Malaga vs Valencia – Tactical Analysis

The two sides that finished 3rd and 4th in La Liga last season met at La Roselada on Saturday evening. A close, edgy game was anticipated. Malaga had no wins in their last four games and had failed to record a victory in a league game following a midweek Champions League fixture. Their opponents, Valencia, were undefeated in six games across all competitions although that masked their inability to win a league match away from home since last March.

A tense game should have been the outcome. Two teams buoyed by qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League and contesting the final Champions League qualification spot. It may seem strange to state such a view so early in the season but given that Barcelona and Real Madrid will take the first two spots and Atleti appear to be on the way to 3rd, it leaves a clutch of teams contesting 4th place and the final spot.

Instead what we witnessed was a one-sided contest. Malaga started brightly, took an early lead and only poor finishing stopped this contest been over much earlier than it should have been.

Line Ups

Malaga Starting Line Up

Pellegrini named the same starting eleven that had faced Osasuna last weekend, drawing in the process. Qualification to the knockout stages of the Champions League enabled the Chilean to rotate his squad for the away game against Zenit enabling key players to get some much needed rest.

Valencia Starting Line Up

Pellegrino made a number of changes to the Valencia side following last week’s home win over Espanyol. Some were enforced whilst others were made for tactical or technical reasons.

Soldado was suspended and replaced by Valdez. Barragan continued to deputise for the injured Joao Perreira at right back. Ricardo Costa was recalled to central defence in place of Victor Ruiz whilst Guardado was pushed forward to left midfield and Cissokho came in at left back with Jonathan Veira dropping out. Veteran midfielder Albelda was replaced by Gago.

The final and most significant tactical change was the replacement of Jonas as the support striker by Banega.


Manuel Pellegrini favours his teams to be compact and dominate possession with short passing triangles always providing options to the player in possession. This Malaga side are not yet as fluent as his great Villarreal team but there are some key similarities.

Malaga set out as a 4-4-2 with both wide players comfortable cutting infield and the full backs overlapping to provide width. Indeed, Eliseu and Gamez both provided an assist in this game. The use of Joaquin as a central striker was very interesting. Although a right winger for much of his career, the ability of Joaquin to pull wide from a central starting position enables the “wingers” Isco and Portillo to drive diagonally inward to the space being vacated. It’s a system that Pellegrini used to great effect at Villarreal with Rossi and Nilmar providing mobility and width in the striking positions.

If Pellegrini and Malaga have a clear identity, Pellegrino and Valencia are still searching for their identity to a certain extent.

The key tactical move for Pellegrino was the replacement of Jonas with Banega. This was a clear attempt to gain more possession of the ball and retain it. It was a move that, whilst looking correct in theory, failed to pay off in practice. Valencia were not dominating possession, not controlling space and not counter attacking. It was a listless performance.

Despite the inability to demonstrate any clear personality during the game, Valencia recorded a high pass completion rate with 304 successful passes from 392 attempted. As ever with stats though, the context is important. Too often the passes were horizontal and in safe areas of the pitch. Malaga may have had a marginally lower pass completion rate of 75% with 315 successful passes from 422 attempted but often these were penetrative passes being attempted. Malaga were brave in their attacking play.

The contrasting fortunes of Banega and Isco, key attacking players for either side, are shown in the graphics below which detail the passes attempted by both players:-

Isco Passes vs Valencia                                

Banega Passes vs Malaga                                    

The number of successful passes in this issue is not as important as the location of the passes and direction. Isco starts on the left side of midfield but the location of passes demonstrates his movement across the pitch with the vast majority of passes being in the opponents half of the field and moving forward.

This contrasts sharply with Banega. Designed as the central point in the attacking trident behind Valdez, Banega constantly dropped deep searching for the ball, in the process isolating Valdez. Too few of his passes were vertical identifying the inability of Valencia getting players forward in support of the attack, with Guardado and Feghouli very quiet, and the inability to search out Valdez accurately.

One of Valdez’s key attributes is his aerial ability yet Valencia only attempted eight crosses in the entire game and only three of these were successful.

A criticism of Valencia in the past has been that the team are two disconnected units, the defence and the attack with Banega being the key to link these elements. At La Rosaleda, there did not seem to be any attack to speak of. Valencia had only one of their five attempts at goal on target.

Banega was supposed to help Valencia retain possession and hurt Malaga yet whilst he achieved the former he badly failed with the latter. Which this may sound harsh on the midfielder, his performance was not aided by the general poor play of Valencia with sloppy passing and positional errors compounded this. Perhaps to much weight was placed on the shoulders of the player?

The Opening Goal

Malaga started the game very brightly and immediately pushed Valencia back into their own half.

The opening goal arrived in the 7th minute when Barragan failed to clear a deep cross into the penalty area. Eliseu collected the loose ball on the left wing and passed to Portillo who was standing in space at the edge of the penalty area with time to curl the ball into the net.

Portillo had drifted into this position from the right yet nobody had picked him up. Tino Costa had dropped between the centre backs at this stage. Why he had moved so deep was odd given that Malaga had few players in the penalty area.

The lethargy which was engulfing Valencia continued. Following kick off, Portillo won the ball back almost immediately. There was no response from Valencia to going a goal behind.

Wasteful Malaga

One of Malaga’s biggest problems last night was the inability score the second goal and provide a degree of breathing space. Although Saviola scored the crucial second goal in the 74th minute, he had chances much earlier which he failed to convert.

Saviola Shots vs Valencia                                    

Malaga were finding too much space between the Valencia lines but were unable to take any of the opportunities that arrived. Malaga had 22 attempts at goal but only six hit the target.

Is Saviola the right man to lead the Malaga attack? He is mobile and can move laterally so is a good fit for the system but his goals return is poor. El Conejo has never been the most prolific of strikers but he is Malaga’s top goalscorer with four league goal from his ten appearances.

If this season is going to be successful for Malaga, they need to continue to share the goalscoring burden across the entire front line whilst also hoping that the likes of Eliseu can also continue to weigh in with a goal or two.

Two late goals followed and provided a scoreline which was more reflective of the game. Santa Cruz poked the ball home from close range following Jesus Gamez’ deflected shot. Again, Santa Cruz was in space and unmarked.

The fourth and final goal was a 20 yard strike from Isco into the bottom corner. Gathering possession some 25 yards out, Isco had time and space, a constant and concerning theme from the Valencia perspective, to move forward, compose himself and shoot.

Valencia Defensive Issues

A former Valencia defender, Pellegrino will need to examine the shape of his defence positionally. This was from an early stage with Barragan continually moving too close to his central defenders and allowing Malaga freedom on the left.

This manifested itself in the 18th minute when the entire defence shuffled over and nobody was near Eliseu when Malaga switched play. The full back managed to have a shot at goal. Shortly afterwards, Barragan was caught upfield and Isco was able to counter in the available space.

Whilst Malaga were pressing their opponent intelligently when the opportunity arose to win the ball back and dropping off when Valencia had more controlled possession, the visitors seemed to lose all shape at times. Their pressing was erratic and too many players became involved leaving space and gaps elsewhere. The short passing movements from Malaga were neatly aligned with longer passing when appropriate. It enabled them to open up space.

Only the wasteful finishing from Malaga, highlighted above, prevented the visitors from conceding further before the interval.

Valencia made 31 successful tackles form an attempted 37. Fernando Gago had 100% success rate with his 10 tackles. The Argentinean made a significant contribution to his side defensively and in various positions but too few of his team mates matched his efforts either in determination and workrate or quality.

Gago Tackles vs Malaga                                         

That he made so many tackles all over the pitch highlights his workrate but he should not have been required to make so many tackles in all over the pitch. What were his team mates doing?


An emphatic victory for Malaga and a crucial one at that. With Atleti, Barcelona and Real Madrid seemingly securing the top three positions, the race for fourth involves a number of teams. Malaga have given themselves a four point lead over one of their main rivals and returned to winning ways after a relatively lean spell in the process.

Having gone six games undefeated in all competitions, the nature of the loss to Malaga will arguably concern Pellgrino more than the actual defeat itself. Valencia were extremely poor and offered no resistance to their opponents. The poor away form must be addressed. The Mestalla is becoming a fortress once more for Los Che and with La Real up next, a team with an almost equally poor away record, Valencia have the ideal opportunity to bounce back.

All graphics and statistics taken from

Fehgouli’s Scream?

Fehgouli Scores Against Bayern.

Reach for the Sky

Alves Celebrates Scoring against Spartak

Barcelona vs Real Zaragoza

Barcelona secure their 11th league win in their 12th league game of the season with a relatively comfortable victory over a resilient Real Zaragoza side who had been in a rich vein of form. Setting aside their poor opening to the season, Zaragoza had won four of their last five games in all competitions.

The provided awkward opponents for Barcelona who won despite finding their best form or turning in a convincing display.

The Zaragoza Approach

Real Zaragoza adopted a fairly standard approach for teams visiting the Camp Nou with a reactive 4-4-2 formation selected. Considering the number of players missing from the side, the starting eleven selected by coach Jimenez produced a very effective game with defensive solidity and attacking intent when the opportunity presented itself.

The defence and midfield for Zaragoza were compact and relatively high in two banks of four. Ahead of this Zaragoza aimed to always have two strikers available. Jimenez made one big surprise in his selection with the inclusion of Aranda ahead of the club’s top goalscorer, Helder Postiga. Although some would query such a choice, the inclusion of Aranda with a more powerful, robust approach allowed Zaragoza to use him as a reference point when launching attacks.

This was not a simple “park the bus” approach either. The heat map below of the entire Zaragoza team shows how they tried top push forward and attack Barcelona . Only late as the game did they start to lose shape as the midfield tired from supporting the attack then recovering to offer defensive support:-

Real Zaragoza Heat Map vs Barcelona               

As is so often the case with such games, focus will shift to how effectively Barcelona played but this should not be allowed to detract from a highly organised and competent display from Los Blanquillos. The defence were well marshalled with Barcelona caught offside three times in the opening 20minutes of the game, all occurring on the left of the pitch.

The Goals

An acceleration in play helped create the first goal. Messi drove forward from midfield whilst Villa moved from a left sided starting position towards the centre. As he did so, Messi played a one two with the overlapping Alba, breaking into the penalty area and slotting home.

This was a key feature of the first half. Villa would initially begin on the left before cutting diagonally inward to allow Alba to overlap outside him.

The equalising goal from Zaragoza highlighted Barcelona ’s poor defensive work from set pieces and principally corner kicks. Zaragoza took their second corner in succession with the ball being flicked on at the near post. Montoya cleared the ball but Montanes collected at the edge of the area and dispatched his shot beyond Valdes aided by a deflection. The problem was not losing the first header, the problem here was that Montanes was free at the edge of the area. Nobody was close by.

The lead was regained just a few minutes later when Zaragoza failed to react to a short corner kick and were always chasing back after that. Similar to the equaliser, the ball was cut back to Song who was unmarked at the edge of the area and his controlled low shot was successful.

38 seconds. That’s how long it took from Valdes dispatching the ball following a Zaragoza attack to Messi collecting Montoya’s cut back and curling home from 20yards out. The key to the goal was the inability of Zaragoza to regain their positions and the quick transition from Barcelona aided by Montoya’s well timed overlapping run on the right.

Martin Montoya

Is Montoya the natural long term successor to Dani Alves?

Whilst it may seem premature to suggest this, there are good reasons for doing so. Alves, by his own admission, has been out of sorts this season as he searches for his best form. Combine this with the PSG rumours which persist and the need for a right back solution becomes greater.

A look at Montoya’s passes below shows his relative conservatism in comparison to the most attacking Alba from the left. It’s worth noting that Montoya did not attempt one cross on Saturday evening.

Montoya Passes vs Real Zaragoza                        

Montoya provided one key pass for Messi for the third goal but whilst his passing was generally to the side, this fails to take into consideration is movement and availability on the right flank throughout the game:-

Montoya Heat Map vs Real Zaragoza              

Montoya was not as adventurous as Alves but he offers greater defensive cover. Further, with Alba bombing forward on the left, can Barcelona afford to play two attack minded full backs in the same game? With one full backs adopting a more cautious approach, better defensive balance is maintained.

But the performances of Montoya also strength Barcelona in other respects. It weakens Alves bargaining position if his agent attempts to negotiate for a new contract as Barcelona already have a replacement.

None of this should detract from what a fully fit and focused Alves on top of his game can bring to Barcelona but so far this season we have not seen Dani Alves on top of his game.

Another win for Vilanova’s Barcelona as they close in on the best ever start to a season in the Spanish top flight even though commentators in the media continually state that the side is not playing at it’s peak. Whilst this is true, what does it say for when Barcelona do hit their peak?

Just over six months ago, Real Zaragoza seemed destined for the drop to La Segunda. Jimenez lambasted his players following another poor performance and gradually the team clawed it’s way to survival. With a host of changes introduced in the playing staff over the summer months, fears mounted again that Zaragoza would be involved in another battle. That now seems unlikely with a performance of discipline and intelligence. Jimenez noted after the game that Messi was the difference between the sides. Perhaps that’s being generous to his side but Zaragoza should be safely ensconced in mid table as the season reaches a conclusion.


All graphics and statistics taken from


Real Madrid vs Athletic Bilbao

Ahead of their Champions League match against Man City , Real Madrid produced a performance which was enough to comfortably see off Athletic Bilbao with a convincing 5-1 victory.

Mourinho made a couple of changes to his starting eleven with Modric and Benzema recalled, most probably to allow him to rotate slightly providing some players with a short degree of rest. For Athletic, Bielsa had no such luxury and was forced into a number of changes. Amorebieta returned from international duty injured whilst Herrara sat out due to suspension after being sent off for the second time this season. De Marcos also missed out.

Athletic have lost their last seven games against Los Blancos conceding 25 goals in the process. There were no initial inferiority signs as the Basques began brightly, passing the ball with pace. However, that illusion was short lived.

Athletic Bilbao

Athletic came into this game on the back of two consecutive league wins but even allowing for that, expectations were low. How things change from a season ago when Athletic arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu and took an early lead when playing some stylish, attacking football before they eventually succumbed to a heavy 4-1 defeat. On Saturday evening, there was no belief that this current Athletic side could produce anything close to that level.

A couple of elements of the Athletic game are worth closer scrutiny.

Under Bielsa, Athletic are known to play a highly aggressive pressing game allied to a direct short passing game. This season Athletic have failed to match the level of intensity that is required to implement Bielsa’s plan sufficiently but recently there have been signs that they are delivering a higher level of performance. This began with an improvement away to Valencia when the side lost following the concession of two late goals.

Against Madrid the passing was again better with 420 passes completed from an attempted 526. Athletic enjoyed more possession than their hosts too. Yet despite these positive aspects, many of the “normal” problems were evident again.

A key component of Athletic’s game is to press the opponent high up the park and win possession back quickly. When successful with this approach, it can be very effective with Athletic regaining possession close to the opponents’ goal. When it fails, it can leave the team exposed as it often did on Saturday. If an opponent can avoid the first line of pressing from Athletic, there is ample space to exploit. The full backs are caught high and there is a gap in the centre of the pitch.

The graphics below show interceptions and tackles made by Athletic. Too often these occurred in the Athletic half of the pitch:-

Athletic Interceptions vs Real Madrid         

Only five interceptions were made in the Madrid half of the pitch. Worse than that, only one tackle was made in the Madrid half.

Athletic Tackles vs Real Madrid                        

Athletic were successful with tackles and interceptions but they occurred far too deep and prevented Athletic from halting their opponent from playing and building up momentum of their own in the attacking third of the pitch. Time and time again, Athletic were forced to begin constructing attacking moves from their own half.

When they did move forward, Athletic were not afraid to commit men to attack but there was a lack of quality in the final third evidenced by having just one shot in target in the whole game which resulted in a goal for Ibai Gomez. Compare this to Madrid who had 17 attempts on target from an attempted 30. There was no midfield creator with Muniain failing to step into the void left by the absent Herrara.

With Athletic not stopping Madrid high, Los Blancos evaded the first line of pressing from Athletic and enabled them to attack with fast transitions where Athletic are extremely vulnerable. Two of Madrid ’s goals came from such an approach with one scored by Karim Benzema and the French international providing an assist.

Karim Benzema

Whilst his team mates may not have been operating at full throttle, Benzema did and in doing so delivered a highly polished performance combining technique, finishing and workrate. An all round excellent performance and the key stand out player from a Madrid perspective. Benzema moved across the front line offering mobility whilst also linking the play when required s can be seen in the graphics below:-

Benzema Passes vs Athletic 171112                       

Benzema made five key passes but linked well in various parts of the pitch. As the central striker, he offered much more to his game than purely finishing within the penalty area.

Beyond his contribution outside of the penalty area, inside of it Benzema was equally good with two of his four attempts at goal on target. Three of his attempts came from the right hand corner of the box including his goal. A possible reason for this is explored below.

Benzema Shots vs Athletic 171112                     

The first goal in the 11th minute was simple in its construction and perfectly executed by Benzema even if Aurtenexte had the final touch. A long ball from Modric exposed the high line from Athletic and Benzema pulled to the left of San Jose , finding space in the channel between the centre back and Aurtenexte at left back. He deftly lobbed the ball over Iraizoz for the opener. His second goal was a superb piece of skill. Receiving the ball with his back to goal in the channel between San Jose and Aurtenexte just inside the penalty area, Benzema shifted the ball with his right foot before swiveling and curling a shot beyond Iraizoz with his left.

The Frenchman turned creator in the 55th minute to provide for Ozil following a brief period of Athletic pressure. Again, space was found to the left of San Jose and the ball was squared just inside the penalty area for the oncoming Ozil to finish. The goal was the ideal demonstration of Athletic being caught high upfield. Gurpegi should have been occupying the space that Ozil broke into but the veteran midfielder lacks the mobility and pace to perform the role fully and lagged behind Ozil as the transition took place.

Arguably the perfect build up for Mourinho and his players. A comfortable win, no injuries reported, game time for all the key players and five goals shared amongst four players.

For Athletic and Bielsa, it’s about taking the positives and addressing the negatives. Slowly, the team appears to be getting better but team selection is still blighted by injuries and suspensions. Add to that, Bielsa’s bizarre second half line up when he switched to a 4-1-4-1 with Aduriz appearing to be an attacking midfielder and the element of confusion persists. With no European football to distract them this season, Athletic must now begin the process of improving their league form and climbing the table.

All graphics and statistics taken from

Levante vs Real Madrid

At the end of the season, when the prizes are being handed out, there are inevitably a number of moments during the course of the season which, with hindsight, can be considered crucial. These are seldom games marked by technical proficiency or complete domination over an opponent and a large winning margin. Rather, these games are epitomised by displaying other qualities such as character and strength. Qualities traditionally associated with the British game and not those you would normally use in connection with a La Liga game.

Yet those are exactly the qualities which Real Madrid displayed in defeating Levante 2-1. In doing so, Los Blancos recorded Mourinho’s first win at the Ciutat de Valencia on Sunday evening.

How significant a win this was will be decided at the end of the season. What is certain is that had Madrid failed to win, it would most likely have been significant even at this stage of the season. To fall 10points behind Barcelona at this stage would have been a very significant hurdle which may not have been surmountable.


Should this game even have started? There had been torrential rain in Valencia for most of the day and it showed no signs of abating as kick off approached. With the pitch already waterlogged in places, particularly along the Main Stand side, this game should have been postponed. At a time when La Liga is trying to increase it’s appeal and enter into new markets around the globe, is this really the image which the authorities wish to send out?

Some will wrongly claim that the conditions are the same for both sides but such an assertion is based upon a belief that both sides adopt the same style. Clearly a waterlogged pitch will adversely affect a team with a short passing style more than a team with a direct style of play. Both teams must adapt but one side requires a greater shift in philosophy.

An incident early in the first half accurately captured the farce of the event. A Levante attack broke down and Di Maria gained possession on the left and sought to break forward quickly into space. Except that when he ran, the ball stuck in a puddle and as Di Maria adjusted to gather the ball again, he lost his balance and fell over. Levante then took possession again.

Even allowing for the lack of space within the fixture calendar for a rescheduled game, the match should have been postponed. That it went ahead confirmed that this was a night for a particular type of football. A direct approach which meant clearing your lines as quickly as possible by playing the ball forward. In theory, this approach should have suited Levante as it does not differ that substantially from their normal gameplan. Yet it was Madrid who not only adapted but a number of key payers appeared to relish the task in hand.

Madrid Adapt

It was a matter of which side could adapt best to the conditions. This was not a night for attempting to play intricate short passing or to run with the ball and this is clearly borne out by the statistics. Levante completed just 170 passes from 342 attempted (50% completion) whilst Madrid fared a little better with 212 completed passes from 386 attempted (55% completion)

It was a night for showing workrate, strength and above all determination. Qualities which were shown in abundance by two Madrid players; Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso.

The graphics below show the passing of Ramos and Alonso. From 87 passes between them only 11 were played backwards. The rest were primarily long balls being played towards the Levante backline. It was a simple approach but given the conditions it was an essential approach. Ensure that you make few mistakes and try to force your opponent to make mistakes. It was a night for playing the percentages.

Ramos Passes vs Levante                            

Xabi Alonso Passes vs Levante                   

The number of long balls which both attempted was both defensive and attacking. Firstly, it cleared Madrid lines and secondly, it placed pressure on Levante.

There was also a degree of margin for error with long passes given that whilst some would normally overrun, on such a saturated pitch, many were stopping abruptly and remaining in play.

By placing the ball in the Levante half of the pitch more often, there was also a greater likelihood of Levante conceding fouls, something which they did in abundance.

Levante Defending

Levante have built their success in La Liga upon having a strong defensive unit. Primarily a counter attacking side, they have one of the lowest average possession figures in the division and are also a very direct and physical side. As discussed earlier, they should have, in theory, been able to adjust better to the conditions.

Their last two games have seen Levante gain 0-0 draws away from home when attacking intent was limited. To follow such an approach, the team must defend as a unit and especially at set pieces. Yet on Sunday evening, Levante seemed unable to defend set pieces effectively.

Madrid scored both their goals from free kicks. Leaving aside the defensive issues temporarily, Levante were placing themselves in considerable difficulty due to the number of fouls they were conceding. The graphic below demonstrates this. Levante gave away 27 fouls compared to Madrid ‘s 13.

Levante Fouls For and Against                 

The opening goal arrived when David Navarro dropped deep at a free kick and played three Madrid players onside whilst his team mates held the defensive line at the edge of the penalty area. The ball broke to Ronaldo who displayed fantastic technical ability to control the ball on his thigh before volleying home. Beyond the skill, the goal showcased superb awareness. If the ball had dropped onto the ground, it would most likely have stuck in the water and the chance would have gone.

The winning goal in the 83rd minute was sub Morata’s first touch. Again Levante failed to deal with a free kick and Morata was free to nod home from close range with no marker.

Between these goals, Pepe and Ramos both hit the bar following corners as Levante struggled badly defensively.


Last season whilst Barcelona chased Madrid they travelled to Pamplona to face Osasuna on a treacherous pitch which was frozen over. Barcelona failed to adapt to the conditions and lost 3-2. Madrid successfully navigated a similarly awkward fixture on Sunday. This was not the sort of game which can win you a title but it was the sort of game which can certainly cost you the title.

All graphics and statistics taken from