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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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.

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.

 

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?

Real Sociedad vs Valencia – One small step, one giant leap.

Real Sociedad took a massive step towards securing Champions League football with an excellent victory over Valencia at Anoeta last night. Whilst the final scoreline of 4-2 may be slightly harsh on the visitors, they ultimately paid the price for their lack of a cutting edge in the final third of the pitch. Despite holding an advantage in possession, Valencia were unable to manufacture sufficient clear chances. La Real, meanwhile, displayed the sort of lethal finishing from transitions that has become the hallmark of their season.

Line Up

With Griezmann absent, Chory Castro was given a  place in the starting line up, a clear indication fo a more attack minded side from Montannier as opposed to the slightly more conservative Zurutuza.

Real Sociedad vs Valencia Starting Line Ups

Real Sociedad vs Valencia Starting Line Ups

Valverde opted for Cissokho in place of Guardado at left back following recent performances with Fehgouli recalled to the right side of midfield. Otherwise, Valencia were as expected.

The Game

With so much at stake, this game began brightly and continued in a similar vein, really opening up as it reached the end. Valencia prompted by Ever Banega were keen to test Bravo early on and enjoyed some decent possession but Sociedad gradually grew into the game and always looked dangerous on transitions but struggled to gain any meaningful possession with Valencia pressing aggressively. Twice in the opening 15 minutes Vela burst down the right and provided warnings to Valencia. A similar transition brought a yellow card to Cissokho when he tripped Prieto.

As the game was evening out, Valencia took the lead with Cissokho charging down the left and delivering a cross which Soldado scored after stealing a yard start on Inigo Martinez. The left back would become embroiled in a number of incidents leaving him fortunate to remain on the pitch and it reduced his effectiveness as he adopted a more low key approach.

Banega was drifting out of the game as Sociedad’s full backs pushed high and the home side exerted more influence on the game. Valencia had struggled to deal with a few crosses and Sociedad equalised when Vela and Prieto took a  short corner and delivered a ball to Martinez who was unmarked at the back post to volley home.

The second half saw both teams more stretched and the lack of width in Valencia’s play became more evident but Banega was once more instrumental in all positive play from Los Che.

The game hinged upon the ability of Sociedad to counter swiftly with slick, sharp passing. The second goal was superb with Castro breaking from his own half and linking with Aguirrexte before scoring. Two further goals followed both from Aguirretxe including the final goal being a wonderfully delicate chip over the stranded Alves. Such poise and guile was shown by the frontman when the game was still hanging in the balance.

In between Aguirrexte’s goals, Jonas offered Valencia some fleeting hope.

Full Backs

With both side using inverted wingers particularly Jonas from Valencia, the onus was always going to be on the full backs from both sides to provide width in this game.

Carlos Martinez completed three crosses from seven attempted as shown in the graphic below which included two key passes:-

Martinez Crosses

Martinez Crosses                          http://www.squawka.com

Martinez was the more adventurous ad productive full back over the 90 minutes. De La Bella on the Sociedad left also ventured forward and completed one cross from five attempted but with both Prieto and Vela leaving towards that side of the pitch, there was less onus on him to push high.

Yet with Jonas cutting inside at every opportunity and Fehgouli more inclined to stay wide but having a relatively quite game, Valencia’s full backs were unable to have any effect o the game. Cissokho threatened early on and managed to deliver one successful cross from four attempted but a caution soon left him more conservative, unwilling to venture forward for fear of being caught out on the counter. Pereira meanwhile offered nothing going forward and only attempted one cross all night.

Chory Castro

The former Mallorca front man was brought into the side with Griezmann out. That Montannier selected Castro ahead of Zurutuza was perhaps indicative that he wanted to be more aggressive in attack.

Castro had six attempts and goal and scored once with four efforts being blocked. Despite playing out wide in a counter attacking side, he made 18 passes form 30 attempted and people will judge him on his attacking contribution but Montannier will assess his full performance which includes the defensive effort he provided:-

Chory Castro Tackles

Chory Castro Tackles                        http://www.squawka.com

Castro made four successful tackles during the game as he supported De La Bella by tracking both Pereira and Fehgoiuli on the right. Yet he was still able to push forward and cause problems.

Valencia Attack

One of the key problems from a Valencia perspective was their inability to turn their possession and territorial dominance into clear cut chances. Despite enjoying a slight advantage in terms of possession, Valencia never used the ball well in the final third with Sociedad defending very well and the onus was placed upon the shoulders of Ever Banega to create once more.

The Argentine though is reliant upon his team mates to offer themselves and share the burden. With Soldado often isolated and marked out of the game, Jonas was deeper than Banega at times and Fehgouli too wide. Parejo infrequently broke forward from midfield. It left Banega making passes and recycling possession but not hurting Sociedad.

The graphic below shows Valencia’s key passes:-

VCF Key Passes

VCF Key Passes                            http://www.squawka.com

Too few of Valencia’s passes were hurting Sociedad. The key passes were deep against a side that was content to sit a little deeper when required to do so. Yet this contrasts very sharply with the key passes from La Real who made fewer passes overall but had far more key passes as they cut open the Valencia defence on numerous occasions:-

Sociedad Key Passes

Sociedad Key Passes                      http://www.squawka.com

Of course, when you are breaking into space as La Real frequently did, then it’s easier to play key passes from a two vs two situation. Yet Valencia knew this was how Sociedad would play. It’s how they have played for much of the season and on those terms, it was Valencia who failed to address the problems that the home side would cause. Was there an alternative to the aging Albelda in front of the defence? Should Cissokho have been withdrawn when his yellow card more of less left him unable to offer enough either defensively or pushing forward?

Conclusions

Two teams who both sustained poor starts to the season and languished in the wrong  half of the table early on but will both finish in the top six now.

With five games remaining and a five point lead over both Malaga and Valencia and a superior head to head record, La Real are very much in pole position to claim the final Champions League position. The San Sebastian team have built their season around a superb run of form which has seen them lose just one game since November 2012 and even then, they really should have avoided defeat to 1o man Madrid at the Bernabeu.

Qualification for European football’s premier tournament will be just reward for a richly talented squad that has grown, developed and entertained as the season has progressed.

For Valencia, the ramifications of defeat may very well stretch out beyond this season. With the loss of much needed Champions League revenue, additional departures may be likely to help balance the books. The poor early season form that saw the side collect just 11 points from their opening nine games combined with instability on and off the pitch has meant they have always been playing catch up and always almost getting there but never quite making it.

Espanyol vs Valencia – Another home game, another draw.

Espanyol served up another excellent high scoring draw at home following on the back of their recent 2-2 draw with Real Sociedad. On Saturday evening, the visitors were Valencia and an open and entertaining game burst into life in the final 10minutes with four goals.

Line Ups

Both sides lined up in broad 4-2-3-1 formations.

Espanyol vs Valencia Starting Line Ups

Espanyol vs Valencia Starting Line Ups

Espanyol opted to use Wakaso instead of Simao on the left wing, other than that, the line up was as expected.

Valverde continues to have problems in the centre of defence and the makeshift pairing for this game was Ricardo Costa and Mathieu. Guardado continues at left back and Jonas and Canales were favoured on the wings with Fehgouli remaining on the bench.

Overall

Despite dominating possession with 57% compared to the home sides’ 43%, Valencia were never really in control of this game. Espanyol were sharper in the first half with Valencia too slow in possession when constructing attacks. There was a lack of dynamism and Soldado never really entered the action as moves broke down in the final third. Espanyol were always able to regroup and regain their positions quickly whereas Valencia were slower to do so.

A key feature of this Espanyol side is their pressing. They drop off to the halfway line to regain their shape but they can, and do, press high on occasion when they see certain triggers. Dani Parejo was robbed of possession twice when he received the ball facing his own goal. Espanyol knew Valencia would always try to build from the back and targeted when to press for maximum impact.

Espanyol Asymmetric Approach

Espanyol have leaned heavily upon the attacking trio of Verdu, Garcia and Stuani for creativity and goals to push the side further up the table. It has led to a lop sided approach and this was noticeable on Saturday evening and can be seen in the graphic below:-

Espanyol Heat Map

Espanyol Heat Map           http://www.squawka.com

With Stuani being much more attack minded, Aguirre opted to go with the inconsistent but gifted Wakaso on the left. With a higher work ethic and a more industrious nature, Wakaso was able to offer greater security on the left defensively and an edge when attacking. From three attempted tackles, Wakaso was successful with two. This was necessary as Verdu and Garcia moved further to the right to link with Stuani.

Further evidence of Espanyol favouring the right can be seen by Valencia’s tackling statistics. In their own half of the field, Valencia only made one tackle on their right side but 11 tackles on the left:-

Valencia Tackles

Valencia Tackles                    http://www.squawka.com

Espanyol were very reliant upon one side of the pitch for creativity during the game yet their second goal arrived from a breakaway down the left with Wakaso leading the way. The chance appeared to have gone before Verdu volleyed the ball in off the ground.

The Problem with Inverted Wingers – Jonas Goncalves

In recent weeks, Jonas has been shifted from his preferred central berth to a wider starting position and operates more like an inverted winger now. Providing width during counter attacks to stretch the opponent, but moving inward when Valencia are building attacks, enabling the full back to move beyond him and provide the width at that point in the move.

The graphic below shows his passes:-

Jonas Passes

Jonas Passes                       http://www.squawka.com

Despite scoring a goal in the 86th minute, Jonas offered little in the final third with all of his crosses failing to find a team mate.  HIs tendency to drift inward also created a problem for Valencia on transitions which Espanyol were able to exploit with Wakaso scoring the opening goal.

When an inverted winger moves inward, there is immediately a problem if the move breaks down as the opposing full back or winger is able to progress without restriction.

In the 45th minute, Espanyol regained possession in their own half and Verdu released Garcia on the right. His surging run ended with a deep cross to the far post where Wakaso arrived at pace to head the opening goal. Ignoring the poor defending of Joao Pereira, Wakaso was not tracked. Jonas had been central when play broke down and stranded.

Valencia Positions – Banega and Ruiz

The positioning of several Valencia players has been a noticeable and intriguing feature of Ernesto Valverde’s time at the club. What may have arisen from emergency situations, appears to have potentially solved some positional concerns.

Ever Bangea has been utilised in an advanced central midfield position previously but he often seems uncomfortable there particularly if he is starved of possession. And Valencia can seem bereft of ideas when Banega is deployed so high. The solution has been to use Dani Parejo almost like a deep lying regista, knitting the play together, recycling possession.

With Parejo behind him and providing the ball, Banega can create more opportunities for his team mates as he did on Saturday evening.

The graphic below shows Banega’s passing:-

Banega Passes

Banega Passes      http://www.squawka.com

Although he started brightly, Banega was stifled during the first half and only began to have an impact on proceedings when he took up a more advanced position and with Tino Costa off the pitch, the three central midfielders for Valencia had clear duties. Albelda to sit, Parejo to circulate possession and Banega to create scoring chances.

Banega played further forward in the second half. More probing. Feeding balls through to the front players. Roberto Soldado became more involved as a result as the Argintenean played a number of slide passes through the Espanyol backline searching for runners coming from a wide to central position.

The equalising goal in the 52nd minute came from Baenga’s pass, Canales on an inward diagonal run collecting and dispatching the ball home. Soldado saw his 78th minute effort saved after receiving Banega’s through ball but Valencia’s top goalscorer was not to be denied and latched onto another pass from Banega in the 90th minute to give the away side a temporary lead. Again, the run from from a wide starting position into the channel between full back and centre back. An area Valencia sought to expose in the second half.

Whilst Banega represents a change at the front of the side, a change at the back has been equally good although on side evening, Victor Ruiz reverted to type. Ruiz returned to the first team following a month out trough injury when he was called into action following the removal of Ricardo Costa due to injury.

Following the arrival of Valverde and the poor form of Fernando Gago in the defensive midfield position, Ruiz was moved into a deep midfield slot as a temporary measure. It’s an area where he has shown a considerable improvement in his form and crucially, where any mistakes he makes are not subject to harsh punishment. Statistically, Ruiz performance was fine. He was not hitting stray passing, mistiming tackles, failing to win headers or conceding fouls. But it’s the things that cannot be measured that have caused Ruiz problems. The poor decision making and lapses in concentration.

On Saturday evening, the thought process behind Valverde’s decision was brought sharply into focus. Arriving as first half substitute, Ruiz somehow escaped the concession of a penalty from a reckless challenge on Sergio Garcia in the penalty area. It was a challenge that did not have to be made yet Ruiz launched himself into it.

And in the final minute of the game, Ruiz failed to deal with a ball headed into the penalty area. The defender tried to shepherd the ball back to Guaita in goal rather than undertake the basics. Your side is winning 3-2 away from home and the game is deep in injury time. Clear your lines. Conceded a throw in or a corner kick if necessary. Ruiz did neither and he was unsuccessful holding Garcia off and Espanyol promptly equalised.

Conclusions.

Javier Aguirre has led Espanyol to five home wins and four draws during his brief tenure at the club.

As well as Espanyol are doing, Aguirre must now let his focus shift to next season. Can Garcia continue to deliver as he enters the last few seasons of his career? And will Verdu still be at the club next season? These are the dilemmas which should now occupy the Mexican’s mind.

Given the run of form Espanyol are on, a point is a decent result for Valverde and his men. Until that is, La Real secured 3 points away to Rayo. It leaves the gap between La Real and Los Che at 4 points.

Valencia now face two games which could define their season. Malaga travel to the Mestalla this weekend followed by Los Che making the trip north to San Sebastian where La Real lie in wait.

Secure maximum points and the coveted 4th position will still be within touching distance.