Nigeria vs Spain: Some Thoughts

Spain progress from the group stage of the Confederations Cup with a perfect record of three wins from three games with this victory in Fortaleza. If the Spanish press were particularly enthusiastic after the opening game against Uruguay, their reaction to a sluggish, lethargic performance against Nigeria, despite the final scoreline flattering La Roja, would be interesting to say the least.

Spain opened brightly before falling away quite sharply. With greater quality in the final third, Nigeria could have asked some serious questions of the Spanish.

Line Ups

Spain coach del Bosque made changes to his starting line up yet against after the heavy defeat of Tahiti. Only Sergio Ramos remained which meant the Real Madrid defender has started all three games. The remainder of the team that had defeated Uruguay returned with the one exception being Valdes replacing Casillas in goal.

Nigeria vs Spain Starting Line Ups

Nigeria vs Spain Starting Line Ups

Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi named his strongest available line up for a game that Nigeria had to win following their narrow defeat to Uruguay.

Spain Flattered

An unusual occurrence at the final whistle of this game arrived in the shape of a scoreline which, on the balance of the quality of chances created, probably flattered Spain.

La Roja started brightly and Iniesta had a shot well saved in the opening minute with Alba providing a supporting run. An early warning sign that was repeated just two minutes later when the marauding left back opening the scoring. Whilst his run was superb, the Nigerian defence should have dealt with him as he cut in centrally but any attempts to tackle him were poor at best. This should not deflect from the crucial moment in the development of the goal. The movement and positioning of Fabregas, Iniesta and Pedro.

Fabregas instigates the move when he plays a forward pass from a deep position enabling Iniesta and Pedro to combine. Both Barcelona players are very central, with Pedro completely vacating his right wing berth to link up. The movement of all three players helps create the chance which Alba converts.

And this set the tone for the opening 15 minutes. Spain pressed high up the pitch and recovered their position quickly against a Nigerian team that didn’t really counter that quickly. Then, Spain began to fade. The pressing dropped off and their general play lessened. Nigeria were able to build moves. Valdes was pressed at every opportunity and forced to kick long.

Nigeria created some half chances from cross balls but the required quality at the final moment was missing from their play and prevented them converting some of the chances they were creating. Mikel prompted play with some driving forward runs from midfield, a position that he occupies for Nigeria rather than his limited role with Chelsea. Musa continued his trend at this tournament of shooting yet failing to hit the target.

In the second half when Spain did increase the tempo once more, Torres scored his fifth goal of the tournament following fine play by David Silva moving laterally across the pitch and opening up space for Pedro to whip in a first time cross. The Nigerians still created and squandered chances with Gambo failing to convert the best opportunity in the 74th minute. The game ebbed away thereafter and Alba scored the most of the most unusual goals you may ever see in an international game. David Villa took a free kick in the left back area and found Alba, the most advanced Spanish player who was crossing the halfway line and who ran through on goal before rounding Enyeama.

Trial Run?

With no Xabi Alonso in the squad due to injury, del Bosque has now opted to play with just Sergio Busquets as the sole defensive midfielder in all three group games. The move away from the doble pivote system has been praised by some who criticised a system that has delivered a World Cup and a European Championship.

Is del Bosque trialling a system for use when Spain combat more defensive opponents or will does he not trust a doble pivote of Busquets and Martinez?

This has enabled him to field a midfield comprised of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta in their normal positions releasing Iniesta from his wide left position with the national side and letting him flourish with driving runs forward from midfield as well as sharing the creative burden with Xavi.

The mid level block that Nigeria used offered space in behind the defence and Spain attempted to utilise this with a more vertical approach at times. The movement of Alba, Pedro and Soldado provides options but this tactic needs to be considered more often. Soldado has being deployed as a true number 9 and supported by Fabregas who plays behind him and has the freedom to move across the pitch laterally as well as horizontally, and Pedro who comes in off the right wing to form a front two on occasion. This system offers Spain tremendous fluidity in the attacking third but it also comes at a price.

Whilst this may please some sections of the media with their consideration of what constitutes attacking play, this verticality weakens the control of Spain. Defence splitting passes are harder to execute successfully. With a risky pass the rewards may be potentially greater but so are the consequences. The opposition gets the ball back more often. With only one defensive midfielder, the defence has less cover. To ensure the defence is adequately protected, the side must press from the front and do so in a coordinated fashion.  And in hot and humid temperatures, no team wants to be pressing hard.

Performance Levels

Nigeria arrived at the Confederations Cup less than 48 hours before their opening group game against Tahiti. Despite the 6-1 win over the minnows, the performance was nowhere near good enough. An improved performance but a defeat followed against Uruguay which left Keshi’s troops to produce what was arguably their best performance of their tournament against Spain.

The current African Cup of Nations holders tackled the game in the correct manner with a mid level block that affords space behind the defensive line but it’s a risk worth taking to keep the defensive and midfield lines tight together. The compact unit becomes harder to play through and combined with Spain’s general malaise, Nigeria coped relatively well.

Their late arrival due to a World Cup qualifier may not have been ideal preparation but the inclusion of so many young Nigerian based players. You have to wonder if the Super Eagles could have claimed a better result against Uruguay had their preparation for this tournament not coincided with such a vital fixture.

Another factor which will surely influence games next year and which has had a noticeable effect on players has been the heat and humidity in some stadiums compared to others. Over such a large country with differing climatic conditions, players may need to adjust quite quickly to searing temperatures for fixtures. Acclimatising to such conditions will surely be at the forefront of many national teams who may want to arrive a little earlier than usual next summer.

Deja Vu?

A semi final against the Azzuri awaits Spain in Fortaleza in a few days time. The focus will be upon the Italians and how they can eliminate the psychological scars from their 4-0 defeat to Spain in the European Championship final just one year ago. A viewpoint that conveniently erases the 1-1 draw during the group phase of the same tournament.

Will Spain continue with the more attacking gameplan or will a fixture against a more tactically astute opponent with players who can execute that plan lead to an alteration in the Spanish system?

The Italians will not arrive in Fortaleza with any inferiority complex. If Spain don’t lift their performance levels on Thursday evening, the Confederations Cup will once again slip from within their grasp as it did in South Africa four years ago.

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Engineering Change

“I have a commitment to make Manchester City my priority. I have a verbal agreement with them and I hope it is carried out”

 And so, one of the worst kept secrets in football, is finally confirmed. Manuel Pellegrini will be the new coach of Manchester City after agreeing a 3 year deal at the club. Actually, there’s little point discussing anything else, is there? Following the endless speculation, the conjecture and the fall out from Mancini’s dismissal, Pellegrini has eventually been confirmed as the Italian’s successor. Given the prolonged nature of this appointment, everything that needs to be said already has been said. Pellegrini failed at Real Madrid after spending over £200m, didn’t he? He’s only ever won one trophy in Europe and that was the Intertoto cup back in 2004. What “success” he enjoyed at Malaga and Villarreal was built upon the back of considerable spending. And look at the financial mess both clubs are in now. Sadly, we cannot all write for the mainstream tabloids. Some of us actually watch European football and delve a little deeper than the mere production of superficial nonsense designed to illicit a response and sell copy.

Leaving aside the appointment of Pellegrini for a moment, the critics will argue about the supposed long term plan at City. Is this really evidence of a plan? The lavish spending (thus far) of over £40million on two players? This isn’t the future that UEFA had in mind when designing Financial Fair Play. It’s just more of the same from Manchester City and nothing new. This isn’t a brave new world it’s just window dressing to cover the lack of progress the club is making. Very expensive window dressing.

Expensive Indulgence

A side in the north of England attempting to mimic a club on the coast of Spain ? This is an ego trip fuelled by the extravagance of owners whose wealth knows no bounds. This is vanity, which is how a number in the media may interpret it, poised to print the pre-written obituary of Pellegrini and others when the bricks come tumbling down. And the bricks may well come tumbling down but that should not disguise the clear strategy that Man City has and which they are following.

The comparisons with Spain (and ultimately Barcelona) are inevitable when City have appointed men like Ferran Soriano Compte and Aitor ‘Txiki’ Begiristain Mujik, both of whom are previous employees of the Catalan side. Begiristain was the man responsible for the appointment of Josep Guardiola as the new Coach of Barcelona back in 2008 when others on the Board felt Mourinho was a better fit for the side.

In attempting to construct a new philosophy at the club, it’s unavoidable to an extent that you will turn to men who had helped you in the past and who share your vision. That’s why City was interested, along with other elite sides, of appointing Guardiola as their new Coach. When it was confirmed that Guardiola would move elsewhere, City needed an alternative. Somebody who would fit with their vision for the club over the longer term and who would mould the side on the pitch accordingly. It was no surprise that Begiristain returned to La Liga nor was it that surprising that Pellegrini was his chosen candidate.

The club now aim to install a possession based, attacking game across the board. Each level of the club will follow the same model. The ultimate goal is to be both successful and to complement the first team with players developed by the club. Manual Pellegrini has been tasked with the early stages of construction. He is highly unlikely to be around once construction is complete but the stage from initial project inception to laying the foundations correctly can often be the most difficult aspect.

The Engineer

A graduate of the University of Santiago in Civil Engineering, the Chilean began his coaching career in his homeland in 1988 with spells in Ecuador and Argentina following before Villarreal came calling in 2004. Pellegrini won his first and only piece of silverware in European football during his debut season with the successful defence of the Intertoto Cup. The yellow submarine also finished 3rd in the league and progressed to the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup.

Manuel Pellegrini

Manuel Pellegrini

The following season would witness Villarreal reaching the semi final of the Champions League. Riquelme’s missed penalty late in the second leg enabled Arsenal to progress to the final via a 1-0 aggregate win. This remains the furthest stage a team debuting in the competition has reached.

Domestically, the high point for the Chilean arrived in 2007/08 when Villarreal finished second to Real Madrid in La Liga. Villarreal remain the last side to split the big two in Spain , an accomplishment which should not be degraded. In a country where finishing third will earn you less TV income than a side being relegated from the Premiership, the financial disparity between the big two and the remainder should not be underestimated. The gap was bridged and that too by the production of stylish football.

Yet this relative “success” was built upon the back of President Roig’s generosity. When things went bad, Pellegrini who had overseen the good timeshad long since abandoned ship. Right?

Roig’s business began encountering financial problems at the onset of the recession, with the housing crash in Spain causing particular problems. This forced Villarreal to begin following a new financial model. Pellegrini had long since gone by the time of their relegation. As for the spending, Pellegrini’s net spend at Villarreal was just £11million.

At Malaga , he arrived to oversee a new project being built upon Middle Eastern riches. Except the money tap was quickly switched off and Malaga endured a series of financial problems which required the offloading of numerous players whilst others waited for wages. The Engineer repaired the team to ensure progression to the quarter finals of the Champions League (the second furthest stage a team debuting in the competition has reached) and a 6th placed league finish. Pellegrini’s net spend at Malaga was just £16million. When the left back Monreal was sold to Arsenal in the winter transfer window and with the alternative left back Eliseu injured, the club acquired Antunes on loan from Pacos in Portugal . A new component for the team who fitted in seamlessly. It’s not about the money he has to spend. It’s about the qualities of the players both on and off the pitch.

“We wanted players with sufficient maturity, with human qualities as well as footballing ones that can help”

 

Pellegrini Tactically

“To be attacking, to try to tale control of the game, to take responsibility, to be attractive. There are small differences of course, depending on what players you have, but there is a footballing concept and a concept of spectacle that is non-negotiable”

Pellegrini has used a variety of tactical set ups during his time at Villarreal, Madrid and Malaga, ranging from 4-3-1-2 to 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1. But it has been with his 4-4-2 at both Villarreal and Malaga that his sides have often produced the best football. That may sound unusual given how we are constantly told the 4-4-2 is an entirely reactive formation, not to say an almost redundant formation at the top level, yet Pellegrini has it operating in the latter stages of the Champions League. How?

At Villarreal he moved from a 4-3-1-2 capable of utilising the skills of a classic South American style playmaker such as Riquelme and latterly Matias Fernandez to a 4-4-2 using interiores. His final season at Villarreal primarily used the 4-4-2 as shown below:-

 
 

Villarreal 4-4-2 Formation Villarreal 4-4-2 Formation

Pellegrini has always used a flat back four. The defensive unit is always well marshalled by a dominant centre half. When an opponent attacks, the defensive line, which is normally high, will drop off to the edge of the penalty area before holding firm. The offside trap is used to good effect. At Villarreal the central defensive pairing of Godin and Gonzalo were physically robust and the full backs of Javi Venta and Capdevila able to move up and down the wings.

The two defensive midfield players stay deep to offer protection and to pull wide should the opposition attack behind either full back.  This provides security but is not entirely defensive. The players must also be able to build and construct play. At Villarreal, Marcos Senna was tasked with this role.

The two wide midfield players cut in centrally to form a block of four in the centre of the pitch with the full backs advancing to provide the width. They move into the interior, hence the name “interiores”. Crucially, the two wide players must return to position for defensive duties. The two forward players meanwhile are capable of pulling wide, creating space centrally which can be attacked. Pellegrini was able to use the mobility of either Giuseppe Rossi or Nihat alongside the presence of a more powerful, physical striker such as Joseba Llorente.

The key point throughout is the availability of passing triangles. From the graphic above, when players move, you can clearly see how passing channels are open via movement. A player always has passing options available to him and the side swamp the opponent in central midfield. In such a tightly congested area, the side with the greater technical proficiency will domainate as they find team mates with short, sharp passes. This will be a Pellegrini side. The positions are not fixed either. The right interiore will move across if play is stationed wide on the left (and vice versa). The team is compact and the opponent is squeezed.

A similar philosophy developed at Malaga although the formation began to shift. In defence, the commanding presence of  Demichellis took control alongside Weligton. Both full backs were comfortable moving up the pitch but this is where the dynamic began to alter. The defensive unit was sound but in the attacking third there was a great deal of fluidity offered:-

Malaga 4-4-2 Formation Malaga 4-4-2 Formation

Eliseu on the left of midfield is a converted left back and operated more like a wing back, shuttling up and down. On the right, Isco would drive in centrally allowing the full back to overlap. Together, they would combine with Joaquin who was the striker but was beginning in a deeper position.

Pellegrini is not a coach who will instruct his side to press high and chase and harass an opponent. The Villarreal side had a South American feel to it with the tempo which they played the game and the individual components of the side. The side don’t rush to attack. It is structured, cautious, with the team moving as a coherent unit. His sides can defend resolutely as the performances in Europe of both Villarreal and Malaga demonstrated when a reactive approach was favoured allowing opponents to take the initiative.

If that’s how he operated previously, how he will operate at City remains to be seen, particularly when it appears he has been charged with implementing a 4-3-3.

With his ability to utilise the creative talents of a playmaker, David Silva could find himself in a central role in the season ahead. Silva is not the quickest player in physical terms but that will not dissuade Pellegrini from constructing the side around his creative talents if necessary.

Using full backs for width is something which City have done to date. It’s also something that has become something of an Achilles heel for them with teams exploiting the space on transitions particularly given Barry’s immobility and reluctance to be pulled wide to cover.  This is an area which must be tackled. Using two defensive midfield players will assist this but possibly not Yaya Toure. Indeed, how the Ivorian fits into the system will be a crucial element. Does he have the discipline to operate in a purely defensive fashion? Does that suit his talent best?

The defence should be straightforward with Kompany the ideal individual to use as the central starting block. Alongside him may be Nastasic with Zabaleta and Clichy as full backs. In midfield, the three could be Fernandinho, Toure and Silva. City continue to be linked with Isco from Malaga and it’s not inconceivable to field an attacking trio of Isco, Silva and Navas behind Aguero as the central striker.

Such a set up would provide an asymetrical formation with width on the right against narrow approach on the left and it would also need to combat the lack of defensive cover that Navas offers. Whatever formation is utilised, expect City to be more resolute defensively and more fluid in the attacking third. There will be a clear template to use when defending and flexibility when attacking.

Questions will remain over the long term futures of the likes of Milner, Barry, Sinclair, Rodwell, Tevez and Dzeko. An already small English core may be depleted further. Actually, it is a real possiblity that the only Englishman that City will field on a regular basis next season will be Joe Hart in goal. Such a scenario is not City’ s problem in the short term at least, but it again raises questions over the technical and tactical profiency of English players.

The More Things Change

“No one ever asked me anything about how to create a team capable of playing the kind of football I wanted to play”

The manner in which Mancini departed to be replaced by Pellegrini would be very familiar to the Chilean. A little too familiar perhaps. Similar circumstances prevailed back in 2010 when Pellegrini departed Real Madrid after just one season to be replaced by Jose Mourinho.

Pellegrini spent one season at Madrid when he spent a small fortune and achieved the princely sum of zero. Or so the story goes. Scratch a little deeper than your average tabloid journalist and you’ll find the real story.

When Pellegrini arrived at Madrid , over £200m was already spent and in some respects he was already living on borrowed time. He had no say in the players that were acquired by the club. What he did have a say in was the players he would like to retain and build his side around. Players such as Arjen Robben and Welsey Sneijder. Two players who were subsequently sold within days of Pellegrini arriving against his will.

It was clear for Pelleginri where the problems lay:-

“I can’t get anything out of an orchestra if I have the 10 best guitarists but I don’t have a pianist or a drummer”

The squad was unbalanced for the tasks ahead yet his viewpoint was ignored.

And for those who would argue if he had won trophies, he would not have been dismissed, consider exhibit A; Vicente del Bosque. Sacked after delivering two La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues in just three seasons. Pellegrini was the choice of the former Sporting Director, Jorge Valdano, a man who has clear identity when it comes to football. According to Valdano, Pellegrini was a “protagonist; he seeks to dominate possession and always attack”. Perez simply wanted a manager who would win and Pellegrini was not a “winner” but nor was Perez either. He had overseen the collection of zero trophies during his reign as President. Pellegrini was not Perez choice and favoured some players acquired by the previous President. It really was that petty at times.

Madrid spent £258 million prior to Pellegrini arriving with President Perez noting “We have to do in one year what we would normally do in three“, an idea that is at odds with the philosophy of the then incumbent in the managerial hot seat. Despite noting that he had begun laying the foundation for success which included dealing with the heavyweights in the dressing room in the shape of Guti and Raul, the Chilean was axed.

Pellegrini may only have managed Real Madrid for 48 games but he had a win percentage of 75%, which is 3% higher than a certain Chelsea manager.

“I’d like to congratulate Real Madrid , fantastic opponents and without whom we would never have reached 99 points. Pellegrini and his players have dignified our professions”

The words of Guardiola after his Barcelona side claimed the La Liga title on the final day of the season over their arch rivals.  Sentiments which were not shared by those inside the Madrid boardroom.

The Engineer Who Constructs

“To be able to build up a club, this is as important as going to an institution where you will be able to win things”

When you hear Pellegrini speak, the same themes appear consistently. The need to build, to construct a long term solution and to play aesthetically, but ultimately successful, football in the process. This is not necessarily all out attacking football. It’s considered, it’s patient but it is football with a clear personality.

Upon taking control of Malaga , he noted:-

 “I’m not interested in external ego but internal satisfaction. I’m not interested just in easy glory but in constructing something….together we are trying to build a project that is not just short term”

And that really encapsulates his overarching footballing philosophy. Why buy to acquire success if it’s short lived or unsustainable? The creation of a lengthy period of dominance fuelled by both acquisitions and the promotion of youth players from within the club must be the ideal goal. This is what the neighbours from across the city achieved under Ferguson . Players from within being promoted to the first team and supplementing quality acquisitions and it led, after a slow start, to a period of dominance which is arguably unparalleled in the English game.

Pellegrini seeks to bring footballers with human qualities to his sides and he too displays the very same qualities he desires in others. Urbane, likeable and fairly laidback, he won’t make great copy for journalists at press conferences as he acts with a professionalism and dignity that doesn’t make headlines. The manner in which he handled the constant sniping and undermining at Real Madrid is testimony to his character, as is the manner in which he has refused to be drawn in ever since whenever his Malaga side has faced los blancos.

And now, as he heads for Manchester , Pellegrini retains the same desire to continue building, acknowledging the need for a solution both on and off the pitch. The manner in which some sections of the media questioned City for claiming the need for a “holistic” solution when terminating Mancini’s contract will start to look more questionable by the day. The club have a manager who shares the ideals being espoused at boardroom level.

Upon his appointment, he noted:-

“The club has a clear vision for success both on and off the pitch and I am committed to making a significant contribution.”

Departures All Round?

It’s been plain to see where the problems lie in the Manchester City side over the past few seasons. Mancini favoured a very central approach with both wide attacking players operating as inverted wingers. This relied upon the full backs to provide width. The acquisition of Jesus Navas from Sevilla represents a departure from this viewpoint and provides a much needed tactical variation in the side’s attacking play.

And just as there have been critics of Pellegrini, there are those who are rushing to criticise Navas. Let’s be clear, the player does have his flaws. He didn’t score a single goal for Sevilla last season and his shooting has always been very poor. But that’s not why you acquire someone like Navas. You acquire him for his blistering pace and very direct nature. His repeated desire to attack the opposition full back on the outside is why you buy him. To stretch opponents defences. His presence on the touchline forces the full back out and creates gaps in a back four. The sort of gaps that a player such as David Silva can exploit.

Jesus Navas

Jesus Navas

Yet, just as Navas marks a departure for Man City and the players they have acquired, it also represents a change for Pellegrini who has rarely used wingers until he arrived at Malaga and found Joaquin. Once the golden boy of Spanish football, its fair comment to state that Joaquin never reached the heights he should have. Yet under Pellegrini in Andalusia , the winger has been reinvented as a central striker who can pull wide. And Joaquin now plays with the same smile and level of infectiousness last seen during his early days at Real Betis.

Joaquin began to operate as the second striker, cutting in from the right with a slightly deeper starting position (as shown on the diagram above) and able to drive at opponents. Freed from the shackles of defensive responsibility that comes with being a right winger, Joaquin prospered. Yet he cites Pellegrini for his both his tactical and non tactical work:-
“Everyone knows Pellegrini’s philosophy and his history but he’s a guy who gives you so much confidence, who acts with so much humility that, somehow, he always gets the best out of every player: he is the central piece in this jigsaw”

How Pellegrini uses a player such as Navas will be pivotal if City is to confront their problems from last season and present opponents with new questions.

Season 2013/14 Engineering City

Of course, none of this means Pellegrini will storm the Premiership and help City regain the title from Man Utd. His appointment simply means that the hierarchy have employed an individual who shares their visions and ideals. Progress may not be immediately obvious nor will it be solely assessed by results. Clearly, a disastrous season would have repercussions, but a trophyless season may not. Projects as ambitious as this take time.

The club have begun with the acquisitions of Navas and the Brazilian midfielder, Fernandinho. Although Begiristain will be overseeing transfer dealings, Pellegrini will have an input there too as the club build a squad capable of playing the 4-3-3 formation that they have chosen as their default.

The plans have been drawn up and the various appointments have been made. It’s time for the Engineer to start building.

Spain vs Uruguay – Business As Usual

Spain began their quest to win a fourth major international a tournament in a row with quite possibly the most emphatic 2-1 victory you will ever witness. They have now played 26 competitive games without defeat since their shock defeat to Switzerland in their opening game of the 2010 World Cup.

How good were Spain?

Sections of the Spanish media are proclaiming the first half performance as their best yet under the guidance of del Bosque. And yes, whilst Spain were very good, the poverty of the display by the Uruguayans must form part of the equation. Spain dominated this game in its entirety from start to finish with first half goals from Pedro, via a hefty deflection off Lugano, and Soldado really failing to capture the supremacy of La Roja. A late free kick from Suarez placed a rather favorable slant on the scoreline for Uruguay but this was really yet another night when Andres Iniesta stood head and shoulders above anyone else on the pitch.

From such a one-sided game, there were three interesting features worth further exploration; the Spanish set up, Uruguay’s ineffectiveness and the substitutions that occurred.

Line Ups

With no Xabi Alonso due to injury, del Bosque named what was otherwise, arguably his strongest line up right now. The absence of Alonso forced del Bosque into a change with the removal of the doble pivote that has served Spain so well in major competitions. Busquets was now positioned alone at the base of midfield.

Spain vs Uruguay Starting Line Ups

Spain vs Uruguay Starting Line Ups

For Tabarez, his side lined up in a 4-4-2. Cavani supported Suzrez with Forlan on the bench.

System

On paper, the Spanish were playing their obligatory 4-3-3 formation but in reality the system was far more fluid than that and also, far more asymmetrical. The system fluctuated from a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield to a 3-4-3 with Arbeloa and Alba operating as wing backs.  The defensive unit took care of itself with Alba always happier to push forward more often and higher than Arbeloa on the right.

With no Alonso, there was the possibility of Busquets getting isolated by Uruguay. To compensate for this, both Xavi and Iniesta played closer together. Iniesta played far more centrally than he normally does for Spain vacating the left wing berth and allowing Alba to move up and down here. The benefit of playing Iniesta in his natural position close to the centre enables him to share the burden of creativity with Xavi. Spain become harder to stop with two outlets.

Fabregas completed the diamond in midfield and operated behind Soldado as the most advanced midfielder and his movement caused problems for a very linear opponent to deal with.

Soldado remained the central reference point in attack with Pedro on the right but the winger was swift to move infield and link with team mates whilst providing space for Arbeloa to overlap. There remain questions over the suitability of Arbeloa. Too conservative going forward, opponents can provide him with space given his limited contribution in the final third but this reluctance to advance provides greater balance defensively. Could Spain really afford to have two full backs who attack relentlessly?

The inability to add to their lead must play on del Bosque’s mind however. This game should have been finished by half time instead the late strike by Suarez led to a few brief nervous moments.

Uruguay Insipid

Since their performances at the 2010 World Cup followed by the claiming of a record 15th Copa America title, it’s been something of a downward spiral for Uruguay. They find themselves mired in the middle of the pack in the current South American qualifying campaign for Brazil next year. An aging side has continued to grow old with slow gradual evolution favoured in place of the quicker, more disruptive revolution. The reason possibly being that there is nobody ready to step forward and benefit from such a revolution. The Olympic campaign was vastly underwhelming and has not identified the prospects to replace the old guard. Tabarez remains faithful to the bulk of the players who delivered the success but the momentum of the Copa triumph is waning. The recent 1-0 win over Venezuela in qualification halted a run of six qualifying games without a win which included four defeats.

Taking that into consideration, Uruguay may have been expected to enter last night’s encounter buoyed by the recent success. Instead what we witnessed was a strange, at times baffling, display from a side who appeared to be following a template to combat Spain that was identified around 3 years ago. An approach which Spain have identified and resolved.

Uruguay initially sat off Spain with pressure being applied at the halfway line but this strategy quickly gave way to la celeste dropping off even further and simply employing a low block using a 4-4-2 with Cavani and Suarez left up front. The side failed to retain possession though, badly panicking when recovering the ball and being placed under pressure by Spain. This led to the situation of being camped deep within their own half, unable to escape.

When Uruguay did break forward, the plan seemed to be for Suarez and Cavani to run into space in the channels, pulling the Spanish pairing of Ramos and Pique wide but it never materialised. Nor did any attempt to expose Busquets operating alone.

There was no intensity to Uruguay’s play, no hunger or desire. It was as if the players did not want to be there.

The low block still failed to adequately deal with the movement of Fabregas who found space between the lines to provide the assist for Soldado. Quite frankly Uruguay looked disorgansied at times which can be rarely said of a Tabarez side.

Changes

The use of Gaston Ramirez, bursting forward to support Suarez from a central position clearly failed in the first half with the Spanish swarming over their opponents centrally. He was replaced at half time by Gonzalez.

Around the middle of the second half, Tabarez made two substitutions within a short space of time which were very surprising given how the game had played out until this point. The coach opted to withdraw both his central defensive midfielders in Gargano and Perez to be replaced by the Lodeiro, to operate as a deep lying playmaker, and Forlan. This created the possibility of being cut open by Spain but with the tempo dropping considerably, no further damage was inflicted by La Roja although it was noticeable that with the game stretched and open, Spain don’t enjoy the same level of control.

With 13 minutes remaining, Javi Martinez replaced Xavi. The options for del Bosque was to return to the doble pivote and see the game out at 2-0 or continue with one defensive midfield and push one of the players into a higher role than they would normally enjoy at club level. There has been conjecture over the possibility of Busquets operating higher, demonstrating his first time vertical passing to open up opponents defences. In this event, Busquets remained in position and Martinez went further up field. Perhaps indicating that del Bosque values the defensive contribution of the Barcelona player above all else.

With hindsight, Spain should have returned to the doble pivote. The game ended with the sides stretched and this served Uruguay far better than Spain who lacked that element of control centrally which they so desire in games

Widening Gap

Two years ago this game would have been considered a serious fight between two heavyweights at the top of their profession. Since then, Spain have maintained their level whilst Uruguay have dropped off. The gap in quality between the two is now more pronounced. What promised much had the feeling of a glorified pre-season friendly as it wore on. Was Uruguay more concerned about retaining their strength for the game against Nigeria? Had they already conceded defeat before they even went on the pitch? Their meek surrender certainly lends weight to this line of thought.

Uruguay were lucky to escape with such a tight scoreline as Tabarez confessed in the press conference afterward

“Taking into account the development of the game, it could have been a catastrophic result”

Tabarez has admitted the game against Nigeria is of greater consequence to his side stating that it is “the most important of all” but even allowing for that, the manner of the capitulation last night must hurt.

Del Bosque conceded that the Spanish grew tired as the game progressed with the high levels of humidity. And if you consider gaps, how do you measure that which exists between Spain and the minnows of Tahiti? Del Bosque is expected to make wholesale changes for a game in which double figures for Spain seems inevitable.

The ability to rest players against Tahiti and possibly again against Nigeria as qualification will have been assured must be very appealing to the coach. It ensures all the squad can participate in the tournament giving fringe players some valuable game time while the key players rest.

It’s just one game and it’s only the start of the tournament but the question already has to be asked of who can stop Spain. It simply looks like business as usual.

That Was The Season, That Was.

And then the season was over.

Like that.

A football season that commenced in late August and concluded in early June. Vilanova won the title in his debut season as coach, a season punctuated by treatment for his cancer and despite Barcelona often not playing as fluently as they may like. Madrid continued to have the upper hand over Barcelona in clasico’s but seem to have forgotten how to approach games against more defensive teams. So Barcelona and Madrid finish in the top two. Same old, same old.

The real story in Spain, as ever, lay elsewhere. The battle for the European spots and the struggle to avoid relegation.

La Real enjoyed a superb second half of the season suffering just two defeats in the league to return to Champions League football for the first time in 10 seasons. Even a momentary lapse in form as the season concluded could not prevent them from pipping a Valencia side who were slumped in mid-table when Valverde replaced Pellegrino in December. Boardroom instability and financial problems reign supreme at the Mestalla once more. At least with the appointment of Djukic as Coach, Los Che have the chance to rebuild provided he is supported adequately.

When the Champions League campaign ended in controversial circumstances, the glue which Pellegrini had used to bind Malaga together began to peel away and the Andalusian’s form shaded. With an exodus likely and European football increasingly unlikely due to a UEFA penalty for financial irregularities, the side simply ran out of gas. Holding off Betis to finish in 6th place all things considered is still an achievement.

The entertaining Real Betis return to the European arena with Pepe Mel, so close to being sacked last year, still guiding them. How the squad copes over the close season will be crucial. Will Joel Campbell remain on loan? Will Benat stay at the club?

Subject to Rayo being excluded from European competition, again over financial irregularities (although given what Paco Jemez has achieved on a miniscule budget and the manner in which he has achieved it, exclusion is so harsh but could actually be a blessing) Sevilla take the final Europa League spot as Del Nido states that at least 30% of the first team should comprise cantera products in the future.

As some sides appear to be making tentative steps towards resolving financial problems, another three are plunged back into financial crisis.

Depor started the final day of the campaign in 17th position and with their fate i their own hands yet succumbed to a second relegation in three season as their Galician neighbors Celta, managed to avoid the drop under the gaze of coach Abel Resino who has since departed to be replaced by Luis Enrique.

Manolo Jimenez could not perform the same heroics he had done just last year and Real Zaragoza went down following a dreadful run of form in 2013 with two wins, six draws and 12 defeats sucking the Aragonese side down into la Segunda. Where they will be joined by Mallorca. It all seemed so far away for the Islanders when they briefly led the division before Caparros paid for the rapid decline with his job. Manzano could not stop the rot sufficiently either.

How all three cope off the pitch will be just as important as how they cope on it in over the next 12 months.

And so to the team of the season.

It’s important to note that my team of the season contains no Barcelona or Real Madrid players although given how some performed this season, maybe I should have allowed their selection purely to then not select them based upon their performances.

Instead, my team comprises players from others sides. This is, of course, an entirely subjective assessment. There will be some you agree with and some selections which you completely oppose. It’s players who have performed well within their team and who I enjoy watching. I also attempted to find players who would fit the preferred system. Therefore, with inverted wingers, I needed string overlapping full backs. The side will line up in the ubiquitous 4-2-3-1.

Goalkeeper

Courtois (Atleti)

It’s really a straight choice between Willy from Malaga and Courtois from Atleti with the Belgian getting the nod. Whereas Willy performed heroics at times, with Courtois you sense he is always capable of such feats. A dominant presence in goal for Atleti despite his young age. Atleti’s loss will be Chelsea’s gain in the longer term although in terms of his development, he is ready for first team action in London right now.

Right Back

Carlos Marinez (Real Sociedad)

A position where a player from the big two would have secured a starting berth via Dani Alves. This should not detract from the campaign that Martinez has enjoyed. Its demanding being a full back for La Real. You must provide the defensive solidity that Montanier required to use as a platform but equally, you must contribute to the attack with overlapping runs beyond an inverted winger, normally Vela. Martinez did both and not only that, he often excelled at both.

Left Back

Filipe Luis (Atleti)

Whilst Martinez’s team mate de la Bella had a great season, it was probably eclipsed by Luis Filipe from Atleti. Again, Atleti employ a system that requires the full backs to provide the width and Filipe is more than capable of providing such width. Not as attacking as the likes of Jordi Alba but substantially better defensively.

Centre Back

Demichellis (Malaga)

A defender who many will have thought had seen his best years. Never the quickest, his lack of pace could have been an issue instead his experience at the heart of the Malaga defence was one reason why the Andalusian’s gained such good results during the season. His ability to marshall the defence that maintained a disciplined, organsied offside line covered his main deficiency.

Centre Back

Inigo Martinez (Real Sociedad)

Currently starring for the U21’s in the European Championships in Israel, it seems only a matter of time before Martinez is plying his trade elsewhere. Another product of the La Real cantera, Martinez is composed on the ball but can also mix things up when needed. An excellent combination of skills to possess and the reason why he is so highly valued.

Defensive Midfield

Javi Fuego (Rayo Vallecano)

Javi who? Javi Fuego. Paying for Madrid’s 3rd or 4th team depending upon how you classify Getafe, Javi Fuego has gone under the radar of many now for some time but has just secured a well deserved transfer to Valencia. Occupying a deep midfield position, Fuego is a robust, combative figure unafraid to commit to the tackle. Yet that sells his game short. With a high interceptions rate showcasing his reading of the game, he is also a vital component for recycling the ball for a Rayo team that played neat, attractive football.

Defensive Midfield

Illarramendi (Real Sociedad)

Partnering Javi Fuego is Illarramendi from La Real. Like his team mate Inigo Martinez, Illarra is displaying his skills in Israel right now. String in the tackle, mobile, aggressive but capable of fine passing, he has been compared to Xabi Alonso who came through the La Real cantera too. Illarra offers greater defensive cover but lacks the same range of passing that Alonso possesses. Again, like his team mate Martinez, Illarra combines a range of desirable qualities and is possibly a more unique player in the Spanish game for that combination.

Left Wing

Jonas (Valencia)

The selection of Jonas ahead of the likes of Griezmann on the left may raise some eyebrows but the Brazilian had the unnerving habit of popping up in central areas with crucial goals for Valencia as the side made a surge for the final Champions League spot. His 13 goals and three assists helped maintain Valencia’s challenge through to the end of the season. What is key is his willingness to move centrally and support both the attacking midfielder and the striker.

Attacking Midfield

Banega (Valencia)

There are a plethora of players who could be utilsied in this position. The likes of Isco, Verdu, Xabi Prieto and even Leo Baptistao have all enjoyed fine seasons. My own selection goes to a player who has not always displayed the correct attitude towards his career or his club but who, when on form, is capable of producing moments of real quality. Step forward, Ever Banega, a man who helped drag Valencia forward when it looked as if they would remain in mid table. Freed from a deeper position, the advanced placement which Valverde offered him together with team mates ready to link, provided the key pass. The Argentinean weighed in with four goals and four assists from his 29 appearances

Right Wing

Vela (Real Sociedad)

Real Sociedad’s top goalscorer despite operating for much of the season as an inverted right winger. The position enable the Mexican to drift inward, often into space, and onto his favoured left foot. Vela had 14 goals and 9 assists for La Real and his versatility enables him to play across the front line including operating as the central striker, even during games too. He was most damaging though when moving at pace down the right.

Striker

Falcao (Atleti)

In his final season for Atleti prior to his move to AS Monaco, el tigre once again proved why he is one of the most feared strikers in the game. Scoring 28 goals in 34 appearances, other facets of Falcao’s play are sometimes overlooked. He has become much more rounded at Atleti and links with teams mates far better often moving wide to find space before moving centrally into the area. The assist he provided in the Copa del Rey Final for Diego Costa an exampled of this growing awareness in his game. He is becoming the complete striker.

Roll on season 2013/14.

Deportivo – Down and Out in La Coruna.

And so, as is customary in Spain, the final day of the season saw countless permutations existing for the three relegation positions with any of the bottom four teams capable of retaining their top flight status or taking the drop to La Segunda.

There were 81 different combinations of results possible to determine who was relegated and who secured the coveted fourth bottom spot. The balance of probability was tipped in Deportivo’s favour with a 55.6% chance of survival, while Celta had a 22.2% chance, Zaragoza 17.3%, and Mallorca had just 4.9%.  All four sides were at home but only Depor would meet an opponent with something still to play for in the shape of Real Sociedad.

Depor began the day safe. Their fate was entirely in their own hands. Win and they were safe no matter what else happened. The turnaround in fortunes since coach Fernando Vasquez took over after the short and somewhat ill fated reign of Pacienda was palpable. On Thursday, the coach had been carried out of the training ground on the shoulders of many, recognition for what had been achieved, the great escape remained possible.

They just had to beat Real Sociedad to complete the journey to safety.

Line Ups

Neither side had any key player missing through either suspension or injury for this game.

For the final game of the season, Fernando Vasquez went with arguably his strongest line up in their usual 4-2-3-1 with Valeron tasked with providing the creativity from a central attacking midfield position.

Deportivo vs Real Sociedad Starting Line Ups

Deportivo vs Real Sociedad Starting Line Ups

Similarly, Montanier in his final game with the San Sebastian side named his strongest line up with the potent front four of Agirrexte, Vela, Griezmann and Prieto in place for this crucial encounter.

Deportivo Fail to Create

This was a game that both sides needed to win yet Deportivo just never developed any sense of impetus or drive. After a brief flurry ain the opening period, the game settled and Depor lacked guile and creativity.

The player influence map is shown below:

Depor vs Real Player Influence

Depor vs Real Player Influence

Everything was clogged into the centre of the pitch when Depor had possession, only the full backs from both sides enjoyed any real space. Surprisingly, the veteran Manual Pablo produced a rousing performance which belied both his age and his general lack of pace.

The problem for Depor was the movement of the Sociedad front four. Both Griezmann and Vela come in off the flanks particularly the Frenchman. The full backs may be free then but the central area is overloaded. Their pace and running caused Depor all sorts of problems early on and the home side never really recovered from the damage, both psychological and renewal, that was inflicted.

Cutting Edge

The contrast in how both teams entered the final third of the pitch was stark. Whereas Deportivo continued to build from the back and try to construct attacks moving up the pitch as a unit, Sociedad were happy for the back six to absorb pressure and then let their four main creative outlets strike on transitions.

The graphic below shows the final third passes of both sides:-

Depor vs Real Final Third Passes

Depor vs Real Final Third Passes

As they have done for much of the season, Sociedad were happy to build play when the opportunity required it but were equally content to go direct if that option existed too. With Deportivo frequently lacking defensive midfield cover, this was always an option for the away side to exploit.

The only goal of the game came after a long ball down the Sociedad left. Once Manuel Pablo had slipped, Depor were in trouble and although Agirretxe’s shot was pushed wide, Griezmann arrived unmarked from the right flank, despite being positioned on the left, to score. Silvio was too close to his centre backs.

Deportivo has plenty possession as they moved forward but were unable to translate that possession into the creation of clear cut chances. When they entered into the Sociedad half of the pitch, their ideas ran out and they found themsleves under pressure as their opponents pressed them. Poor play and sloppy passing enable the away side to counter swiftly.

Depor were failing to create at one end whilst aiding their opponents at the other.

No Happy Ending

Juan Carlos Valeron announced his retirement after the game:-

“My cycle in la Coruna is finished. I’m saddened by the situation, but its a decision taken weeks ago”

At the age of 37 years old, Valeron still possesses the guile and creativity allied to the eye for a pass that he always enjoyed. He still glides around the pitch effortlessly but age has wearied him and although never blessed with great pace, the increased physicality of the game has squeezed him.

He still provided numerous highlights in his swansong season for Depor such as the deft chipped pass to Riki for the opening goal in the final Galician derby of the season. A game that reignited the sense of belief in Depor.

Here, against Sociedad, Valeron was too deep to influence play effectively and then, when he did have the ball, Depor were too slow to commit men into the penalty area. The graphic below shows his passes during the game:-

Valeron Passes

Valeron Passes

His deeper positioined allied to the inability of players to get into the penalty area rendered Depor ineffective in attack. Indeed, the home side’s best opportunities arose after Monatanier withdrew Vela for Zurutuza. The more defensive substitution allowed Deopr to take the intiative as Sociedad retreated somewhat towards a much deeper block allowing Depor to advance. Some half chances were created by Bravo was never seriously tested, his biggest difficulty being his own nerves for a brief spell.

Ineffective Attack and Effective Defence

As outlined, Depor did not struggle for possession in this game with 60% but they could not convert that possession into goals or even clear chances. Part of the problem must reside with their reluctance to commit men forward for fear of being caught out on quick transitions from Sociedad as evidenced by the opening goal and a handful of other chances in the first half that really should have seen the away side clear by half time.

Depor attempted an incredible 42 crossed into the SDociedad penalty arae but theese were often poorly delivered or there were no players in attacking position to take advantage:-

Depor vs Real Crosses

Depor vs Real Crosses

And yet Sociedad were relatively content to allow Depor to come forward, confident that their back 6 unit would be able to repel attacks and make the necessary clearances which they comfortably did for much of the game only really toiling for that brief spell when Montanier inexplicably handed the initiative to Depor:-

Depor vs Real Clearances

Depor vs Real Clearances

A pattern of play developed whereby a cross was delivered into the box, cleared and loose possession collected by a Depor player who would attempt another cross etc etc.  Everything was happening in front of the Sociedad defence. By striking first, Sociedad were in the perfect position to utilise their skill set, defend, absorb pressure and strike on counters.

Return to La Segunda

Depor return to the lower tier after just one season back in the top flight. The sad truth is they were simply not good enough to sustain themselevs no matter how much they fought. Their final seven leagues witnessed a return of just six points.

Their Galician neighbours Celta Vigo meanwhile, somehow avoid the drop. Despite being without their best player, Iago Aspas, for five weeks due to suspension after he inexplicably headbutted an opponent in the Galician derby, they survive.

Deportivo find themselves saddled with a debt estimated at €156m. Despite the advert of parachute payments, the drop will herald a new era for the club once called Super Depor. A side built upon youth team members will emerge with the likes of Valeron retiring whilst others depart for pastures new.

Return to the Champions League

The final word must go to Real Sociedad and the job Montanier has delivered. Following a comfortable if underwhelming mid table finish last season, the side have grown this season expressing their personality. With just two defeats in their final 21 league games, Sociedad deserve the final Champions League position.

And after a 10 year absence, Real Sociedad have the opportunity to return to the Champions League should they successfully qualify through the final preliminary round. They will do so with a new coach at the helm but if the squad remains intact and can be strengthened a little, they should be able to cope with the demands that European football will place on them.