Espanyol vs Barcelona – 100 not out?

Another Catalan derby and another Barcelona victory but this one was different.

Sure, Espanyol have lost to their city rivals before, and by much greater margins, but they have always done so on their own terms. Prepared to have a go at the opposition especially under Pochettino. This was all a little too tame.

Line Ups

Aguirre named his usual starting line up for Espanyol with one slight alteration. The normal 4-2-3-1 was abandoned for something more along with line of a 4-4-1-1 with Verdu playing behind lone striker Sergio Garcia.

Espanyol vs Barcelona Starting Line Ups

Espanyol vs Barcelona Starting Line Ups

There were a few changes in the Barcelona side with Thiago and Song starting in midfield whilst the forward line was Villa, Fabregas and Sanchez.

The game delivered very little except a comfortable Barcelona victory. Espanyol were too meek against their more illustrious opponents. There was an edge lacking from the home side’s play. The side with the worst disciplinary record in La Liga never showed that aggressive side and when Wakaso did, it was for complaining to the referee resulting in his second caution. From the 38 tackles that Espanyol attempted in the game, 23 of these occurred in the first half. As the game progressed, Espanyol fell off the pace. Barcelona coasted to victory without any requiring to hit a high level of form.

Espanyol Submit

Despite a very bright opening in which the home side pressed and harassed their rivals, Espanyol soon dropped off. In the 2nd minute, Espanyol pushed very high forcing Valdes to kick long from a goal kick. The hosts pushed high as a unit with their midfield four working very hard to close their opponents down and prevent them from having time and space on the ball to build. Despite the tactic showing positive signs, it was not maintained.

The high press never continued. Espanyol dropped off and suffered the consequences with the Blaugrana taking control both in terms of possession and territory. The graphic below shows player influence during the game:-

Espanyol vs Barcelona Player Influence

Espanyol vs Barcelona Player Influence

Dani Alves is alone on the right side and yet manages to subdue both Capdevila and Wakaso for the majority of the game. This was partly due to Espanyol deliberately conceding space on the flanks to stay narrow and compact centrally. The problem was, the defence and midfield were compact but Verdu and Garcia are left higher up and disconnected. Sergio Garcia is isolated and was left to chase lost causes on a frustrating night for the striker.

The home side moved too deep, too quickly and with nothing to hold on to.

Espanyol Stay Too Deep

This was the  main issue for Espanyol. Moving too deep so early on. Despite losing the opening goal to Alexis Sanchez in the 13th minute, Espanyol never altered this approach. The goal itself owes much to the individual skill and determination of Sanchez. In what has been a very poor season for the forward, his goal in the 13th minute was a timely reminder of what he can produce. Espanyol had an abundance of bodies around the forward yet he still evaded tackles and managed to curl his shot into the far corner.

The graphic below captures how Espanyol were playing by considering their interceptions:-

Espanyol vs Barcelona Player Interceptions

Espanyol vs Barcelona Player Interceptions

From 20 interceptions, 15 were made in their own half as the side dropped off Barcelona. Beyond that however, 10 interceptions were made in the congested central area some 25 yards from goal where Espanyol were packing bodies. The side remained defensive. Barcelona had space on the flanks from where Sanchez instigated and scored the opening goal.

It does lead to questions. Espanyol are safe from relegation but kept a disciplined, conservative approach throughout. Should they have offered more? Should Aguirre have let the side open up? It may have led to a defeat but at least it would have been a defeat on their own terms as opposed to a defeat from a Barcelona side that bossed the game and were seldom placed upon any great pressure. At the very least, the side should have pushed higher up the pitch to offer support to Verdu and Garcia but they never did.

The Heir to Xavi?

The game provided Thiago Alcantara with a rare starting appearance with Xavi on the bench. As the lynchpin of the Barcelona side gets older and as injuries take their toll, Thiago should see more game time to both aid his development and offer Xavi suitable recuperation time.

It has not always been like that this season. Xavi has played too often, to both his detriment and that of Thiago to the extent whereby there are now transfers rumours linking the young midfielder with a move elsewhere. Patience, it seems, is not his greatest quality.

The graphic below shows Thaigo’s passes during the game:-

Thiago Passes

Thiago Passes

Let’s be clear from the outset, Thiago is not a natural replacement for Xavi. The young midfielder brings different qualities to the game. More prepared to attack opponents with surging runs forward, he offers a greater vertical threat and less overall game control than Xavi.

There is still a slackness to his play at time though. A general lackadaisical attitude when making some passes in non-dangerous areas of the pitch. When you enter the final third, passes will always go astray but in safe areas, this issue must be worked upon. This can be seen with the location of misplaced passes detailed above.

The Final Game

The dream, however far fetched it may have seemed given their early season predicament, of European football has ended for Espanyol. In truth, their recent form suggest that once los pericos were safe from relegation, the players switched off. Four defeats and just one draw in their last five games provides evidence of that. The exertions of avoiding relegation appearing to have taken their toll on the side.

For Barcelona, there is one game left at home to Malaga in what is likely to be Pellegrini’s final game in charge. Win and Barcelona reach 100 points in a season, breaking their own club record of 99 points and equaling the league record set by Real Madrid just last season.

But Pellegrini has spoiled a potential party at the Camp Nou before when his Villarreal side held Barcelona to a 3-3 draw and prevented them winning the title on home soil. And earlier this season, Malaga gained a 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey.

Could the Chilean mastermind another performance at the Camp Nou for his last hurrah with Malaga?

Building for a Real Future?

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

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

La Real Dominate

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

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

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

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

Sociedad vs Madrid Shots

Sociedad vs Madrid Shots

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

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

Player Selection

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

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

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

Sociedad vs Madrid Line Ups

Sociedad vs Madrid Line Ups

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

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

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

Montanier Departing?

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

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

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

Is 5th a Success?

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

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

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

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

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

Depor vs Atleti – Is the Great Escape Still on?

A game at the Riazor on Saturday evening which offered so much and yet delivered so little as both sides played out a fairly uneventful goalless draw.

Line Ups

Fernando Vasquez made a number of changes form the side which drew away to Real Betis. Both Silvio and Pizzi were unable to player against their parent club and were replaced by Camunas and Ayoze. With Aguilar unavailable, Bergantinos took his place and Castro started ahead of Kaka in central defence.

Deportivo vs Atletico Starting Line Ups

Deportivo vs Atletico Starting Line Ups

There were two changes for Atleti with Diego Costa being suspended, his replacement was Adrian. Rodriguez came in for Koke.

The change in personnel meant a change in system for Simeone’s men. Movement away from the 4-4-2 which they have utilised recently and back to the 4-2-3-1 which served them so well early in the season with Raul Garcia positioned behind Falcao.

Shape

The most striking feature of this game from just how narrow and clogged Depor were. The graphic below shows the average player positions for the game:-

Depor vs Atleti Influence

Depor vs Atleti Influence

Atleti tried to press at times but if they lost possession, they tended to drop off and regain shape. Occasionally they pressed but not with any real conviction.

There was an industriousness to Depor with players tracking back and working diligently closing space. The problem though is that when players track back, there is nobody in attack when they win the ball and thus the team were not really able to move high as a unit and exert real pressure on Atleti.

Atleti Dropping Deep

One of the important aspects behind Atleti’s success thus far, and particularly, early on in the season has been their ability to control space and limit the opposition from getting too close to their goal. It also means that Atleti are poised to counter attack quickly through short passing. The team sits in two banks of four and becomes difficult to break down.

The graphic below highlights the tackles both side attempted during the game. Whereas Depor are making tackles very deep within their half, Atleti are more structured in the tackles they make, almost forming a barrier:-

Depor vs Atleti Tackles

Depor vs Atleti Tackles

Atleti close opponents down and tackle midway inside their own half. The difference as the season has progressed as been that Atleti have dropped off opponents much quicker to regain shape.

Look at how the tackles above compare to when the two sides met at the Calderon back in December:-

Atleti vs Depor Tackles 091212

Atleti vs Depor Tackles 091212

Atleti were making far more tackles in their opponents half of the field. True, Atleti have been more conservative away from home but dropping deeper present a couple of problems. Firstly, it isolates Falcao and moves away from the side being compact and having quick, short passes being interchanged. Secondly, it limits the ability to hit on transitions with much further to travel to the opponents goal.

The use of Diego Costa has facilitated this change with the side deeper and hitting more long passes towards the front man for him to pursue into the channels. Strange as it may seem having said that, Atleti could have done with the Brazilian on Saturday evening even if it was just for some of his more unsavoury habits to win up the opposition and gain a slight advantage.

Lack of Attacking Threat

This game was bogged down in the middle of the pitch with neither side really offering any creative outlet. Even Valeron was unable to inspire with the central area so crowded.

There were only three attempts on target in the whole game, all from Depor and all from outside of the penalty area as shown on the graphic below:-

Depor vs Atleti Shots

Depor vs Atleti Shots

Godin had Atleti’s best chance in the 27th minute but hesitated and Castro was able to block. Los Rojiblancos could not pressure a nervous looking Depor defence in the early stages of the game with the experienced Aranzubia looking particularly susceptible.

Valeron was slightly deeper for a Depor side who clearly missed Aguilar’s ability to recycle possession timeously. Without the Colombian, Bergantinos was an adequate replacement defensively but unable to construct attacks leaving a void to be filled. Camunas could not offer the attacking verve of Pizzi, operating further back with subsequent loss of balance for Depor.

These factors combined with the problems which Atleti were experiencing as detailed above and the game moved towards a midfield stalemate and the inevitable scoreless draw.

Moving on up?

Depor are now undefeated in their last seven league games with four wins and three draws yet this superb run of form has been unable to lift them clear of the relegation zone with surrounding teams also enjoying favourable results. And it’s been three draws in a row now for Depor. Are they losing momentum at the wrong moment?

The next two games must see Depor collect points away to Valladolid and at home to Espanyol. After this the Galicians finish with Malaga and Real Sociedad. Teams who will still have something to play for.

For Atleti, the season is begging to fizzle out. Simeone must keep his men sharp ahead of the Copa del Rey final and some rotation would not go amiss at this stage. Rotation which could, coincidentally, aid Depor’s Galician neighbours with Atleti facing Celta next.

Simeone knows the areas he must address for next season; the lack of creativity from the central area. It’s a tricky situation to get right however as he must find a creative player who can play at the same tempo of the team during transitions and not alter the dynamic.