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.

Building for a Real Future?

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

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

La Real Dominate

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

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

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

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

Sociedad vs Madrid Shots

Sociedad vs Madrid Shots

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

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

Player Selection

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

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

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

Sociedad vs Madrid Line Ups

Sociedad vs Madrid Line Ups

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

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

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

Montanier Departing?

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

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

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

Is 5th a Success?

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

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

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

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

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

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