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?

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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.

 

Espanyol vs Real Sociedad – Some Thoughts

Espanyol and Real Sociedad fought out a highly entertaining 2-2 draw at the Cornella el Prat on Sunday evening. Aguirre has performed well to date, lifting Espanyol from bottom to mid-table safety even at this stage of the season but their recent form has tailed off slightly. They entered this game with just one win in their previous four games. This contrasted sharply with a Sociedad side that now harbours prospects of Champions League football next season at the Anoeta.

With Carlos Vela missing, Montannier opted to bring Zurutuza into the side in midfield.

The graphic below shows the team’s starting line up:-

Espanyol vs Real Sociedad Starting Line Ups

Espanyol vs Real Sociedad Starting Line Ups

Whilst Espanyol chose a 4-2-3-1, La Real were more like a 4-1-4-1 although the wide pairing of Griezmann and Prieto pushed higher than the midfield duo or Zurutuza and Illarramendi.

Real started the game better, more aggressive than their opponents but they were caught out after just eight minutes when Sergio Garcia opened the scoring. The attack began on the right but quickly shifted to the left with Xabi Prieto flighting a ball for Simao to collect. It meant Sociedad were turning and backpeddling towards their own goal rather than have the opponent face them. Simao’s low cross was deftly slotted home by Garcia who had run beyond both De La Bella and Inigo Martinez to get to the ball first. The early goal allowed Espanyol to counter and forced Sociedad to take the initiative.

Espanyol Attacking

The graphic below shows all of the attempted crosses undertaken by Espanyol during the game. There was a clear bias, especially in the first half for attacks to come down the Real Sociedad right with as shown below:-

Espanyol Crosses

Espanyol Crosses                    http://www.squawka.com

Of the 16 crosses attempted, only two found an Espanyol player and both resulted in goals during the first half. A number of crosses were blocked but with less cover in the Sociedad midfield, it was easier for Espanyol to create the openings by spreading the play with crossfield passes. It meant Sociedad were more exposed and in less control than they like to be. And Espanyol were able to profit with the assistance of their striker, Sergio Garcia.

Sergio Garcia

He may not be everybody’s favourite striker and he may not be the most prolific goalscorer either but last night Sergio Garcia produced the sort of display that has always been capable of delivering even if he was often frustratingly inconsistent.

The graphic below shows the heat map for his performance:-

Sergio Garcia Heat Map

Sergio Garcia Heat Map                       http://www.squawka.com

Statistically, his performance was not that impressive. Just one shot at goal albeit with which he scored. Only one successful take on against eight attempted. Garcia lost out on his two aerial duels as well.  But he completed 26 out of his 37 attempted passes. He is not disconnected form the team. Always available to take a pass and link play. The key to his performance was his movement, intelligence and ability to link up with the remainder of his team particularly Verdu who roamed behind him. Their combination led to Espanyol’s second goal, Garcia playing a tidy one-two with his captain before Stuani converted the cross.

Real Sociedad Set Up

In their recent away game at Atleti, La Real were very conservative from the outset of the game, playing a highly cautious counter attacking style. Although that is their preference, they were more aggressive here perhaps sensing this as an ideal opportunity to claim all three points.

The most noticeable difference from recent away games was Illarramendi being pushed higher not and not being used as part of a double pivot alongside Bergara. The higher position uses Illarramendi’s qualities in a better fashion. His more direct passing can aid the team and led to the equalising goal.

Prieto made a diagonal run from left to centre and Illarramendi lofted a pass through to him. Casilla cleared the ball which fell to Zurutuza around 25 yards out and his first time lobbed finish found the net. The finish was one of the highest technique but in the process the pass and run which led to the goal were overlooked.

The graphic below shows Illarramendi’s passing:-

Illarramendi Passes

Illarramendi Passes                      http://www.squawka.com

Although a different player from Xabi Alonso, the fact that both began their careers with La Real will lead to comparisons especially when there is something of the Alonso about the passing of Illarramendi on occasion. The misplaced passes above all tended to be longer, flighted passes searching out runners in behind the Espanyol defence. One led to the first goal and in the 55th minute a similar ball found Aggirexte but Casilla saved the resulting shot.

As it was, Illarramendi was withdrawn for the gifted Pardo in 62minutes. And the youngster lofted another ball over the Espanyol defence for the timed run of Griezmann. Despite miscontrolling the ball, it ricocheted off Lopez into the bottom corner to provide Sociedad with the equaliser. The goal came following a period of Sociedad pressure. The attacking talent of Verdu, Garcia and Stuani were curtailed as the game had wore on and Sociedad were able to exert more authority on proceedings as a consequence.

Conclusions

Javier Aguirre has guided Espanyol from the bottom of the table to mid-table security, a tremendous achievement given how he found the club when he took over. As ever though, how he builds from here for next season is key. Verdu is out of contract in the summer and is not the type of player that Espanyol can afford to lose especially as they will receive no fee.

It’s now just one defeat in 19 games for La Real, a very impressive run of form that sees them maintain interest in the Champions League place. They remain on course to record their best league finish since their great side of 2002/03 which narrowly missed out on the title. The number of recent draws though, could cost them. That is four draws in their last seven league games. Even if they do not secure Champions League football, under Montanier they have developed a clear style of play which is highly enjoyable to watch with a number of excellent young prospects. This time last season, if you had to choose a Basque side that would be challenging for Champions League football just now, how many people would have chosen La Real over Bielsa’s Athletic?