March 17, 2013 4 Comments
The 2012-13 season has been difficult for Osasuna and coach Jose Luis Mendilibar.
Los Rojillos have experienced their worst worst start to a top flight campaign since their doomed 1993-94 campaign which ended with relegation after four defeats in their opening five games. The poor form continued beyond September. With only five points from their opening nine games, Osasuna were bottom of the league in early November.
There were reports that Mendilibar would be sacked if Osasuna failed to win against fellow relegation strugglers Espanyol. Perhaps it was fate. Mendilibar’s first game in charge at Osasuna was a 4-0 win over los percios and a 3-0 away win resolved the issue temporarily backed up by two scoreless draws and a win as Osasuna moved up the table. Whilst Mendilibar avoided dismissal, that matter befell his rival that day, Espanyol’s Pochettino, just two weeks later.
The mini revival saw the side rise to the lofty heights of 15th before three defeats in four games saw the team return to bottom place at the start of January.
It was the optimum time for the board to dispense with Mendilibar. The January transfer window would enable the new coach to bring new players in. The squad could be freshened for the challenge ahead. Yet the board retained faith in Mendilibar. Was it loyalty, were there no alternatives or would sacking the Basque coach have exposed the failings of the club off the pitch?
On The Pitch
Mendilibar celebrated two years in charge in February. He joined with the Pamplonan side in 18th place and would lead them to a 9th place finish in season 10/11. Last season witnessed the extraordinary 7th place finish which has raised expectations considerably rather than a recognition of what it was. A side over achieving.
The style of play under Mendilibar can easily be characterised. Osasuna have personality, a clear identity of who they are and how they will approach each game. This identity is what is so interesting about Osasuna; what they do with and without the ball. The side adopts many of the tactical elements that you see in some of the best possession orientated sides across Europe without the ball. The intensive pressing of an opponent across the whole pitch and holding a high line to squeeze their opponent deeper into their own territory. Yet this contrasts sharply with what occurs when they get the ball. A direct game is employed with the target being to get the ball forward as quickly as possible.
The side averages 48% possession in league games and their pass completion rate is just 68%, the second lowest in the league. Averaging 70 long balls per game, only Valladolid and Rayo Vallecano attempt more, whilst only Real Sociedad attempt more crosses (Los Rojillos average 25 per game) into the penalty area. They win 27 aerial duels per game, vastly more than anyone else in La Liga.
There is nothing unusual about their tackling or interception statistics but when they recover possession, they shift it forward quickly attempting just five dribbles per game, another very low figure.
The preference for a direct game, playing the percentages, aimed towards the central striker is clear for all to see.
Defensively, they now concede fewer shots at goal (11.7 per game) with only four teams conceding less shots. Only Malaga, Atleti and Real Madrid have conceded fewer goals than Osasuna. The defensive frailty that was evident on occasion last season, most notably when the high offside line collapsed and hefty defeats occurred, has been addressed. A further season under Mendilibar’s guidance along with the acquisition of Arribas from Rayo and the defence has been solidified.
Win the ball quickly, high up the pitch and then fire it into the penalty area. Simple yet last season, it was highly effective. However, problems persist at the opposite end of the pitch where nobody has scored as few goals as Osasuna, just 23 goals in 29 games.
Problems Not Tackled
The problems Osasuna are experiencing this season are not surprising even allowing for their superb 7th place finish last season. Despite finishing 7th, Los Rojillos finished the season with a goal difference of -17. That they missed out on a European place by one point is at best misleading. With an equal head to head record as Levante, had Osasuna finished level on points, that inferior goal difference would have cost them that coveted European place. Their lack of goals was an issue.
Key players from that side departed with replacements being adequate but unable to operate at the same level or within the preferred system. In particular, the loss of Raul Garcia both in terms of goals and assists has not being replicated despite Mendilibar seeking a direct replacement during the summer. Garcia scored 11 goals whilst providing eight assists.
Ibrahima Balde moved on along with Dejan Lekic leaving Osasuna without the target man required to allow their system to function efficiently. Neither Balde or Lekic was prolific but the physical target man is an essential component of the system which Mendilibar implements. Veteran striker Joseba Llorete arrived but his impact has been minimal whilst Nino is an awkward choice in the striking role given his small stature.
This is not the fault of Mendilibar, it’s the Sporting Director who must accept responsibility here. Mendilibar can only work with the tools the club provide him with. His system is clear, the personality he projects onto the team is known. The club must find the components to fit that system. They have failed in this regard.
The Misleading League Position
Osasuna are not out of the danger yet despite sitting four points above the relegation zone.
The 2-0 home defeat to Atleti captured many of their failings this season. The opening goal for Atleti arising after the high offside trap failed with no pressure placed on the ball in midfield. Koke was able to break through the uneven defensive line.
Mendilibar’s starting line up included Masoud, a midfielder, in the striking role with Nino and Llorente on the bench, a clear indication that neither are favoured to produce in that role. Despite the overly defensive line up, Osasuna began the game in familiar fashion
This game will not be decisive in Osasuna’s season.
The problem that faces Mendilibar and his side is the legacy of their poor start to the season that included key losses to fellow relegation battlers. Why is this so important now? In La Liga, teams level on points are not separated initially by goal difference but by the head to head record, that is, their respective results against each other. Osasuna have an inferior head to head record with Deportivo La Coruna, Celta Vigo and Real Zaragoza. Having already lost to Granada earlier this season, the sides meet again on 19 May in what could be a crucial encounter. Osasuna must rectify the balance.
Survive this season and Mendilibar will need to work again. Club captain Francisco Punal is 37 years old now. A replacement must be found who can provide the drive and energy from the centre of the pitch. The lack of goals remains a problem and the recent form of Kike Sola, top scorer with a lowly 7 goals, is likely to attract suitors if it is maintained.
Is there no spectre of light ahead for Osasuna or is the club unable to recognise the environment in which it finds itself? Has the club failed to adapt to it’s new surroundings and evolve sufficiently, consequently finding itself a potential victim of relegation to the wilderness of La Segunda?
The Accumulation of Marginal Gains
This is an age of austerity.
With economic recession, all Spanish sides are facing uncertain times with the exception of the big two. The lack of available finance is no longer an excuse for poor performances in La Liga. The Pamplonan’s had net debt of £31million in September 2012 with the first team budget squeezed as a consequence. This is not unique however. The bulk of the top flight teams are in the exact same predicament. With less cash to burn on transfer fees, teams have to become more adept at discovering rough diamonds to polish. Scouting networks take on new levels of importance. Closer to home, the work of the cantera increases in importance. The likes of Levante and Rayo Vallecano are the benchmark for clubs to aspire to. The Rayo coach Paco Jemez outlines the problems his side face perfectly when he talks of everyone else having more than Rayo. The men from Vallecas in the suburbs of Madrid are forced to work harder than everyone else in order to compete. They must train harder, must scout better, invest in their cantera more. All of these small issues mount to have a cumulative impact, the accumulation of marginal gains.
If Osasuna want to avoid enduring relegation battles each season, these areas must be addressed commencing with their acquisition policy. The problems that Mendilibar has to address are on the pitch but the Sporting Director must contribute to the solution and avoid becoming another obstacle.
Mendilibar cannot win battles on two fronts simultaneously.