The Season Ahead

There is always questions ahead of kick off each season. It’s not about who qualifies for European football. It’s not about which sides get relegated. There is only one issue in Spain. The perennial question that crops up every August revolves around which of the big two will win La Liga? Madrid have behaved like Madrid during pre-season and signed more stellar names whereas Barcelona have underwent something of a mini revolution with a host of new signings under the tutelage of new manager, Luis Enrique. So who will win La Liga?

Wait? It’s not a two horse race? It’s a three horse race again this season? :-

 

The Top Three - Season 13-14

The Top Three – Season 13-14

 

Sure, Atleti may have won the title last season but that was a complete fluke, wasn’t it? They can’t compete again, even Simeone has admitted this:-

“I don’t like to lie to people and one thing is clear: We can’t compete with Madrid or Barcelona. Our rivals are Sevilla, Valencia and Athletic and third is our objective”

Of course last season, Simeone repeatedly told anyone who would listen that Atleti couldn’t win La Liga but they did. They couldn’t do so again, could they?

 

Atleti – The Cycle Continues.

“Last year was no fluke, it was a consequence of what has been going on at the club”

Diego Simeone

Can lighting strike twice? Atleti once more start as distant third favourites in the eyes of the bookmakers for the title. Their title.

There have been goodbyes and very good buys at the Calderon during the summer. Courtois, Filipe Luis and Costa moved to Stamford Bridge with the latter pairing gaining substantial income for Atleti that has been wisely reinvested in the team. Did people really think Atleti were ready to rest on their achievements thus far, accept their place?

In Simeone, Atleti possess one of the most highly rated coaches in Europe. And as La Liga champions and a team that were moments away from winning the Champions League, convincing players to stay whilst attracting new players was always going to be much easier than many suggested. Whisper it but Atleti are arguably stronger now than they were last season. Further departures were confirmed in Adrian, David Villa and Guilavogui yet the reinforcements are very impressive.

Oblak, Siquiera, Mandzukic, Griezmann (offering a new dimension to Atleti’s attack), Correa, Jimenez, utility defender Ansaldi from Zenit could be very important and Saul after a year at Rayo and Atleti have greater all round strength than before. And Koke has signed a new contract too. So can they do the unthinkable and defend their title?

Simeone has urged caution and acknowledged that this is a new team with all of the changes that have occurred:-

“We are finishing the group. We have changed, especially in attack. I see it as a new beginning. The solid structure supporting the attack is maintained but we are looking for the style that best suits us. We must have patience.”

The issue is not the quality of the side individually but the ability for Atleti to continue the collective play and intensity of their game that Simeone demands after almost 3 years in control. Is the hunger still there within the players? Can they still give everything for the side week in, week out? Can el Cholo get the new players to integrate quickly and adapt to the high workrate and tempo that he demands? If he can then Atleti can once more mount a serious challenge for the league.

“The structure of the team is not going to change. Stability comes with maintaining the same ideas: intensity and aggressiveness will continue to be the basis,”

Simeone

And the players believe this too. Simeone’s on-field general, Gabi confirms as much:-

 “We have a clear idea of how we want to play,”

And that is the key.

For Simeone, this isn’t the end of the cycle:-

“First it was the Europa League, then the European Super Cup, Copa del Rey, third in the League and the following year the League title and the Champions League final. The team and the club have done great work to retain many players and try and continue a great cycle.”

Simone believed last season and many doubted him. Despite his words, he believes again this season. Who doubts Atleti now?

 

Barcelona

Martino failed didn’t he? After all, a trophyless season at a club like Barcelona is a failure no matter what the contextual narrative is. And the Argentinean has admitted that himself:-

“I’m completely dissatisfied with the year that has passed and I’m always thinking that I’m the man responsible”

Former player Luis Enrique returns to the Camp Nou to take control of a squad with new players but still needing further overhaul work. Short spells at Roma and Celta Vigo have identified the style of Enrique. Similarities with Guardiola exist but also key differences. Expect Barcelona to continue with the attractive style of play but contain a rougher edge to them. “Lucho” won’t expect his side to be bossed or bullied physically on the pitch. It won’t be more of the same but a gradual evolution of style. You don’t abandon your footballing principles die to one poor season. You adapt and you evolve making subtle tactical tweaks. An overhaul is not required. The death of tiki taka has been greatly exaggerated.

With numerous new arrivals but also departures, each area of the team needs work to fit together. Pre season friendlies have seen players from the B team step up and there will be spaces available for those who perform to complement the squad. The real focus has been on the final third with the arrival of Luis Suarez even allowing for his 4 month ban. How does the Uruguayan fit in with Messi and Neymar?

With Xavi likely to play a diminished role, the opportunity will exist for Messi to drop deeper than before and play as a genuine no10 with Suarez as a no9 ahead of him and Neymar on the left. It’s a trio brimming with potential but it also leads to questions. Do Barcelona continue with a 4-3-3 meaning the right side needs a younger version of Dani Alves to operate the full length of the pitch or does the side switch to something more akin to a 4-2-3-1. With Mascherano now back in defensive midfield and Busquets possibly playing a little higher up the pitch, options exist. Barcelona has consistently failed to plan or address what happens in a team without Xavi. That problem can no longer be avoided and will be dealt with one way or another this season. It’s exacerbated with the looming transfer ban. Pending an appeal to CAS, Barcelona may be unable to sign any more players once this window closes until January 2016. Further activity is therefore likely for a squad that isn’t strong enough to survive until January 2016 without further reinforcements. The problem for Barcelona is their recent appalling record in transfer dealings. The likes of Alex Song, not a player Barcelona needed but a player Barcelona could afford, is still to be offloaded. Can Barcelona really make enough acquisitions of the requisite quality?

Surprisingly, Deulofeu has been allowed to leave on loan although the spell with Sevilla could see him ready to return next season and claim a place but the prospect of a permanent departure increases now. With limited options in attack, the likes of Munir now have far greater opportunities to establish themselves as members of the first team squad.

It won’t be permitted but it does feel like a transitional season is beginning for Barcelona albeit one that certainly contains more possibilities for the team than most clubs can even dream about. Xavi has spoken about the harmony in the squad and the need to capture at least one trophy this season.

“We’ve signed very good players both on a football and personal level. The human relationships are the best there have been in recent years”

That could be crucial. Enrique building a close knit squad could see challenges sustained despite the relative lack of depth to the squad. A testing season lies ahead for Lucho.

 

Real Madrid – A Balancing Act

When the opportunity arises to sign a player of the calibre of Toni Kroos for around £20million, it’s not really a difficult decision to make. And when you’re the President of Real Madrid, you don’t really consider if the club need another elite level player. If one becomes available, you sign him. And in a World Cup year, who else can you sign other than the star player from that World Cup and golden boot winner, James Rodriguez of Columbia. It’s a policy that Florentino Perez adheres too. It’s not his problem how all of these star players integrate into the team. That’s a problem for the Coach to contend with.

A problem that has caused successive coaches of Real Madrid notable problems as Perez has tended to make at least one marquee signing each summer during his tenure as President. Fortunately, in Carlo Ancelotti, Perez now has a Coach in charge of Real Madrid who has repeatedly proven his ability to squeeze a multitude of star names into a starting line up without compromising the team balance as a consequence. Whether Carlo Ancelotti actually wanted Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez is immaterial. He’s got them now and fitting them into the side is his problem. This could be Ancelotti’s most difficult assignment yet.

Where should Rodriguez play? Can Kroos and Modric play against the very top teams with no defensive support? It’s all about balance for Ancelotti this season. With the departures of Khedira and Di Maria seeming likely and in the case of the diminutive Argentinean completely baffling, the base of midfield remains the issue that Ancelotti must focus on. A pairing of Kroos and Modric is very attractive but defensively unstable as witnessed in the UEFA Super Cup against Sevilla.

Could Kroos replace Alonso in the Madrid side? At 32 and with limited mobility, his time on the main stage could be drawing to a conclusion. Last season in La Liga, Alonso averaged 65 passes per game, the most of any Madrid player with Ramos on 61 and Modric on 58. When it comes to interceptions (1.5) and tackles (2.4), Alonso makes more per game of both than any other Madrid midfielder. Unsurprisingly, he also commits more fouls too. A product of his lack of mobility or due to him being swamped with too many team mates pushing on? His defensive contribution is key for Madrid. Alonso played 26 league games for Madrid last season with los blancos taking an average of 2.38 points per game. Without him they took 2.08 points per game.
Could Kroos fulfil this defensive role? Last season Kroos made an average of 75 passes per game but on the defensive side only averaged 0.5 interceptions per game and 1.8 tackles per game. Does that matter? Given Bayern’s complete dominance of the ball, these statistics will be heavily skewed. Simply put, it’s hard to defend when you always have the ball. And it’s hard to analyse the defensive output for Kroos as a consequence. There is still an important role for Alonso but the real beneficiary should be Illarramedi. The Basque must step forward this season and demonstrate why he gained so many plaudits at La Real.

If Di Maria does depart, more is likely to be asked of Bale to operate partly as a shuttling role between midfield and attack. As adaptable as Bale is and given his early career saw him positioned at full back, he will be able to cope. But can he deliver as well as Di Maria? I’m not certain he can make the difference to the same extent as Di Maria does.

Madrid begin the season as clear favourites for the title. Individually, the squad is packed with quality and is arguably the best squad in world football. How that translates onto the pitch collectively will be the dilemma for Ancelotti this season. Get it right and you could see Madrid dominate all the tournaments they enter. Get it wrong and…well, you know how Perez tends to operate.

It’s difficult to look beyond Madrid even with the balancing problems that exist. The depth of talent within the squad is unrivalled and even though seeing Atleti successfully defend their title would be unparalleled in the modern era of European football, I just cannot see it happening. Atleti will have the greatest success in cup competitions once more as normal service is resumed on the domestic front. Barcelona to finish runners up to Madrid. Even if the collective fails, individually they can still win games.

 

The Battle for Fourth

Away from the title race, the battle for fourth place, assuming that the big three (funny saying that now) secure the top three positions, and final Champions League position could see a genuine contest between five teams. Four of the contenders could be involved in European football this season. Will that have an effect? The graphic below shows the final positions from last season:-

 

The Race for 4th Place - Season 13-14

The Race for 4th Place – Season 13-14

 

Sevilla

Unai Emery likes to make changes. He changes this, he changes that. It’s what he does best along with managing to take one point from games in which his team should take three. He excelled at such a conservative approach at Valencia yet showed brief glimpses of shaking that image off a little at Sevilla as the Andalusians claimed the Europa League. Yet by narrowly missing out on 4th place with a typically cautious performance in a game they needed to win against Athletic Bilbao, Emery showed that streak remains within him.

It’s been another busy close season at the Sanchez Pizjuan for Monchi as he showed signs last season of getting back to his wheeling dealing best. Rakitic and Moreno depart for hefty fees but yet again it’s the players coming in that show real potential for the side. Iago Aspas arrives after a nightmare time at Liverpool to aid the attack but its the capture on loan of Gerard Deulofeu that could be really inspiring if the Barcelona youngster’s words are anything to go by:-

“My departure surprised me a bit, they made me come back from Everton and then later they told me I wouldn’t get minutes. But I don’t want to talk much about Barca, I want to talk about the year I am going to have here. I know that I am lacking some things from a defensive aspect and I will work to improve that. One of my aims is to show Luis Enrique he was wrong and above all show it to myself.”

And then the is arguably the signing of the summer. The sort of transfer that make you double check the fee involved because there had to be a typo in there surely? Ever Banega left Valencia to be reunited with his former manager for a paltry €2.5m. If Banega focuses on the football as he did during Valverde’s brief tenure at the Mestalla, Sevilla have a midfielder capable of dragging the team forward and one that will lessen the blow of losing last season’s talisman, Rakitic.

Emery showed last season that sometimes changes can be good as he juggled the squad on two fronts. If they can beat Athletic, Sevilla will finish 4th.

 

Athletic

There is something very reassuring about a side managed by Ernesto Valverde. You immediately know the type of football that you will see. His sides always display the same style and personality and Athletic are no different. The chaos of the Bielsa era was pushed aside as Valverde guided the Basques to 4th place last season and Champions League qualification. Subject to their game against Napoli, the possiblity of Champions League involvement or at the very least, Europa League football to contend with, it’s a season that will stretch the Athletic squad fully.

Borja Viguero arrives to strengthen the attack with Kike Sola recovering from injury but alongside Aduritz there is still a question mark over who will score the goals. None of the three are prolific. As usual there will be a reliance upon the midfield and the team in general to supplement the forwards and weigh in with a few goals.

Ander Herrara has departed but Benat should take his place in the side and hopefully rediscover Betis form. With a limited talent pool upon which to draw, Athletic are reliant upon their cantera for new talent. It’s tie for the likes of  of Laporte, Moran and Gomez to challenge for first team starting place on a regular basis Beyond that, will Iker Muniain consistently show his true capabilities rather than just fleeting moments?

 

Valencia

For the first time since season 2004/05, Valencia begin a season with no European football on the cards. What was perhaps viewed as a disappointment when last season ended, could become a blessing in disguise for the newly appointed inexperienced Portuguese manager Santo, who takes the helm backed by the finance of Peter Lim following his takeover of the club.

The loss of Bernat to Bayern Munich is considerable but the arrival of Mustafi, fresh from his involvement in Germany’s World Cup winning campaign, should offset that loss. Mathieu has also gone as a reshuffled backline will include the Argentinean Otamendi.

Last season, Jonas with a paltry 9 league goals was top scorer in league. It’s simply not good enough for a side with aspirations of qualifying for the Champions League. To remedy this, Rodrigo has joined from Benfica. Yet Valencia have sufficient creativity within their ranks to provide for the striker. Alcacer, Piatti and Parejo are all fine players meaning the loss of Banega should not be felt in the central midfield area.

Just how important free midweeks are will become apparent as the season wears on. With no distractions, Valencia will be able to mount a challenge in the league alone.  With a little luck, maybe the club will get through the entire season with the same manager?

 

Villarreal

Nobody expected Villarreal to perform as well as they did last season. And nobody will expect them to perform to quite the same level again but Marcelinho will need to continute the impressive form of the submarine. Again, another side who wil face the slog of Sunday, Thursday, Sunday football if a prolonged run in the Europa League takes hold and again, Villarreal has a squad that isn’t the strongest in terms of numbers.

Some good signings have arrived with Jonathan Dos Santos joining his brother at El Madrigal along with Rukavina and Cheryshev. Victor Ruiz comes in perhaps as a replacement for the departure of Mussachio. Whilst he has suffered in recent times since leaving Espanyol for Napoli, there is a good defender in Ruiz if Marcelinho can coax his best form again. The front end of the team has suffered with the loss of Perbet, Pereira and Aquino.

The Submarine will draw heavily upon the ability of Bruno, Trigueros, the aging limbs of Cani and the goals of Giovani Dos Santos if they are to replicate last season.

 

La Real

La Real could be the side to slip a little further down the pecking order this season. Whilst the loss of Bravo and Griezmann have been covered with Rulli and Finnbogason, you have to consider the drop in quality alongside the loss previously of Illarramendi. True, he has been replaced by Granero but the continued loss of such key performers to be replaced by quality but lesser quality as an effect. Arrasate can only do so much and with Xabi Prieto a little older and a little slower, much will depend upon the ability of Pardo. Can he confirm a place in the side and offer something different?

Much will also weigh heavily upon Vela this season. Finnbogason may have scored elsewhere but it’s a step up in quality for him this season. Vela will be the focal point for the attack now.

There’s always the nagging feeling with La Real that they are happy just to be there. That they lack the mentality to take the fight on that little bit further. A further slip down the league beckons for La Real.

 

 

And for the rest of La Liga, it’s the usual mix. Teams that will defy the odds and perform well whilst some other teams will go on prolonged runs of poor form and get dragged into the seemingly endless relegation mire that will go the final day of the season as is customary in Spain. And with the usual dozen or so permutations on who could be relegated due to the head to head ruling.

Unsurprisingly, the newly promoted minnows of Eibar and Cordoba are odds on favourites for a swift return to the Segunda. The third side to accompany them upwards into La Liga are also third favourites to return but things could look different up in Galicia this season. Deportivo have the ability to stay in the top flight.

 

Deportivo – Upsetting the Odds?

Last time around Depor didn’t have any problems creating and scoring goals but their leaky defence conceded 70, only fellow relegated side Real Mallorca conceded more than that. That problem was solved in the Segunda last season with the defence only conceding 36 goals but the trade off was an attack that hit just 48 goals in 42 games. Victor Fernandez favouring a more conservative style of play that gained the necessary points to get promotion. Don’t expect dramatic changes this season either. Grinding out points will be key to survival but more goals are still needed. To remedy this, the usual influx of players on loan have arrived at the Riazor. The revolving door policy doesn’t breed stability but such a term isn’t really understood at the financially stricken club.

One player who has joined permanently on a 12 month contract and who, with the greatest respect to Deportivo, should be playing at a higher level is Isaac Cuenca. If the former Barcelona winger can recapture his early career form before injury stalled his development, Depor will have a genuine creative force to supplement their attack. It won’t be a spectacular season but a finish outside the relegation zone is achievable and will be considered a success whilst confounding the bookies in the process.

 

The Boys from Vallecas – Rayo

If Atleti and their fans are wondering if lighting can strike twice, the fans of Rayo are pondering the unthinkable. Can it strike for the third time? Can Paco Jemez really lead Rayo Vallecano to safety for the third season in a row?

Sadly, I fear for Rayo this season. This may be just one step too far and the relative late season comfort they have enjoyed in the past two seasons may be missing this season.

“The team is under construction, but we’re slowly settling in.”

Paco Jémez

Construction is the apt word. For every season, Paco Jemez aided by Sportin Director Minambres set about rebuilding the foundations in Vallecas. This season, an astonishing 19 players departed leaving just eight first team players. So far, a further 12 players have joined. As normal, there seems to be an abundance of creativity with the likes of Jonathan Pereira, Aquino, Pozuelo and Kakuta but where will the goals come from? The loss of Larrivey could be significant as his replacement in Manucho doesn’t inspire confidence with just 14 goals in his 57 games for Vallodolid. And further back, the defence needs work. Rayo have conceded 146 goals in two seasons under Jemez in the top flight, a frightening amount.

With such a huge turnaround of players, an adaptation period would take time for any team. When you have a team with one of the smallest budgets in the league attempting to dominate possession and play one of the most expansive style of football in the league, that adaptation period is extended and mistakes will occur. For Rayo, this frequently ends in heavy defeats early in the season. Pressing opponents all over the pitch and playing a very high offside line is not something that comes naturally to all players. Positioning and coordination the team unit takes time.

The ability of players to adapt is essential. If not, Rayo will have serious problems hence the decision to allow new signing Boateng to depart just two months after arrival. The Ghanian unable to adjust to the demands of Jemez. Results may be unfavourable early on just like last season but don’t expect Paco Jemez to change. That won’t happen:-

“I’m not interested in just winning any old way… This is what we wanted. This is the way we are. This is what we are”

If it’s goals and excitement you want this season, Rayo Vallecano are the team for you. And with a little extra support, maybe, just maybe they can escape relegation.

Week 8 Observations

Some thoughts from week 8 of La Liga.

Whatever Happened to La Real?

The side that played with such verve and guile last season finds itself languishing in 15th position. The opening day victory over Getafe must seem like a long time ago. The home and away wins over Lyon in the Champions League that offered such cautious optimism for the European Campaign ahead must seem like a false dawn now with defeats from Shakhtar and Leverkusen leaving La Real at the bottom of their group.

Just four goals have been scored in the seven league games since defeating Getafe yet, excluding the four goals conceded against Barcelona in a heavy defeat, La Real have conceded only 5 goals in the other 6 league fixtures. The Basques are falling on the wrong side of fine margins.

La Real average 13 shots at goal per game but are conceding almost 14 per game. It’s only a small change from last season where they averaged 1.7 shots per game more and conceded 0.5 shots per game less. The side are playing well at times but they are too open. A slight deviation from last season’s formation has seen the side open up but the attacking talent on offer is not performing as well as they did last season. Vela struggles for goals and Griezmann only opened his league account against Sevilla last week.

Further back the loss of Illarramendi has affected the balance in midfield and new coach Arrasate has not yet addressed that issue. Do Sociedad become more adventurous or retain the more cautious style that has taken them this far?

It’s only October and Sociedad languished in 13th position at the International break last season with 3 home wins and 4 away defeats. Montannier then oversaw a fantastic run of form to propel them to the Champions League. La Real won’t struggle in the bottom half of the table and they will improve. Just don’t expect another run of form like last season.

A Triumph of the Individual over the Collective

And that neatly summarises the season thus far for Real Madrid. We all knew Ancelotti had significant work on his hands when he took the reins in the summer but the extent of the job is only now becoming completely apparent.

Ignore the late comeback against Levante. It’s simply placing some wallpaper over a large crack. Real Madrid will always have more talented players than a club like Levante. The teams are operating in a different league financially and that gulf in resources is transferred onto the pitch. That three points were gained is arguably the only positive from the game. What occurred on Saturday night was one side playing to their maximum as a team unit whilst the opposition struggled to perform and have any clear identity of what they were actually trying to achieve. Madrid was reliant upon individual moments to drag the team across the finish line.

How does Ancelotti deal with this?

The Italian has always been able to squeeze talented players into the starting eleven throughout his career. The problem at Madrid is two fold; the change in system and the skill sets of the players at his disposal. Can Madrid really change from a counter attacking side to one that builds and retains possession? How does he get players to complement each other? How can he squeeze Ronaldo and Bale into the team without both simply wanting to run with the ball into space? Maybe he already has the solution to both problems even if Xabi Alonso is still on the injury list.

This could be Ancelotti’s biggest challenge.

The Race for 4th

Did anyone see Villarreal beginning the season this well? Returning to the top flight after a one season absence, Marcelinho has the side playing a fluent brand of football that is almost synonymous with the yellow submarine. With a few slight differences.

This side are now a counter attacking team. A team that is content to allow the opponent to come forward before striking. The submarine average 46% possession per game as the opponent probes away before the submarine attacks with pace and mobility in wide forward areas with willing runners from the second line of attack. The middle of the park is ably marshalled by Bruno and Cani.

A trip to Bilbao and a home game against Valencia will test the character of the side later this month. Come through both unscathed and maybe people will seriously consider Villarreal as challengers for a European position.

Their opponents later this month, Athletic and Valencia, played out an average 1-1 draw at the new San Mames. The endeavour on display outweighed the quality significantly.  Meanwhile, Sevilla actually won a game and reclaimed some ground on most teams above. As Emery chops and changes his side, an element of consistency of selection has to emerge over the coming weeks. With a further two winnable games coming up against Valladolid and Osasuna, sides likely to be facing relegation battles later in the season, Emery and his side must take full advantage. The narrow and somewhat fortuitous home win over Almeria courtesy of a 92nd minute goal from Rakitic secured the first 3points of the month. The Croatian must be played further forward. His creativity is wasted in a deep lying role. A further minimum of 6 points needs to be gathered this month to drag Sevilla back into the race for 4th position.

Valladolid vs Athletic – Valverde Starts with a Win.

Valladolid and Athletic Club met on Saturday evening in the opening fixture round of La Liga. Two clubs with new managers who were both hoping to build on disappointing season’s last time out. Valladolid is under the tutelage of Juan Ignacio Martinez this term whilst Ernesto Valverde takes the helm at Athletic Club following the sometimes brilliant but quite often anarchic reign of Marcelo Bielsa.

Line Ups

Marino made his debut in goal for Valladolid otherwise the team was as strong as Martinez could field in the normal 4-2-3-1 format. As per last season, Valladolid would look to Patrick Ebert for creativity and Javi Guerra to score aided by Oscar breaking forward.

Vallodolid vs Athletic - Starting Line Ups

Vallodolid vs Athletic – Starting Line Ups

Valverde handed debuts to Balenziaga at left back, following his loan spell at Valladolid, Benat in midfield and Kike Sola as striker in the absence of Aritz Aduriz. With the loss of Javi Martinez and Fernando Amorebieta over the past two seasons, the veteran defensive midfielder Gurpegi stepped into central defence alongside Borja Ekiza.

Player Influence

The graphic below shows the player influence during the game and clearly highlights how the game developed primarily in the centre of the pitch with the forward players from both sides only fulfilling periphery roles for their respective team:-

Player Influence

Player Influence

Valladolid appeared more willing to sit a little deeper early on as Athletic made most of the running without really creating any chances. Athletic pressed very high when Valladolid passed the ball back to goalkeeper Marino with Kike Sola very aggressive in this regard but the home side always managed to play their way out of trouble with Athletic thereafter quickly dropping back into a 4-4-1-1 during the defensive phase.

The battle between Rukavina and Balenziaga on one side of the pitch is also clearly visible with both Ebert and Muniain moving further infield despite being nominally positioned on that flank. The Serbian had the upper hand over Balenziaga positionally.

 

Attacking Intent

Both sides were very comfortable moving the ball and building attacks but too frequently attacks broke down or stalled as the teams entered the final third of the pitch. The graphic below shows all of the passes into the final third of the field attempted by both teams. There are very few passes into the opposition penalty areas:-

Final Third Passes

Final Third Passes

 

With both teams fielding strikers who complement their system but are hardly prolific, it was necessary to get support into the penalty area yet neither side really managed this to good effect. For Athletic, Ander Herrara sat too deep in midfield and with Susaeta holding the touchline and Muniain not venturing forward enough, the result was Kike Sola being isolated and left to feed off scraps.  Yet behind the striker, there was ample movement for Athletic laterally between Muniain, Herrara and Susaeta but not enough vertical movement to stretch the opposition defence.

It was a similar picture for the home side with Javi Guerra upfield although support was closer to him on occasion with Oscar breaking forward from midfield and Partick Ebert moving in from the right, a tactic that offered much potential but which the German and Valladolid failed to take advantage of.

Valldolid tried to hit balls over the high line that the Athletic defence was holding early on but the lack of support that moved upfield quickly prevented this from really being exploited despite the evident lack of pace of Gurpegi and Ekiza. It’s an area that Valverde will need to consider. The central defensive area looks shaky.

A total of just five shots on target overall from both sides is evidence of the lack of attacking threat posed despite productive approach play.

Valladolid Right

With Ebert cutting infield and supported by the overlapping Rukavina from full back, Valladolid utilised the right side for much of their attacking play, particularly in the first half. They were aided by the continual inward drifting of Iker Muniain from Athletic. With Muniain cutting in, the Athletic full back Balenziaga was left with no cover during quick transitions enabling Valladolid to create 2 on 1 situations. These were never really exploited. Rukavina only attempted 3 crosses in the first half with only 1 being successful.

The graphic below shows all of the passes attempted by Patrick Ebert during the game:-

.

Ebert Passes vs Athletic

Ebert Passes vs Athletic

An astute signing last season and a key performer for Valladolid, Ebert was sound in possession and scored the equalising goal for Valladolid after a decent move down the right but he never quite managed to become fully involved in the game. His passing was never as pro active as it could be with too many lateral or even backwards passes in the game partly owing to a lack of movement and options ahead of him.

In an effort to become more involved and help shape the game, Ebert moved into a more central position in the second half but was unable to find any solutions to the problems that Athletic were presenting.

Benat

Almost seven years after he made his previous solitary appearance for Athletic lasting just six minutes, Benat took to the field once more in the colours of Athletic Club and provided ample evidence of just how pivotal a figure he could become for Athletic this season.

Operating as the central player in a vertical line of three in the Athletic midfield, Benat really began to exert influence over proceedings at the start of the second half when Athletic took control of the game and dictated the tempo. This forced Valladolid further back with the adventurous runs of Rukavina curbed during this spell of the game. The graphic below shows all of his attempted passes:-

Benat Passes vs Valladolid

Benat Passes vs Valladolid

Benat was also pivotal in the opening goal with his short flicked pass releasing Susaeta for the winger to score with a low shot following a wonderfully crafted move by Athletic.

His ability to enable Athletic to control the tempo of the game was crucial though. Playing faster, sharper passes when required or taking the ball under pressure and slowing the game down when needed. It’s a substantial change from the demands of Bielsa. The players are no longer constantly running either to win possession or when they are in possession. There is more consideration of the phase of the game. The tempo alters, the game remains under their control. The performance of Benat symbolises this.

Valladolid had no player able to perform at a similar level.

Promising Signs

Despite the defeat, Martinez should be reasonably content with the performance his side produced. Valladolid retained their commitment to building play constructively from the back even when placed upon pressure from Athletic. The game was also an important demonstration to the fans that Martinez can adapt after playing a fairly direct, counter attacking style during his tenure at Levante. With more technically minded players, a more expansive style of pay will be followed.

An excellent opening day win for Athletic and one which saw glimpses of the type of football that Valverde wants to deliver on a regular basis. The opening period of the second half, Athletic played some superb football prompted by Benat in the midfield area with Herrara pushing higher to support Kike Sola.

Questions remain however with Balenziaga given little support by the increasingly central Iker Muniain and much of the creative player lacking an end product but these are small points given the stage in the season.

Week 23 Observations

Some thoughts on three key games played this weekend in La Liga:-

Levante 1 Malaga 2

Despite both being considered as prime candidates to secure European berths, Europa League and Champions League respectively, both sides recent form was more akin to that of relegation candidates.

Levante began this weekend in ninth place with Malaga in fourth but both sides have lost momentum recently. Levante have lost five of their last seven games whilst Malaga have just one league win in 2013. Indeed, Malaga’s form becomes even more sketchy when you consider they have collected just six wins in their last 21 leagues games. Their Champions League form vastly overshadowing performances on the domestic front.

Yet, as with recent seasons, the fight for European spots is increasingly turbulent with positions changing frequently.

With the financial problems at Malaga and the loss of another key performer in Monreal, the sight of Baptista making his first start in 16 months offered encouragement. In attack, Malaga have no concerns over options. It’s defensively where there are frailties. Sergio Sanchez was forced to start in central defence with Lugano not fit and Weligton not in the squad. Antunes was used at left back. Yet this makeshift defence coped and helped Malaga to a valuable win.

The standout performer was, yet again, Francisco Alcoron a.k.a Isco with his two goals being enough for the visitors to take the three points home.

Isco Shots vs Levante

Isco Shots vs Levante                                        http://www.squawka.com

The graphic above shows Isco’s shots at goal. All are taken centrally and all are around the edge of the penalty area. Despite making passes across the entire width of the pitch, Isco’s awareness to pick out a team mate in better positions prevents him taking speculative shots from around the box.

Athletic 0 Espanyol 4

A recent improvement in performances coupled with two positive results led some to believe that reports of Athletics decline under Bielsa had been greatly exaggerated.

The 3-0 home win over Atletico were the Basques produced their best display of the season was followed by a strong comeback away to Valladolid to recover from two goals down and claim a draw. Unfortunately, the Basques resorted to type this season with a capitulation at home to los pericos.

Athletic dominated possession as per usual with a staggering 70% but were repeatedly cut open by Espanyol on the break during a dreadful second half performance. A failure by Athletic to create clear openings and poor finishing left them goalless.

The visitors recorded just five shots on target but scored with four of them. Verdu’s penalty save by Iraizoz being the one shot on target which they did not score with although the midfielder slotted home the rebound.

Espanyol Shots vs Athletic

Espanyol Shots vs Athletic                             http://www.squawka.com

The graphic above shows the shots on target. All were central and extremely close to the goal. When Espanyol counter attacked, it was too easy for them to create an opening against a stretched Athletic defence.

Javier Aguirre’s record at Espanyol since taking over from Pochettino is  very impressive five wins, four draws and one defeat from his ten games in charge, lifting Espanyol from bottom position and leapfrogging their hosts into 13th place.

Rayo Vallecano 2 Atletico 1

There is something wonderfully refreshing about Rayo Vallecano. Their small, ramshackle ground with three stands and neighbouring tower blocks overlooking the pitch. The fact their fans are some of the most fervent in the division but probably because they deliver a brand of high energy football with a mixture of journeyman players and youngsters full of potential on the smallest budget in the league.

Rayo now have six wins in their last eight games and only a 94th minute strike from Falcao stopped them from securing their sixth clean sheet of the league season. It’s a fantastic achievement and one which has taken them to the brink of a European place but fans will recall last season when a dreadful run of form saw them far too close to relegation on the final day. That should not be replicated.

The graphic below shows Baptistao’s passes against Atleti. With repeated rumours that he will join Atleti in the summer, what better way to showcase his talents? His movement around the pitch created problems for Atleti and enable Rayo to overload Atleti in midfield.

Baptistao Passes vs Atleti

Baptistao Passes vs Atleti                          http://www.squawka.com

Despite trailing 2-0  following goals from Lass and Baptistao, Atleti did not change their outlook during the first half. Their conservative position remained the same and only began to alter after half time. Is Simeone adopting too conservative an approach in away games? Does el Cholo fail to react to falling behind?

Atleti’s fifth away defeat of the campaign and their lead over neighbours Madrid has been cut to just four points. What must be concerning Simeone is that Atleti have not won on the road since an away win over Granada on the 18th November 2012. Since that win they have played five away games and only collected a solitary point away at Mallorca. Their second place in the table has been built upon their tremendous home form at the Calderon.

Athletic Bilbao vs Atletico Madrid – Tactical Analysis

After suffering heavy defeats at the hands of los Rojiblancos over the last year, most notably the 3-0 loss in the Europa League final, Athletic finally got the better of Atleti last night in a comprehensive 3-0 win. This will be scant consolation for the loss in the final but coming amidst a run of poor form for los leones , it’s a very welcome victory and lifts the Basques up the relative security of 12th place in the league.

The game is also notable for the clash of styles it brings. The pro-active football of Bielsa against the reactive football of Simeone.

Line Ups

With Llorente signing for Juventus on a pre-contract, he was omitted from the squad along with Amorebieta who is also involved in a contract dispute with the club.

Athletic Starting Line Up

Athletic Starting Line Up

Simeone had to contend without Falcao following his injury during the home win over Levante last week. Simeone highlighted the fact that this Atleti team could cope without their top scorer. In the eleven games they have played without him, Atleti have scored 16 goals and lost just twice.

Atletico Starting Line Up

Atletico Starting Line Up

The loss of Falcao was not the problem for Atleti. The real issue was further back. With club captain Gabi suspended and Mario on the bench, the double pivot that has proven so successful to date was broken up to be replaced by Tiago and Emre.

Recent Form

With 25 points separating the teams, both sides entered the game with contrasting recent form. Athletic had drawn once and lost three times in their last four games whilst Atletico have the reverse record; three wins and one draw.

Still in the Europa League and the Copa del Rey, it’s now becoming a balancing act for Simeone. Carefully rotate his squad to ensure all members get game time and rest when required.

For Athletic, there are no such concerns. Their run to last season’s Europa League final is now a distant memory with elimination at the group phase. The Copa del Rey likewise, lower league Eibar removing any hopes they had there.

With a side low on confidence such as Athletic, the question will be raised why Simeone adopted such a conservative game plan from the outset, only really altering it from midway in the second half.

Athletic made 428 successful passes from 512 attempted (accuracy of 84%) giving them 60% possession. It’s not the least bit unsurprising for Atleti to have less possession than their opponent and having just 40% possession would not have been an immediate concern for Simeone. Atleti made just 249 successful passes from 329 attempted passes (76%accuracy). The Argentinean coach prefers to have possession to achieve an objective rather than passive possession. The low accuracy may be a different matter. With less possession, when you have the ball you cannot afford to be wasteful

Athletic – Pressing and Passing

With Athletic under Bielsa, you know exactly what sort of team you will face. One that seeks to press you aggressively high up the pitch, short passing and a team that will seek to overload you on the flanks.

Too often this season Athletic have been a pale imitation of the side that performed so admirably last season. The league table does not lie and Athletic find themselves perilously close to the relegation zone. The loss of Llorente is seen as a central tenet of their decline this season yet Aduriz has a better scoring record than his predecessor. The issues which Athletic must confront are in a defence which has conceded an average of 2 goals per game.

Last night, Laporte again demonstrated why he is so highly rated at centre back but it was the work of Herrara in midfield, linking play and providing the main creative outlet that was also impressive. With an assist for Susaeta, Herrara produced a good display in a season marked by injury and suspension.

Ander Herrara Passes

Ander Herrara Passes

The graphic above shows the range of passes made by Herrara across the pitch mainly seeking out the flanks to help Athletic build attacks. Herrara made no failed passes in his own half of the pitch. A testament to his quality but also Atleti’s meek approach.

Atletico – Too Deep and Passive

Atleti were positioned too deep for much of this game. Whilst the away game is not as solid as their fantastic record at the Vicente Calderon, Atleti were still too cautious in their approach and allowed Athletic to dictate.

The absence of Gabi and Mario was particularly key for Atleti. They reverted to a 4-1-4-1 formation with Tiago being the deepest midfielder with Raul Garcia and Emre ahead of him. Garcia is better in a more advanced position whilst Emre is still adapting to life in the Spanish top flight.

In addition to their deep positioning, Atleti were too slow to engage their opponents. Atleti made just 12 successful tackles from 17 attempted as the graphic below outlines. This contrasts with the hosts making 20 tackles from their 24 attempted.

Atleti Tackles vs Athletic

Atleti Tackles vs Athletic                    http://www.squawka.com

Atleti were allowing their opponents to move too high up the pitch and not controlling space effectively. The high number of tackles on the Atleti left shows just how effective Athletic were at linking play between Iraola, Susaeta and De Marcos on the right.

Athletic were able to move into the Atleti half before coming under any pressure. With sharp passing, they were able to evade opponents and hit a number of balls into the Atleti penalty area although these led to few opportunities.

Atleti Attack

THe deep positioning of Atleti also had repercussions when they moved into an attacking phase. Diego Costa was left alone and unsupported too often.

The graphic below shows the Atleti shots at goal during the game. Despite having 17 attempts, too often these were long range efforts or were blocked. Just six attempts were from within the Athletic penalty area.

Atleti Shots vs Athletic

Atleti Shots vs Athletic                                         http://www.squawka.com

Diego Costa had no attempts at goal in the game and whilst some may comment on this as proof of his unsuitability to deputise for Falcao,the fact that he was so isolated for much of the game did not help the Brazilian.

Both Arda and Rodriguez struggled to have any bearing on the game and were too deep to assist their frontman. When Atleti did push forward, Juanfran and Filipe seldom joined in the attack leaving the men from Madrid very narrow.

Emre should have scored just before half time but Iraizoz saved from close range. This was Atleti’s best chance in the game.

The Goals

The opening goal was very soft from the perspective of los rojiblancos. A corner into the box and San Jose ran off Godin for a free header.

In recent meetings, Atleti has picked off Athletic on the counter attack yet last night saw a reverse. Athletic were still the dominant team but twice they picked off Atleti with swift counter attacking moves.

As the game entered the final 20 minutes it became stretched and open, not a situation which Atleti are comfortable with or enjoy. The element of control is removed from their game. Unable to regroup quickly, they conceded two lovely goals during quick transitions to Susaeta and De Marcos.

Conclusions

A huge win for Athletic and one which supporters will hope can push the team on, first towards safety and then, with a little luck, perhaps towards the fringes of a Europa League place. As ridiculous as it sounds, it is possible with the side just nine points adrift of Rayo in 6thplace.

A substantial loss for Atleti and just Simeone’s 11th defeat in 65 games in charge. There will be plenty of discussion around how this is a one man team etc and the loss of Falcao is too great to overcome. Such comments are wrong and fail to see the bigger picture. Even with Falcao, Atleti would still have left the San Mames pointless last night.

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