Athletic Bilbao vs Atletico Madrid – Tactical Analysis

After suffering heavy defeats at the hands of los Rojiblancos over the last year, most notably the 3-0 loss in the Europa League final, Athletic finally got the better of Atleti last night in a comprehensive 3-0 win. This will be scant consolation for the loss in the final but coming amidst a run of poor form for los leones , it’s a very welcome victory and lifts the Basques up the relative security of 12th place in the league.

The game is also notable for the clash of styles it brings. The pro-active football of Bielsa against the reactive football of Simeone.

Line Ups

With Llorente signing for Juventus on a pre-contract, he was omitted from the squad along with Amorebieta who is also involved in a contract dispute with the club.

Athletic Starting Line Up

Athletic Starting Line Up

Simeone had to contend without Falcao following his injury during the home win over Levante last week. Simeone highlighted the fact that this Atleti team could cope without their top scorer. In the eleven games they have played without him, Atleti have scored 16 goals and lost just twice.

Atletico Starting Line Up

Atletico Starting Line Up

The loss of Falcao was not the problem for Atleti. The real issue was further back. With club captain Gabi suspended and Mario on the bench, the double pivot that has proven so successful to date was broken up to be replaced by Tiago and Emre.

Recent Form

With 25 points separating the teams, both sides entered the game with contrasting recent form. Athletic had drawn once and lost three times in their last four games whilst Atletico have the reverse record; three wins and one draw.

Still in the Europa League and the Copa del Rey, it’s now becoming a balancing act for Simeone. Carefully rotate his squad to ensure all members get game time and rest when required.

For Athletic, there are no such concerns. Their run to last season’s Europa League final is now a distant memory with elimination at the group phase. The Copa del Rey likewise, lower league Eibar removing any hopes they had there.

With a side low on confidence such as Athletic, the question will be raised why Simeone adopted such a conservative game plan from the outset, only really altering it from midway in the second half.

Athletic made 428 successful passes from 512 attempted (accuracy of 84%) giving them 60% possession. It’s not the least bit unsurprising for Atleti to have less possession than their opponent and having just 40% possession would not have been an immediate concern for Simeone. Atleti made just 249 successful passes from 329 attempted passes (76%accuracy). The Argentinean coach prefers to have possession to achieve an objective rather than passive possession. The low accuracy may be a different matter. With less possession, when you have the ball you cannot afford to be wasteful

Athletic – Pressing and Passing

With Athletic under Bielsa, you know exactly what sort of team you will face. One that seeks to press you aggressively high up the pitch, short passing and a team that will seek to overload you on the flanks.

Too often this season Athletic have been a pale imitation of the side that performed so admirably last season. The league table does not lie and Athletic find themselves perilously close to the relegation zone. The loss of Llorente is seen as a central tenet of their decline this season yet Aduriz has a better scoring record than his predecessor. The issues which Athletic must confront are in a defence which has conceded an average of 2 goals per game.

Last night, Laporte again demonstrated why he is so highly rated at centre back but it was the work of Herrara in midfield, linking play and providing the main creative outlet that was also impressive. With an assist for Susaeta, Herrara produced a good display in a season marked by injury and suspension.

Ander Herrara Passes

Ander Herrara Passes

The graphic above shows the range of passes made by Herrara across the pitch mainly seeking out the flanks to help Athletic build attacks. Herrara made no failed passes in his own half of the pitch. A testament to his quality but also Atleti’s meek approach.

Atletico – Too Deep and Passive

Atleti were positioned too deep for much of this game. Whilst the away game is not as solid as their fantastic record at the Vicente Calderon, Atleti were still too cautious in their approach and allowed Athletic to dictate.

The absence of Gabi and Mario was particularly key for Atleti. They reverted to a 4-1-4-1 formation with Tiago being the deepest midfielder with Raul Garcia and Emre ahead of him. Garcia is better in a more advanced position whilst Emre is still adapting to life in the Spanish top flight.

In addition to their deep positioning, Atleti were too slow to engage their opponents. Atleti made just 12 successful tackles from 17 attempted as the graphic below outlines. This contrasts with the hosts making 20 tackles from their 24 attempted.

Atleti Tackles vs Athletic

Atleti Tackles vs Athletic                    http://www.squawka.com

Atleti were allowing their opponents to move too high up the pitch and not controlling space effectively. The high number of tackles on the Atleti left shows just how effective Athletic were at linking play between Iraola, Susaeta and De Marcos on the right.

Athletic were able to move into the Atleti half before coming under any pressure. With sharp passing, they were able to evade opponents and hit a number of balls into the Atleti penalty area although these led to few opportunities.

Atleti Attack

THe deep positioning of Atleti also had repercussions when they moved into an attacking phase. Diego Costa was left alone and unsupported too often.

The graphic below shows the Atleti shots at goal during the game. Despite having 17 attempts, too often these were long range efforts or were blocked. Just six attempts were from within the Athletic penalty area.

Atleti Shots vs Athletic

Atleti Shots vs Athletic                                         http://www.squawka.com

Diego Costa had no attempts at goal in the game and whilst some may comment on this as proof of his unsuitability to deputise for Falcao,the fact that he was so isolated for much of the game did not help the Brazilian.

Both Arda and Rodriguez struggled to have any bearing on the game and were too deep to assist their frontman. When Atleti did push forward, Juanfran and Filipe seldom joined in the attack leaving the men from Madrid very narrow.

Emre should have scored just before half time but Iraizoz saved from close range. This was Atleti’s best chance in the game.

The Goals

The opening goal was very soft from the perspective of los rojiblancos. A corner into the box and San Jose ran off Godin for a free header.

In recent meetings, Atleti has picked off Athletic on the counter attack yet last night saw a reverse. Athletic were still the dominant team but twice they picked off Atleti with swift counter attacking moves.

As the game entered the final 20 minutes it became stretched and open, not a situation which Atleti are comfortable with or enjoy. The element of control is removed from their game. Unable to regroup quickly, they conceded two lovely goals during quick transitions to Susaeta and De Marcos.

Conclusions

A huge win for Athletic and one which supporters will hope can push the team on, first towards safety and then, with a little luck, perhaps towards the fringes of a Europa League place. As ridiculous as it sounds, it is possible with the side just nine points adrift of Rayo in 6thplace.

A substantial loss for Atleti and just Simeone’s 11th defeat in 65 games in charge. There will be plenty of discussion around how this is a one man team etc and the loss of Falcao is too great to overcome. Such comments are wrong and fail to see the bigger picture. Even with Falcao, Atleti would still have left the San Mames pointless last night.

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Week 21 Observations – Anything You Can Do…

Another week in La Liga brings another routine victory for each of the big two and yet more scoring exploits from their two main protagonists seemingly locked into a constant game of “Anything you can do, I can do better”.

Real Madrid began the day with a 4-0 victory over Getafe with Ronaldo scoring a hat trick. His goal scoring feat was later surpassed when Messi helped himself to four goals during a 5-1 demolition of Osasuna.

Both benefitted from decisions that were favourable at key points in the game.

Real Madrid 4 Getafe  0

Luis Garcia’s Getafe side have now gone nine games in all competitions without a win. With games against Deportivo, Celta Vigo and Mallorca coming up, El Geta must pick up points to prevent the slide down the table taking them dangerously close to the relegation zone.

Madrid finds its self in something of a quandary. Trailing Barcelona by 15 points in the league, their title is all but lost with nearly half the season remaining. Motivation becomes an issue for the squad as their focus shifts towards the two remaining prizes which they can win; the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. It’s not that simple though. Mediocre league form cannot be transformed overnight to a level sufficient to win the real prize, la decima. It’s an issue that the team as a whole need to address.

The first half was almost instantly forgettable. Getafe hinted at offering something in attack, particularly on quick transitions with Essien not being the most mobile and Modric caught further upfield. Without Khedira or Alonso starting, the midfield looked weak and demonstrated both players worth to the side. The visitors played some neat football but Adan in goal was never properly tested by the sporadic Getafe attacks.

The game changed in the second half with the opening goal being controversial. Whilst it is clear that Carvalho’s arm caught Moya in goal, the keeper really should have done better than to drop the ball enabling Ramos to poke home the opener. Having sad that, it was a foul.

Getafe were then complicit in their own downfall to an extent. Following a corner, Khedira won the ball in his own penalty area and 12 seconds later Ronaldo scored. Castro then conceded possession at the halfway line and 9 seconds later Ronaldo scoed his second and the sides third. There was no patient build up play. Instead, Madrid ruthlessly took advantage of their opponents weakness during a transitional phase. With Madrid, your corner kick is their attacking opportunity.

The final goal followed the award of a penalty which could possibly be called soft but the challenge on Modric was still foolish. The Madrid move was instigated by Moya needlessly attempting a quick throw out which was easily intercepted and fed back into the penalty area.

A harsh 4-0 defeat for a Getafe side who contributed to their own downfall after a first half performance which offered a degree of optimism. Their compact shape and sound defending undone by both individual and collective errors.

Three clean sheets in a row in the league now for Madrid  following a poor run in the preceding four games when they conceded 10 league goals. If the performances, with the exception of the Valencia game, in the league have been inconsistent, Mourinho will at least be content with the clinical nature of the attack just now with nine goals in two games.

 

Barcelona 5 Osasuna 1

Jose Luis Mendilibar took his Osasuna side to the Camp Nou, scene of their 8-0 humbling last season, on Sunday evening. This time around, maybe things would be different. Osasuna arrived with the 4th best defence in La Liga and goalkeeper Andres Fernandez sitting second in the Zamora.  The defensive solidity masks attacking problems that has seen Osasuna fall into the relegation zone with the worst goalscoring record in La Liga.

Real Sociedad had demonstrated a workrate allied to ability to beat Barcelona 3-2 at the Anoeta last week and Osasuna would adopt the same ethic by pressing Barcelona early to stop them building from the back. The high defensive line also pushed Barcelona back and made them begin constructing moves much deeper than they would prefer. Mendilibar had spoken prior to the game about Osasuna playing the way they “normally do” in reference to the lack of a clear plan by any team to defeat Barcelona.

The issue for Mendilibar is that high pressing is not matched with short passing to retain possession when they win the ball back. Osasuna prefer a very direct and vertical style of play. They lack the technical quality of La Real.  With that in mind, Mendilibar opted to start with Joseba Llorente as the central striker. Llorente does not offer the greatest level of mobility but he is able compete aerially and offer a central reference point for the team, something that the style of play dictates.

The normal high defensive line and aggressive pressing from a Mendilibar team was identifiable as Osasuna pushed Barcelona back in the opening minutes, recording more possession than their illustrious hosts in the opening minutes of the game. The warning signs were evident for Osasuna however. With a high press, the team tried to stay fairly narrow. There was ample space between the high defensive line and Fernandez in goal to exploit. Thiago failed to collect a pass early on but a David Villa run onto a through ball led to Fernandez coming off his line. The keeper’s clearance was poor but when Xavi collected the ball there was no immediate danger. There was no shot on goal for the diminutive midfielder and Fernandez recovered his position. Xavi was able to beat his opponent and weight a perfect ball to Messi to open the scoring. Many players would have attempted an audacious shot in such circumstances and wasted the opportunity.

Osasuna continued to push high, seeking to impose their style of play on the game and also aware that adopting a defensive gameplan would most likely be their undoing. An equaliser came via a long range effort from Loe. Barcelona failed to adequately clear their lines and the Frenchman moved onto the ball freely.

Any semblance of hope which arrived with the equaliser was soon removed with the award of a harsh penalty for handball against Arribas. A second yellow card was given to the defender and the 10 men would soon trail 2-1 when Messi scored from the spot. The game ended as a contest just before half time when Dani Alves made a forward run to receive a pass, cutting back for Pedro to score. Alves was offside when the pass was made but it was a ball that Barcelona were increasingly looking for.

The second half focussed on damage limitation with Messi scoring two further goals as Barcelona cantered to a 5-1 victory. As important as that was the opportunity to remove Xavi from the action after 66 mins and provide him with much needed rest ahead of a key period in the season starting with the first leg clasico in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday evening.

Two victories ahead of Wednesday’s meeting at the Bernabeu. With injuries and suspensions, it may well be a patched up Madrid side that takes the field. Both sides will need to lift their game if they wish to gain a first leg advantage.

 

Valencia vs Real Madrid – Tactical Analysis

Real Madrid travelled to the Mestalla to face a revitalised Valencia side under the leadership of Ernesto Valverde. Since taking charge of Los Che, Valverde has won seven of his nine games in all competitions. A 2-0 defeat away to Los Blancos in the Copa del Rey in midweek did not dampen enthusiasm before kick off that Valencia could win this game such was the quality at times during their recent encounter. What they would not have expected was to see a first half performance from Madrid which was clinical, professional and utterly ruthless. A reminder of the devastating power which the club from the capital possess on the counter attack which resulted in Valencia suffering their heaviest ever loss to Madrid at home.

Line Ups

There were three changes to the side which had defeated Sevilla 2-0. Albelda was injured whilst Pereira and Parejo were suspended. Ruiz, Gago and Tino Costa came back into the side.

Valencia Starting Line Up

Valencia Starting Line Up

The surprise was the inclusion of Ricardo Costa being played out of position at right back. Barragan remained on the bench.

Mourinho named the strongest eleven available to him with Higuain favoured in place of Benzema in attack.

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

Modric and Callejon made way for the returning due of Ozil and Ronaldo after the disappointment of the goalless draw in Pamplona.

First Half

A game which began fast with Valencia seeking to impose their style of play on Madrid soon descended into a nightmare for the home side as Madrid picked them off on the counter attack.

The patience shown a few days earlier at the Bernabeu was replaced by a frenetic style from Los Che perhaps determined to show they could compete.It was an ill advised strategy. By increasing the tempo of their game and lacking composure, Madrid were content to sit deep and pounce forward, the opening goal being a prime example.

As is so often the case, Madrid are most dangerous when you attack. Ozil evaded Banega on the edge of the penalty area and 13 seconds later Higuain scored. The confusion in the Valencia defence evident with Gago appealing for offside with Guardado a few yards deeper than him.

Three of Madrid’s goals originated down the Valencia right where Costa was clearly uncomfortable. Ronaldo played a neat one two with Ozil and burst beyond Costa before eventually cutting back for Di Maria whilst the third goal was farcical from Valencia’s perspective. Both Costa and Rami diving in at the halfway line whilst Ruiz and Guardado were over five yards deeper on the other side of defence.

The high line and a lack of coherent pressure on the ball provided the script for a seamless display of attacking prowess from Madrid. Madrid also pressed Valencia very quickly. Valverde demands the play to be built from the back but Valencia do not yet have the players to do so properly. Too often Valencia were robbed in possession. With the game won, Madrid then eased off.

Positions

The graphic below shows the player positions during the game with Valencia in blue and Real Madrid in red.

Valencia vs Real Madrid - Player Positions

Valencia vs Real Madrid – Player Positions                         http://www.whoscored.com

Although at right back, Costa is the deepest Valencia player with Rami positioned very close to him. Guardado meanwhile is beyond the halfway line but isolated by the narrow position of Jonas who should have been on the left wing.

Gago is also positioned too far to the right with Costa and Banega stationed very high. The team is fairly compact as Valverde would want but it’s unbalanced. The high line is not supported by pressure on the Madrid midfield. Banega and Tino Costa are too high probably in an effort to support Soldado.

The defensive set up was uneasy throughout the match and Madrid exploited the uncertainty ruthlessly.

For Madrid the position of Ozil is crucial, practically level with Higuain and beyond Gago. From the outset Ozil was operating between the lines and this was a key factor in Madrid ’s fifth goal. He is already beyond Gago when he collects Albiol’s header forward.

Madrid Attack

Despite the scoreline, Valencia actually had more shots at goal than their opponents again demonstrating that as useful as statistics are, they need to be investigated a little more closely.

Madrid had 13 shots at goal of which seven on target, scoring five goals. Valencia had 20 shots at goal but many were speculative and long range. Just three were on target with Piatti also hitting the crossbar.

The graphic below shows all of Madrid ’s shots on target.

Real Madrid Shots on Target vs Valencia

Real Madrid Shots on Target vs Valencia         http://www.squawka.com

With the exception of Ronaldo’s first goal, all of Madrid ’s shots were within the penalty area and very central. They were incredibly efficient in front of goal.

With fewer shots at goal than their opponent, Madrid also had less possession as they continue to resort to a predominantly counter attacking style of play.

Di Maria made 34 passes from 47 passes attempted, more than anyone else in the Madrid team. His return to top form was marked by two attempts on goal and two goals coupled with an assist for Higuain.

Clash of Styles

Since the arrival of Mourinho, Madrid have developed a counter attack which is arguably more potent than any other side in world football. From the first season position whereby the Madrid team appeared to be two units held together by Xabi Alonso and reliant upon individuals, they moved forward to last season’s Championship winning side when the unit functioned well as a whole.

This season, they appeared to have regressed towards that first season model again. They seek to sit deep and break quickly, utilising their pace on the flanks. Play is seldom constructed thoughtfully partially explaining the problem that Modric has faced in adapting. They have become direct and rely upon moments of individual brilliance to overcome opponents. Last night provided further evidence of this but also provided a glimpse of how this simple style can take the opposition apart.

Madrid completed just 225 passes from 315 attempted giving 71% accuracy. They saw less of the ball but when they had possession, they used it much more effectively. Previously, Xabi Alonso would be at the heart of Madrid ’s play yet last night produced a fairly subdued performance.

Alonso 22 passes completed from 30 attempted in his 57minutes on the pitch as the graphic below illustrates.

Alonso Passes vs Valencia

Alonso Passes vs Valencia                                       http://www.squawka.com

Contrast this with Ever Banega who Valencia tried to get on the ball as often as possible to create. For comparison with Alonso, Banega completed 31 passes from 35 attempted (89% completion rate) in the first 60 minutes. In the 90 minutes as a whole he completed 51 passes from 61 attempted.

Ever Banega Passes vs Real Madrid

Ever Banega Passes vs Real Madrid                     http://www.squawka.com

Yet despite all the volume of passing and the fact that Banega made five key passes, there was no end product for Valencia . As at the Bernabeu they were capable of weaving pretty passes across the pitch with no punch.

Ozil Heat Map vs Valencia

Ozil Heat Map vs Valencia                                     http://www.squawka.com

Mesut Ozil floated around the pitch operating between the Valencia defensive and midfield line creating problems despite making minimal passes. Ozil made two assists with his team mates in an excellent performance.

Often ignored amongst elite sides is the workrate. Too often the less attractive side of the game is overlooked but Madrid were highly competitive last night. Valencia won 9 tackles form 10 attempted yet compare this against Madrid who won 20 tackles from 24 attempted. Madrid were ready to compete on the physical side of the game. Just as at Levante when they had to become competitive, Madrid were ready to stand up to the challenge.

Valencia Right

As good as Madrid were in the first half, it’s impossible to consider their performance without commenting on the poor defensive performance from Valencia especially on the right side of their defence.

The decision to play Costa at right back ahead of Barragan was, in hindsight, probably a mistake if only for the most natural balance that Barragan would have brought to the side defensively. With Guardado continuing at left back and prone to positional mistakes, the side badly misses Mathieu.

Madrid committed 13 fouls in the game with only two fouls occurring on their left side. Valencia were too reliant upon their left side with Guardado, Jonas and Tino Costa all leaning towards that area.

Real Madrid Fouls Committed vs Valencia

Real Madrid Fouls Committed vs Valencia            http://www.squawka.com

The graphic highlights one other issue. Madrid were extremely good at not conceding fouls in and around their penalty area. Only two of the above fouls could really lead to balls being whipped into the penalty area. The remaining fouls were committed too far away.

Second Half

Valverde made one change at half time with Barragan replacing Fernando Gago. With Barragan moving into right back, Ricardo Costa went into central defence and Victor Ruiz was pushed forward into a defensive midfield position.

The key concern for Valverde would have been to avoid a real hammering which was a realistic possibility at half time.

The move solidified Valencia and they created a number of decent openings with Piatti striking the cross bar from just outside the area. Madrid though, had stepped down a level by this point and the game game drifted towards it’s inevitable conclusion.

Conclusions

There is much for Valverde to ponder over prior to Madrid returning to the Mestalla for the second leg of their Copa del Rey tie this midweek. The tactician now has a decision. Does he believe that his side can go out and impose themselves upon Madrid to attempt to recover the tie or does he become more cautious, drop the defence deeper and play a conservative game as a consequence?

Was it really the high line which was the downfall of Valencia ? Osasuna played a similarly high line recently and secured a draw.

With Madrid increasingly using the counter attack again, a deeper defence could allow Valencia to control possession and the game but the problem then remains of how to support Soldado in attack.

For Madrid, at least Mourinho knows that his side are still capable of producing a high performance level even if he has seldom witnessed it this season. The pace and power of their attack was superb at times and will certainly deliver a welcome boost for the team particularly when they have often struggled away from home this season.

Malaga vs Barcelona – Tactical Analysis

Malaga and Barcelona clashed at La Rosaleda last night in the first of three games in ten days for the clubs with the sides meeting in the forthcoming Copa del Rey tie.

The first blow in this triple header went to Barcelona. Given the display that Barcelona produced, few would now bet against a clean sweep of three successive victories against the Andalusian’s.

Line Ups

There were two changes to the Malaga side following their 1-0 loss away to Deportivo. Jesus Gamez was replaced by Sergio Sanchez at right back and the defensive midfielder Jeremy Toulalan came in for the more offensive Portillo in midfield.

Malaga Starting Line Up

Malaga Starting Line Up

Pellegrini chose to use a double pivot in midfield to try and compete against Barcelona.

There was just one change to the Barcelona side that had dispatched Espanyol so convincingly last week with Mascherano replacing Puyol in central defence.

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Iniesta continued in the attacking left hand position with Cesc accommodated in midfield.

The Malaga Approach

“We need to start the game convinced Barça can lose. We will have to play a great game. If we still lose, fine.”

Pellegrini

The Chilean was quite clear pre-match what he expected from his side and they tackled the challenge with the style we have come to expect from a Pellegrini side with a twist. With Roque Santa Cruz as the central striker, Malaga had a physical reference point in attack who could be used to hold the ball up and win aerial battles.

It worked to a degree. Santa Cruz won a number of headers and was able to retain a presence in attack but his skills were diminished when he moved wide lacking the pace and mobility of a Saviola.

 
Roque Santa Cruz Headers

Roque Santa Cruz Headers        http://www.squawka.com

Furthermore, he never managed a header in the opposition box. He was operating deep and looking to find Joaquin and Isco from flick-ons. Isco had one of his quietest games of the season whilst Joaquin offered a number of surging runs but lacked quality in the final third.

The remainder of the Malaga team had a familiar look to it. Although employing a double pivot of Toulalan and Camacho, the home side still maintained their customary short passing game.

During the defensive phase, the side dropped back to a 4-4-1-1 with Santa Cruz left upfield and supported by Isco. Joaquin was always prepared to join them. The remaining seven players performed the defensive function. By leaving players in attack, Malaga prevented Barcelona from becoming encamped in their half of the pitch, always weary to the threat posed by los bocquernos.

The effort required to sustain a challenge against Barcelona inevitably took it’s toll and tiredness set in enabling Barcelona to dominate much of the second half.

 

The Midfield Battle

The game opened with both sides seeking to impose their style on the opposition. Both teams were pressing the opposition goalkeeper when in position forcing long kick outs. With the quality on both sides, winning the midfield battle would be key. Early on Malaga competed well and forced Barcelona back. It is unusual to see a Barcelona side defend with the entire team back but that occurred during the first half.

The diagram below shows the average positions for the players with Malaga in blue and Barcelona in red:-

Malaga vs Barcelona - Average Player Positions

Malaga vs Barcelona – Average Player Positions         http://www.whoscored.com

The Malaga players are clustered vertically whilst the Barcelona midfield and full backs are positioned horizontally. With Messi drifting laterally in front it creates ideal passing triangles.

The position of Dani Alves is extremely high, almost level with Pedro. Iniesta and Cesc are side by side, ready to swap places as the situation develops.

Sanchez was often isolated at right back with Joaquin further forward and cutting inward. Such a move simply aided Barcelona’s left.

Left, Left, Left

Against Espanyol, the interplay and positional changing of Iniesta and Cesc was a key component of the victory. These players linked yet again against Malaga to provide Barcelona with an alternative to the reliance upon the right side of the team where Pedro, Messi, primarily, and Alves operate.

Barcelona Heat Map vs Malaga

Barcelona Heat Map vs Malaga                  http://www.squawka.com

The above heat map shows the tendency for attacks entering the penalty area to be on the left hand side. It’s a theme that has been developing recently and only looks like increasing further through the combination play of Iniesta, Cesc and Alba.

The lack of penetration on the right is heightened by the tendency for Pedro to drive diagonally inward and act as a No9 when required. It leaves Dani Alves alone to patrol the right flank.

Iniesta has previously spoken of not fully enjoying the wide left role but there is now a major difference with the interchanging:-

“Playing at different position? Main thing is you feel good. We try to switch positions, the team does well, that’s what matters.”

Iniesta

The Goals

With the game finely balanced although Barcelona were enjoying more possession, the opening goal would be pivotal. That it arose via a defensive blunder considering the quality on offer was a surprise. Camacho hit a back pass to Cabellero failing to see that Messi was some way behind the Malaga defence. The forward was able to intercept the pass and round Cabellero before slotting home.

Fabregas scored shortly after half time. As with all Pellegrini teams, Malaga hold a well organised defensive line and attempt to stay relatively high rather than falling back. This time however, Weligton dropped deeper than his team mates and Fabregas was able to run in behind Sanchez for the second goal. The real moment of genius here though was the chipped pass from Messi, weighted perfectly for Fabregas to run onto.

The goal was further evidence of the positional changes which Barcelona can now utilise. Iniesta was supposedly on the wide attacking left position, but at the goal he was in a central position and Cesc Fabregas was wide on the left. The constant movement and interplay making it increasingly difficult for opponents to successfully defend. This level of understanding comes to fruition after a considerable time period. It’s not easily learned.

The second goal killed the game to a certain extent. Barcelona dominated possession and Malaga only offered minimal threat sporadically, both teams sensing that the contest was over. It led to a situation of less pressure for Barcelona and some fantastic midfield passing movements helped by their horizontal positioning noted above.

Barcelona now also possess the ability to attack teams quickly during transitions. The qualities have always existed but are now being employed. In the 63 minute, Barcelona attacked swiftly following a Malaga corner with Pique leading the break.  This has been an underused weapon within the arsenal for some time but there are signs it is being used more frequently now.
 
The third and final goal for Barcelona was an individual effort from Thiago. Collecting a throw in on the right, he easily evaded poorly attempted tackles from Iturra and Camacho before drilling the ball low past Cabellero.

Barcelona has now gone nine games home and away without defeat against Malaga with Messi scoring ten goals in his last ten games against los bocquernos.

Buonanotte scored a consolation goal, a lovely free kick curled over the defensive wall. It was a deserved goal considering their efforts.

Conclusions

Malaga suffer back to back league defeats and, more importantly, become caught up in a battle to secure the final Champions League berth. Whilst the loss was disappointing, Dimechelis was quick to recognise the superiority of Barcelona:-

“Honestly, in the second half Barcelona made me want to applaud them.”

An unprecedented league campaign for Barcelona thus far. Eighteen wins and a solitary draw in their nineteen matches to date. Vilanova has already acknowledged that a repeat of such form in the second half of the season is unlikely but given their recent form, could Barcelona at least remain unbeaten for the duration of the season?

Osasuna vs Real Madrid

Another away game and more points dropped as Madrid continue to toil on their travels this season. The manner of the performance will concern Madridistas particularly with the forthcoming Champions League tie against Man Utd, a two-legged affair in a competition which Madrid are now more or less basing their entire season around, the quest for la decima.
A game which had minimal quality on display. Chances were at a premium with just three shots on target in the entire game.
Normally a visit from the reigning champions would result in a capacity crowd for the home side. And when the reigning champions are struggling to recapture their best form and the likelihood of an upset is on the cards, you expect the sold out signs to be swiftly positioned.
But this is La Liga where nothing is ever that simple.
The cheapest ticket available was €90 and there were plenty of available seats. With clubs such as Osasuna receiving the scraps from the television table of Barcelona and Real Madrid, the visit of either of the big two is milked for all it’s worth with fans suffering a substantial hike in entry prices.
A more equitable distribution of TV money is not a panacea for all of the financial ills of La Liga. But it would be an important step in the right direction.
Osasuna Defence
Sitting bottom of the table with just 14 points from their 18 league games this season, it’s strange to find yourself speaking positively about the Osasuna defence. Yet, their goal difference is a lowly -6. Only Atleti, Barcelona and Malaga have conceded fewer goals than Osasuna this season.
As ever with a team coached by Mendilibar,  Osasuna play a very aggressive offside trap, seeking to hold a high line and press their opponents deep into their half of the pitch. Madrid were caught offside eight times during the game as they eschewed a patient passing build up to their attacks in favour of a direct approach despite Ronaldo missing the game through suspension. Poorly timed runs coinciding with delayed passes meant the Osasuna offside trap worked very well for the majority of the game. When Madrid did break through, the opportunities were either wide or Andres Fernandez came rushing from his goal to clear, sometimes rather too impetuously.
The problem for Osasuna arrives at the other end. No other team has scored fewer goals than the men from Pamplona.
It’s a strange blend. The high defensive line enables a team to become a very compact unit but this is juxtaposed with the style they have in attack. Adopting a direct approach and favouring long balls, the side really needs a strong target man. Last season, that man arrived in the form of Lekic with Raul Garcia just behind him. Their departures have severely affected Osasuna and the game plan is no longer as effective.
The defence will hold firm for the remainder of the season but if the goals do not begin arriving, Osasuna will drop into La Segunda.
Luka Modric
It’s a little sympathetic to say the jury remains out on the performance of Luka Modric since he joined los blancos from Spurs. With opinion polls in the local media rating him the worst acquisition of the season, Modric has struggled badly to capture any semblance of his previous form. This may in part be due to his role within the team not yet being defined. Is he the long term successor to Xabi Alonso in a deep lying playmaker role? Or is he to be deployed in an attacking midfield role, the central point of the attacking trident?
Last night Modric deputised for Mesut Ozil. The German internationalist has created 52 chances this season, second only to Malaga’s Joaquin with 55 chances created to his name. Modric was replaced by Ozil after 67 minutes again leading to the question of why he is struggling to adapt to life in the Spanish capital.
Modric is arguably a better technical player than Ozil with a greater range of passing. The problem is that’s not the sort of player Madrid need for the current system. Madrid need a player like Ozil who will drift laterally across the pitch, locating and exploiting pockets of space. Taking the position of the inverted winger who has moved centrally.
The graphic below shows Modric passes during the game.
Modric Passes vs Osasuna

Modric Passes vs Osasuna                          http://www.squawka.com

The Croatian was successful for 17 of his 24 attempted passes but too often he was deep. He had little impact whatsoever on the game. This was another opportunity for Modric that he failed to grasp.
The Madrid Approach
Part of the problem for Modric is that Madrid were far too direct last night. Being pressed by an aggressive opponent, Madrid resorted to fighting fire with fire and indulged in a long ball game at times. Los Blancos were successful with just 196 passes from an attempted 336. A pass completion rate of only 58%.
One of the poorest performers on the night both in terms of passing and his overall play was Raul Albiol:-
Albiol Passes vs Osasuna

Albiol Passes vs Osasuna                       http://www.squawka.com

Albiol hit a number of long clearances upfield which were swiftly returned by Osasuna. With the game being squeezed, Madrid took the easy option and launched the ball.
Madrid often sat very deep with a low block, encouraging Osasuna to come forward in the hope of then quickly countering on a transition. It’s a very simple game plan and fails to utilise the skill set of the players within the team. Quite simply, Madrid have much better players than Osasuna. Match the workrate and determination of the opponent and it provides the platform for your technical superiority to shine. Madrid failed to do so.
The dismissal of Kaka for two cautions, the second one somewhat farcical for a player of his experience, in the final  15 minuites of the game had little effect as the game drifted towards stalemate.
With just one victory in their last four visits to the Reyno de Navarra, last season’s comprehensive 5-1 thrashing of Osasuna, Madrid knew they would be involved in a tough encounter but the lack of guile within their game was very surprising.
Only two teams who were bottom of La Liga in the past ten seasons at the halfway stage have avoided relegation. Real Zaragoza and Osasuna. For Osasuna, whilst it’s a point gained in their relegation battle, Mendilibar must be thinking that come the end of the season, this game may represent two points dropped particularly if lightning fails to strike twice.

Barcelona vs Espanyol – Tactical Analysis

Barcelona turned in a rampant first half display, during which time they battered Espanyol and had the game wrapped up by half time courtesy of a four goal lead.

This was a game in which Barcelona produced a performance of considerable quality even if their opponents were sufficiently lacklustre.

Line Ups

Tito Vilanova returned to the dugout having missed just one league game through illness. He named what is arguably his strongest eleven.

Barcelona Starting Line Up vs Espanyol

Barcelona Starting Line Up vs Espanyol

Taking charge of Espanyol for the fifth time, Javier Aguirre set his Espanyol side out in a 4-5-1 formation with ex Barcelona player Sergio Garcia as the lone striker:-

Espanyol Starting Line Up vs Barcelona

Espanyol Starting Line Up vs Barcelona

Overall

With Barcelona already 4-0 ahead at half time, the game was over as a contest. The key aspects from a tactical perspective arrived mainly during the first half of real quality and verve from Barcelona. There were still a number of points during the second period but Espanyol were soundly beaten by that point and Barcelona were already very comfortable.

Sergio Busquets

Sergio Busquets is well known for his positional ability sitting in front of the defence and recycling possession quickly and accurately but this game illustrates that Busquets possesses other qualities too. The midfielder completed more passes than anyone else on the pitch, even Xavi, with 121 passes completed from 137 attempted.

Critics of Busquets will claim his passing is always short ignoring his ability to play rapid first time passes. Against Espanyol, he was able to showcase his range of passing.

Busquets Passes vs Espanyol

Busquets Passes vs Espanyol                 http://www.squawka.com

Busquets provided the assist for Barcelona’s third goal in the 26th minute. By this point Busquets had already played a number of diagonal crossfield passes changing the angle of Barcelona’s attacks and forcing Espanyol to shuffle back and forth across the pitch. His forward pass through the centre of the defence was read perfectly by Pedro who accelerated beyond Moreno and clipped the ball over the advancing Casilla. Espanyol failed to press Busquets in the midfield.

The warning sign was not heeded and in the 42nd minute, Busquets played another through ball which narrowly evaded the forward running Cesc Fabregas.

Two passes of real quality and vision displaying the awareness and technique of Busquets combined with the forward runs from his team mates.

Iniesta and Cesc – Sharing The Left

The arrival of Cesc Fabregas and his subsequent integration into the side has provoked much debate. Initially positioned on the left side of attack, his form fluctuated. Now however, Vilanova appears to be about to reap the rewards from Guardiola’a tactical tinkering.

Fabregas is now positioned in the midfield with license to break forward whilst Iniesta, although he confirms it’s not his favourite position, situated on the left of attack. The positions are nominal only due to the movement of both players. Their relationship has developed to the point whereby they now combine and interchange frequently both safe in the knowledge that the real width will be provided by the marauding Jordi Alba from left back.

The graphic below shows Iniesta’s heat map:-

Iniesta Heat Map vs Espanyol

Iniesta Heat Map vs Espanyol

The heat map for Cesc Fabregas is remarkably similar. Both players prepared to move to the left when required and equally drop into the centre as need be. It enables Cesc to burst forward into the penalty area to receive the kind of passes that Busquets was making. It’s this fluidity of movement which makes it so difficult for opponents to stop even if they employ a low defensive block.

And it’s not just in the midfield area where the movement and interchanging is occurring.

Pedro Rodriguez

Following an injury hit season, Pedro Rodriguez has returned to full fitness this season but the goals have not yet arrived. Going into this game, he had scored just one league goal.

Deployed on the right wing, Pedro seldom stayed there during this game as the graphic below highlights:-

Pedro Action Areas vs Espanyol

Pedro Action Areas vs Espanyol

The forward from Tenerife frequently made diagonal runs to a central position seeking through passes as Messi dropped deep and to the right. For a period of the game, Pedro operated as the No9 with Messi wide.

His first goal perhaps carried an element of luck but Pedro was still in the right position to take advantage of that luck. His second goal was a classic run off the shoulder of the last defender.

Pedro scored two further goals which were ruled offside. On both occasions he was the main striker breaking into the box at speed with Messi much deeper.

Pedro’s positioning was possible because Dani Alves produced his best performance of a below par season. Quite often Alves was alone on the right flank as he moved up and down offering tactical width to the side.

Barcelona Fluidity

And the constituent parts highlighted above provided Barcelona with a display arguably on a par with anything produced during the Guardiola era.

The fluidity of movement and the interchanging of position is something which has to be developed on a training ground over a number of years. It’s not a style of play can be perfected quickly.

The real issue for Barcelona now is can this level of performance be sustained for the remainder of the campaign both at home and abroad and can it be produced against higher quality opponents?

Espanyol – Where Did It Go Wrong?

Still, it’s difficult to completely ignore the assertion that Espanyol contributed to their own downfall with a woefully inadequate performance.

“You can lose face, but you have to give more,”

Capdevila summed up the issue for Espanyol perfectly.

The loss of the early goal would have been a considerable loss to Espanyol, but they appeared to be devoid of motivation or aggression for the majority of the game. Barcelona enjoyed far too much freedom and time on the ball.

The graphic below highlights where Espanyol made tackles:-

Espanyol Tackles vs Barcelona

Espanyol Tackles vs Barcelona

Espanyol were not stopping Barcelona further up the field. They retreated to the edge of their penalty area and tried to hold Barcelona off at the point by defending in a compact and narrow format. Previously the template for halting Barcelona but last night it never looked like being successful. The loss of the first goal so early made that approach futile and it developed into something resembling damage limitation thereafter.

Espanyol should have been able to compete, to press and harass Barcelona and make them work harder for their victory. It was too nice. Espanyol never disturbed Barcelona. This is not a suggestion that Espanyol simply kick their opponents but the team with the worst disciplinary record in La Liga this season was surprisingly disciplined and meek.

Conclusions

Barcelona produced a brilliant first half performance but the inherent poverty of Espanyol’s play leaves you wondering if they could have produced the same level against a more competitive opponent. They will get that opportunity next week when they visit La Rosaleda.

Aguirre will have arrived at the Camp Nou expecting nothing and received precisely that. The fans will expect a response next week in a far more meaningful match whet they entertain Celta Vigo. A similarly apathetic approach will not be tolerated.