Valencia vs Athletic Bilbao – Three Short Observations

Valencia emerged victorious from an open and enjoyable game at the Mestalla on Saturday evening.

Athletic started brightly, playing at a high tempo and at a level much closer to the side which performed well during last season. Key players such as Muniain and Herrara are back in the side, close to full fitness after injury. There was a greater sense of urgency to their play and with Herrara providing the link in midfield, reducing the temptation to always go long, there was a better balance, structure and variety to their attacks.

Valencia gradually settled and would eventually go on to dominate possession with 55% compared to Athletic’s 45%. The key moment in the game was the sending off of Ander Herrara after 66 minutes which enable Pellegrino to make more adventurous substitutions and forced Athletic onto the back foot.

The concession of two late goals would normally raise a degree of consternation yet Bielsa declared himself happy despite the defeat, in doing so acknowledging that this was possibly the best that Athletic had performed all season.

Aritz Aduriz

“He played very well. His performance was extremely valuable to us”

Marcelo Bielsa

There seems to be a constant discussion on Bielsa’s decision to select Aduriz ahead of Llorente to the extent whereby Bielsa commented on the performance of Aduriz on Saturday evening. Lost within this discussion is the fact that Aduriz has already scored eight goals with season, two of whcih arrived at the Mestalla.

Aritz Aduriz Heat Map                                                     http://www.squawka.com

The heat map above shows Aduriz’s movement around the pitch. He is much more mobile than Llorente and able to close opposing defenders down quickly which was one of the reasons for the livelier start from Athletic on Saturday. They pressed and closed down Valencia who were unable to develop any pattern of play particularly due to both Gago and Costa sitting deep and Jonas not really being involved.

The flip side of this argument is that Llorente is technically superior and with a greater physical presence, ideal for using as a target man. Athletic still persist with going direct to Aduriz at times. Despite being involved in 9 aerial duels on Saturday, Aduriz only won 2 of these. Athletic need to play more short passes to him as he is unable to hold the ball up as well as Llorente.

Ander Herrara

The return of Ander Herrara to the Athletic team has provided a much needed boost of creativity and composure to the side. Without Herrara proving a calming influence in the midfield alongside the energy and industry of De Marcos and Iturraspe, Athletic are too direct and one dimensional.

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

Herrara moved laterally across the midfield area, providing an outlet for team mates under pressure and generally recycling possession. His short and long range passing enables the team retain possession although Athletic are still toiling in this regard this season. Their pass completion rate on Saturday evening was just 67% as they conceded possession too easily and much too often.

Yet all his good work was undone when he was red carded following a moment of stupidity, kicking out at Tino Costa. From that moment, the initiative, although already moving in Valencia’s favour, went completely towards Los Che.

Athletic moved towards a 4-1-4-0. Aduriz was withdrawn and Aurtenexte came on. This resulted in the young Basque moving to his favoured left back position and Inigo Perez moving into midfield. De Marcos became the default attacker, looking to break forward from midfield when Athletic had possession.

The formation led to Athletic falling deeper as the second half wore on with Valencia enjoying a significant territorial advantage whilst seldom appearing to cause great concern to Iraizoz in the Athletic goal.

Valencia – A Work in Progress?

With ex-player Mauricio Pellegrino now in charge at the Mestalla, the side remain a work in progress as he attempts to install his philosophy on the team.

Retaining the same shape as his predecessor Emery, Pellegrino has set this team out in a 4-2-3-1 formation. There are of course, a couple of differences.

The loss of Jordi Alba to Barcelona has been a huge blow. Individually, a superb player but collectively his loss is acutely felt on the left side where he had developed an excellent relationship with Mathieu.

Athletic attacked the Valencia left early on and managed to carve out some half chances before the opening goal was scored when Muniain delivered a pass on the inside of Mathieu. The Frenchman managed to get a foot to the ball but could only divert the ball into the path of Aduriz who calmed scored with a lovely curling shot.

The problem against Athletic is that ahead of Mathieu was the attack minded winger, Juan Bernat. His natural inclination is to move forward leaving Mathieu exposed which is exacerbated by Athletics’ tendency to overload their right flank. Guardado would provide more support but was benched after international duty with Mexico.

The second Athletic goal should be a concern for Pellegrino as the defence of a corner was extremely poor. The ball dropping onto Aduriz who knocked the ball in with Guaita stranded.

Whilst the acquisition of Gago has the potential to be an upgrade on the departed Mehmet Topal, much of his work is done defensively and performing a similar role to Tino Costa. Without Ever Banega in the team, the balance is not quite right. Returning from a long, and self inflicted, injury, the brief appearance by Banega demonstrated why he is so important for the side. Completing 11 from his 12 attempted passes, the Argentinean has the ability to unlock defences with his accurate passing.

All graphics and statistics taken from www.squawka.com

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Athletic Bilbao vs Malaga

A fairly tight game ended in a 0-0 draw at the San Mames. Neither side offered much in an attacking sense.Coming off the back of a superb home victory in the Champions League, Pellegrini is likely to be the happier manager with a point which maintains their unbeaten start to the season. Malaga set out with a fairly conservative approach with Toulalan and Camacho deep in midfield shielding the defence.

Malaga Defence

For the sixth time in eight games this season, Malaga have prevented their opponents from scoring. Their defensive solidity requires considerable work on the training ground and it’s an asset of a Pellegrini team that is often overlooked. Teams under the leadership of Manuel Pellegrini are often noted for their short, sharp passing as they control the centre of the pitch.A frugal defence is not high on many people’s perceptions.

In the defensive phase of the game, the team is extremely well organised and hold a line along the edge of the penalty box as can be seen below.

Malaga Defensive Line – De Marcos breaks through

This is the exact same defensive set up that Pellegrini perfected at Villarreal with the likes of Javi Venta, Capdevila, Godin and Gonzalo all holding the offside line at the edge of the penalty area.

Athletic were caught offside on seven occasions during the game.

On the few occasions when Athletic managed to break through the offside line, opportunities arose such as the one pictured above for Oscar De Marcos.

These scenarios arose infrequently however as Athletic failed to offer the same level of dynamism and mobility that they did last season in attack. Too often the players were disconnected and isolated with combination plays few and far between.

The loss through injury of Aurtenexte has severely impacted upon the attacking threat from the left side of the Athletic team particularly as Muniain moves to a central position. On the right side, the marauding Iraola appears to be slightly deeper. As the gaps between the players becomes longer, passing becomes more difficult and the opposition are able to intercept the ball more easily as the graphic below illustrates:-

Malaga Interceptions vs Athletic                                              http://www.squawka.com

Again, this reinforces the strong defensive set up that Malaga have. They avoided diving into tackles around their own penalty area with Monreal particularly impressive, making six interceptions and two tackles during the game all of which occurred in the left back area.

Athletic Set Up

There appears to be some slight changes in the Athletic set up from last season as alluded to above. The biggest issue though is undoubtedly the lower intensity of the team. The success of Athletic last season was the sheer relentless nature of their high pressing and the quick tempo of their short passing game as they swarmed over their opponents. That seems to be lacking now. They still chase and press their opponents but it’s easier for opponents to break through the man marking system which Athletic employ. Opponents get slightly longer in possession before they are closed down allowing them to turn, to pick out a pass. For the system to remain effective,pressing high up the pitch must be quick. As soon as an opponent has time to evade that initial press, Athletic are vulnerable in defence.

Despite dominating possession, Athletic were unable to create many clear cut chances. One problem which they encountered was building the play from the back as they prefer to do. The veteran midfielder Gurpegi is used in the centre of defence, a replacement for Javi Martinez but he lacks the passing range of his predecessor. Similarly, despite his limited mobility, Amorebieta also offers a wide range of passing which neither San Jose or Ekiza can provide.

The midfield trio of Iturrapse, De Marcos and Muniain did not offer the right blend in this game. Muniain was positioned to far forward in the first half and De Marcos is a midfield runner. There was nobody in the centre of the pitch to build and cajole the play. The creativity of Herrara was sorely missed. As a consequence, Athletic began going longer and became more direct.

This led to Aduriz contributing virtually nothing in the game:-

Aduriz passes vs Malaga                                                           http://www.squawka.com

Aduriz moved deeper to become involved in the game but with limited service and players too far away, there was little chance of linking and developing play.

Aduriz was withdrawn at half time and replaced by Llorente.

Llorente -To play or not to play?

For the second game in a row, Llorente joined the action from the substitutes bench. Last week against Espanyol, his impact was immediate as he scored with his first touch. Here, he offered little as Athletic struggled to gain any fluency to their play and offered him little service.

With a more direct approach, Athletic should have been able to knock balls towards Llorente which he holds up and brings others into play but he suffered the same problem as Aduriz:-

Llorente vs Malaga                                                                        http://www.squawka.com

Malaga refused to let Athletic push them deeper, maintaining the high line. This should have meant it was easier for Athletic to pass but their lack of a creative outlet centrally stymied them.

Athletic are now stuck with a problem. If Llorente retains his wish to leave, Athletic will need to offload in January to try and recoup some sort of fee for him. In the interim, what does Bielsa do? Does he try and get the last couple of months from Llorente or does Aduriz, his successor, stay in the team as first choice striker?

Llorente is clearly the better player but will he behave in a professional fashion or will his mind wander to pastures new whilst he sees out his time in Bilbao?

Bielsa has decisions to make ahead of the Basque derby next weekend.