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.

Barcelona vs Real Madrid

Given the regularity with which these teams have met in recent times, we have often been spoiled with the quality being displayed alongside the theatre of the spectacle. Saturday evening at the Camp Nou provided sporadic moments of quality within a game played at a relatively low tempo and lacking in the theatrical, and sometimes Machiavellian, behaviour that we have grown accustomed to.

Line Ups

The main decision for Martino was who would feature in the attacking positions. There was discussion that either Pedro or Alexis Sanchez would join Messi and Neymar in attack. Both would begin on the bench with Cesc Fabregas favoured in the central attacking position. Neymar would begin on the left as per usual with Messi operating from the right.

Starting Line Ups

Starting Line Ups

For Ancelotti, much of the focus surrounded whether or not Gareth Bale would start the game. He did but that wasn’t the most surprising feature. Varane, Pepe and Ramos were all in the starting line up with Ramos placed in a defensive midfield role. At right back, perhaps wary of the problems Neymar had given Arbeloa in the Confederations Cup, Carvejal started.

Madrid would begin the game in a 4-3-3.

Low Key Game

As suggested at the outset, this game was played at a lower tempo than recent clasico’s. The higher level of intensity was missing from the game.  Madrid seemed content to regroup and sit off Barcelona, allowing the hosts time in possession. There was nothing unusual about this scenario. It’s one that Madrid have played out so often in clasico’s, absorbing pressure and striking on the break. Yet this attacking threat was missing from Madrid.

There is a problem with the structure of the Madrid team which was evident on Saturday. The coach is responsible for maximising the potential of his players whist camouflaging their weaknesses. Ancelotti has proven he can do this elsewhere but the Italian contributed to the problem experienced by Madrid against Barcelona.

Ancelotti Errors?

There’s a fine line to strike between deploying players in alternative positions as part of a wider tactical masterplan and just making a mess of things. The key to succeeding with the former and avoiding the latter is early recognition when you have made an error and rectifying it. It took Ancelotti far too long to rectify things in the game.

The graphic below shows the average positions for the players in this game:-

Average Positions

Average Positions

Di Maria, Khedira and Bale are bunched together, occupying similar space. The three players will attract close attention from Barcelona denying Bale the space that he craves.

The question over why Ramos was positioned in central midfield also has to be asked. The last time Ramos played in midfield was back in 2005. The partnership of Varane and Ramos offered great potential last season when Pepe fell out of favour. If a stronger defensive midfield presence was required, why not place Pepe back in there? He has played there before although he often played right on the edge before tipping over. When Ramos collected a yellow card in the 14th minute, it rendered him useless. The combative edge he was supposed to bring was suppressed.

Iniesta ran off Ramos in the 19th minute forcing Carvejal to move in from right back. Iniesta released Neymar and his low shot was deflected into the bottom corner to give Barcelona the lead.

The role of Ramos caused confusion for Khedira and Modric with Ramos clearly uncomfortable in this odd position and giving Barcelona too much space as Xavi admitted afterwards. Khedira was pushing too high leaving Modric  in trouble.

The use of Bale in the striking role flanked by Di Maria and Ronaldo may look great on paper but given his lack of fitness, it was always a risk to play Bale in a game such as this. Bale had no impact other than to collect a caution for a foul on Pique and was removed early in the second half. It was another gamble that didn’t pay off.

Messi Positioned Wide Right

The deployment of Cesc in the striking position was designed to provide great depth and verticality to the Barcelona attack. It required Messi to move back to a right wing position and although both Fabregas and Messi would switch positions, the move required Messi to help provide cover for Dani Alves at right back against the Madrid left of Marcelo and Ronaldo. He did this frequently, perhaps not at the level required for a normal right sided attacker though.

Still not quite 100% fit, Messi would have to undertake his share of defensive duties to protect Alves. Whilst his application may have been questioned in the past, it was an area of his performance that could not be faulted on Saturday:-

Messi Tackles

Messi Tackles

Alongside Iniesta, Messi made five successful tackles during the game, more than any other player on the pitch. Combined with his work rate when required to close down Madrid players and although he may not have stamped his quality in this game like he done previously, his presence was still an important factor for Barcelona.

In some ways this captured one of the key battles in the game. Barcelona showed hunger, desire and work rate throughout.

Barcelona More Direct

It’s become a common theme this season to state that Barcelona are becoming more direct under new boss Gerardo Martino. By playing deeper at times and encouraging opponents on to them, Barcelona then hope to counter attack in a direct fashion.

The graphic below shows passes from Victor Valdes. It’s noticeable how many passes are now long kicks forward as opposed to building from the back. True, sometimes Madrid pressed high at goal kicks to force Valdes to go long but the short passes under pressure have been removed for a safety first approach:-

Valdes Passes

Valdes Passes

The shot by Neymar in the 54th minute was another example of the more direct style. A long raking pass from Iniesta found Neymar running off Carvejal and able to shoot at goal. Lopez pushed away the shot but the threat being carried was clear. Another opportunity fell for Neymar in the 61st minute after a through ball from Messi but Varane showed fantastic recovery skills to block the shot.

The second goal came via Alexis Sanchez. Introduced in the 8th minute to profit from the space now being created in the Madrid team by Barcelona defending deep. The goal was an excellent piece of improvisation, unable to outpace Varane, he cut back inside the defender before chipping Lopez.

Pressing Remains

In the second half with Barcelona leading 1-0, it was notable how the home side began to sit deeper combined with a greater sense of urgency from Madrid supported by Ancelotti’s positive substitutions. This encouraged Madrid to come forward and enjoy their best spell of the game. Whilst such an approach is nothing new, it is unusual to witness Barcelona moving so deep particularly given the weaknesses within their defensive unit:-

Tackles

Tackles

When Barcelona did press coherently, they won the ball back high up the pitch as shown in the graphic above. When they sat deeper, they managed to stop Madrid getting too close to goal although the woodwork saved them following a superb hit from Benzema.

Attempting 30 tackles to Madrid’s 19 again shows how timid Madrid were at times. They seemed to lack desire and gave their opponents far too much respect in the opening exchanges. The withdrawal of Iniesta to be replaced by Song as the second half wore enable Barcelona to regain a degree of control with both Busquets and Song screening the defence. Martino confirmed post match this was a defensive move but it helped re-establish control.

Madrid Lack Association

What style of team is Ancelotti building at Madrid? It’s a question that’s been asked already this season and the performance in the clasico provides no further evidence as to what team will emerge.

Bale and Ronaldo both want to receive the ball to run into space. Neither wants to come deep to link play and associate with other team members. That left the burden of creativity on the shoulders of Modric. Di Maria was essentially shuttling between attack when in possession and midfield when out of possession as Madrid alternated between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 with or without the ball.

The front three were largely left to their own devices with little support from a midfield that dropped off to quickly when the forwards tried to press or failed to provide adequate passing options in the attacking phase.

This was a disjointed team performance that only really came together in the last 25 minutes when Illarramendi and Benzema entered the field with Bale and Ramos being removed. Madrid now had a better balance in midfield and attack. Illarramendi could collect the ball and distribute quicker from a deep position enabling Modric to play higher whilst Benzema is happy to move deep and link play.  In his brief spell on the pitch, Illarramendi attempted 26 passes compared to the 24 attempted by Ramos in his 55 minutes on the pitch.

The consolation goal from Jese was scored via a counter attack in stoppage time.

A New Challenge from Madrid?

A distinctly average clasico as these games go with Barcelona taking all three points. There are still issues for both teams to resolve in the coming weeks not just for the domestic game but also for their ambitions at European level. At the moment, Ancelotti has a significantly harder task on his hands. The alteration in style is still an ongoing process for Madrid whereas Martino has made smaller, easier changes for Barcelona to assimilate.

Madrid are now 6 points behind Barcelona after 10 games whilst neighbours Atleti are just 1 point behind. Will the challenge from the Capital this season come in red and white stripes?

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.

Villarreal vs Real Madrid – The Submarine can’t sink Los Blancos

An excellent game at el Madrigal with both sides contributing to an engrossing contest.

Line Ups

Marcelinho made just one change from the side that had swept away Osasuna in their last game with Dos Santos replacing Perbet in attack. Villarreal began with their usual 4-4-2 formation. Cani would tuck into central midfield from his left side starting position.
Starting Line Ups

Starting Line Ups

With a number of injuries to contend with, Ancelotti went with Carvajal and Nacho in the full back positions. Despite not being fully fit, both Isco and Bale started for Madrid with Illarramendi making his Madrid debut too.
After all the conjecture about where Bale would play, he began life at Real Madrid in the right wing in a 4-2-3-1 system. The attacking trident of Ronaldo, Isco and Bale may appear devastating on paper but at el Madrigal, things were anything but.

Positioning

The graphic below shows the average positions during the game. The most obvious feature from a Madrid perspective is just how narrow the side is with the centre of the pitch looking extremely congested. With Ronaldo, Isco and Benzema all favouring the left side and Gareth Bale moving inward from the right, the side lacked a degree of balance in attack:-

Average Player Positions

Average Player Positions

By contrast, Villarreal enjoyed greater balance and movement across the pitch aided by a degree of familiarity and understanding in their play. Both full backs pushed very high especially Mario to support Aquino and push Nacho further back. Early on, much of Villarreal’s play was coming down the Madrid left.

Villarreal Identity Clear

The key aspect of Villarreal’s play was the combined with fluid movement and sharp passing. In Pereira and Dos Santos, the Submarine had two forwards willing to work the channels between centre back and full backs to great effect. Overarching all of this was a clear understanding of what they wanted to achieve. Swift, purposeful moves forward aided by sharp first touch passing with options provided from the second line of attack.

Madrid received plenty of warnings yet failed to heed any of them. Pereira should have opened the scoring after 5 minutes when Pepe failed to cut out a Cani pass on his outside but his weak shot was deflected wide. The Villarreal midfield closed down Madrid quickly early on such as Trigueros robbing Isco after 7 minutes letting the home side break. It set the tone for the game. Villarreal broke quickly and directly but the forwards were adequately supported from the second line of attack. Cani got into the penalty area to open the scoring after 21 minutes with the move being instigated down the channel between Ramos and Nacho.

There were also further chances for Aquino, again driving down the inside right channel, and even left back Costa arrived in the penalty area unmarked. Madrid were physically off the pace and mentally too were lacking. A quick corner in the 13th minute was delivered to the unmarked Pereira at the back post but Lopez saved the resultant shot.

The runners from midfield repeatedly caused problems for Madrid as they went untracked whilst the pairing of Ramos and Pepe looked unsteady.  And at the heart of Villarreal’s play orchestrating things was the highly impressive Bruno.

Bruno Soriano

Although nominally a defensive midfielder, Bruno fulfils a much greater role than purely that of destroyer for Villarreal operating along the lines of a deep lying playmaker at times. Despite performing amidst a crowded central area, Bruno always found time and space to receive the ball and help his side retain possession with a near 100% pass completion rate. He began attacks, prompting team mates to run into space and just as importantly, he knew when to retreat and recycle possession, playing the ball back to Asenjo from the halfway line at one point:-

Bruno Passes Made

Bruno Passes Made

On a night when the press had gathered to see Gareth Bale make a goal scoring debut for Madrid, it’s a fair assessment to say that Bruno was the best performer on the pitch.

Bruno remained with the submarine when they were relegated and he may never receive the move to a bigger, more prestigious club despite reports of numerous suitors throughout his career. He may never add to his four Spanish international caps either but he showed on Saturday evening just what he is capable of and why both he and Villarreal will be an asset to La Liga this season.

Defensive Issues

If Villarreal are clear what they aim to achieve on the pitch, Ancelotti is still working on that element for Madrid. The Italian has repeatedly shoehorned various star players into a starting line up over his career and he will need to repeat the trick again at Madrid. The front three of Ronaldo, Isco and Bale will have many running out of superlatives to describe them but there’s a worry for Madridista’s that the balance is not right.

Ronaldo doesn’t track back but the side could compensate with the workrate of Di Maria on the right but if Bale replaces the Argentinean in the starting eleven and drifts further inward, there will be issues for Madrid during transitions as Villarreal showed on Saturday. Modric and Illarramendi were overrun at times as the Submarine swarmed forward at pace. There was also the problem on occasion of both central midfield players moving forward together with nobody staying deeper to offer defensive protection.

The second goal for Villarreal arrived because nobody bothered to close down Cani as he ran forward in a central area. Lopez saved his shot but Dos Santos converted the rebound. As poor as that was, earlier in the move, Bruno and Musacchio exchanged passes with Di Maria closing them down whilst the remainder of the Madrid team sat back. One player pressing alone is a total waste of time.

It was a difficult evening for Nacho and Carvajal at full back and whilst Nacho may lack the attacking thrust that Marcelo presents, the work of Carvajal on the right collecting a pass from Modric before cutting back for Bale to score shows the greater penetration that he offers over the more conservative Arbeloa.

The graphic below shows plenty of final third passes for Madrid but too few were into the penalty area with key passes leading to shots from outside the area, which is still a strength for Madrid but less dangerous:-

Final Third Passes

Final Third Passes

Villarreal failed with over a third of their final third passes but with a riskier strategy of threading balls into the channels to get behind Madrid, this was always a more likely outcome. The graphic also shows how a number of passes which led to shots came down the Madrid left. The plan was clear. Shift the ball quickly and try to exploit the gaps behind Madrid with pace whereas Madrid were disjointed in attack due to a lack of familiarity with each other and a lack of fitness for key players.

Disconnected

Madrid’s problems were most evidently displayed by the lacklustre performance of Benzema who seemed disinterested for much of the game and often appeared completely disconnected from the rest of the team in the striking position. It forced Benzema to drop deeper and deeper to receive the ball and become more involved in the game. The graphic below shows his positions when he received the ball:-

Benzema Passes Received

Benzema Passes Received

Madrid seldom got in behind Villarreal’s defence and with Benzema dropping deep, it was another example of the visitors always playing in front of their opponents defence. The equalising goal for Madrid was one of the few times they got behind Villarreal.

Benzema was involved in Madrid’s second when his shot was partly saved by Asenjo but the goal was really about the craft of Isco, juggling the ball out of danger before Ronaldo carried possession forward.

The front four of the team possess tremendous individual ability. The trick for Ancelotti will be gaining the best from them collectively.

Missed Opportunity?

Ancelotti will be satisfied and relieved with a point. Playing Bale and Isco whilst not fully fit and handing a debut to Illarramendi nearly backfired but to gain a point and aid team development and player fitness, it will now seem worthwhile.

An excellent point for Marcelinho and Villarreal but the thought will linger that it should have been three and that this may actually have been an opportunity lost. The Submarine created and squandered numerous chances as they attacked with precision throughout.

Four games in and Villarreal are undefeated with ten points. The challenge is to maintain this level of form and begin the process of re-establishing the Submarine back amidst the upper echelons of La Liga.

The Year of Los Merengues?

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

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

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

Carlo Ancelotti – A Unifying Force

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

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

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

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

Tactical Options

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

Carlo Ancelotti - Reassuringly unimpressed

Carlo Ancelotti – Reassuringly unimpressed

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

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

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

Quality and Quantity

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

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

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

Spanish Acquisitions

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

Isco - The Future Part 1?

Isco – The Future Part 1?

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

Illarramendi - The Future Part 2?

Illarramendi – The Future Part 2?

Barcelona’s Structural Problems

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

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

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

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

Engineering Change

“I have a commitment to make Manchester City my priority. I have a verbal agreement with them and I hope it is carried out”

 And so, one of the worst kept secrets in football, is finally confirmed. Manuel Pellegrini will be the new coach of Manchester City after agreeing a 3 year deal at the club. Actually, there’s little point discussing anything else, is there? Following the endless speculation, the conjecture and the fall out from Mancini’s dismissal, Pellegrini has eventually been confirmed as the Italian’s successor. Given the prolonged nature of this appointment, everything that needs to be said already has been said. Pellegrini failed at Real Madrid after spending over £200m, didn’t he? He’s only ever won one trophy in Europe and that was the Intertoto cup back in 2004. What “success” he enjoyed at Malaga and Villarreal was built upon the back of considerable spending. And look at the financial mess both clubs are in now. Sadly, we cannot all write for the mainstream tabloids. Some of us actually watch European football and delve a little deeper than the mere production of superficial nonsense designed to illicit a response and sell copy.

Leaving aside the appointment of Pellegrini for a moment, the critics will argue about the supposed long term plan at City. Is this really evidence of a plan? The lavish spending (thus far) of over £40million on two players? This isn’t the future that UEFA had in mind when designing Financial Fair Play. It’s just more of the same from Manchester City and nothing new. This isn’t a brave new world - it’s just window dressing to cover the lack of progress the club is making. Very expensive window dressing.

Expensive Indulgence

A side in the north of England attempting to mimic a club on the coast of Spain ? This is an ego trip fuelled by the extravagance of owners whose wealth knows no bounds. This is vanity, which is how a number in the media may interpret it, poised to print the pre-written obituary of Pellegrini and others when the bricks come tumbling down. And the bricks may well come tumbling down but that should not disguise the clear strategy that Man City has and which they are following.

The comparisons with Spain (and ultimately Barcelona) are inevitable when City have appointed men like Ferran Soriano Compte and Aitor ‘Txiki’ Begiristain Mujik, both of whom are previous employees of the Catalan side. Begiristain was the man responsible for the appointment of Josep Guardiola as the new Coach of Barcelona back in 2008 when others on the Board felt Mourinho was a better fit for the side.

In attempting to construct a new philosophy at the club, it’s unavoidable to an extent that you will turn to men who had helped you in the past and who share your vision. That’s why City was interested, along with other elite sides, of appointing Guardiola as their new Coach. When it was confirmed that Guardiola would move elsewhere, City needed an alternative. Somebody who would fit with their vision for the club over the longer term and who would mould the side on the pitch accordingly. It was no surprise that Begiristain returned to La Liga nor was it that surprising that Pellegrini was his chosen candidate.

The club now aim to install a possession based, attacking game across the board. Each level of the club will follow the same model. The ultimate goal is to be both successful and to complement the first team with players developed by the club. Manual Pellegrini has been tasked with the early stages of construction. He is highly unlikely to be around once construction is complete but the stage from initial project inception to laying the foundations correctly can often be the most difficult aspect.

The Engineer

A graduate of the University of Santiago in Civil Engineering, the Chilean began his coaching career in his homeland in 1988 with spells in Ecuador and Argentina following before Villarreal came calling in 2004. Pellegrini won his first and only piece of silverware in European football during his debut season with the successful defence of the Intertoto Cup. The yellow submarine also finished 3rd in the league and progressed to the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup.

Manuel Pellegrini

Manuel Pellegrini

The following season would witness Villarreal reaching the semi final of the Champions League. Riquelme’s missed penalty late in the second leg enabled Arsenal to progress to the final via a 1-0 aggregate win. This remains the furthest stage a team debuting in the competition has reached.

Domestically, the high point for the Chilean arrived in 2007/08 when Villarreal finished second to Real Madrid in La Liga. Villarreal remain the last side to split the big two in Spain , an accomplishment which should not be degraded. In a country where finishing third will earn you less TV income than a side being relegated from the Premiership, the financial disparity between the big two and the remainder should not be underestimated. The gap was bridged and that too by the production of stylish football.

Yet this relative “success” was built upon the back of President Roig’s generosity. When things went bad, Pellegrini - who had overseen the good timeshad long since abandoned ship. Right?

Roig’s business began encountering financial problems at the onset of the recession, with the housing crash in Spain causing particular problems. This forced Villarreal to begin following a new financial model. Pellegrini had long since gone by the time of their relegation. As for the spending, Pellegrini’s net spend at Villarreal was just £11million.

At Malaga , he arrived to oversee a new project being built upon Middle Eastern riches. Except the money tap was quickly switched off and Malaga endured a series of financial problems which required the offloading of numerous players whilst others waited for wages. The Engineer repaired the team to ensure progression to the quarter finals of the Champions League (the second furthest stage a team debuting in the competition has reached) and a 6th placed league finish. Pellegrini’s net spend at Malaga was just £16million. When the left back Monreal was sold to Arsenal in the winter transfer window and with the alternative left back Eliseu injured, the club acquired Antunes on loan from Pacos in Portugal . A new component for the team who fitted in seamlessly. It’s not about the money he has to spend. It’s about the qualities of the players both on and off the pitch.

“We wanted players with sufficient maturity, with human qualities as well as footballing ones that can help”

 

Pellegrini Tactically

“To be attacking, to try to tale control of the game, to take responsibility, to be attractive. There are small differences of course, depending on what players you have, but there is a footballing concept and a concept of spectacle that is non-negotiable”

Pellegrini has used a variety of tactical set ups during his time at Villarreal, Madrid and Malaga, ranging from 4-3-1-2 to 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1. But it has been with his 4-4-2 at both Villarreal and Malaga that his sides have often produced the best football. That may sound unusual given how we are constantly told the 4-4-2 is an entirely reactive formation, not to say an almost redundant formation at the top level, yet Pellegrini has it operating in the latter stages of the Champions League. How?

At Villarreal he moved from a 4-3-1-2 capable of utilising the skills of a classic South American style playmaker such as Riquelme and latterly Matias Fernandez to a 4-4-2 using interiores. His final season at Villarreal primarily used the 4-4-2 as shown below:-

 
 

Villarreal 4-4-2 Formation Villarreal 4-4-2 Formation

Pellegrini has always used a flat back four. The defensive unit is always well marshalled by a dominant centre half. When an opponent attacks, the defensive line, which is normally high, will drop off to the edge of the penalty area before holding firm. The offside trap is used to good effect. At Villarreal the central defensive pairing of Godin and Gonzalo were physically robust and the full backs of Javi Venta and Capdevila able to move up and down the wings.

The two defensive midfield players stay deep to offer protection and to pull wide should the opposition attack behind either full back.  This provides security but is not entirely defensive. The players must also be able to build and construct play. At Villarreal, Marcos Senna was tasked with this role.

The two wide midfield players cut in centrally to form a block of four in the centre of the pitch with the full backs advancing to provide the width. They move into the interior, hence the name “interiores”. Crucially, the two wide players must return to position for defensive duties. The two forward players meanwhile are capable of pulling wide, creating space centrally which can be attacked. Pellegrini was able to use the mobility of either Giuseppe Rossi or Nihat alongside the presence of a more powerful, physical striker such as Joseba Llorente.

The key point throughout is the availability of passing triangles. From the graphic above, when players move, you can clearly see how passing channels are open via movement. A player always has passing options available to him and the side swamp the opponent in central midfield. In such a tightly congested area, the side with the greater technical proficiency will domainate as they find team mates with short, sharp passes. This will be a Pellegrini side. The positions are not fixed either. The right interiore will move across if play is stationed wide on the left (and vice versa). The team is compact and the opponent is squeezed.

A similar philosophy developed at Malaga although the formation began to shift. In defence, the commanding presence of  Demichellis took control alongside Weligton. Both full backs were comfortable moving up the pitch but this is where the dynamic began to alter. The defensive unit was sound but in the attacking third there was a great deal of fluidity offered:-

Malaga 4-4-2 Formation Malaga 4-4-2 Formation

Eliseu on the left of midfield is a converted left back and operated more like a wing back, shuttling up and down. On the right, Isco would drive in centrally allowing the full back to overlap. Together, they would combine with Joaquin who was the striker but was beginning in a deeper position.

Pellegrini is not a coach who will instruct his side to press high and chase and harass an opponent. The Villarreal side had a South American feel to it with the tempo which they played the game and the individual components of the side. The side don’t rush to attack. It is structured, cautious, with the team moving as a coherent unit. His sides can defend resolutely as the performances in Europe of both Villarreal and Malaga demonstrated when a reactive approach was favoured allowing opponents to take the initiative.

If that’s how he operated previously, how he will operate at City remains to be seen, particularly when it appears he has been charged with implementing a 4-3-3.

With his ability to utilise the creative talents of a playmaker, David Silva could find himself in a central role in the season ahead. Silva is not the quickest player in physical terms but that will not dissuade Pellegrini from constructing the side around his creative talents if necessary.

Using full backs for width is something which City have done to date. It’s also something that has become something of an Achilles heel for them with teams exploiting the space on transitions particularly given Barry’s immobility and reluctance to be pulled wide to cover.  This is an area which must be tackled. Using two defensive midfield players will assist this but possibly not Yaya Toure. Indeed, how the Ivorian fits into the system will be a crucial element. Does he have the discipline to operate in a purely defensive fashion? Does that suit his talent best?

The defence should be straightforward with Kompany the ideal individual to use as the central starting block. Alongside him may be Nastasic with Zabaleta and Clichy as full backs. In midfield, the three could be Fernandinho, Toure and Silva. City continue to be linked with Isco from Malaga and it’s not inconceivable to field an attacking trio of Isco, Silva and Navas behind Aguero as the central striker.

Such a set up would provide an asymetrical formation with width on the right against narrow approach on the left and it would also need to combat the lack of defensive cover that Navas offers. Whatever formation is utilised, expect City to be more resolute defensively and more fluid in the attacking third. There will be a clear template to use when defending and flexibility when attacking.

Questions will remain over the long term futures of the likes of Milner, Barry, Sinclair, Rodwell, Tevez and Dzeko. An already small English core may be depleted further. Actually, it is a real possiblity that the only Englishman that City will field on a regular basis next season will be Joe Hart in goal. Such a scenario is not City’ s problem in the short term at least, but it again raises questions over the technical and tactical profiency of English players.

The More Things Change

“No one ever asked me anything about how to create a team capable of playing the kind of football I wanted to play”

The manner in which Mancini departed to be replaced by Pellegrini would be very familiar to the Chilean. A little too familiar perhaps. Similar circumstances prevailed back in 2010 when Pellegrini departed Real Madrid after just one season to be replaced by Jose Mourinho.

Pellegrini spent one season at Madrid when he spent a small fortune and achieved the princely sum of zero. Or so the story goes. Scratch a little deeper than your average tabloid journalist and you’ll find the real story.

When Pellegrini arrived at Madrid , over £200m was already spent and in some respects he was already living on borrowed time. He had no say in the players that were acquired by the club. What he did have a say in was the players he would like to retain and build his side around. Players such as Arjen Robben and Welsey Sneijder. Two players who were subsequently sold within days of Pellegrini arriving against his will.

It was clear for Pelleginri where the problems lay:-

“I can’t get anything out of an orchestra if I have the 10 best guitarists but I don’t have a pianist or a drummer”

The squad was unbalanced for the tasks ahead yet his viewpoint was ignored.

And for those who would argue if he had won trophies, he would not have been dismissed, consider exhibit A; Vicente del Bosque. Sacked after delivering two La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues in just three seasons. Pellegrini was the choice of the former Sporting Director, Jorge Valdano, a man who has clear identity when it comes to football. According to Valdano, Pellegrini was a “protagonist; he seeks to dominate possession and always attack”. Perez simply wanted a manager who would win and Pellegrini was not a “winner” but nor was Perez either. He had overseen the collection of zero trophies during his reign as President. Pellegrini was not Perez choice and favoured some players acquired by the previous President. It really was that petty at times.

Madrid spent £258 million prior to Pellegrini arriving with President Perez noting “We have to do in one year what we would normally do in three“, an idea that is at odds with the philosophy of the then incumbent in the managerial hot seat. Despite noting that he had begun laying the foundation for success which included dealing with the heavyweights in the dressing room in the shape of Guti and Raul, the Chilean was axed.

Pellegrini may only have managed Real Madrid for 48 games but he had a win percentage of 75%, which is 3% higher than a certain Chelsea manager.

“I’d like to congratulate Real Madrid , fantastic opponents and without whom we would never have reached 99 points. Pellegrini and his players have dignified our professions”

The words of Guardiola after his Barcelona side claimed the La Liga title on the final day of the season over their arch rivals.  Sentiments which were not shared by those inside the Madrid boardroom.

The Engineer Who Constructs

“To be able to build up a club, this is as important as going to an institution where you will be able to win things”

When you hear Pellegrini speak, the same themes appear consistently. The need to build, to construct a long term solution and to play aesthetically, but ultimately successful, football in the process. This is not necessarily all out attacking football. It’s considered, it’s patient but it is football with a clear personality.

Upon taking control of Malaga , he noted:-

 “I’m not interested in external ego but internal satisfaction. I’m not interested just in easy glory but in constructing something….together we are trying to build a project that is not just short term”

And that really encapsulates his overarching footballing philosophy. Why buy to acquire success if it’s short lived or unsustainable? The creation of a lengthy period of dominance fuelled by both acquisitions and the promotion of youth players from within the club must be the ideal goal. This is what the neighbours from across the city achieved under Ferguson . Players from within being promoted to the first team and supplementing quality acquisitions and it led, after a slow start, to a period of dominance which is arguably unparalleled in the English game.

Pellegrini seeks to bring footballers with human qualities to his sides and he too displays the very same qualities he desires in others. Urbane, likeable and fairly laidback, he won’t make great copy for journalists at press conferences as he acts with a professionalism and dignity that doesn’t make headlines. The manner in which he handled the constant sniping and undermining at Real Madrid is testimony to his character, as is the manner in which he has refused to be drawn in ever since whenever his Malaga side has faced los blancos.

And now, as he heads for Manchester , Pellegrini retains the same desire to continue building, acknowledging the need for a solution both on and off the pitch. The manner in which some sections of the media questioned City for claiming the need for a “holistic” solution when terminating Mancini’s contract will start to look more questionable by the day. The club have a manager who shares the ideals being espoused at boardroom level.

Upon his appointment, he noted:-

“The club has a clear vision for success both on and off the pitch and I am committed to making a significant contribution.”

Departures All Round?

It’s been plain to see where the problems lie in the Manchester City side over the past few seasons. Mancini favoured a very central approach with both wide attacking players operating as inverted wingers. This relied upon the full backs to provide width. The acquisition of Jesus Navas from Sevilla represents a departure from this viewpoint and provides a much needed tactical variation in the side’s attacking play.

And just as there have been critics of Pellegrini, there are those who are rushing to criticise Navas. Let’s be clear, the player does have his flaws. He didn’t score a single goal for Sevilla last season and his shooting has always been very poor. But that’s not why you acquire someone like Navas. You acquire him for his blistering pace and very direct nature. His repeated desire to attack the opposition full back on the outside is why you buy him. To stretch opponents defences. His presence on the touchline forces the full back out and creates gaps in a back four. The sort of gaps that a player such as David Silva can exploit.

Jesus Navas

Jesus Navas

Yet, just as Navas marks a departure for Man City and the players they have acquired, it also represents a change for Pellegrini who has rarely used wingers until he arrived at Malaga and found Joaquin. Once the golden boy of Spanish football, its fair comment to state that Joaquin never reached the heights he should have. Yet under Pellegrini in Andalusia , the winger has been reinvented as a central striker who can pull wide. And Joaquin now plays with the same smile and level of infectiousness last seen during his early days at Real Betis.

Joaquin began to operate as the second striker, cutting in from the right with a slightly deeper starting position (as shown on the diagram above) and able to drive at opponents. Freed from the shackles of defensive responsibility that comes with being a right winger, Joaquin prospered. Yet he cites Pellegrini for his both his tactical and non tactical work:-
“Everyone knows Pellegrini’s philosophy and his history but he’s a guy who gives you so much confidence, who acts with so much humility that, somehow, he always gets the best out of every player: he is the central piece in this jigsaw”

How Pellegrini uses a player such as Navas will be pivotal if City is to confront their problems from last season and present opponents with new questions.

Season 2013/14 Engineering City

Of course, none of this means Pellegrini will storm the Premiership and help City regain the title from Man Utd. His appointment simply means that the hierarchy have employed an individual who shares their visions and ideals. Progress may not be immediately obvious nor will it be solely assessed by results. Clearly, a disastrous season would have repercussions, but a trophyless season may not. Projects as ambitious as this take time.

The club have begun with the acquisitions of Navas and the Brazilian midfielder, Fernandinho. Although Begiristain will be overseeing transfer dealings, Pellegrini will have an input there too as the club build a squad capable of playing the 4-3-3 formation that they have chosen as their default.

The plans have been drawn up and the various appointments have been made. It’s time for the Engineer to start building.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,916 other followers