Style Over Substance?

Does the end justify the means?

If you achieve your goals and objectives, does it matter how you went about it?

If one side dominates their opponent, creating but not taking their chances whilst playing a stylish brand of attacking football yet losing to a stubborn, resolute defensive display, which team should we celebrate?

The pragmatic winners or the idealistic losers?

Is the team that adapts to the situation, deploying itself in the manner most likely to deliver victory, even if that requires a highly defensive approach, entirely correct? Or should the team that seeks to impose itself and its vision of football upon its opponent, remaining true to their overarching principles be praised irrespective of the outcome? In football, what do we prize above all else?

It must surely be the result. For the result is the only thing that matters.

Will Real Madrid fans really care about the football they produced under Mourinho if he delivers la decima? Mourinho is a winner. He wins, that what he does. How Madrid get to that result will be irrelevant.

Or, is there something greater than the result. Something that lasts longer. A legacy as Xavi Hernandez, lynchpin of the Barcelona side and ultimately the ideologue of tiki taka, states so eloquently. Xavi echoes the musings of a decent footballer who once said “there is no greater prize than being acclaimed for you style”.

Of course. Style.

The prize which the gallant loser must fervently cling to. It’s the fallback position. The defence mechanism. We lost but we still have style of play to grasp. The dream of a football idealist. An elitist caught in a time warp believing things were always so much better in previous years. Players were so much more innocent and stuck to their beliefs, attempting to play the beautiful game with no thoughts for the repercussions. The oft quoted cliché of players playing for the sheer love of the game, which was true, to an extent. Their innocence lost and tarnished by the continued rise of a cynicism and the win at all costs mentality of the professional game as the modern era developed.

We can all remember the great winners. The Brazil team in 1970, the Ajax team under Rinus Michels, Liverpool in the early 1980′s, Saachi’s Milan who were the last team to successfully defend the European Cup. More recently, Barcelona under Guardiola during the past four seasons. Spain under Aragones and now del Bosque winning three successive international tournaments, creating history in the process. The creation of the legacy that Xavi speaks of. Teams that dominated their era and became the benchmark. And teams that all had a finite lifespan.

But what about the other great teams? Those teams who came so close to the prize yet fell just short. Are they worthy of our praise too?

The Holland team of 1974 and 1978 who failed in two successive World Cup finals. And of course, the greatest team never to win a World Cup. The Brazil team of 1982. The team of Falcao, Junior and the truly great Socrates. The grainy images flickering across our TV screens of exotic footballers playing with a swagger and style seldom seen. And losing.

Were these really great teams? If so, why did they not win? Why are we cherishing losers?

They must have delivered something though, otherwise why would they still be recalled so fondly after all of these years. Are the teams mentioned above more worthy than winners such as Steau Bucharest in the 1986 European Cup Final, Greece in the 2004 European Championships or even Chelsea in the 2012 Champions League Final?

What did the above teams do so badly that means we chose to denigrate certain winners? Why do we attack certain teams approach to games? Why was the achievement of Milan in defeating Barcelona 2-0 rounded upon in some quarters? This was not an exercise in parking the bus; this was a Rolls Royce performance. A performance perfectly executed individually, collectively and above all, tactically. Yet, in years to come that performance will be reduced to a footnote partly owing to Barcelona’s comeback in the second leg and partly by the slavish devotion to aesthetics.

Is a defensive approach really less worthy than an attacking approach? What qualities do we find most attractive in football? Defensive structure and organisation or attacking creativity and guile? Is a quick one two which beats two of three static defenders a greater piece of skill than a perfectly timed sliding tackle? How about a defensive block executed by superb positioning? Or a pair of central midfielders naturally, attack minded and yet sacrificing themselves for the team and performing considerable defensive duties.

Do we accept such qualities were they are displayed by our own team but question their legitimacy when implemented by opponents to the detriment of our footballing heroes? In 10 years or 20 years time, who will we remember from this time period? The Inter team of 2010, who adopted a counter attacking philosophy against Barcelona in the Champions League semi final and then again against Bayern Munich in the final yet were successful, or the Chelsea team of 2012 who seemingly defied the odds to overcome a first leg deficit at the hands of Napoli in the quarter finals, were outplayed yet held on for victory against Barcelona in the semi final before triumphing on penalties against Bayern Munich in the final?

Or will we remember the Barcelona team under first Rijkaard and then Guardiola who delivered trophies with a panache and style seldom seen and yet, who twice succumbed to arguably weaker teams in Champions League semi finals? Or the Bayern team under Jupp Heynckes who were committed to attacking football yet saw the great prize of European club football elude them? So far.

Both Inter and Chelsea demonstrated tremendous workrate and concentration in the face of seemingly superior opponents. They defended resiliently throughout, working diligently to limit their opponents attacking potential. Were the performances really that similar though? Do we not fail to see the elements which differentiate them? It’s convenient to label them both as defensive teams that parked the bus but that’s lazy and incorrect. The difference between just parking the bus and hoping and defending well is control of space. Inter controlled space and were remarkably comfortable despite extremely limited possession. Chelsea clung on through poor finishing, last gasp defending and an element of luck. Both approaches gathered victories but only the former could be seen as a coherent plan which could be implemented again. Both won. Both became European Champions. Is that not enough to celebrate?

Or were they simply two expensively assembled teams who were afraid to face up to quality opponents. Surely we always want to win and in doing so, exhibit qualities which the opposition lack and which they can only aspire to? Or is 1-0 carved out by luck, skill and sheer workrate sufficient for us?

Perhaps it will be determined by our outlook.

It’s the nostalgic look back in time, the ability to only recall those teams and games which fit neatly into our own paradigm. A reflection that conveniently overlooks episodes which we find distasteful as determined by our own views. We watch football yet we chose what we want to see.

When our team wins 1-0 through a dogged defensive display, we applaud their determination, their commitment, and their endeavour. When our team is foiled by a defensive display, we attack the negative approach of the opponent for killing the game using spoiling tactics. We only seeing footballing history through a revisionist perspective tainted by our own footballing ideology. We celebrate those who fit into our accepted views, offering at best grudging praise when a team wins but does not conform to our values. We recall the great moments, those that define a particular episode or era and conveniently forget those moments which tarnish or belittle our memories.

Yet we should not see the game in such reductionist terms. Somewhere along this journey we have lost sight of the variations within the game in an effort to celebrate only one type of football. In doing so, do we not realise the inherent pragmatism within tiki taka itself? It’s firstly a defensive strategy. If we have the ball, you cannot score. It brings about moments of creativity interspersed by periods of sterile domination.  It’s become the ubiquitous stick with which to beat Spain by those who want to see more transitional based football with less control. Rather than seeing football in a simplistic dichotomy of attacking football versus defensive football, we should instead consider the vast range of subtle tactical and non-tactical nuances which occur during a game.

The small details.

The movement of a defensive midfielder closer to the centre backs to eliminate a pocket of space. The central midfielder pushing further to the right to link with his right winger and overload the opposing full back. We should embrace the volume of possibilities which football presents us with.

Football was, is and will always be a series of proactive and reactive battles.

The great tactical innovators like Saachi and Guardiola created new methods of playing the game which spawn imitators and eventually, the new brand of football is overcome. We move on. Football will always exist in cycles, formations which were once seen as unbeatable, are discarded for years only to later re-emerge, reinvigorated by new ideals and playing methods. Within all football formations there is an element of pragmatism. Teams play a brand of football that they believe will provide them with the best opportunity to achieve their objectives, adapting and deploying their resources accordingly.

In football, the winner does not automatically take it all. For sometimes, a game of football is not played to determine who wins a trophy, sometimes it represents something more. Sometimes, it dictates what direction football will take in the coming years. We are witnessing the present battle of possession based football against a reactive, transition based game. The path we will tread for the next few years has not yet been decided. The outcome of the Champions League may help decide which route we take.

Osasuna Need Marginal Gains

The 2012-13 season has been difficult for Osasuna and coach Jose Luis Mendilibar.

Los Rojillos have experienced their worst worst start to a top flight campaign since their doomed 1993-94 campaign which ended with relegation after four defeats in their opening five games. The poor form continued beyond September. With only five points from their opening nine games, Osasuna were bottom of the league in early November.

There were reports that Mendilibar would be sacked if Osasuna failed to win against fellow relegation strugglers Espanyol. Perhaps it was fate. Mendilibar’s first game in charge at Osasuna was a 4-0 win over los percios and a 3-0 away win resolved the issue temporarily backed up by two scoreless draws and a win as Osasuna moved up the table. Whilst Mendilibar avoided dismissal, that matter befell his rival that day, Espanyol’s Pochettino, just two weeks later.

The mini revival saw the side rise to the lofty heights of 15th before three defeats in four games saw the team return to bottom place at the start of January.

It was the optimum time for the board to dispense with Mendilibar. The January transfer window would enable the new coach to bring new players in. The squad could be freshened for the challenge ahead. Yet the board retained faith in Mendilibar. Was it loyalty, were there no alternatives or would sacking the Basque coach have exposed the failings of the club off the pitch?

On The Pitch

Mendilibar celebrated two years in charge in February. He joined with the Pamplonan side in 18th place and would lead them to a 9th place finish in season 10/11. Last season witnessed the extraordinary 7th place finish which has raised expectations considerably rather than a recognition of what it was. A side over achieving.

The style of play under Mendilibar can easily be characterised. Osasuna have personality, a clear identity of who they are and how they will approach each game. This identity is what is so interesting about Osasuna; what they do with and without the ball. The side adopts many of the tactical elements that you see in some of the best possession orientated sides across Europe without the ball. The intensive pressing of an opponent across the whole pitch and holding a high line to squeeze their opponent deeper into their own territory. Yet this contrasts sharply with what occurs when they get the ball. A direct game is employed with the target being to get the ball forward as quickly as possible.

Mendilibar - Going in that Direction

Mendilibar – Going in that Direction

The side averages 48% possession in league games and their pass completion rate is just 68%, the second lowest in the league. Averaging 70 long balls per game, only Valladolid and Rayo Vallecano attempt more, whilst only Real Sociedad attempt more crosses (Los Rojillos average 25 per game) into the penalty area. They win 27 aerial duels per game, vastly more than anyone else in La Liga.

There is nothing unusual about their tackling or interception statistics but when they recover possession, they shift it forward quickly attempting just five dribbles per game, another very low figure.

The preference for a direct game, playing the percentages, aimed towards the central striker is clear for all to see.

Defensively, they now concede fewer shots at goal (11.7 per game) with only four teams conceding less shots. Only Malaga, Atleti and Real Madrid have conceded fewer goals than Osasuna. The defensive frailty that was evident on occasion last season, most notably when the high offside line collapsed and hefty defeats occurred, has been addressed. A further season under Mendilibar’s guidance along with the acquisition of Arribas from Rayo and the defence has been solidified.

Win the ball quickly, high up the pitch and then fire it into the penalty area. Simple yet last season, it was highly effective. However, problems persist at the opposite end of the pitch where nobody has scored as few goals as Osasuna, just 23 goals in 29 games.

Problems Not Tackled

The problems Osasuna are experiencing this season are not surprising even allowing for their superb 7th place finish last season. Despite finishing 7th, Los Rojillos finished the season with a goal difference of -17. That they missed out on a European place by one point is at best misleading. With an equal head to head record as Levante, had Osasuna finished level on points, that inferior goal difference would have cost them that coveted European place. Their lack of goals was an issue.

Key players from that side departed with replacements being adequate but unable to operate at the same level or within the preferred system. In particular, the loss of Raul Garcia both in terms of goals and assists has not being replicated despite Mendilibar seeking a direct replacement during the summer. Garcia scored 11 goals whilst providing eight assists.

Ibrahima Balde moved on along with Dejan Lekic leaving Osasuna without the target man required to allow their system to function efficiently. Neither Balde or Lekic was prolific but the physical target man is an essential component of the system which Mendilibar implements. Veteran striker Joseba Llorete arrived but his impact has been minimal whilst Nino is an awkward choice in the striking role given his small stature.

This is not the fault of Mendilibar, it’s the Sporting Director who must accept responsibility here. Mendilibar can only work with the tools the club provide him with. His system is clear, the personality he projects onto the team is known. The club must find the components to fit that system. They have failed in this regard.

The Misleading League Position

Osasuna are not out of the danger yet despite sitting four points above the relegation zone.

The 2-0 home defeat to Atleti captured many of their failings this season. The opening goal for Atleti arising after the high offside trap failed with no pressure placed on the ball in midfield. Koke was able to break through the uneven defensive line.

Mendilibar’s starting line up included Masoud, a midfielder, in the striking role with Nino and Llorente on the bench, a clear indication that neither are favoured to produce in that role. Despite the overly defensive line up, Osasuna began the game in familiar fashion

This game will not be decisive in Osasuna’s season.

The problem that faces Mendilibar and his side is the legacy of their poor start to the season that included key losses to fellow relegation battlers. Why is this so important now? In La Liga, teams level on points are not separated initially by goal difference but by the head to head record, that is, their respective results against each other. Osasuna have an inferior head to head record with Deportivo La Coruna, Celta Vigo and Real Zaragoza. Having already lost to Granada earlier this season, the sides meet again on 19 May in what could be a crucial encounter. Osasuna must rectify the balance.

Survive this season and Mendilibar will need to work again. Club captain Francisco Punal is 37 years old now. A replacement must be found who can provide the drive and energy from the centre of the pitch. The lack of goals remains a problem and the recent form of Kike Sola, top scorer with a lowly 7 goals, is likely to attract suitors if it is maintained.

Is there no spectre of light ahead for Osasuna or is the club unable to recognise the environment in which it finds itself? Has the club failed to adapt to it’s new surroundings and evolve sufficiently, consequently finding itself a potential victim of relegation to the wilderness of La Segunda?

The Accumulation of Marginal Gains

This is an age of austerity.

With economic recession, all Spanish sides are facing uncertain times with the exception of the big two. The lack of available finance is no longer an excuse for poor performances in La Liga. The Pamplonan’s had net debt of £31million in September 2012 with the first team budget squeezed as a consequence. This is not unique however. The bulk of the top flight teams are in the exact same predicament. With less cash to burn on transfer fees, teams have to become more adept at discovering rough diamonds to polish. Scouting networks take on new levels of importance. Closer to home, the work of the cantera increases in importance. The likes of Levante and Rayo Vallecano are the benchmark for clubs to aspire to. The Rayo coach Paco Jemez  outlines the problems his side face perfectly when he talks of everyone else having more than Rayo. The men from Vallecas in the suburbs of Madrid are forced to work harder than everyone else in order to compete. They must train harder, must scout better, invest in their cantera more. All of these small issues mount to have a cumulative impact, the accumulation of marginal gains.

If Osasuna want to avoid enduring relegation battles each season, these areas must be addressed commencing with their acquisition policy. The problems that Mendilibar has to address are on the pitch but the Sporting Director must contribute to the solution and avoid becoming another obstacle.

Mendilibar cannot win battles on two fronts simultaneously.

Barcelona vs AC Milan – Answers, answers, answers

Barcelona create history by overturning a 2-0 deficit from the first leg and, in doing so, handed Milan one of their heaviest ever defeats in European competition.

The first leg at the San Siro had witnessed a superb Milan performance epitomised by defensive discipline and control complemented by a willingness to alter their defensive line during the course of the game to support the attack when possible. A review of the first game can be found here

It seemed certain that Milan would seek to replicate that performance as far as possible. The question revolved around Barcelona and their inability in recent games to move beyond sterile domination of the midfield area with a lack of movement and options in the final third.

Last night saw a return to the kind of game which Barcelona produced during the Guardiola era and which they have done so sporadically this season. It’s not a style of play they have ever abandoned but they have become lackadaisical with specific facets of it most notably the aggressive pressing and off the ball movement. By doing so they also demonstrated the fallacy of the overly discussed Plan B approach particularly when the implementation of Plan A is this good.


Barcelona Set Up

On paper what appeared to be the customary 4-3-3 was in fact considerably different in application:-

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Firstly, the defence composed Pique, Mascherano and Alba with the left back playing a much more conservative role but not quite the left sided centre back in a trio. Pique was the furthest to the right leaving Alves to start high on the right and operate that entire side alone.

Pedro stayed high on the left providing the width and enabling Alba to remain deep. With Cesc on the bench, Iniesta was able to perform his favoured central midfield role but he offered so much more. This was arguably one of his best defensive performances despite being so advanced.

The positioning of Messi and Villa was central to the game. This diagram from shows their positions being virtually the same. Villa was operating as a no9 with Messi occupying the space directly behind him as a no10. With Villa positioned between Mexes and Zapata, neither defender could step out to close Messi down for fear of leaving Villa in space.  Milan’s ability to crowd out Messi with defenders and midfielders form the first leg was subsequently reduced. El Guaje justified his selection with the pivotal third goal combined with a performance of chasing opponents and opening up space with darting runs for team mates.


Milan – Right then Wrong?

From the Milan perspective, the area to be addressed is the starting positions as detailed in the graphic below:-

AC Milan Starting Line Up

AC Milan Starting Line Up

Did Allegri set the side out to defend as deep as they did or were they simply pushed back by the ferocity of Barcelona in the opening period? Allegri and Milan had decided an effective strategy for defeating Barcelona in the first leg. Did Allegri really choose to abandon this with a conservative approach, inviting trouble from the beginning? Or were Barcelona more adventurous and more like the side of a few season ago?

I doubt he wanted to be so deep but for the first twenty minutes of the game, his side were encamped around their penalty area, pushed back by Barcelona attacks built upon fast passing, movement and an eagerness to retrieve possession.  Milan were left to hang onto the game especially after the concession of the opening goal after four minutes.

The graphic below details where Milan were making interceptions last night:-

Milan Interceptions

Milan Interceptions

Compare the position of the interceptions last night with how Milan defended in the first game as shown here

Barcelona were getting further upfield before Milan were intercepting. They were also able to hit a number of long range efforts as there was space between the lines. Ambrosini, so instrumental in the first leg, was ineffective in a constructive sense completing just 14 from 25 passes attempted whilst defensively he made only one successful tackle from four attempted. The midfield general was robbed of the ball for Iniesta midway inside his own half which led to the second goal by Messi. This is not an attack on Ambrosini just one of the clearest examples of how a player who was pivotal in the first leg was now slept away with his side.

The defence was deeper aware of Villa positioning, Barcelona were moving quicker and circulating the ball faster leaving Milan to chase shadows.

For all of their problems, Milan settled after around 20 minutes and began to offer something better in attack as Barcelona eased off form their initial press. Overall, Milan also proved that Barcelona still have issues to address. Despite having just two shots on target from their ten attempts at goal, eight of these were from inside the penalty area. Milan had opportunities not least the effort from Niang which struck the post.

This Barcelona side still provide you with hope.

Jordi Roura was clear in his understanding of the game:-

“but I would not talk about things that Milan did wrong; I would talk about the attitude of Barcelona, about how they pressured and worked. They made it look like Milan did things wrong but it was more that we did things right”

What Barcelona did right were the basic elements that’s made them so successful. They press you high quickly up the park to win back position and offer off the ball movement for team mates combined with recycling the ball at high speed.


Barcelona Positioning – Busquets

The revised formation from Barcelona was central to creating space with the play of Sergio Busquets instrumental. This was possibly the most advanced positional performance from a defensive midfielder you will see.

The heat map below shows Busquets positioning during the game:-

Busquets Heat Map

Busquets Heat Map

Nominally the deepest midfielder, Busquets was aggressive in his play last night stepping forward to defend high up the pitch. In doing so, he prevented Milan from even constructing attacks as he swept up behind Xavi and Iniesta whilst also launching a number of attacks.

Busquets completed 103 passes from 112 attempted, the bulk of which were in the Milan half of the pitch. His ability to play first time vertical passes presented a constant problem even if they did not always hit their target. That Pedro and Villa were such willing runners offered an additional threat to Milan, stretching the defence behind the midfield and creating the opportunities for Busquets to pass. The off the ball movement was another ingredient that has been missing in recent months.

Busquets also completed his defensive responsibilities well. He completed three tackles from three attempted including two on the right hand side covering for Dani Alves and made two interceptions both in the Milan half of the pitch.


Barcelona Press High

The second element in Barcelona’s play was the intensity shown in pressing and tackling their opponents. The location of their interceptions is shown below:-

FCB Interceptions

FCB Interceptions

Niang commented afterwards:-

“Barça were impressive. It was as if they were playing with 22 players. In first half, we were running around like madmen”

The Blaugrana began to exert significant pressure on their opponents high up the pitch. Pedro, so often the player who sets the tempo, chased and harried and was joined by team mates. The weakness of the defence was under less scrutiny as Milan were unable to build any attacks without being pressed.

The interceptions were aided by tackling:-

FCB Tackles

FCB Tackles

Barcelona were tackling higher too.  Ten of their successful tackles were in the Milan half of the pitch. The Rossonieri were being suffocated in the opening stages of the game.

Sometimes it’s easy to forgot just how much of the less glamourous side of the game certain footballers perform. Such as Andres Iniesta. The little creative midfielder made five successful tackles, the joint highest along with Mascherano of anyone on the pitch. His tackle on Ambrosini led to the second goal and his controlled pas to Xavi helped set up the third for Villa. People will recall his deft flicks or little passes but his team mates will remember his graft and determination allied to his undoubted intelligence to draw the Milan defence forward before attacking them.


Lower Tempo & Milan Higher

When the tempo inevitably dropped with pressing less intensive and movement off the ball falling, Milan were able to begin passing and move higher upfield. The problems reappeared for Barcelona offering optimism for Milan. Only a superb block by Jordi Alba prevented Robinho for scoring the elusive away goal for Milan which would surely have sent the Rossonieri through.

The side became static again, understandable to a degree given their huge effort early in the game. It’s a part of their game that should improve as they reach their peak physical condition as April approaches.

Jordi Roura

The game was also important in the development of Jordi Roura. Thrown into a job that he neither wanted or is seemingly enjoying, he has often displayed the look of a frustrated man, unable to make the necessary changes from the sidelines. Last night saw a change. The withdrawal of Pedro for Adriano recognised the increased threat of Abate on the Barcelona left. The introduction of the Brazilian strengthened that area and enabled Alba to push forward in the knowledge that Adriano could defend behind him.

Likewise, the withdrawal of a tiring Villa to be replaced by Sanchez offered vitality to the attack but also covering pace for the defensive phase too, aiding Alves on the right.


Reports of the demise of Barcelona have been greatly exaggerated. Or have they?

There can be no doubt that many of the qualities which made Barcelona such a dominant force over the past five seasons were in evidence last night. Equally, some of the negative traits that have weakened the side particularly during the last month or so were also visible.

The challenge facing Roura and Vilanova upon his return is to maintain the level of intensity shown by the side last night whilst also ensuring the players return to peak physical condition. This also means rotation in league games. Xavi must be rested and Puyol needs to be nursed to full fitness.

This is just one hurdle overcome. To successfully reclaim the Champions League there are other opponents who can ask similar demanding questions of Barcelona including a Madrid side focused entirely upon their main objective.

Last night the standard was set once more. Maintaining it again is the hard part.

Atleti vs Real – Tactical Analysis – The Real Deal?

And they march on, into 4th place in the league.

La Real have now won nine, drawn seven and lost just once in their last 17 league games (and they should have managed to avoid that defeat against 10 man Real Madrid) as they climb the league into a position entirely fitting for the quality within the squad.

Atleti began and ended the game in 3rd place following Madrid’s win and for the first time this season, they are below their rivals in the league. The last 100% home record in a major European league falls with Atleti suffering their first defeat at home since their cross town opponents arrived and departed with three points late last season.

Line Ups

Simeone reinstated Gabi to central midfield following his suspension to be joined by Koke with Mario missing the game due to suspension.

Courtois continued in goal with Abel Resino’s 20 year old Atleti domestic record for duration without conceding at home within touching distance. Coutois last conceded a league goal at home in October 2012. The record would eventually fall in the 34th minute and be extended by a further 33 minutes before Prieto struck.

Simeone went with a 4-4-2, Diego Costa supporting Falcao in attack.

Atleti vs Real Starting Line Ups

Atleti vs Real Starting Line Ups

Montanier moved Aggirexte to the bench including Zurutuza in an advanced midfield role. A move which could be construed as negative depending upon your perspective, Montanier would surely argue it provided the necessary base to begin the game against Atleti.

Vela and Griezmann would alternate positions during the game between left wing and striker.

Real started with eight players who had progressed to the first team via their cantera

Real Sociedad Shape

Atleti enjoyed better possession early in the game but too often it was in an area of the pitch which could not hurt Real. Aside from a few long range efforts which went wide, the only real threat in the opening stages arrived via the charging runs of Diego Costa, buoyed by his call up to the Brazil squad, moving into the left channel between Carlos Martinez and Mikel Gonzalez. One such run ended abruptly under the challenge of Gonzalez, earning the defender a yellow card.

Whilst Atleti would look to start the game strongly, they were able to enjoy possession by an opponent that was content to drop deep, concede possession and only press Atleti as they entered their half of the field. In the 10th minute, Vela, the most advanced Sociedad player, received the ball near the halfway line with no available team mates near him to pass to, eventually conceded a foul.

The graphic below shows the heat map for Real Sociedad throughout the entire game:-

Real Sociedad Shape

Real Sociedad Shape

This clearly illustrates just how deep Real sat and how little attacking threat they possessed.

It’s a dangerous game to defend so deeply whilst having such little impact on the break. Real possess players with the correct qualities to counter attack but last night was more of a team effort than a few individuals showcasing their ability. All players worked to earn the result.

As the first half progressed, Real became more comfortable and allowed their personality to show more, carefully avoiding Atleti pressing with short sharp passing enabling play to switch flanks and attacks to be built. There was still little attacking threat from the Basque’s but the side were moving higher up the pitch and enjoying more possession. They were of course, still wary of the quality of the Atleti counter attack.

Defensive Solidity

Part of the success of La Real has been the ability to retain their shape in the face of adversity this season. “To suffer” as Philippe Montanier states but to retain their resolve in such circumstances before triumphing.

The graphic below shows that Real won 21 tackles from an attempted 24 tackles during the course of the game but the location is important. Atleti were constantly forced wide during the game. Real defended compactly with Bergara and Illarramedi shielding their defence and avoiding space developing between the defensive and midfield line. With limited options centrally, Atleti were forced to attack via the flanks yet as they did so, they found Xabi Prieto and Antoine Griezmann tracking Filipe Luis and Juanfran preventing los rojiblancos from having two on one situations:-

Real Sociedad Tackles

Real Sociedad Tackles

Their defensive solidity was aided by a well organised offside trap, the line being held around the edge of the penalty area when required preventing Atleti from getting in behind them.

The concern for Montanier though was that given how deep Sociedad were defending, when they did get the ball, they were a considerable distance from Courtois and too many players had dropped back to defend. The opportunity for counters was not really in position.

Atleti Attack

The main problem for Atleti last night was their lack of guile and craft to break down an organised and structured defence. Much of the success of Atleti has come from their ability to absorb pressure and counter attack swiftly. A highly efficient reactive side that allows opponents to take the initiative. Last night, Atleti were undone by an opponent using their own game plan.

Atleti had numerous attempts at goal as the graphic below shows, but they were wayward and failed to test Claudio Bravo in the Sociedad goal. Only one scrambled save  in the second half presented any test for the Chilean goalkeeper:-

Atleti Shots

Atleti Shots            

The graphic also highlights the tendency for Atleti to focus their attacks from their left,  an area that will be explored.

Atleti Take Ons

Atleti began the second half with greater intensity to their play, moving the ball quicker and placed the Real defence under some early pressure. With a lack of creativity in the ranks, Atleti often attempted take ons against their opponents but this provided little success either. From 18 takes ons attempted, just six were successful.

The graphic below shows this in addition to identifying the location of the take ons:-

Atleti Take Ons

Atleti Take Ons 

Too much of the Atleti attack focussed on the left wing with Diego Costa drifting across there and supported by Rodriguez in the first half. The same balance is not found on the right where Arda Turan drifts inward and adopts a central position leaving Juanfran alone on the right to offer width.

Although Xabi Prieto scored the solitary goal arriving on the Atleti left, the move began on the Atleti right with Griezmann releasing the pass to Prieto.

Real Sociedad always had options on their left, the Atleti right, during the game.

Simeone made a number of substitutions later on to try and forge a way back int the game but the moves gave Atleti a muddled look with an even greater imbalance on the left prevalent. Play was no longer constructed but revolved around a series of balls into the box or trying to take an opponent on. There was nobody orchestrating play from midfield forward. Nobody probing the Real defence.


Simeone will now gain a better understanding of the mental resilience of his players. Having led Madrid all season, they now find themselves playing catch up as the season moves into the final stretch.

It also provides glimpse into the future for Atleti under Simeone. Teams will increasingly defend deep against them and force Atleti to take the initiative. In such games, Simeone must develop alternative strategies in all likelihood aided by a more creative central player. Such a move may disrupt the double pivot which he favours but it could become an invaluable weapon in his arsenal.

Real Sociedad began this season with six defeats in their first ten league games but the defeat of Atleti marked their third away win in a row.

Montanier has struck the balance, the dividing line between being overly conservative during games and adopting a counter attacking strategy, one in which the players are able to express themselves and display their personality. The final Champions League place is now there for the taking, if La Real can prove they are the real deal.

Man Utd vs Real Madrid – Decisions, decisions.

An enthralling encounter at Old Trafford that produced a fascinating tactical battle. Whilst much debate will surround the referee and the dismissal of Nani in the 56th minute, that was not the sole reason why this contest altered direction. This article will focus on three issues in the game and a fourth topic on the fall out.

Man Utd Shape – As Madrid play Barcelona, so too will Man Utd play Madrid.

Even allowing for Ferguson surprising many with his starting eleven and the decision to keep Rooney on the bench, the key point from the outset was the strategy being employed. Just as Real Madrid approach clasico’s now, allowing Barcelona to have possession with a mid-level block and only pressing when they enter your territory, Man Utd would perform a similar tactical ploy against them. A tactical “what goes around comes around” from Ferguson albeit without the desired final outcome.

One of the key issues pre-match focused around the ability of Man Utd to play a patient, disciplined defensive form the outset to frustrate Madrid. The side selected produced a tactically superb performance for 56 minutes.

Giggs, making his 1,000th career appearance, began on the right to support Rafael who was tracking Ronaldo. In the first leg, Rooney had let Coentrao escape his attention on three separate occasions and the side narrowly avoided punishment. These were errors which Giggs would not replicate.

The graphic below shows Man Utd interceptions:-

Man Utd Interceptions

Man Utd Interceptions

The majority of interceptions arrived on the Man Utd right where Rafael and Giggs performed well. They were also aided by Madrid’s passing coming via the central defenders and not Alonso as discussed later.

The central midfield composed Carrick and Cleverly with Nani on the left, stationed higher than Giggs on the opposite side in an attempt to take advantage of Arbeloa’s lack of attacking intent. The full back is more conservative enabling Nani to focus more on his offensive ambitions.

Wellbeck was behind Van Persie with the task of suppressing Alonso. It was a task which he performed extremely well whilst still offering an attacking outlet, bursting from a deep position at pace.

Xabi Alonso – The Conductor

Has Xabi Alonso ever produced a quieter first half?

The deep lying playmaker attempted just 20 passes and completed just 14 as he found himself being squeezed, principally by Wellbeck with assistance from Van Persie.

Man Utd were content to allow both Varane and Ramos to have possession and bring the ball forward with Wellbeck and Van Persie positioned either side of Alonso and ready to close him down. Mourinho must have anticipated this to an extent, as Alonso seldom altered his position during the first half, remaining deep and allowing Arbeloa and Coentrao to move higher on the flanks.

The graphic below shows Alonso’s first half passes:-

Alonso Passes First Half

Alonso Passes First Half

The majority of passes are very short and any longer passes tended to be inaccurate, a consequence of being pressed quickly but also Man Utd controlling space effectively in their final third.

As the first half wore on, the quality which Alonso brings to the side becomes more prevalent. Build up play slows down as they enter the Man Utd half and there is no pattern to attack. The orchestra has lost its conductor.

As soon as Man Utd were reduced to 10 men, Xabi Alonso immediately benefited. His shadow, Danny Wellbeck, was repositioned onto the left wing and Alonso had space to move forward, collect passes and begin probing and building play with his customary diagonal passing which stretches opponents.

The man who would benefit most though, was still on the bench but would be quickly introduced at the expense of Alvaro Arbeloa.

Luka Modric – Impact and Effectiveness

As soon as Man Utd were deuced to 10 men, Mourinho responded by withdrawing Arbeloa and introducing Modric.

The Croatian had an immediate impact with a driving forward run, easily side stepping Michael Carrick and scoring the equaliser from 22 yards out. He was able to link play and stretch Man Utd across the whole pitch as he completed 32 passes out of 33 attempted.

The graphic below shows his passes:-

Modric Passes

Modric Passes

Yet it’s worth considering why this was Modric’s best performance in a Real Madrid jersey. Why was he able to influence the game so effectively when he has struggled in La Liga. The answer is probably that he was facing only 10 men and had space to play as Man Utd collapsed onto the edge of their penalty area after a period of about 10minutes incessant pressure from Madrid. Modric found the space that he is so often denied in Spain.

The decision to introduce Modric was the correct one. Arbeloa was sacrificed an Khedira moved to a right wing back position but this performance from Modric should mark the beginning of his Madrid career and not the high point. He must build upon it.

Prophets of the Past – The Revisionist Perspective

And now enter the Prophets of the Past. Those individuals who will assess the game entirely and it’s pivotal moments purely in the light of the result and the decision to dismiss Nani. Decisions before and after that moment become inconsequential as the narrative is altered to suit the pre-determined agenda.

The acquisition of Modric will be vindicated despite his inconsistent domestic form and Ferguson will avoid more probing questions regarding his tactical decisions during the game.

The outcome of this game was not decided by the red card. It was a key moment but the outcome thereafter was not inevitable. The resulting space in the midfield area was a direct consequence of a Man Utd tactical reshuffle, enabling Madrid and primarily Alonso and then Modric to begin constructing play.

That Modrid was only introduced after the red card is worthy of closer scrutiny. Why not introduce him when Di Maria was removed through injury? Why was Kaka chosen to come on when both play centrally and Ozil was shuffled to the right? Does Mourinho still not rate the Croatian that highly? Or does he recognise that in tight spaces, the effectiveness of Modric is reduced?

Man Utd played Madrid perfectly; to a point. By closing out Alonso and allowing Madrid possession in safe areas, they reduced the effectiveness of Madrid and falling back to a low block greatly altered Madrid’s tempo when they entered the final third.

In the aftermath of this game, the tactical success that Man Utd enjoyed until the dismissal of Nani must not be forgotten. Ferguson has established a template for defeating Real Madrid. True, some sides such as Jurgen Klopps’ Borussia Dortmund will attack them but for the vast majority, the plan to be followed has now been clearly identified.

But equally, should questions not be asked of Ferguson’s response to his side being reduced to 10 men?

Just as Mourinho reacted quickly, introducing Modric and seizing the initiative, could Ferguson have taken an alternative course of action? Given how crucial controlling Alonso had been, should Wellbeck have remained positioned on him leaving Khedira free on the right wing instead?

The German does not possess the same passing range as his midfield counterpart. It would have been a risk enabling Khedira and Ozil to combine on the right but it was a significantly greater risk allowing Alonso time and space. Evra would have been told to stay back and retain shape with assistance from Cleverly.

Could Van Persie have been sacrificed with an additional player such as Kagawa in midfield to enable Man Utd to hold out? Perhaps even introducing Evans as a third centre back for 30 minutes permitting Celverly and Carrick to run and harass the Madrid pairing of Alonso and Modric.

It’s all entirely hypothetical of course but there is the lingering thought that as good as Ferguson’s initial team selection had been, when key decision were made correctly, when Mourinho reacted and forced the issue, allowing for the mitigating circumstances, Ferguson failed to respond.

Mourinho’s assertion following the match that:-

“Independent of the decision, the best team lost. We didn’t deserve to win but football is like this”

is easy to say when you win. Would he have been so magnanimous if Madrid had vacated the tournament?

For Madrid, there remain questions. Mourinho has built an excellent side but has he now tweaked his side to achieve one aim and one aim only; the defeat of Barcelona.

And in doing so has Madrid lost sight of the requirements to break down sides who adopt a defensive approach with a low block?

Does Madrid possess an alternative course of action? When Man Utd tightened up during the second half in the Bernabeu and followed a similar gameplan for 56 mines last night, Madrid were bereft of ideas.

Mourinho and Madrid still have time to address this area as they enter the quarter finals, their pursuit of la decima still intact following a thorough examination.

Real Madrid vs Barcelona – Tactical Analysis – Deja Vu

After Madrid’s convincing win over their rivals in the Copa del Rey fixture midweek, the clubs renewed hostilities in the league albeit with little at stake due to Barcelona’s 16 point lead. Both sides minds were firmly fixed on forthcoming Champions League games.

And it appeared to be a serous case of Deja Vu. It was as if the midweek clash in the Copa del Rey had never occurred. Barcelona changed a couple of players yet set about their task with the exact same game plan which played perfectly into the hands of a mainly fringe Real Madrid side.

Line Ups

As expected, both sides made a number of changes to their respective starting line ups for this game but the extent to which Mouirnho made changes surprised many observers.

Madrid chose to rest Alonso completely as he continues to nurse a minor injury whilst Arbeloa, Khedira, Di Maria, Higuain, Ozil and Ronaldo all began life on the bench

Essien moved in at right back with Pepe in a defensive midfield role.

Real Madrid vs Barcelona Starting Line Up

Real Madrid vs Barcelona Starting Line Up

Roura brought Mascherano and Thiago into the side for the injured duo of Puyol and Xavi. Villa started with Cesc on the bench.

For Madrid, this game, as important as a clasico is, was entirely secondary to Tuesday night in Manchester. Whilst Barcelona needed a performance more than anything in this game following recent disappointments.

Possession, Possession, Possession

Once more in a clasico, Barcelona dominate possession but Real Madrid possess a much greater attacking threat. The possession stats look anomalous. Barcelona made 631 passes from 701 attempted as they gained 63% possession they they scarcely looked like scoring aside from their one goal. Madrid meanwhile, only made 186 successful passes but carried a real attacking threat borne out by their 14 attempts at goal. Strangely, all of their attempts came from the left to centre positions. No shots originated from the right.

David Villa started but is becoming increasingly marginalised and wasted in a wide left position. This may offer Barcelona tactical width but Madrid were unconcerned by him and retained their defensive shape. The lack of a central reference point, somebody who can make runs and occupy and stretch opposing central defenders is a major obstacle now.

The inability or reluctance to to shoot at goal is becoming something of an issue for Barcelona. The graphic below shows their shots at goal in this game:-

Barcelona Shots

Barcelona Shots             

Barcelona managed five attempts in 90 minutes yet Ronaldo could muster six attempts in a brief 32 minute cameo.

Quite simply, Barcelona appear to be content with possession for possession’s sake but there must be an end product. There is no point in passing the ball. The 30th minute summed up Barcelona’s approach. Messi and Iniesta exchanged a series of passes about 10 yards inside the Madrid half under no pressure. Why should Madrid charge in and press their opponent thus opening up space?

Apart from Messi’s goal, the only other shot on target from Barcelona arrived due to an error by Madrid.

The heat map below is further evidence of Barcelona’s inability to enter the opposition penalty area. Barcelona dominate the middle of the pitch:-

Barcelona Heat Map

Barcelona Heat Map           

There are two issues for Barcelona to address.

1. If Barcelona are intent on continuing such an approach then they must tempt the opponent out by building play deeper. They force the opponent deep and contribute to their own downfall. Construct play deeper and allow the opponent to move forward. It carries risks but also rewards.

2. Barcelona must develop a greater sense of dynamism and verticality to their game. Too often the movement is lateral. They need to adopt a little of what makes Real Madrid so good; the explosive pace and movement on counter attacks. Barcelona will not counter like Madrid with the players they presently possess but they can increase the tempo and counter. Forgo the control for that riskier pass every now and then. Take the chance.

Work Ethic

Real Madrid set up with a broadly similar set up to that which worked against Barcelona midweek. The main difference this time being that whereas Ronaldo and Higuain were less inclined to track back, Morata and Benzema recovered position quickly and dropped deep.

The performance of Callejon was one of complete discipline and intelligence. The forward sacrificed himself for the team, undertaking his defensive tasks with diligence and completely nullifying Alba in the process. Callejon made two successful tackles in the game, both occurring deep within his own half.

The heat map below shows his time more or less split between both halfs:-

Callejon Heat Map

Callejon Heat Map

There was something almost Saachian about this Real Madrid performance today. So often the side was very compact with the whole team being within about 25 meters from defence to attack. Lines were compact and the team defended as one unit before bursting forward when they became more open.

The graphic below shows the Real Madrid side in position when Barcelona have possession at the halfway line:-

Real Madrid Defensive Positions

Real Madrid Defensive Positions

To retain discipline and organisation for the full 90 minutes requires a superb collective effort from all the players. And yet again, a Madrid side prevented Barcelona from creating many genuine opportunities. This was not a park the bus performance, it was a Rolls Royce performance.

The Goals

Madrid opened the scoring after just five minutes. Ramos intercepted a Thiago pass near the halfway line and released Morata who making his clasico debut. The young forward beat Alves far too easily on the left and whipped in a cross to the far post where Benzema had run off Mascherano and knocked the ball home. Alba was five or six yards further back when he should have been much closer to his central defender. It is a goal so typical of Madrid. Gain possession and swiftly attack before the opponent can regain shape. It’s the exact sort of goal that Barcelona seldom score.

Too often recently Barcelona have lacked penetration with no player making runs in behind an opponent to stretch their defence. David Villa provided this to an extent against Sevilla even though he spent considerable time on the left. The equalising goal arrived when Messi made a surging run forward and latched onto Alves through ball. Cutting to the inside of Ramos, Messi beat Lopez at his near post far too easily. The keeper really should have saved the effort.

Messi becomes the first player to score in 16 consecutive Liga games and also equalled Di Stefano’s record of 18 goals in the clasico. It was the one bright spot for Barcelona.

Sergio Ramos scored the winning goal. For the third clasico in a row, Barcelona concede a goal via a header. The ease with which Ramos beat Pique in the air was considerable,demonstrating a gap in the physique and power between the sides.

Where Now?

With two wins in a row under their belts, Madrid can head to Manchester in fine fettle for the real game that matters to them against Man Utd in the Champions League. Having said that, it will be a strong boost that a team containing to many squad players, albeit hugely talented squad players, can see off Barcelona without any real examination.

For Barcelona, a period of greater introspection is needed.

The illness of Vilanova had pushed Jordi Roura into the limelight. Clearly uncomfortable with the role and now clearly struggling in the role, the primary concern Barcelona face is overcoming Milan in the Champions League. To do so though, requires recognition of the issues facing the side and an ability to make key alterations mid-game. Thus far, Roura has not demonstrated either skill.

At this precise moment, decisions that Barcelona take off the park could prove to be as important as decisions they make on it.


For such a meaningless game, as if any clasico could ever be completely meaningless, there are significant ramifications for each partner.

Despite being a game with lower than normal intensity, a win is still important. The 16 point gap between the sides being narrowed to just 13 points will have no bearing on the title but this game, and midweek, is further confirmation, if it were needed, that there is no inferiority complex from this Madrid side when the face Barcelona. It is now Barcelona who are left to wonder how they will defeat their rivals from the capital.