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.

Madrid vs Atleti – Where and When

Atletico Madrid claim their first victory over neighbours Real Madrid in the league since 1999. The margin of victory doesn’t reflect the superiority of Atleti during the game. This could easily have finished with a two or three goal winning margin to Atleti.

Line Ups

Ancelotti started with Di Maria on the right with Bale deemed fit enough only for the bench. Despite his poor recent form, Karim Benzema once again started in the striking role. The side lined up in a 4-4-2 with Ronaldo in attack and Isco operating from the left side of midfield.

Starting Line Ups

Starting Line Ups

Simeone named arguably his strongest starting eleven with the exception of Tiago replacing the unavailable Mario in central midfield. Atleti lined up in a clear 4-4-2 with Villa and Costa as the strikers, a clear difference from the 4-5-1 adopted by Simeone against Barcelona and one that illustrated El Cholo’s belief that his side could match Madrid in midfield. A clear statement that the side had no inferior complex with the Copa del Rey victory lifting a significant psychological burden from the side.

This game was all about Atleti implementing Simeone’s plan to near perfection.

Atleti System

In his brief spell in charge thus far, still under two years, Simeone has overseen a remarkable transformation in Atleti as they have become one of the most well drilled and disciplined teams in Europe. A counter attacking side, Atleti can struggle when they are required to take the initiative evidenced by the fact that since the beginning of last season there have only been seven league games where Atleti have enjoyed more possession than their opponent. Yet they have won just once, the recent 2-1 home victory over Osasuna.

Yet when the opponent moves onto Atleti, the side are resilient, organised and able to withstand pressure as they control space so effectively:-

Tackles

Tackles

The graphic above provides a glimpse into how Atleti press their opponents. Although Atleti make the vast majority of their tackles and interceptions in a band midway inside their own half of the pitch, the most interesting feature from Atleti is not the “where” but the “when”. If the side have advanced, Atleti will press an opponent who receives the ball facing his own goal or not fully in control of the ball. The only goal on Saturday was the perfect example. Di Maria took a heavy touch and allowed Filipe Luis to close him down midway inside the Madrid half. When the full back won the resulting tackle, Koke slipped the ball through a disorganised Madrid defensive line and Costa scored the winning goal.

Whilst the Madrid defensive line was uneven, this is sharply contrasted by how well organised Atleti are. If they cannot win the ball high up the pitch, they quickly retreat and regain their position. Did Madrid ever have a quick counter attack against Atleti during the game? No, Atleti recover so quickly and seldom get caught out during games with transitions. If no opportunity arises to press, the side drop off.

The graphic below shows the interceptions made by Atleti:-

Interceptions

Interceptions

Again, the line of interceptions across the middle of the Atleti half of the pitch is clearly visible and owes much to the manner of Atleti’s pressing combined with a huge work ethic by the side.

Atleti quickly fell back into two deep, narrow banks of four with little space between the lines. The space is on the flanks and opponents are able to find space here. When the ball went wide on Saturday, both Arda and Koke supported their respective full back. They were also aided by either Villa and Costa to help produce a triangle of pressure on Madrid. If Atleti cannot win the ball here, the passing lanes are closed off and with such little space between the lines, Madrid are forced to move back infield. What occurs is an opponent playing a series of lateral passes. This was strengthened by Benzema repeatedly moving deep and not sufficient movement from the midfield area into the Atleti penalty area.

This tactic is initially defensive by Atleti by it can quickly become an attacking tactic. A lateral pass is far more dangerous than a vertical pass and Atleti made numerous interceptions of lateral passes aided by Madrid recycling the ball slowly in possession. When they recover the ball, Atleti pounce.

The final graphic below details the defensive clearances in the game. Again, Atleti make numerous clearances from a central area:-

Clearances

Clearances

It’s also worth noting how there were just two clearances from inside the six yard area and the area out to the penalty mark was relatively clear compared with Madrid who had to make a number of clearances. Madrid simply did not put enough pressure on the central defensive pairing of Godin and Miranda until the introduction late on of Morata.

The above outlines Atleti’s defensive strength, the side also possesses a counter attack that is becoming increasingly potent led by a man who has stepped out of the formidable shadow left by the departure of Falcao. Indeed, the pre season murmurings focused on how Atleti would cope without Falcao. Who would score their goals. September is just ending but we already have the answer.

Diego Costa

Is there a player that is loved more by his own fans whilst being despised and vilified by opposing players and fans than Diego Costa? The frontman produced an excellent performance with his unselfish running into the channels a key aspect as he caused Ramos and Pepe numerous problems which often resulted in him winning free kicks and relieving the pressure on the side:-

Diego Costa Fouls

Diego Costa Fouls

Costa led the line throughout combining his physical attributes with some lovely play including the improvisation that saw him loft a pass from the goal line back to Arda who shot over the bar.  Always looking to run off the shoulder of the last defender or able to hold up the ball acting as a reference point and ably supported by the second line of attack.

Last season Falcao spoke of competing with Messi and Ronaldo for the Pichichi but never managed to. Costa is presently level on goals with Messi.

Madrid Issues

Ancelotti has issues to resolve at Madrid. The Italian will know this as he has sought to overhaul the playing style, moving away from the reactive counter attacking style developed under Mourinho to a style that is comfortable in possession. Along the way there will be problems which the side are demonstrating currently and which are most manifest in attack.

Madrid now have Ronaldo and Bale in the side, both superbly talented players but both players who like to run with the ball and move into space. They are joined by Isco, a player who wants to help build play and Benzema, a striker who looks short on confidence and who drops deep seeking possession. The outcome is a front four that is unbalanced and lacks a presence in the opposition penalty area.

One of the biggest problems is the movement of the attacking players is not counter balanced by the intelligent movement of Ozil to fill in the void created by the likes of Ronaldo moving out of position. It leaves the attack uneven.

The midfield pairing of Illarramendi and Khedria didn’t work. When they sat too deep, Atleti had space to play in with pressing non existent amongst the Madrid forward players and when they pressed high it opened up a gap between them and the defence which Atleti tried to get into. Illarramendi was sacrificed for Modric at half time but he failed to build play sufficiently with Madrid still playing long passes and bypassing him at times.

The introduction of Bale at half time didn’t bring any alteration to the game. Both Bale and Di Maria well marshalled well by Filipe Luis who moved high up the pitch to offer width enabling Koke to move more centrally and influence proceedings.

The Futures Red and White?

Seven wins from seven league games and Atleti sit joint top of the league and the inevitable question arises again of whether Atleti can sustain a challenge for the title. Simeone has repeatedly, and correctly, stated that Atleti are at a massive financial disadvantage compared against the big two. There is a significant gulf in available resources. Yet on the pitch, Simeone has narrowed the gap. The only question that remains to be seen is whether Simone can eliminate the gap completely. The coming months will provide the answer.

Atleti vs Rayo – Atleti Strong but Rayo Weak.

Atleti continue their very impressive start to the season with a resounding home win over a poor Rayo Vallecano. The game in some respects went entirely according to plan. Rayo tried to impose themselves on their hosts and played a very open and attack minded game and went consequently ripped to shreds by an Atleti side who are one of the most lethal counter attacking sides at the moment.

Line Ups

Simeone made a couple of changes from the team that had drawn 1-1 with Barcelona in midweek.
Raul Garcia and Tiago came into the side with Mario and Koke dropping to the bench.
Atleti vs Rayo Starting Line Ups

Atleti vs Rayo Starting Line Ups

Paco Jemez named a starting eleven which had changed considerably since last season with players such as Leo and Piti having left the club. Saul on loan from Atleti, started the game in midfield for Rayo with former Atleti player Perea in attack.

One Way Traffic

Atleti only had 44% possession in this game, completing 269 passes from 362 attempted. Would that concern Simeone? No, not at all. The objective from Simeone is to achieve something when his side have possession. To have a goal in mind and not simply have the ball and recycle possession. It has led to an Atleti side that counter superbly well with swift, incisive passing that cuts the opponent open. It has also led to an Atleti that can toil against a low block.
Filipe Luis was very noticeable pushing high on the left aided by Perea moving infield. The full back was able to support attacks and repeatedly found space.
The most notable feature from a Rayo perspective was the squashed nature of their side in the midfield area with almost no influence whatsoever on the right flank with Perea very narrow and exerting no influence over the game. Rayo maintained their passing philosophy throughout as they enjoyed more possession and completed 399 passes from 489 attempted even if this approach indirectly led to the final Atleti goal when Rayo refused to clear their lines despite ample opportunity to do so:-
Atleti vs Rayo Player Influence

Atleti vs Rayo Player Influence

The Naivety of Paco Jemez?

Paco Jemez is known for sticking to his footballing beliefs and not altering his view. Perhaps his most famous quote recently referred to Celtic’s ultra defensive performance against Barcelona when they lost 2-1. Rayo attacked Barcelona and lost 5-0:-
“I could play like Celtic did, but I would drop my head in shame when I looked in the eyes of our fans.”
Jemez remains true to his beliefs. Is this an act of folly or the act of a principled man? Whatever way you consider it, his game plan needs to be executed properly if it has any hope of working correctly. The key aspect of a high offside line is pressure on your opponent in their own half but Rayo simply didn’t press well enough. What emerged was a gap between the front half of the team pressing ineffectively and the defence positioned close to the halfway line. Rayo looked slow and unable to compete. That is more concerning than the failure of the offside trap.
The graphic below from the 36 minute shows the Rayo defensive line completely disjointed yet managing to catch Atleti offside just inside their own half :-
Rayo Offside Line

Rayo Offside Line

Atleti were caught offside on 14 separate occasions in the game yet just as often they broke through Rayo’s shambolic offside trap.
The high line cannot explain the terrible defending that enabled Raul Garcia to have a free header after 17 minutes to open the scoring or Diego Costa to arrive at the back post a few minutes later and score the second from a cut back by Arda.
The prowess of Atleti on the counter is well known as is the problems that Atleti can encounter when teams use a low block against them. Yet Jemez opted to continue with his high risk strategy and push men forward even though Atleti would provide a stern test of Rayo’s defensive capabilities on transitions. A Rayo defence substantially different from last season. Cassado, Amat and Figueras have all departed. The defence is new.
Given the manner in which Rayo play, there will always be a need for an adaptation phase. Rayo encountered similar defensive frailties last season before tightening up. These issues should be resolved but you can’t help feel that the overall drop in quality will play a role too. Until that adaptation phase has proven successful, should a more conservative approach be utilised?

What Jemez cannot do, however, is legislate for the poor passing of his side coupled with a lack of aggression in their play. Rayo were meek in their defeat. That is unacceptable as Jemez admitted post match. At the very least, Rayo must compete.

Rayo Attack

If Rayo were extremely poor defensively, they were just as bad offensively. They didn’t manage to register a shot on target until the 84th minute of the game. Apart from two off targets efforts from inside the penalty area, the remaining five shots from Rayo were all from outside the penalty area which neatly sums up their game. Rayo build from the back with short passing but they quickly ran out of idea as they approached the Atleti penalty area:-
Atleti vs Rayo Shots

Atleti vs Rayo Shots

When attacks broke down, Atleti countered swiftly and efficiently with Rayo struggling to regain shape in the transitional phase having committed so many men forward. Arda Turan’s goal was the perfect example. Miranda intercepted a loose ball on the edge of the Atleti penalty area and 14 seconds later Arda scored. Swift and merciless. Atleti had 14 attempts at goal with just five on target but all five resulted in goals.
Normally the central area of the pitch would have players from both sides but with Atleti letting Rayo come onto them, there was an abundance of space to break into. This substantial gap can be seen in the number of take ons that Atleti successfully undertook in the central area of the pitch as shown in the graphic below:-
Atleti Take Ons

Atleti Take Ons

Arda Turan in particular enjoyed himself immensely with one goal and two assists before Simeone withdrew him to allow rest ahead of the second leg of the Super Cup in midweek. Diego Costa continues to grow as a key player for Atleti too. The discussion around how a post Falcao Atleti would cope seems nonsensical now as the front man continues to deliver goals and performances.
Can Atleti Challenge?
Atleti secure 3 league wins in a row for the first time since last November. The professional manner of the victory will please Simeone. It would have been easy to reduce the intensity of their play and coast to a comfortable win but Atleti continued pushing for the full 90 minutes with Villa in particular, desperate to score.
It’s still far too early to say with any conviction but this Atleti side look as if they can again push the big two close this season. For the sake of competition within La Liga, hopefully they will.

For Rayo, Jemez knows the areas he needs to improve upon. Whether the players are of sufficient quality to undertake these improvements is another issue. He won’t change his ways which means the players will be in for a steep learning curve. Until they come to terms with what is required, expect some high scorelines in Rayo games. The team with the smallest budget in the league will continue to provide entertainment for their own fans and others.

Depor vs Atleti – Is the Great Escape Still on?

A game at the Riazor on Saturday evening which offered so much and yet delivered so little as both sides played out a fairly uneventful goalless draw.

Line Ups

Fernando Vasquez made a number of changes form the side which drew away to Real Betis. Both Silvio and Pizzi were unable to player against their parent club and were replaced by Camunas and Ayoze. With Aguilar unavailable, Bergantinos took his place and Castro started ahead of Kaka in central defence.

Deportivo vs Atletico Starting Line Ups

Deportivo vs Atletico Starting Line Ups

There were two changes for Atleti with Diego Costa being suspended, his replacement was Adrian. Rodriguez came in for Koke.

The change in personnel meant a change in system for Simeone’s men. Movement away from the 4-4-2 which they have utilised recently and back to the 4-2-3-1 which served them so well early in the season with Raul Garcia positioned behind Falcao.

Shape

The most striking feature of this game from just how narrow and clogged Depor were. The graphic below shows the average player positions for the game:-

Depor vs Atleti Influence

Depor vs Atleti Influence

Atleti tried to press at times but if they lost possession, they tended to drop off and regain shape. Occasionally they pressed but not with any real conviction.

There was an industriousness to Depor with players tracking back and working diligently closing space. The problem though is that when players track back, there is nobody in attack when they win the ball and thus the team were not really able to move high as a unit and exert real pressure on Atleti.

Atleti Dropping Deep

One of the important aspects behind Atleti’s success thus far, and particularly, early on in the season has been their ability to control space and limit the opposition from getting too close to their goal. It also means that Atleti are poised to counter attack quickly through short passing. The team sits in two banks of four and becomes difficult to break down.

The graphic below highlights the tackles both side attempted during the game. Whereas Depor are making tackles very deep within their half, Atleti are more structured in the tackles they make, almost forming a barrier:-

Depor vs Atleti Tackles

Depor vs Atleti Tackles

Atleti close opponents down and tackle midway inside their own half. The difference as the season has progressed as been that Atleti have dropped off opponents much quicker to regain shape.

Look at how the tackles above compare to when the two sides met at the Calderon back in December:-

Atleti vs Depor Tackles 091212

Atleti vs Depor Tackles 091212

Atleti were making far more tackles in their opponents half of the field. True, Atleti have been more conservative away from home but dropping deeper present a couple of problems. Firstly, it isolates Falcao and moves away from the side being compact and having quick, short passes being interchanged. Secondly, it limits the ability to hit on transitions with much further to travel to the opponents goal.

The use of Diego Costa has facilitated this change with the side deeper and hitting more long passes towards the front man for him to pursue into the channels. Strange as it may seem having said that, Atleti could have done with the Brazilian on Saturday evening even if it was just for some of his more unsavoury habits to win up the opposition and gain a slight advantage.

Lack of Attacking Threat

This game was bogged down in the middle of the pitch with neither side really offering any creative outlet. Even Valeron was unable to inspire with the central area so crowded.

There were only three attempts on target in the whole game, all from Depor and all from outside of the penalty area as shown on the graphic below:-

Depor vs Atleti Shots

Depor vs Atleti Shots

Godin had Atleti’s best chance in the 27th minute but hesitated and Castro was able to block. Los Rojiblancos could not pressure a nervous looking Depor defence in the early stages of the game with the experienced Aranzubia looking particularly susceptible.

Valeron was slightly deeper for a Depor side who clearly missed Aguilar’s ability to recycle possession timeously. Without the Colombian, Bergantinos was an adequate replacement defensively but unable to construct attacks leaving a void to be filled. Camunas could not offer the attacking verve of Pizzi, operating further back with subsequent loss of balance for Depor.

These factors combined with the problems which Atleti were experiencing as detailed above and the game moved towards a midfield stalemate and the inevitable scoreless draw.

Moving on up?

Depor are now undefeated in their last seven league games with four wins and three draws yet this superb run of form has been unable to lift them clear of the relegation zone with surrounding teams also enjoying favourable results. And it’s been three draws in a row now for Depor. Are they losing momentum at the wrong moment?

The next two games must see Depor collect points away to Valladolid and at home to Espanyol. After this the Galicians finish with Malaga and Real Sociedad. Teams who will still have something to play for.

For Atleti, the season is begging to fizzle out. Simeone must keep his men sharp ahead of the Copa del Rey final and some rotation would not go amiss at this stage. Rotation which could, coincidentally, aid Depor’s Galician neighbours with Atleti facing Celta next.

Simeone knows the areas he must address for next season; the lack of creativity from the central area. It’s a tricky situation to get right however as he must find a creative player who can play at the same tempo of the team during transitions and not alter the dynamic.

Sevilla vs Atleti – Some Thoughts

Atleti left the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan with full points after a disappointing game which was tetchy, lacked any real flow and neither side was able to provide the quality required to make the difference until Raul Garcia’s shot was flicked home in the 75th minute.

Line Ups

With no Gary Medel to anchor the midfield, Emery went with Kondogbia and Rakitic as the double pivot and Reyes as the central point in the attacking trident behind Negredo. It never really worked with Reyes having a limited impact upon the game.

Sevilla vs Atleti Starting Line Ups

Sevilla vs Atleti Starting Line Ups

Simone opted for a 4-4-1-1 formation with Diego Costs supporting Falcao in attack. It was very familiar from Atleti. Maintain shape and control space whilst waiting to exploit Sevilla on the transitions.

Lack of Flow

As stated earlier, this game never really developed any real flow. There were a number of petulant fouls conceded and many further incidents of players going to ground easily trying to win free kicks etc. There were 30 fouls in the game and 6 cautions with 5 of these going to the away side.

Despite the nature of the game, Sevilla only collected a solitary caution, surprising given their extremely poor disciplinary record in the league this season that has seen them collect 12 red cards already. Suspensions have cost them dearly this season.

Whilst many players become infuriated by a disrupted game, unable to develop any rhythm, there are those players who thrive in such circumstances and only add to the situation through their own calculated behaviour. Diego Costa is one such individual.

Anger Management

Diego Costa has earned quite a reputation this season to the extent that the LFP have offered to provide him with anger management classes, seemingly in an effort to curb the worst excesses of this behaviour. Somewhere along the way, everyone seems to have overlooked the quality that Costa can offer the team and also the small issue that Costa may actually enjoy performing such a role on the pitch. Why? It works.

The Brazilian, who has recently received his first two caps for his country, possess that rare quality. The ability to infuriate opponents through his demeanor, attitude and general play acting which often overlooks his quality.

Costa has weighed in with seven goals and six assists in the league so far this season but his caution count is more impressive standing at 10. Against Sevilla he was fairly quiet in terms of his quality committing one foul and being fouled twice.  He completed 9 passes from 12 attempted and managed just a single shot at goal which was off target.

Yet he was still the focus with his play acting after he and Navarro went head to head in the second half.

Some may say that Costa has to eradicate these unsavoury elements from his game if he is to reach the next level but there is most definitely a case to be made that those same elements are what makes Diego Costa so successful in the first place.

The Game

Much of what happened could have been easily predicted before the start. Sevilla controlled possession with 62% as Atleti dropped into their usual format away from home, retaining their shape and allowing the opposition to come forward.

Sevilla completed 468 passes from 576 attempted but the pass statistics from Atleti are surprising. Despite having just 38%, Atleti only made 134 successful passes form 194 attempted. The men from Madrid were very direct, going long as soon as possible. Simone is an advocate of doing something with the ball when you have it but this is still an extremely direct approach to take.

Yet Simeone would not have been concerned. For the first 75 minutes despite having so much possession, Sevilla could only manage seven attempts at goal with just one shot on target. The side were lacking in the final third with no real ideas and Negredo, in the first half especially, not linking with the rest of the team. The frontman made just three successful passes in the first half. He lacked mobility. The home side managed a further six shots at goal in the final 15 minutes as Atleti fell deeper to protect their slim advantage but just two shots were on target. Courtois was never placed in any real difficulties.

The poor forward play was also visible on the Atleti side too as the visitors had one shot on target in the entire game and scored.

The problem for Sevilla was in originating in the midfield are.

Sevilla Midfield

With Medel missing and Maduro on the bench, Emery went with Kondogbia as the deepest midfielder alongside Rakitic who could move higher. The problem was that this removed Rakitic’s passing from the final third and Reyes simply offered too little in an attacking sense.

The graphic below shows the Croatian’s passes:-

Rakitic Passes

Rakitic Passes         http://www.squawka.com

Sevilla needed Rakitic higher up the pitch and could have removed Reyes fro Maduro earlier, allowing Kondogbia to become more of a box to box midfielder. This trio may have been more effective.

Yet compare Rakitic against the Atleti central duo of Gabi and Mario. The duo completed 42 passes form 48 attempted, considerably less than Rakitic did on his own. Creation is not their role though. They are there to shield the back four. To always be in position. Gabi and Mario made 5 successful tackles from 6 attempted and completed 5 interceptions. Their job is primarily destructive and provides the platform for the team to play and they are highly effective at their occupation within the Atleti set up.

Conclusions

The possibility of a European place for Sevilla was always a long shot but it’s now almost certainly over. Their away form is very poor and they had to secure maximum points from their home games if they were to have any hope of clinching a place.

Atleti now have the ideal opportunity to move into second place in the league and end a horrendous run of form stretching back to last century against their cross city rivals when they host Madrid at the Calderon on Saturday evening. Just three points separates the sides but Madrid must contend with a Champions League semi final either side of the derby.

Atleti vs Real – Tactical Analysis – The Real Deal?

And they march on, into 4th place in the league.

La Real have now won nine, drawn seven and lost just once in their last 17 league games (and they should have managed to avoid that defeat against 10 man Real Madrid) as they climb the league into a position entirely fitting for the quality within the squad.

Atleti began and ended the game in 3rd place following Madrid’s win and for the first time this season, they are below their rivals in the league. The last 100% home record in a major European league falls with Atleti suffering their first defeat at home since their cross town opponents arrived and departed with three points late last season.

Line Ups

Simeone reinstated Gabi to central midfield following his suspension to be joined by Koke with Mario missing the game due to suspension.

Courtois continued in goal with Abel Resino’s 20 year old Atleti domestic record for duration without conceding at home within touching distance. Coutois last conceded a league goal at home in October 2012. The record would eventually fall in the 34th minute and be extended by a further 33 minutes before Prieto struck.

Simeone went with a 4-4-2, Diego Costa supporting Falcao in attack.

Atleti vs Real Starting Line Ups

Atleti vs Real Starting Line Ups

Montanier moved Aggirexte to the bench including Zurutuza in an advanced midfield role. A move which could be construed as negative depending upon your perspective, Montanier would surely argue it provided the necessary base to begin the game against Atleti.

Vela and Griezmann would alternate positions during the game between left wing and striker.

Real started with eight players who had progressed to the first team via their cantera

Real Sociedad Shape

Atleti enjoyed better possession early in the game but too often it was in an area of the pitch which could not hurt Real. Aside from a few long range efforts which went wide, the only real threat in the opening stages arrived via the charging runs of Diego Costa, buoyed by his call up to the Brazil squad, moving into the left channel between Carlos Martinez and Mikel Gonzalez. One such run ended abruptly under the challenge of Gonzalez, earning the defender a yellow card.

Whilst Atleti would look to start the game strongly, they were able to enjoy possession by an opponent that was content to drop deep, concede possession and only press Atleti as they entered their half of the field. In the 10th minute, Vela, the most advanced Sociedad player, received the ball near the halfway line with no available team mates near him to pass to, eventually conceded a foul.

The graphic below shows the heat map for Real Sociedad throughout the entire game:-

Real Sociedad Shape

Real Sociedad Shape          http://www.squawka.com

This clearly illustrates just how deep Real sat and how little attacking threat they possessed.

It’s a dangerous game to defend so deeply whilst having such little impact on the break. Real possess players with the correct qualities to counter attack but last night was more of a team effort than a few individuals showcasing their ability. All players worked to earn the result.

As the first half progressed, Real became more comfortable and allowed their personality to show more, carefully avoiding Atleti pressing with short sharp passing enabling play to switch flanks and attacks to be built. There was still little attacking threat from the Basque’s but the side were moving higher up the pitch and enjoying more possession. They were of course, still wary of the quality of the Atleti counter attack.

Defensive Solidity

Part of the success of La Real has been the ability to retain their shape in the face of adversity this season. “To suffer” as Philippe Montanier states but to retain their resolve in such circumstances before triumphing.

The graphic below shows that Real won 21 tackles from an attempted 24 tackles during the course of the game but the location is important. Atleti were constantly forced wide during the game. Real defended compactly with Bergara and Illarramedi shielding their defence and avoiding space developing between the defensive and midfield line. With limited options centrally, Atleti were forced to attack via the flanks yet as they did so, they found Xabi Prieto and Antoine Griezmann tracking Filipe Luis and Juanfran preventing los rojiblancos from having two on one situations:-

Real Sociedad Tackles

Real Sociedad Tackles          http://www.squawka.com

Their defensive solidity was aided by a well organised offside trap, the line being held around the edge of the penalty area when required preventing Atleti from getting in behind them.

The concern for Montanier though was that given how deep Sociedad were defending, when they did get the ball, they were a considerable distance from Courtois and too many players had dropped back to defend. The opportunity for counters was not really in position.

Atleti Attack

The main problem for Atleti last night was their lack of guile and craft to break down an organised and structured defence. Much of the success of Atleti has come from their ability to absorb pressure and counter attack swiftly. A highly efficient reactive side that allows opponents to take the initiative. Last night, Atleti were undone by an opponent using their own game plan.

Atleti had numerous attempts at goal as the graphic below shows, but they were wayward and failed to test Claudio Bravo in the Sociedad goal. Only one scrambled save  in the second half presented any test for the Chilean goalkeeper:-

Atleti Shots

Atleti Shots                      http://www.squawka.com

The graphic also highlights the tendency for Atleti to focus their attacks from their left,  an area that will be explored.

Atleti Take Ons

Atleti began the second half with greater intensity to their play, moving the ball quicker and placed the Real defence under some early pressure. With a lack of creativity in the ranks, Atleti often attempted take ons against their opponents but this provided little success either. From 18 takes ons attempted, just six were successful.

The graphic below shows this in addition to identifying the location of the take ons:-

Atleti Take Ons

Atleti Take Ons           http://www.squawka.com

Too much of the Atleti attack focussed on the left wing with Diego Costa drifting across there and supported by Rodriguez in the first half. The same balance is not found on the right where Arda Turan drifts inward and adopts a central position leaving Juanfran alone on the right to offer width.

Although Xabi Prieto scored the solitary goal arriving on the Atleti left, the move began on the Atleti right with Griezmann releasing the pass to Prieto.

Real Sociedad always had options on their left, the Atleti right, during the game.

Simeone made a number of substitutions later on to try and forge a way back int the game but the moves gave Atleti a muddled look with an even greater imbalance on the left prevalent. Play was no longer constructed but revolved around a series of balls into the box or trying to take an opponent on. There was nobody orchestrating play from midfield forward. Nobody probing the Real defence.

Conclusions

Simeone will now gain a better understanding of the mental resilience of his players. Having led Madrid all season, they now find themselves playing catch up as the season moves into the final stretch.

It also provides glimpse into the future for Atleti under Simeone. Teams will increasingly defend deep against them and force Atleti to take the initiative. In such games, Simeone must develop alternative strategies in all likelihood aided by a more creative central player. Such a move may disrupt the double pivot which he favours but it could become an invaluable weapon in his arsenal.

Real Sociedad began this season with six defeats in their first ten league games but the defeat of Atleti marked their third away win in a row.

Montanier has struck the balance, the dividing line between being overly conservative during games and adopting a counter attacking strategy, one in which the players are able to express themselves and display their personality. The final Champions League place is now there for the taking, if La Real can prove they are the real deal.