Levante vs Barcelona: 3 Short Observations

Three short observations on the Levante vs Barcelona game tonight:-

The Pitch

Much has been made recently of Barcelona’s desire to play on wet pitches with very short grass to aid their short, quick passing game. Tonight, they faced an opponent who has a very soft pitch with long grass. As a result, short quick passing becomes more difficult to achieve and players lose their footing when they try to turn quickly.

The pitch at Estadi Ciutat de Valencia has been like this all season, so it was hardly a surprise for Guardiola yet they failed to react to this until the second half, still determined to play intricate short, sharp passes on a poor quality surface.

More opponents will leave their pitches dry and with longer grass against Barcelona. A quicker, more direct approach is needed in such circumstances.

Barcelona need to learn to adapt more to these challenges.

The Starting Line Up

Following on from the point above, in addition to the pitch being poor, Levante were always going to defend deep and in numbers. They only average 40% possession per game. They are a deep lying, counter attacking side with Kone leading the line.

Combined with the pitch, why did Guardiola not start with Cuenca to pull Levante wide? With Sanchez and Pedro both coming infield, Levante could outnumber Barcelona due to sheer weight of numbers.

Similar to the game vs Milan, Cuenca has an impact simply based on his starting position alone. He pulls defenders out very wide and creates space.

He helped create the equaliser and then won the penalty which Messi converted.

Cuenca is becoming an increasingly useful player for Barcelona. There is arguably nobody else in the Barcelona squad who offers the same qualities as he does in an attacking sense e.g. the width and the ability to take an opponent on the outside.

He is a traditional chalk on the boots winger.

Javier Mascherano

If the entire Barcelona squad was fully fit and Guardiola had to chose his strongest starting eleven, who would he chose as his central defensive partnership?

Surely Mascherano would be a starter?

He makes more tackles and interceptions per game than anyone else in the Barcelona squad. He is second only to Xavi in the number of successful long passes per game. He can be an attacking asset as well as a defensive asset. Crucially, he has eliminated his previous habit of picking up yellow cards all of the time. He has 9 yellows from 46 appearences this season.

Tonight, Mascherano beat Kone to a ball through the Barcelona defence when they trailed 1-0. He won the tackle cleanly and knocked the ball back to Valdes. He then collected the ball from Valdes, moved upfield and released Cuenca which led to the equalising goal.

From initially being used in defence as a stop gap measure, he has made the position his own.

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Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid: Tactical Analysis

And so the wait continues for Atletico Madrid. It is now 23 games since they last beat Real Madrid in a league or cup game. The year was 1999, Spain still had peseta’s and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink scored the winning goal. What’s stranger still is that Atleti were relegated that season too.

Line Ups

Atleti came into the match on the back of a disappointing 2-0 away defeat at Levante. Three changes were made to the team with Falcao, Perea and Tiago being recalled as replacements for Salvio, Suarez and Miranda. The inclusion of Perea was clearly due to his pace, Simeone obviously aware of the Madrid counter attack.

Atleti varied from a 4-4-2 when defending with Arda wide left to a 4-3-3 when attacking. Arda pushing forward and Adrian moving to the right.

 

The Starting Line Ups

Mourinho made four changes to the Madrid line up following their 0-0 draw at home to Valencia. Ramos, Kaka, Di Mario and Coentrao all came into the starting line up at the expense of Albiol, Ozil, Higuain and Marcelo.

The changes for Madrid indicated that Mourinho expected a tougher game than normal. A front four of Ronaldo, Ozil, Benzema and Higuain would have been too open and attacking away from home against a better quality opponent. Di Maria was recalled for his first start after injury. The workrate of Di Maria on the right and his ability to tuck into form a midfield trio with Alonso and Khedira when Madrid are under pressure is highly rated by Mourinho.

In addition to this, Coentrao replacing Marcelo at left back signalled a stronger defensive set up. The Portuguese international is more defensive minded than Marcelo and provides greater stability here but there is a reduction in the attacking potential of Madrid as a consequence.

Madrid went with their default 4-2-3-1.

 

First Half

Despite starting at a high tempo, the opening minutes were fairly tentative from both sides with little in the way of scoring opportunities. Madrid seemed quite content to ease themselves into the game gradually and were quite direct in the opening period, happy to play long diagonals to their forwards with little in the way of build up.

Atleti looked for combinations from their three central midfielders before pushing forward, Diego often trying to run forward in possession with Arda and Adrian breaking wide and supported by their respective full back. The majority of Atleti’s positive play though, was being conducted away from the Madrid goal. Linking with Falcao further up the pitch was an issue for them.

Wide vs Narrow?

Madrid were far too narrow in the first half. This was a similar problem to that which they faced against Valencia and it was partly remedied then by the introduction of Di Maria in the second half to provide width

Although positioned on the right, Di Maria continually drifted in-field during the first half. This enabled Felipe to run directly at Arbeloa without worrying about leaving space for a winger to exploit. Arbeloa struggled as Atleti attacked down the left via Felipe and supported by Arda. Without adequate covering help from Di Maria, Arbeloa was cautioned on 34minutes for a foul on Felipe.

The narrow approach also assisted Atleti with their three central midfielders successfully winning the ball and working it towards the wide areas. The central area was far too congested and contributed towards Madrid’s direct approach.

By contract, Atleti sought to get width into their game. The lack of attacking threat from Madrid’s full backs during the opening period allowed both Juanfran, but in particular, Felipe to push further forward and provide width to the Atleti attack, allowing Arda and Adrian to move closer to Falcao.

Atleti were patient in their build up play, working 1-2’s to create space for crosses into the box aiming for Falcao, whose presence had caused concerns for the Madrid defensive earlier on when they defended two set pieces badly. Coentrao had appeared a little nervous with two rash clearances from inside the penalty area and needlessly conceded a corner early on.

 

Second Half

Madrid introduced Ozil for Kaka at half time. A straight swap but Ozil was much more willing to drift from side to side and adopt wide positions as and when required. This would become more noticeable as the half wore on.

The goal for Atleti was as expected. They were patient with build up play, working space before Adrian delivered a cross which Falcao, unmarked, converted. Madrid had been unable to deal the aerial problem posed by Falcao and were duly punished. Also worth noting though that Falcao was the only Atleti player in the penalty area at that time. Despite the success of the goal, Falcao was still quite isolated with Atleti’s best work continuing outside of the penalty area.

The equaliser had an energising effect on Madrid who increased the intensity of their play. Both Coentrao and Arbeloa began to push forward and with Ozil appearing on both flanks, the threat from Juanfran and Felipe was declining. This consequently pulled Arda and Adrian wider, further isolating Falcao.
 

The Madrid Left

The relationship between Marcelo and Ronaldo is a key feature of Madrid attacks. Marcelo is very attack minded and his overlapping runs help create the space for Ronaldo to cut infield. If Marcelo does not overlap, Ronaldo is faced by a full back who can track him either inside or outside and possibly supported by a midfield colleague.

When Marcelo overlaps, the full back is forced to track either Marcelo or Ronaldo but clearly not both. This prevents opponents from doubling up on Ronaldo without leaving space elsewhere. This season, 38% of Madrid attacks have come down the left side of the pitch. This figure increases to 41% when you consider away games only.

The second Madrid goal was greatly aided by an attacking run from Coentrao. When Ronaldo took possession of the ball on the left, Coentrao overlapped. This forced Junafran away from Ronaldo and provided enough space for him to shift the ball before shooting.

Conclusions

Another ruthless performance from Madrid. Similarly to the recent game against Osasuna, Madrid were not at their best, however in front of goal they were clinical.

Madrid took the initiative following Atleti’s equaliser and Simeone failed to respond.

The influence of Diego was already on the wane in the second half when Ronaldo put Madrid 2-1 ahead. Similarly, Adrian and Arda were moving to far away from Falcao to provide width. How Simeone rectifies the issue of Falcao and his poor link play outside of the penalty area will be crucial for Atleti in the last few games of this season but more importantly, if they are to progress next season.

An important step for Madrid towards reclaiming the La Liga title.

Real Betis vs Villarreal: Tactical Analysis

A very poor result for Villarreal who suffer their first defeat under new boss Lotina.

Villarreal enjoyed considerably more possession than their opponents despite playing  the final 24 minutes of the match with just 10 men following the dismissal of Angel and yet they seldom looked threatening, weaving pretty passing movements in the middle of the pitch and unable to hurt Betis. The consolation goal arrived in the 92nd minute courtesy of a penalty.

All of the interest from a tactical perspective came via Villarreal and Lotina’s initial line up followed by his changes.

Line Ups

Both sides entered the game on the back of 3 match unbeaten runs but still needing points to climb away form the relegation zone particularly the visits who started 4 points behind their hosts.

Pepe Mel signalled his intention from the outset with an attack minded 4-4-2 line up featuring Benat in midfield, wingers Pereira and Montero and a strike partnership of Santa Cruz and Castro.

Considering Mel featured two wingers and Villarreal adopted a narrow approach, this was always going to be a key feature of the game.

With a reputation for a conservative approach to games, and given their precarious position in the table, Lotina went with just one striker up front in Ruben. The formation was a loose 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-2-1 with the key player being Angel. Normally a right back, Angel started on the left hand side of the midfield but appeared to be neither attacking nor defending particularly well, shuttling between both. Perhaps unsurprising given he was on the wrong side of the pitch.

Bruno dropped between the centre backs when in possession and the full backs pushed very high especially Oriol on the left. Senna adopted a defensive position on the right of midfield which left Valero and Cani to support the lone striker of Ruben.

Starting Line Ups

 

This represents a departure from the traditional Villarreal approach based upon a 4-4-2 utilising interiors. It was this approach that proved successful under Pellegrini and initially worked for Garrido. It relied heavily upon the full backs pushing forward to provide the width, which happened here, and also upon varied movement from the two strikers, which did not happen here via the lone striker.

1st Half

Given the importance of the game, neither team really took control of the game early on although Villarreal dominated possession and gradually began to exert more control through the midfield area. Villarreal still retain a South American style approach with a relatively slow tempo when in possession. The movement of the midfield across the pitch to form short triangular passing movements was also evident in patches as they overloaded Betis to work the ball and create space. Where this approach failed however was further forward. Ruben does not offer the level of mobility that Rossi or Nilmar can.

Betis were content to defend deep with two narrow banks of four forcing Villarreal to go wide but the delivery into the box was not of a suitable quality.

Borja Valero began to drop deeper as the first half progressed and became more effective as a result. Under Pellegrini and Garrido, Valero was used as one of the defensive pivots sitting in front of the back four. In addition to his defensive covering reading the game, he also recycled the ball quickly and efficiently. When playing in a more advanced position, the team loses his passing ability to construct moves and the relative lack of pace and mobility in his game is highlighted.

Both goals for Betis were the product of poor defending from Villarreal. On each occasions, the ball was delivered from the Villarreal right, Senna not closing down his opponent quickly enough, and on both occasions Villarreal appealed, unsuccessfully for offside.

Another key component of the successful Villarreal side was their ability to play a successful offside trap. The second goal demonstrated how that is no longer working with Gonzalo rashly pushing out following a poor headed clearance and the three remaining defenders staying deep and playing Ruben Castro onside.

2nd Half

The second half began with Nilmar replacing Senna and Villarreal switching to a 4-1-2-1-2 formation.

Angel moved to a more natural position on the right of the midfield diamond and Cani went to the tip, supporting Nilmar and Ruben.

 

Villarreal 2nd Half Starting Line Up

The 3rd goal for Betis was again self-inflicted from Villarreal’s’ perspective. A dreadful attacking free kick was easily cleared and a quick Betis counter led to Benat scoring. Put simply, Benat seemed to show more desire than both Oriol and Bruno to reach and control the ball and then slot home.

Betis also tried to hold an offside line around the edge of their 18 yard box which highlighted the lack of movement from Villarreal. There were occasions when Villarreal had 4 or 5 players in a line across the 18 yard box as Betis held but nobody came short for a pass or made a run in behind the Betis defence.

Conclusions

It seems strange that Lotina chose such a narrow formation particularly when Betis were utilising Pereira and Monero on the wings. Both first half goals from Betis originated from wide positions although there was arguably no inherent tactical success in either. Both were just poorly defended goals.

The positioning of Senna on the right and Angel, a right back, on the left handside of the midfield diamond was bizarre. Senna appeared uncomfortable when pulled wide, and did not close down Montero successfully prior to each goal, and Angel was operating on the wrong side of the pitch during the entire first half.

The lack of movement up front was another issue for Villarreal. Why was Nilmar left on the bench?

Ultimately, Lotina went looking for a point, perhaps understandable given their abject away record, and failed.

Valencia vs AZ Alkmaar: Tactical Analysis

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

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

Line Ups

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

Diego Alves

Barragan            Rami            Costa, R          Alba

Topal   Costa, T

Fehgouli            Jonas                Mathieu

Soldado

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

Esteban

Marcelis            Moisander            Viergever         Poulsen

Maher              Elm            Martens

Beerens            Altidore          Holman

AZ Defending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valencia’s Right

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

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

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

Banega Missed?

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

Somewhere a clock is ticking….

Tick tock, tick tock.

Can you hear that? The clock ticking?

Seconds become minutes become hours.

Tick tock, tick tock.

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

 

A clock

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And still Emery delivers the coveted 3rd place finish.

 

Unai Emery. A man under pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

So what now for Emery?

 

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

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

 

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

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

The clock is ticking.

Barcelona vs AC Milan: 3 short observations

Three short observations on the Barcelona vs AC Milan game last night.

3 Man Defence

Guardiola has used a 3 man defence on occasion at home this season particularly against weaker opposition but this was the first time they have used it against a strong opponent. It allowed an additional man to play in the midfield area which is important against a narrow Milan side who strength lies in the central midfield area and gave Alves the freedom to start very high up on the right.

The 3 man defence still provided Barca with a spare man against the Milan front two of Robinho and Zlatan.

Guardiola talked at the press conference afterwards about the flexibility of Alves and how this assist’s the team.

Width

Both Alves but especially Cuenca played high and wide, staying on the touchline to stretch their opponents. In the first game at the San Siro, Barca were far too narrow probably a combination of line up and pitch quality (remember Arsenal had also struggled to gain any width at the San Siro).

Cuenca had little influence on the game but by being permanently stationed on the touchline it pulled Milan’s back 4 across the full width of the 18 yard box. The success that Milan enjoyed at the San Siro had been forcing Barca narrow.

With the back 4 stretched, the midfield dropped deeper to prevent Barca exploiting the gaps in the defensive line.

Fabregas

Recalled to the starting eleven after injury, Cesc alternated between playing in and around Messi often moving beyond him on occasion but also dropped deeper than Messi to collect the ball. This led to Messi being isolated on occasion with Alves and Cuenca very wide. This was the exact problem Barca faced in the clasico last season early on when the role of Cesc was confused and he strayed too far from Messi but too close to Xavi.

Perhaps there is still a little bit more work required on the training pitch to iron out the small problems on how Messi and Fabregas should link against better opposition.