The Season Ahead

There is always questions ahead of kick off each season. It’s not about who qualifies for European football. It’s not about which sides get relegated. There is only one issue in Spain. The perennial question that crops up every August revolves around which of the big two will win La Liga? Madrid have behaved like Madrid during pre-season and signed more stellar names whereas Barcelona have underwent something of a mini revolution with a host of new signings under the tutelage of new manager, Luis Enrique. So who will win La Liga?

Wait? It’s not a two horse race? It’s a three horse race again this season? :-

 

The Top Three - Season 13-14

The Top Three – Season 13-14

 

Sure, Atleti may have won the title last season but that was a complete fluke, wasn’t it? They can’t compete again, even Simeone has admitted this:-

“I don’t like to lie to people and one thing is clear: We can’t compete with Madrid or Barcelona. Our rivals are Sevilla, Valencia and Athletic and third is our objective”

Of course last season, Simeone repeatedly told anyone who would listen that Atleti couldn’t win La Liga but they did. They couldn’t do so again, could they?

 

Atleti – The Cycle Continues.

“Last year was no fluke, it was a consequence of what has been going on at the club”

Diego Simeone

Can lighting strike twice? Atleti once more start as distant third favourites in the eyes of the bookmakers for the title. Their title.

There have been goodbyes and very good buys at the Calderon during the summer. Courtois, Filipe Luis and Costa moved to Stamford Bridge with the latter pairing gaining substantial income for Atleti that has been wisely reinvested in the team. Did people really think Atleti were ready to rest on their achievements thus far, accept their place?

In Simeone, Atleti possess one of the most highly rated coaches in Europe. And as La Liga champions and a team that were moments away from winning the Champions League, convincing players to stay whilst attracting new players was always going to be much easier than many suggested. Whisper it but Atleti are arguably stronger now than they were last season. Further departures were confirmed in Adrian, David Villa and Guilavogui yet the reinforcements are very impressive.

Oblak, Siquiera, Mandzukic, Griezmann (offering a new dimension to Atleti’s attack), Correa, Jimenez, utility defender Ansaldi from Zenit could be very important and Saul after a year at Rayo and Atleti have greater all round strength than before. And Koke has signed a new contract too. So can they do the unthinkable and defend their title?

Simeone has urged caution and acknowledged that this is a new team with all of the changes that have occurred:-

“We are finishing the group. We have changed, especially in attack. I see it as a new beginning. The solid structure supporting the attack is maintained but we are looking for the style that best suits us. We must have patience.”

The issue is not the quality of the side individually but the ability for Atleti to continue the collective play and intensity of their game that Simeone demands after almost 3 years in control. Is the hunger still there within the players? Can they still give everything for the side week in, week out? Can el Cholo get the new players to integrate quickly and adapt to the high workrate and tempo that he demands? If he can then Atleti can once more mount a serious challenge for the league.

“The structure of the team is not going to change. Stability comes with maintaining the same ideas: intensity and aggressiveness will continue to be the basis,”

Simeone

And the players believe this too. Simeone’s on-field general, Gabi confirms as much:-

 “We have a clear idea of how we want to play,”

And that is the key.

For Simeone, this isn’t the end of the cycle:-

“First it was the Europa League, then the European Super Cup, Copa del Rey, third in the League and the following year the League title and the Champions League final. The team and the club have done great work to retain many players and try and continue a great cycle.”

Simone believed last season and many doubted him. Despite his words, he believes again this season. Who doubts Atleti now?

 

Barcelona

Martino failed didn’t he? After all, a trophyless season at a club like Barcelona is a failure no matter what the contextual narrative is. And the Argentinean has admitted that himself:-

“I’m completely dissatisfied with the year that has passed and I’m always thinking that I’m the man responsible”

Former player Luis Enrique returns to the Camp Nou to take control of a squad with new players but still needing further overhaul work. Short spells at Roma and Celta Vigo have identified the style of Enrique. Similarities with Guardiola exist but also key differences. Expect Barcelona to continue with the attractive style of play but contain a rougher edge to them. “Lucho” won’t expect his side to be bossed or bullied physically on the pitch. It won’t be more of the same but a gradual evolution of style. You don’t abandon your footballing principles die to one poor season. You adapt and you evolve making subtle tactical tweaks. An overhaul is not required. The death of tiki taka has been greatly exaggerated.

With numerous new arrivals but also departures, each area of the team needs work to fit together. Pre season friendlies have seen players from the B team step up and there will be spaces available for those who perform to complement the squad. The real focus has been on the final third with the arrival of Luis Suarez even allowing for his 4 month ban. How does the Uruguayan fit in with Messi and Neymar?

With Xavi likely to play a diminished role, the opportunity will exist for Messi to drop deeper than before and play as a genuine no10 with Suarez as a no9 ahead of him and Neymar on the left. It’s a trio brimming with potential but it also leads to questions. Do Barcelona continue with a 4-3-3 meaning the right side needs a younger version of Dani Alves to operate the full length of the pitch or does the side switch to something more akin to a 4-2-3-1. With Mascherano now back in defensive midfield and Busquets possibly playing a little higher up the pitch, options exist. Barcelona has consistently failed to plan or address what happens in a team without Xavi. That problem can no longer be avoided and will be dealt with one way or another this season. It’s exacerbated with the looming transfer ban. Pending an appeal to CAS, Barcelona may be unable to sign any more players once this window closes until January 2016. Further activity is therefore likely for a squad that isn’t strong enough to survive until January 2016 without further reinforcements. The problem for Barcelona is their recent appalling record in transfer dealings. The likes of Alex Song, not a player Barcelona needed but a player Barcelona could afford, is still to be offloaded. Can Barcelona really make enough acquisitions of the requisite quality?

Surprisingly, Deulofeu has been allowed to leave on loan although the spell with Sevilla could see him ready to return next season and claim a place but the prospect of a permanent departure increases now. With limited options in attack, the likes of Munir now have far greater opportunities to establish themselves as members of the first team squad.

It won’t be permitted but it does feel like a transitional season is beginning for Barcelona albeit one that certainly contains more possibilities for the team than most clubs can even dream about. Xavi has spoken about the harmony in the squad and the need to capture at least one trophy this season.

“We’ve signed very good players both on a football and personal level. The human relationships are the best there have been in recent years”

That could be crucial. Enrique building a close knit squad could see challenges sustained despite the relative lack of depth to the squad. A testing season lies ahead for Lucho.

 

Real Madrid – A Balancing Act

When the opportunity arises to sign a player of the calibre of Toni Kroos for around £20million, it’s not really a difficult decision to make. And when you’re the President of Real Madrid, you don’t really consider if the club need another elite level player. If one becomes available, you sign him. And in a World Cup year, who else can you sign other than the star player from that World Cup and golden boot winner, James Rodriguez of Columbia. It’s a policy that Florentino Perez adheres too. It’s not his problem how all of these star players integrate into the team. That’s a problem for the Coach to contend with.

A problem that has caused successive coaches of Real Madrid notable problems as Perez has tended to make at least one marquee signing each summer during his tenure as President. Fortunately, in Carlo Ancelotti, Perez now has a Coach in charge of Real Madrid who has repeatedly proven his ability to squeeze a multitude of star names into a starting line up without compromising the team balance as a consequence. Whether Carlo Ancelotti actually wanted Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez is immaterial. He’s got them now and fitting them into the side is his problem. This could be Ancelotti’s most difficult assignment yet.

Where should Rodriguez play? Can Kroos and Modric play against the very top teams with no defensive support? It’s all about balance for Ancelotti this season. With the departures of Khedira and Di Maria seeming likely and in the case of the diminutive Argentinean completely baffling, the base of midfield remains the issue that Ancelotti must focus on. A pairing of Kroos and Modric is very attractive but defensively unstable as witnessed in the UEFA Super Cup against Sevilla.

Could Kroos replace Alonso in the Madrid side? At 32 and with limited mobility, his time on the main stage could be drawing to a conclusion. Last season in La Liga, Alonso averaged 65 passes per game, the most of any Madrid player with Ramos on 61 and Modric on 58. When it comes to interceptions (1.5) and tackles (2.4), Alonso makes more per game of both than any other Madrid midfielder. Unsurprisingly, he also commits more fouls too. A product of his lack of mobility or due to him being swamped with too many team mates pushing on? His defensive contribution is key for Madrid. Alonso played 26 league games for Madrid last season with los blancos taking an average of 2.38 points per game. Without him they took 2.08 points per game.
Could Kroos fulfil this defensive role? Last season Kroos made an average of 75 passes per game but on the defensive side only averaged 0.5 interceptions per game and 1.8 tackles per game. Does that matter? Given Bayern’s complete dominance of the ball, these statistics will be heavily skewed. Simply put, it’s hard to defend when you always have the ball. And it’s hard to analyse the defensive output for Kroos as a consequence. There is still an important role for Alonso but the real beneficiary should be Illarramedi. The Basque must step forward this season and demonstrate why he gained so many plaudits at La Real.

If Di Maria does depart, more is likely to be asked of Bale to operate partly as a shuttling role between midfield and attack. As adaptable as Bale is and given his early career saw him positioned at full back, he will be able to cope. But can he deliver as well as Di Maria? I’m not certain he can make the difference to the same extent as Di Maria does.

Madrid begin the season as clear favourites for the title. Individually, the squad is packed with quality and is arguably the best squad in world football. How that translates onto the pitch collectively will be the dilemma for Ancelotti this season. Get it right and you could see Madrid dominate all the tournaments they enter. Get it wrong and…well, you know how Perez tends to operate.

It’s difficult to look beyond Madrid even with the balancing problems that exist. The depth of talent within the squad is unrivalled and even though seeing Atleti successfully defend their title would be unparalleled in the modern era of European football, I just cannot see it happening. Atleti will have the greatest success in cup competitions once more as normal service is resumed on the domestic front. Barcelona to finish runners up to Madrid. Even if the collective fails, individually they can still win games.

 

The Battle for Fourth

Away from the title race, the battle for fourth place, assuming that the big three (funny saying that now) secure the top three positions, and final Champions League position could see a genuine contest between five teams. Four of the contenders could be involved in European football this season. Will that have an effect? The graphic below shows the final positions from last season:-

 

The Race for 4th Place - Season 13-14

The Race for 4th Place – Season 13-14

 

Sevilla

Unai Emery likes to make changes. He changes this, he changes that. It’s what he does best along with managing to take one point from games in which his team should take three. He excelled at such a conservative approach at Valencia yet showed brief glimpses of shaking that image off a little at Sevilla as the Andalusians claimed the Europa League. Yet by narrowly missing out on 4th place with a typically cautious performance in a game they needed to win against Athletic Bilbao, Emery showed that streak remains within him.

It’s been another busy close season at the Sanchez Pizjuan for Monchi as he showed signs last season of getting back to his wheeling dealing best. Rakitic and Moreno depart for hefty fees but yet again it’s the players coming in that show real potential for the side. Iago Aspas arrives after a nightmare time at Liverpool to aid the attack but its the capture on loan of Gerard Deulofeu that could be really inspiring if the Barcelona youngster’s words are anything to go by:-

“My departure surprised me a bit, they made me come back from Everton and then later they told me I wouldn’t get minutes. But I don’t want to talk much about Barca, I want to talk about the year I am going to have here. I know that I am lacking some things from a defensive aspect and I will work to improve that. One of my aims is to show Luis Enrique he was wrong and above all show it to myself.”

And then the is arguably the signing of the summer. The sort of transfer that make you double check the fee involved because there had to be a typo in there surely? Ever Banega left Valencia to be reunited with his former manager for a paltry €2.5m. If Banega focuses on the football as he did during Valverde’s brief tenure at the Mestalla, Sevilla have a midfielder capable of dragging the team forward and one that will lessen the blow of losing last season’s talisman, Rakitic.

Emery showed last season that sometimes changes can be good as he juggled the squad on two fronts. If they can beat Athletic, Sevilla will finish 4th.

 

Athletic

There is something very reassuring about a side managed by Ernesto Valverde. You immediately know the type of football that you will see. His sides always display the same style and personality and Athletic are no different. The chaos of the Bielsa era was pushed aside as Valverde guided the Basques to 4th place last season and Champions League qualification. Subject to their game against Napoli, the possiblity of Champions League involvement or at the very least, Europa League football to contend with, it’s a season that will stretch the Athletic squad fully.

Borja Viguero arrives to strengthen the attack with Kike Sola recovering from injury but alongside Aduritz there is still a question mark over who will score the goals. None of the three are prolific. As usual there will be a reliance upon the midfield and the team in general to supplement the forwards and weigh in with a few goals.

Ander Herrara has departed but Benat should take his place in the side and hopefully rediscover Betis form. With a limited talent pool upon which to draw, Athletic are reliant upon their cantera for new talent. It’s tie for the likes of  of Laporte, Moran and Gomez to challenge for first team starting place on a regular basis Beyond that, will Iker Muniain consistently show his true capabilities rather than just fleeting moments?

 

Valencia

For the first time since season 2004/05, Valencia begin a season with no European football on the cards. What was perhaps viewed as a disappointment when last season ended, could become a blessing in disguise for the newly appointed inexperienced Portuguese manager Santo, who takes the helm backed by the finance of Peter Lim following his takeover of the club.

The loss of Bernat to Bayern Munich is considerable but the arrival of Mustafi, fresh from his involvement in Germany’s World Cup winning campaign, should offset that loss. Mathieu has also gone as a reshuffled backline will include the Argentinean Otamendi.

Last season, Jonas with a paltry 9 league goals was top scorer in league. It’s simply not good enough for a side with aspirations of qualifying for the Champions League. To remedy this, Rodrigo has joined from Benfica. Yet Valencia have sufficient creativity within their ranks to provide for the striker. Alcacer, Piatti and Parejo are all fine players meaning the loss of Banega should not be felt in the central midfield area.

Just how important free midweeks are will become apparent as the season wears on. With no distractions, Valencia will be able to mount a challenge in the league alone.  With a little luck, maybe the club will get through the entire season with the same manager?

 

Villarreal

Nobody expected Villarreal to perform as well as they did last season. And nobody will expect them to perform to quite the same level again but Marcelinho will need to continute the impressive form of the submarine. Again, another side who wil face the slog of Sunday, Thursday, Sunday football if a prolonged run in the Europa League takes hold and again, Villarreal has a squad that isn’t the strongest in terms of numbers.

Some good signings have arrived with Jonathan Dos Santos joining his brother at El Madrigal along with Rukavina and Cheryshev. Victor Ruiz comes in perhaps as a replacement for the departure of Mussachio. Whilst he has suffered in recent times since leaving Espanyol for Napoli, there is a good defender in Ruiz if Marcelinho can coax his best form again. The front end of the team has suffered with the loss of Perbet, Pereira and Aquino.

The Submarine will draw heavily upon the ability of Bruno, Trigueros, the aging limbs of Cani and the goals of Giovani Dos Santos if they are to replicate last season.

 

La Real

La Real could be the side to slip a little further down the pecking order this season. Whilst the loss of Bravo and Griezmann have been covered with Rulli and Finnbogason, you have to consider the drop in quality alongside the loss previously of Illarramendi. True, he has been replaced by Granero but the continued loss of such key performers to be replaced by quality but lesser quality as an effect. Arrasate can only do so much and with Xabi Prieto a little older and a little slower, much will depend upon the ability of Pardo. Can he confirm a place in the side and offer something different?

Much will also weigh heavily upon Vela this season. Finnbogason may have scored elsewhere but it’s a step up in quality for him this season. Vela will be the focal point for the attack now.

There’s always the nagging feeling with La Real that they are happy just to be there. That they lack the mentality to take the fight on that little bit further. A further slip down the league beckons for La Real.

 

 

And for the rest of La Liga, it’s the usual mix. Teams that will defy the odds and perform well whilst some other teams will go on prolonged runs of poor form and get dragged into the seemingly endless relegation mire that will go the final day of the season as is customary in Spain. And with the usual dozen or so permutations on who could be relegated due to the head to head ruling.

Unsurprisingly, the newly promoted minnows of Eibar and Cordoba are odds on favourites for a swift return to the Segunda. The third side to accompany them upwards into La Liga are also third favourites to return but things could look different up in Galicia this season. Deportivo have the ability to stay in the top flight.

 

Deportivo – Upsetting the Odds?

Last time around Depor didn’t have any problems creating and scoring goals but their leaky defence conceded 70, only fellow relegated side Real Mallorca conceded more than that. That problem was solved in the Segunda last season with the defence only conceding 36 goals but the trade off was an attack that hit just 48 goals in 42 games. Victor Fernandez favouring a more conservative style of play that gained the necessary points to get promotion. Don’t expect dramatic changes this season either. Grinding out points will be key to survival but more goals are still needed. To remedy this, the usual influx of players on loan have arrived at the Riazor. The revolving door policy doesn’t breed stability but such a term isn’t really understood at the financially stricken club.

One player who has joined permanently on a 12 month contract and who, with the greatest respect to Deportivo, should be playing at a higher level is Isaac Cuenca. If the former Barcelona winger can recapture his early career form before injury stalled his development, Depor will have a genuine creative force to supplement their attack. It won’t be a spectacular season but a finish outside the relegation zone is achievable and will be considered a success whilst confounding the bookies in the process.

 

The Boys from Vallecas – Rayo

If Atleti and their fans are wondering if lighting can strike twice, the fans of Rayo are pondering the unthinkable. Can it strike for the third time? Can Paco Jemez really lead Rayo Vallecano to safety for the third season in a row?

Sadly, I fear for Rayo this season. This may be just one step too far and the relative late season comfort they have enjoyed in the past two seasons may be missing this season.

“The team is under construction, but we’re slowly settling in.”

Paco Jémez

Construction is the apt word. For every season, Paco Jemez aided by Sportin Director Minambres set about rebuilding the foundations in Vallecas. This season, an astonishing 19 players departed leaving just eight first team players. So far, a further 12 players have joined. As normal, there seems to be an abundance of creativity with the likes of Jonathan Pereira, Aquino, Pozuelo and Kakuta but where will the goals come from? The loss of Larrivey could be significant as his replacement in Manucho doesn’t inspire confidence with just 14 goals in his 57 games for Vallodolid. And further back, the defence needs work. Rayo have conceded 146 goals in two seasons under Jemez in the top flight, a frightening amount.

With such a huge turnaround of players, an adaptation period would take time for any team. When you have a team with one of the smallest budgets in the league attempting to dominate possession and play one of the most expansive style of football in the league, that adaptation period is extended and mistakes will occur. For Rayo, this frequently ends in heavy defeats early in the season. Pressing opponents all over the pitch and playing a very high offside line is not something that comes naturally to all players. Positioning and coordination the team unit takes time.

The ability of players to adapt is essential. If not, Rayo will have serious problems hence the decision to allow new signing Boateng to depart just two months after arrival. The Ghanian unable to adjust to the demands of Jemez. Results may be unfavourable early on just like last season but don’t expect Paco Jemez to change. That won’t happen:-

“I’m not interested in just winning any old way… This is what we wanted. This is the way we are. This is what we are”

If it’s goals and excitement you want this season, Rayo Vallecano are the team for you. And with a little extra support, maybe, just maybe they can escape relegation.

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.

Sevilla vs Atleti – Some Thoughts

Atleti left the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan with full points after a disappointing game which was tetchy, lacked any real flow and neither side was able to provide the quality required to make the difference until Raul Garcia’s shot was flicked home in the 75th minute.

Line Ups

With no Gary Medel to anchor the midfield, Emery went with Kondogbia and Rakitic as the double pivot and Reyes as the central point in the attacking trident behind Negredo. It never really worked with Reyes having a limited impact upon the game.

Sevilla vs Atleti Starting Line Ups

Sevilla vs Atleti Starting Line Ups

Simone opted for a 4-4-1-1 formation with Diego Costs supporting Falcao in attack. It was very familiar from Atleti. Maintain shape and control space whilst waiting to exploit Sevilla on the transitions.

Lack of Flow

As stated earlier, this game never really developed any real flow. There were a number of petulant fouls conceded and many further incidents of players going to ground easily trying to win free kicks etc. There were 30 fouls in the game and 6 cautions with 5 of these going to the away side.

Despite the nature of the game, Sevilla only collected a solitary caution, surprising given their extremely poor disciplinary record in the league this season that has seen them collect 12 red cards already. Suspensions have cost them dearly this season.

Whilst many players become infuriated by a disrupted game, unable to develop any rhythm, there are those players who thrive in such circumstances and only add to the situation through their own calculated behaviour. Diego Costa is one such individual.

Anger Management

Diego Costa has earned quite a reputation this season to the extent that the LFP have offered to provide him with anger management classes, seemingly in an effort to curb the worst excesses of this behaviour. Somewhere along the way, everyone seems to have overlooked the quality that Costa can offer the team and also the small issue that Costa may actually enjoy performing such a role on the pitch. Why? It works.

The Brazilian, who has recently received his first two caps for his country, possess that rare quality. The ability to infuriate opponents through his demeanor, attitude and general play acting which often overlooks his quality.

Costa has weighed in with seven goals and six assists in the league so far this season but his caution count is more impressive standing at 10. Against Sevilla he was fairly quiet in terms of his quality committing one foul and being fouled twice.  He completed 9 passes from 12 attempted and managed just a single shot at goal which was off target.

Yet he was still the focus with his play acting after he and Navarro went head to head in the second half.

Some may say that Costa has to eradicate these unsavoury elements from his game if he is to reach the next level but there is most definitely a case to be made that those same elements are what makes Diego Costa so successful in the first place.

The Game

Much of what happened could have been easily predicted before the start. Sevilla controlled possession with 62% as Atleti dropped into their usual format away from home, retaining their shape and allowing the opposition to come forward.

Sevilla completed 468 passes from 576 attempted but the pass statistics from Atleti are surprising. Despite having just 38%, Atleti only made 134 successful passes form 194 attempted. The men from Madrid were very direct, going long as soon as possible. Simone is an advocate of doing something with the ball when you have it but this is still an extremely direct approach to take.

Yet Simeone would not have been concerned. For the first 75 minutes despite having so much possession, Sevilla could only manage seven attempts at goal with just one shot on target. The side were lacking in the final third with no real ideas and Negredo, in the first half especially, not linking with the rest of the team. The frontman made just three successful passes in the first half. He lacked mobility. The home side managed a further six shots at goal in the final 15 minutes as Atleti fell deeper to protect their slim advantage but just two shots were on target. Courtois was never placed in any real difficulties.

The poor forward play was also visible on the Atleti side too as the visitors had one shot on target in the entire game and scored.

The problem for Sevilla was in originating in the midfield are.

Sevilla Midfield

With Medel missing and Maduro on the bench, Emery went with Kondogbia as the deepest midfielder alongside Rakitic who could move higher. The problem was that this removed Rakitic’s passing from the final third and Reyes simply offered too little in an attacking sense.

The graphic below shows the Croatian’s passes:-

Rakitic Passes

Rakitic Passes         http://www.squawka.com

Sevilla needed Rakitic higher up the pitch and could have removed Reyes fro Maduro earlier, allowing Kondogbia to become more of a box to box midfielder. This trio may have been more effective.

Yet compare Rakitic against the Atleti central duo of Gabi and Mario. The duo completed 42 passes form 48 attempted, considerably less than Rakitic did on his own. Creation is not their role though. They are there to shield the back four. To always be in position. Gabi and Mario made 5 successful tackles from 6 attempted and completed 5 interceptions. Their job is primarily destructive and provides the platform for the team to play and they are highly effective at their occupation within the Atleti set up.

Conclusions

The possibility of a European place for Sevilla was always a long shot but it’s now almost certainly over. Their away form is very poor and they had to secure maximum points from their home games if they were to have any hope of clinching a place.

Atleti now have the ideal opportunity to move into second place in the league and end a horrendous run of form stretching back to last century against their cross city rivals when they host Madrid at the Calderon on Saturday evening. Just three points separates the sides but Madrid must contend with a Champions League semi final either side of the derby.

Barcelona vs Sevilla – Tactical Analysis

And so it continues. Unai Emery has now coached five different teams against Barcelona on fifteen separate occasions and has yet to taste victory. He has managed to secure draws five times but has become accustomed to defeat with ten losses against the Blaugrana. His record perhaps does not reflect the problems that some of his charges have caused Barcelona. For the second time this season, an Emery side led at the Camp Nou before being overcome in the second half.

This was a different game from their first meeting in Andalusia in September when Barcelona somehow won 3-2 despite trailing for 89 minutes of the game. Analysis of that game can be found here

Barcelona win at home yet again and yet again the performance was stuttering. A slow first half tempered by an improved second half performance.

Line Ups

With both sides facing the second leg of their respective Cope del Rey semi finals midweek, it was inevitable that neither would field a full strength team.

Interim manager Jorid Roura made six changes to the side that had faced AC Milan in midweek. Only Valdes, Alves, Pique, Iniesta and Messi began both games.

Montoya, Mascherano, Song, Thiago, Villa and Sanchez were all recalled to the starting line up with Montoya deputising at left back.

Starting Line Ups

Starting Line Ups

For Emery and Sevilla, Negredo, Reyes and Kondogbia all began on the bench with Babacar and Manu in the starting line up.

Sevilla began with a rough 4-4-2 formation, Rakitic playing alongside Babacar but with the freedom to drift laterally and support Manu and Navas on the flanks.

First Half

Both sides appeared to be giving some thoughts towards their forthcoming Copa ties initially.

An early chance for Iniesta was blocked. A delay from the talented midfielder provided sufficient time for the defender to recover. Perhaps a more natural finisher would have released the shot earlier?

Sevilla generally sought to stay compact and narrow, employing a mid level block with Babacar and Rakitic remaining high up the pitch. In response to this, both Villa and Sanchez tried to stay wide to stretch the Sevilla defence and create gaps which could be exploited but such opportunities were not grasped.

Villa, in particular, made several good runs dragging defenders with him and opening space but passes often went elsewhere. In the 17th minute, a quick throw out from Valdes found Thiago who crossed the halfway line in possession initiating a quick counter attack. Villa was positioned on the left and in space but the midfielder failed to spot his team mate and turned back inside and the momentum was lost.

Whilst Barcelona will never score the sort of goals that Real Madrid do on a regular basis, with blazing speed during a transition, this is an area that Barcelona need to improve upon especially when playing opponents who defend intelligently and resolutely.

Sevilla Under Emery

Emery has begun his time at Sevilla well, taking 10 points from 15 available points in his five league games to date. His record in all competitions prior to last night was four wins, two draws and two defeats from the eight games in charge. Yet Sevilla still languish in mid table with a European spot looking as far away as it has for large parts of the season.

The side have improved and are more compact and with the likes of Rakitic and Navas supplying Negredo, they possess an attacking threat too. The jewel in the Sevilla team however could well be young Kondogbia. He began life on the becnh last night, Emery resting the 20 year old as he is almost certain to start against Atleti. The Frenchman completed 21 passes from 24 attempted in his cameo on the pitch:-

Kondogbia Passes

Kondogbia Passes                      http://www.squawka.com

With his power and physique, the player is certain to play a pivotal role for Sevilla for the remaining part of the season.

The main focus for Emery, in these closing months, will be to win the Copa del Rey semi final and triumph over Atleti, gaining a place in the final and a European spot in the process.  For now, the Copa takes precedence. Sevilla need the funds available from a European run to tackle their financial problems.

Second Half

Barcelona began the second half in a brighter fashion and played with greater urgency. Sevilla were also being pressed quicker and forced into clearing the ball more often rather tan playing their way out of trouble.

Tello replaced the ineffective Sanchez at half providing Coke with a new problem; the raw pace of the Barcelona youngster.

Barcelona drew level with Villa heading home from an Alves cross. The striker was the only Barcelona player in the penalty area and pulled off Botia to score.

With the game opening up and the play more stretched, Tello had space. In the first half, Navas was able to provide cover for Coke against Sanchez but the full back was increasingly left isolated as Sevilla sought to gain a way back into the game.

The wining goal arrived a few minutes later. Tello was in acres of space and received a pass from Messi, who darted into the centre of the area. Whilst all the Sevilla defenders ran back towards their goal, expecting a low cross , Tello pulled the ball back for Messi who had held his run slightly, providing him with a yard of space.

Sevilla though, attempted to get back into the game and play continued to be open and move from end to end. Barcelona made two substitutions to regain control of the game. Firstly, Xavi was introduced in 68 minutes followed by Busquets coming on in 78 minutes.

There was one more chance for Sevilla to earn a point in the 74th minute. Song was caught ahead of Rakitic providing the Croatian with the space to receive the ball, turn and then slide a through ball into the path of Negredo. The frontman blazed over with only Valdes to beat.

Tello had a final chance to place a greater winning margin between the sides but, as he did against Granada last week, he fired high. Perhaps a little more composure is needed from the young striker.

Dani Alves

During the earlier part of the seasons there were those commentators who questioned Dani Alves commitment. The Brazilian’s head seemingly being turned by potential lucrative moves elsewhere. For a short spell, Montoya performed admirably at right back and offered reasons why he should be the long term successor to Alves.  That will happen but not yet. Alves has recaptured his best form in a Barcelona shirt.

The graphic below shows his first half positioning:-

Alves 1st Half Positioning

Alves 1st Half Positioning                  http://www.squawka.com

At the start of the second half, Villa was moved into a central position with Messi operating behind him. Tello replaced Sanchez and occupied the left wing meaning that no player other than Alves was on the right handside. It’s a precarious situation and requires the balance to be struck perfectly to avoid the opposition taking advantage and creating 2 on 1 situations against the full back.

Alves maintained a high and wide position for much of the second half s shown below.

Alves 2nd Half Positioning

Alves 2nd Half Positioning                 http://www.squawka.com

The ability of Alves to operate alone on the right side should not be underestimated. One aspect which could still be improved upon is his passing into the penalty area. Despite attempting 100 passes, only four of these were into the area with just two being successful. This cannot solely be attributed to Alves tough. For players must be in the penalty area for the full back to pass to. The provision of the assist for the opening goal of the game from David Villa is proof of his quality when options exist.

David Villa – He Shoots, He Scores.

For all of Barcelona’s control in games, their ability to remorselessly control possession, the use of midfielders in advanced positions coupled with Messi’s deeper positioning can often leave Barcelona appearing toothless in attack. There is a lack of a cutting edge to complement their possession. Opponents know if they close out Messi, they significantly reduce the chances of Barcelona creating or scoring.

The Blaugrana need a striker. With Sanchez woefully out of form, and Pedro preferring to begin in a wider position, the side need the option of playing a genuine no9. It’s that reason which makes David Villa so crucial to the team right now:-

David Villa Shots

David Villa Shots              http://www.squawka.com

The striker had one attempt at goal and scored but his performance was more than that. It was the runs into space, pulling defenders with him and creating openings for others. It was the reference point in attack that Barcelona often lack. With Messi playing as a classic no10, it kept the Sevilla central defensive pairing of Botia and Fazio busy.

It’s an option which Barcelona must retain within their arsenal. It’s why Villa did not move during the January transfer window and it’s why he must find a starting berth in the side more often.

Conclusions

A difficult week concludes for Barcelona with two unimpressive, but nevertheless wins, and a defeat. The problem is that another difficult week approaches for a side lacking fluency and defensive worries.

With such a large lead over Atleti in the league, the three points, as welcome as they are, were not the primary issue last night. The performance arguably was.

Sevilla head into their contest with Atleti knowing that they almost snatched a draw had Negredo shown more composure with his finish. Their season remains alive as long as their Copa involvement continues.

Valencia vs AZ Alkmaar: Tactical Analysis

A very comfortable win for Valencia against an insipid AZ Alkmaar who appeared resigned to exiting the competition from the outset of the game. AZ were not helped by shambolic defending early on and a lack of creativity or guile in attack throughout.

Given the last few weeks, Unai Emery could not have written a better script himself. With the team going through a poor run of form and Emery under pressure, AZ arrived at the Mestalla and offered nothing.

Line Ups

Valencia went with their strongest available line up, broadly in a 4-2-3-1 formation

Diego Alves

Barragan            Rami            Costa, R          Alba

Topal   Costa, T

Fehgouli            Jonas                Mathieu

Soldado

AZ Alkmaar went with a 4-3-3 with ex-Villarreal frontman Jozy Altidore leading the attack. It was not a particularly happy return to Spanish soil for the striker.

Esteban

Marcelis            Moisander            Viergever         Poulsen

Maher              Elm            Martens

Beerens            Altidore          Holman

AZ Defending

Valencia began brightly, keen to take the game to their opponents. With AZ defending a high line, Valencia were often very direct, looking for balls over the top and into the channels for the willing Soldado to run onto and turn the AZ defence.

Two goals in two minutes confirmed Valencia’s control of the game and the tie.

AZ had already shown their hand early on when defending corners. They simply piled all their players deep into their own penalty area yet lacked structure. Were they man marking? Was it zonal marking? Furthermore, with nobody left upfield, how did they expect to push out of their penalty area if the ball was cleared?

The first opportunity from a corner fell to Tino Costa. After just 5 minutes a corner was played to the edge of the box and he scooped his effort wide of the target under no pressure. No lessons were learned.

In the 14th minute, Valencia took a short corner and had a 3 vs 1 situation on the right wing. Fehgouli had time to deliver a cross into the AZ area. AZ had 9 players in their own penalty area against 4 Valencia players yet Rami still had a free header for the opening goal aided by some flapping by Esteban.

In the 16th minute the second goal arrived and broadly followed the same pattern. This time the short corner was taken and Valencia had a 3 vs 2 on the right wing. Tino Costa took possession, was not closed down and delivered a cross into the penalty area. Despite AZ having 7 players to mark the 4 players of Valencia, Soldado had a free header at the near post to flick the ball on for Rami to finish at the back post.

Still AZ had not learned their lesson and another corner in the 41st minute again saw Valencia create a 3 vs 2 on the right wing leading to a chance for Soldado which was saved before Jonas put his header just wide. A header wide from yet another cross from the right.

For a team operating in the latter stages of a European competition, the naivety displayed by AZ in the first half was bewildering. They continually repeated the same mistake.

Valencia’s Right

The attack on the left side of Valencia is well known with Alba and Mathieu regularly swapping positions. However, it was on the right hand side where the impressive Fehgouli linked well with Barragan throughout the game that the third goal was created for Valencia.

Following a Valencia attack, Viergever failed to clear the ball properly and when Fehgouli threaded a pass through to Soldado, Viergever failed to spot the run allowing Soldado to square the ball for Alba.

In total, three goals came from the Valencia right and the general performance of Fehgouli, both defensively and in attack gives Valencia another dimension and removes the reliance upon the left side of the team.

Banega Missed?

One area where Valencia continue to look weak is in central midfield. Mehmet Topal is happy dropping deep, sometimes going between the centre backs whilst Tino Costa wants to push on, not surprising considering his long range shooting.

This leaves a gap which was filled by Bangea, to knit the defence and attack together. Without him Valencia have won 4 from 12 in all competitions. The general slmup had begun when he was still in the team however.

There is a lack of movement in the central midfield area with nobody coming short and recycling the ball, keeping play moving.

Conclusions

The best possible opponent for Valencia and Emery at the present moment in time.

They dealt easily with a lacklustre AZ team and took the opportunity to regain some much needed confidence ahead of the daunting prospect of a trip to the Bernabeu on Sunday.

Somewhere a clock is ticking….

Tick tock, tick tock.

Can you hear that? The clock ticking?

Seconds become minutes become hours.

Tick tock, tick tock.

It’s not counting up, it’s counting down.

 

A clock

The clock hangs on the wall of Manuel Llorente’s office. It’s recording the final moments of Unai Emery’s managerial career at CF Valencia.

 

It appears almost certain that the end of this season will see Emery leave Valencia after four seasons in charge. Emery has been under increasing pressure lately. The 3rd place La Liga finish which appeared guaranteed a few moths ago is now under threat with Atletico and Sevilla resurgent recently whilst Malaga must also be considered a viable threat and sit just 1 point behind Valencia.

This, of course, assumes that the plucky challenges of Osasuna and Levante will fade. They may very well remain in contention and go the distance this season. Valencia could quite conceivably still finish in 3rd place comfortably in spite of their form due to the tightly packed table with just 10 points separating 8 teams. Indeed, the topsy turvy nature of La Liga was perhaps epitomised best at the weekend when Malaga, with a run of 5 wins in their previous 7 games, had the opportunity to move into 3rd place. They lost 2-0 at home to Betis.

Such good fortune will not be of concern to Valencia fans and will not see Emery find any further favour with them.

Valencia’s recent form has slipped with just 2 wins in the past 8 league games. The promise of early season performances has also evaporated. Successive league defeats to Real Zaragoza and Getafe was followed by a 2-1 loss to AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League. A 1-1 draw at home to rivals Levante followed on Sunday. The draw with Levante represented the 44th time that Valencia has surrendered a lead in a game under Emery.

When you examine what Emery has delivered at the Mestalla and under what conditions, the criticism becomes harder to understand. A 6th place finish after picking up the pieces from the disastrous season under Koeman was followed by two successive 3rd place finishes.

The financial constraints that affect Valencia see Emery wave goodbye to his best players every season and watch as new, cheaper players arrive and the process of building begins once more. Villa, Silva, Mata and Marchena have all departed. In their place the likes of Soldado, Parejo, Piatti and Ruiz have arrived.

And still Emery delivers the coveted 3rd place finish.

 

Unai Emery. A man under pressure

Too good for the rest of the league but unable to compete with the big two, Valencia sit in isolation. But now the 3rd place is under threat.

And legitimate criticism of Emery can be delivered on performance in European competitions.

Losing to Atletico on away goals in the Europa League quarter finals in season 09/10 was a considerable disappointment. A slack 2-2 draw at home enough to see a hugely inconsistent Atleti side under Quique Sanchez Flores progress. This was an opportunity missed.

A similar opportunity, in financial terms at least, occurred in the following season. Valencia were never going to win the Champions League but were poised to progress to the quarter finals of the Champions League, yet somehow crumbled in the second half of the return leg against Schalke. Another lead squandered under Emery.

Another German side, Bayer Leverkusen, pipped Valencia to 2nd spot in the group phase of this season’s Champion’s League. Guess what? Valencia again took the lead away to Leverkusen only to lose 2-1.

This represented another disappointing European campaign but one which could be salvaged by a run in the Europa League.

It started promisingly and Stoke were despatched 2-0 on aggregate. A 5-3 aggregate victory over PSV Eindhoven should have been more comfortable than the score line suggested but Valencia were in the quarter finals. Perhaps performances were on the decline but a trophy was attainable.

 

So what now for Emery?

 

Thursday night will see the arrival of AZ Alkmaar holding a narrow 2-1 lead over Valencia from last week’s first leg in Holland. Win and they progress to the semi finals, the first time Emery has reached this stage of a European competition. Lose and there is only the 3rd place left to pursue.

Does he focus on the Europa League and attempt to win the first trophy of his managerial career, potentially sacrificing a Champions League place for Valencia in doing so? Or does he remain focussed on helping Valencia to finish 3rd for the third consecutive season thereby gaining Champions League football and the much needed income it can deliver as Valencia continue to repay their colossal debt whilst trying to remain competitive on the pitch?

 

Only the continuation of the current poor form would see Emery depart before the season ends.

The Mestalla faithful have been restless for a while and the white handkerchiefs are poised to reappear yet again tonight.

The clock is ticking.

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