost his balance and fell over. Levante then took possession again.

Even allowing for the lack of space within the fixture calendar for a rescheduled game, the match should have been postponed. That it went ahead confirmed that this was a night for a particular type of football. A direct approach which meant clearing your lines as quickly as possible by playing the ball forward. In theory, this approach should have suited Levante as it does not differ that substantially from their normal gameplan. Yet it was Madrid who not only adapted but a number of key payers appeared to relish the task in hand.

Madrid Adapt

It was a matter of which side could adapt best to the conditions. This was not a night for attempting to play intricate short passing or to run with the ball and this is clearly borne out by the statistics. Levante completed just 170 passes from 342 attempted (50% completion) whilst Madrid fared a little better with 212 completed passes from 386 attempted (55% completion)

It was a night for showing workrate, strength and above all determination. Qualities which were shown in abundance by two Madrid players; Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso.

The graphics below show the passing of Ramos and Alonso. From 87 passes between them only 11 were played backwards. The rest were primarily long balls being played towards the Levante backline. It was a simple approach but given the conditions it was an essential approach. Ensure that you make few mistakes and try to force your opponent to make mistakes. It was a night for playing the percentages.

Ramos Passes vs Levante                                      http://www.squawka.com

Xabi Alonso Passes vs Levante                             http://www.squawka.com

The number of long balls which both attempted was both defensive and attacking. Firstly, it cleared Madrid lines and secondly, it placed pressure on Levante.

There was also a degree of margin for error with long passes given that whilst some would normally overrun, on such a saturated pitch, many were stopping abruptly and remaining in play.

By placing the ball in the Levante half of the pitch more often, there was also a greater likelihood of Levante conceding fouls, something which they did in abundance.

Levante Defending

Levante have built their success in La Liga upon having a strong defensive unit. Primarily a counter attacking side, they have one of the lowest average possession figures in the division and are also a very direct and physical side. As discussed earlier, they should have, in theory, been able to adjust better to the conditions.

Their last two games have seen Levante gain 0-0 draws away from home when attacking intent was limited. To follow such an approach, the team must defend as a unit and especially at set pieces. Yet on Sunday evening, Levante seemed unable to defend set pieces effectively.

Madrid scored both their goals from free kicks. Leaving aside the defensive issues temporarily, Levante were placing themselves in considerable difficulty due to the number of fouls they were conceding. The graphic below demonstrates this. Levante gave away 27 fouls compared to Madrid ‘s 13.

Levante Fouls For and Against                           http://www.squawka.com

The opening goal arrived when David Navarro dropped deep at a free kick and played three Madrid players onside whilst his team mates held the defensive line at the edge of the penalty area. The ball broke to Ronaldo who displayed fantastic technical ability to control the ball on his thigh before volleying home. Beyond the skill, the goal showcased superb awareness. If the ball had dropped onto the ground, it would most likely have stuck in the water and the chance would have gone.

The winning goal in the 83rd minute was sub Morata’s first touch. Again Levante failed to deal with a free kick and Morata was free to nod home from close range with no marker.

Between these goals, Pepe and Ramos both hit the bar following corners as Levante struggled badly defensively.

 

Last season whilst Barcelona chased Madrid they travelled to Pamplona to face Osasuna on a treacherous pitch which was frozen over. Barcelona failed to adapt to the conditions and lost 3-2. Madrid successfully navigated a similarly awkward fixture on Sunday. This was not the sort of game which can win you a title but it was the sort of game which can certainly cost you the title.

All graphics and statistics taken from www.squawka.com

Sevilla vs Real Madrid: Tactical Analysis

Real Madrid arrived at the Sanchez Pizjuan in the unusual position of being below Sevilla in La Liga. They remained below their hosts as they departed too with a 1-0 defeat condemning the Madrid side to their worst league start in over a decade.

On their two previous visits, the title holders had emphatically defeated their host’s with comprehensive 6-2 victories yet the Andalusian team displayed an intensity and workrate for the whole game which Madrid failed to match and as a result were unable to impose themselves.

Line Ups

Michel made one change from the side which drew 0-0 away to Rayo Vallecano prior to the international break.

Manu was removed from the team to be replaced by Maduro, a clear indication of the need for increased defensive stability from Sevilla.

Sevilla Starting Line Up

Mourinho started with the anticipated side. Marcelo continues at left back in place of the suspended Coentrao. Modric started on the bench once more.

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

The Madrid shape was their customary 4-2-3-1 with Higuain once more preferred to Benzema as the lone striker.

Sevilla Approach

From the opening minutes of this game, it was apparent how Sevilla were going to play. Their approach was going to be fast, direct and in the face of their opponents. The passing statistics bear witness to this approach. Sevilla made 241 successful passes from an attempted 361 passes. With pass accuracy of just 66% and overall possession of just 42%. Sevilla did not require possession to hurt Madrid. They retained shape, competed and sought Negredo and the increasingly important Navas for penetration at the earliest opportunity.

Sevilla set up in a 4-2-3-1 with some important points to note. The “2” stayed very central and close to the centre backs, Maduro playing deeper than Medel.

Upfield, Rakitic was deployed centrally with Trochowski very narrow on the left and supporting his colleague in the centre. This contrasted sharply with Jesus Navas on the right who provided width and pace with the intention of supporting Negredo in the striking role.

The full backs adopted similar roles. Cicinho looked to get forward and support Navas whereas Navarro stayed deep, aware that he had no direct cover in front of him.

The early part of the game was punctured with fouls, there was 14 in the opening 30 minutes. This stop start nature suited Sevilla as it prevented Madrid from finding any semblance of fluency in their play and it continued for much of the game although the number of fouls committed tailed off.

Sevilla Fouls vs Real Madrid                                                     http://www.squawka.com

The fouls were also being committed high up the pitch, away from the Sevilla penalty area. The rojiblancos were holding a relatively high line and squeezing the play in the centre of the pitch, suffocating their opponents. Ronaldo only had two opportunities to shoot at goal from a free kick during the game.

In the opening 25minutes of the match, Ronaldo, Higuain and Ozil were all fouled in aerial challenges around the halfway line. Sevilla had laid down a marker.

Sevilla collected three cautions, two of which were for fouls committed in their opponents half of the pitch. The third yellow card arose from the confrontation between Navarro and Higuain.

The Goal

The only goal of the game was scored in the 1st minute. Sevilla had begun the game at a very high tempo and Casillas had already been called into action before the home side gained the first corner of the match. With some atrocious defending, the ball was allowed to drop in the centre of the penalty area around 8 yards out where the oncoming Trochowski met it on the half volley. Higuain was supposed to be marking Trochowski but allowed his opponent to run off him.

Madrid Problems

Madrid allowed themselves to get drawn into a scrap with Sevilla instead of focussing upon building the play. Despite having 58% possession, Madrid only made 466 successful passes from an attempted 576. With just 80% pass accuracy, los blancos were not passing the ball enough and too often passing was sloppy and misplaced. Everything was rushed and increasingly they went long and to the wings, unable to pick their way through the centre of the pitch. Madrid made 38 successful long passes but a further 28 attempted long passes were unsuccessful.

Madrid seemed to be troubled by the intensity of the Sevilla play and the starting line up could be questioned. With the oft quoted “FIFA Virus” brought into vogue following the international break, should Mourinho have rotated the team?

Di Maria and Ozil looked well off the pace. Of course, when it comes to rotation, Mourinho is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Rotate the team and suffer defeat and he would have been lambasted for not selecting his strongest team.

Despite Sevilla adopting a relatively high offside line, Madrid seldom tested this with forward runs and through balls were in short supply:-

Real Madrid Through Balls vs Sevilla                                   http://www.squawka.com

Xabi Alonso

The Sevilla midfield pairing of Trochoski, but principally Rakitic, worked extremely hard to close Xabi Alonso down and prevent him from constructing play from Madrid.

Teams in the past have demonstrated that Madrid are much less of an attacking threat if you can reduce the effectiveness of Alonso. It’s the Basque playmaker who knits the play together for Madrid. Without him, the team can sometimes appear broken, split into a defensive and an offensive unit. Alonso binds them together. It’s the main reason that firstly Sahin and now Modric was acquired. To provide an alternative to Alonso whom Madrid rely heavily upon and reduce his burden.

Xabi Alonso Passes vs Sevilla                                                http://www.squawka.com

Alonso was operating deep and made only 72 passes during the game. With the central area of the pitch clogged by Sevilla, Alonso was forced to go wide with his passing. HIs lack of mobility is also an issue and whilst his defensive performance was still sound, he could not instigate sufficient levels of creative play for Madrid.

Substitutions

Mourinho made two substitutions at half time with the removal of the ineffective Di Maria and Ozil, replaced by Benzema and Modric.

The introduction of Modric saw Madrid revert to a 4-3-3 with a midfield trio of Alonso, Khedira and Modric. This should have provided Madrid with the strength and craft to meet and surpass the challenge from Sevilla. For a brief spell after half time, Modric was making passes and linking play well but it soon fell away.

Modric Passes vs Sevilla                                                             http://www.squawka.com

Similar to Alonso above, too much of Modric’s work was in relatively deep areas and not in an advanced area of the pitch. When Rakitic was replaced with Manu, the space Modric was enjoying as his fellow Croatian tired, was removed.

Michel made three substitutions in the second half, all of which were reactionary to those made by his opposite number.

Michel’s first substitution saw Manu come on for the tiring, and already cautioned, Rakitic to fulfil the same role – pack the centre of the pitch and disrupt Madrid.

Mourinho made his final substitution in the 65th minute when Arbeloa was withdrawn and Callejon entered. This switch required Khedira to become an auxiliary right back and Callejon playing on the right wing. Mourinho would have been comfortable with such a move given that Trochowski had operated so centrally during the game and Sevilla had offered little attacking threat from the left.

Michel made yet another reactive substitution to counter this just 4 minutes later. Negredo was replaced by the left sided defender Luna. Manu now occupied the striking berth with Trochowski in the centre and Luna moved across to the left to provide support for Navarro against Callejon.

Sevilla’s final change was the replacement of Trochowski with Kondogbia in the 81st minute as Michel took the “what we have, we hold” approach, strengthening the centre of the pitch in anticipation of one last push from Madrid which never quite materialised.

Mourinho’s Criticism

Following the game, Jose Mourinho was scathing in his post match criticism of the side.

In response to the poor first half showing, Mourinho confirmed he “only changed two early in the game” but wanted to “change seven”

Perhaps what will concern the Madrid faithful more than anything is his assertion that:-

“What worries me most is that right now … I don’t have a team”

Yet whilst Mourinho was highly critical, he did not exclude himself from that noting that there was “not a lot of players with their heads in their work, that’s my fault”

With an important Champions League game against Man City in midweek, Madrid need to bounce back quickly to prevent the poor form descending into a crisis.

Conclusion

A well deserved victory for Sevilla as they stop a run of seven consecutive defeats to Madrid in all competitions and secure their first league victory since a 2-1 success in October 2009. They retain their undefeated record in the league but the commitment and workrate shown by his players will arguably be the most pleasing aspect for Michel. There are signs that Sevilla are once more moving in the correct direction after a few disappointing seasons.

For Madrid, a 17 league game unbeaten run away from home has ended with successive away defeats.

There is not time for the players to sulk as they have an important Champions League tie against Manchester City awaiting. It’s difficult to envisage Madrid playing so poorly once more but there does appear to be a certain lethargy about the squad. Should this persist, it may raise questions about the pre-season tour in the USA.

The Magnificent Seven

European Championship Winner 2008

World Cup Winners 2010

European Championship Winner 2012?

Iker Casillas

Sergio Ramos

Xabi Alonso

Xavi Hernandez

Andres Iniesta

Cesc Fabregas

Fernando Torres

The System Works

The issue is not the system, but how you use the system

Xabi Alonso.

The Spanish Advance

Spain have progressed through the European Championships without displaying, to many observers at least, their best football. Their play has been characterised by slow, often ponderous passing, but with moments of sublime quality evident. Their rhythmic passing gradually wearing their opponent down, Pass, pass, pass. The ball goes left, it comes back again. The ball goes right, it comes back again. And all the time the opponent is chasing, a state of perpetual motion as they shut off passing corridors which the Spanish are opening up. They follow Iniesta, Silva and Fabregas so Xavi goes backwards and finds Busquets. It’s a seemingly never ending challenge for the opponent. Press the Spanish, retain the shape, prevent options opening up and throughout, ensure that when you do gain possession, you possess an attacking threat. It’s relentless pressure.

Critics have begun labelling Spain as boring even when Andre Iniesta confirms  “Clearly football is more attractive when both teams try to win. Don’t forget this style changed Spanish history”

There is complete faith in the Spanish squad about the manner and style in which they are playing. The full backs push high up the pitch and provide the width as the inverted wingers cut in field and link with the central midfielders and the striker. The striker?

Spain have successfully implemented a false 9 system at this tournament, mirroring many aspects of the Barcelona system. Given the quantity of Barcelona players in the squad, it’s not a huge surprise.

Yet the inclusion of Fabregas as the false 9 in the Spanish line up has created the most controversy from a Spanish perspective to date. His inclusion at the expense of a striker, principally Fernando Torres, has helped fill numerous column inches and been used in conjunction with the boring tag to denigrate Spain. It’s become the stick with which to beat Spain yet it’s not even fully understood by many of those critics why del Bosque is making these changes to the system.

The discussion has focussed on the wrong issues. Journalists seem to be caught in some form of revisionist haze recalling the free flowing attacking Spain of 2008 and 2010. Whilst the team of 2008 was more attacking, Spain’s domination since then delivers increasingly defensive opponents. As opponents have adapted, so too have Spain.

At the heart of the decision to select Fabregas or Torres is not about who provides the better attacking option. The decision revolves around the issue of control and how Spain can gain that control, maintain it and exercise it over their opponent.

Cesc vs Torres – The Issue of Control

Fabregas and Torres – Passes Received vs France

The chart above illustrates where Cesc and Torres received or attempted to receive passes against France in the quarter finals.

Whilst Cesc stays relatively deep in comparison to a conventional striker, Torres is moving towards the penalty area in most cases, operating off the shoulder of the last defender and always waiting for the through ball when he can utilise his pace.

Opponents of the false 9 system will point to this as further evidence of the need for a striker. Torres helped stretch the French defence and pushed them further back whereas Fabregas operated in front of the defence. Even if Torres is not performing well, his presence on the pitch forces defenders into a decision. If they push high, there is always the chance of Torres breaking free therefore, the opponent recognises this and defends deeper.

Whilst that is true, what is also important to note is the additional control which Fabregas offers. The introduction of Torres against France and a more vertical Spain resulted in possession dropping and a loss of control for a period in the match. Playing through balls to suit the natural game of Torres comes at a premium. Not all passes will be successful and the opposition then have the ball back and Spain need to press once more.

With the movement of Fabregas and his combination play, Spain dominate possession and tire the opponent out.

In the games against Italy, Croatia and France, del Bosque has made a change around the 60 minute mark, introducing pace and width to the side initially via Navas and now with Pedro.

Spain control the game, suffocating you with possession and when you are beginning to tire, they introduce an element of verticality to their play.

It’s becoming the del Bosque standard and allows the Spanish players to operate at a lower physical level during the match as they control the tempo. The players have greater recovery periods during the match whilst the opponents chase shadows. Spain rest when in possession. With greater control comes more possession. Spain can recover.. There are signs of tiredness now.

Many of the Spanish squad have played football incessantly now with little in the way of a summer break over the past 4 years.The fatigue is catching up. The false 9 system recognises this and helps address the problem.

Space Creation

We like when other teams leave out their ball players. It’s good for us when others change their system. We never change ours.”

Xavi Hernandez

Too often, teams are altering their system before playing Spain. Clearly, given the talent within the Spanish team, changes must be considered and implemented but a balance must be struck. You cannot change your team so drastically to tackle Spain that you negate your own attacking possibilities.

Against both Croatia and France, opposition substitutions have created space for Spain to attack.  Croatia set out defensively but as they required a win to progress to the quarter final stage, Bilic was forced to make alterations as the game meandered towards a 0-0 stalemate. The final throw of the dice for Bilic was the removal of Vukojevic in the 81st minute. One change which immediately created new openings for Spain. The removal of Vukojevic allowed Fabregas space to move forward unopposed and play the pass which released Iniesta against Croatia. Navas subsequently walked the ball into the net.

Similarly, against France, Blanc was forced to make positive changes to his team as les bleus trailed 1-0. The removal of M’Vila after 79 minutes provided France with a new attacking threat in Giroud but it also created the space for Spain to function more efficiently. Santi Cazorla found time and space to pass forward to Pedro under no pressure. Why was there no pressure? M’Vila had been removed and France lacked any defensive midfield presence.

Teams set out defensive formations against Spain but the loss of a goal alters the paradigm of the match. The opposition coach must react, typically, by removing a defensive payer and replacing him with an attacking player. But so far this has not yielded results and only offered Spain more room to create attacks and ultimately, score goals.

“morir con las botas puestas

Die with your boots on. At least possess the courage to have a go and if you suffer defeat, experience it on your own terms rather than abandoning your footballing principles for a defend at all costs mentality.

Spanish Right vs Portuguese Left

“Ronaldo is one of the world’s best and has incredible qualities but it’s not an individual duel; it’s collective. The key is to control the game. If we have the ball, he’ll participate less and cause us fewer problems.”

It’s an interesting situation. Portugal’s strength is attacking from the left but the achilles heel is the poor defensive performance here. All four goals they have conceded have been via their left.

One of the most interesting features about Portugal is the positioning of Ronaldo on the left wing, That in itself is not unusual nor is the fact that he remains high up the pitch and does not track back.

The question must be why Portugal persist with using a central striker in Helder Postiga (although due to injury, he will be probably be replaced by Hugo Almeida) rather than place Ronaldo in the central striking position.

This would enable the left winger to track back and offer support for Flavio Coentrao. Portugal have conceded four goals in the tournament to date and all of which have originated down their own left side.

As del Bosque trusts his payers, so too does Paulo Bento. Players are played in the position in which they operate at their clubs. Ronaldo is used an inverted left winger with Real Madrid and so performs the same role with Portugal.

Ronaldo will face up against club mate Alvaro Arbeloa. Maligned since the outset of the tournament, Arbeloa offers defensive stability but lacks an attacking threat.

Arbeloa will be supported by a team mate when Ronaldo is about to receive the ball most probably Busquets. Once Ronaldo has possession and has turned towards goal, problems emerge which are infinitely more difficult to solve. Spain will double up on him and deal with him collectively as Pique implies.

Whether his Portuguese team mates can take advantage of the additional space they receive as a consequence of the focus being on Ronaldo, remains to be seen.

The Portugal Challenge

“I think they will sit back and wait. Their midfield is strong and tough. If we’re not right, they can manage the game.”

Andres Iniesta

The question which Paulo Bento must ask is whether he changes tact or does have he have the same level of faith is his players which del Bosque shows in the Spanish?

Portugal are content to cede possession to the opponent and counter attack benefitting from the physical prowess of Ronaldo. With an average of just 46% possession in the games so far, it is unlikely to cause Bento and his charges too much trouble if they see less of the ball.

The midfield trio of Moutinho, Meireles and Veluso combine workrate with flair. Miguel Veluso is normally the deepest of the three but it’s likely that Moutinho will operate slightly deeper than normally. Meireles will look to push forward more often if the opportunity arises.

Nani will need to demonstrate the work ethic he has shown at Man Utd and adequately support Perreira at right back against the surging runs of Alba and the trickery of Iniesta. Alba has settled well into the left back position and from tentative beginnings has developed as the tournament progresses. With Arbeloa likely to hold back, there will be an increasing onus upon Alba to provide real width.

The false 9 system will present a new challenge for Bruno Alves and Pepe at the heart of the defence. Who do they mark? Do they hold if Fabregas drifts deep ir does one stay and one mark?

What of del Bosque and Spain, how will they react? With the same system as before.

The system works.

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