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.

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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.

Week 18 Observations

A few observations from the key games played this weekend in La Liga:-

Deportivo 1 Malaga 0

A defeat for Malaga in a game they dominated in terms of possession yet still relied heavily upon goalkeeper Willy Cabellero to help them out with some key saves. Cabellero again demonstrating why he leads the race for the Zamora.

Malaga now face Barcelona at home before eminently winnable games against Celta, Mallorca and Real Zaragoza.

The noteworthy element of this game, however, arrived via Deportivo with new coach Domingos Paciencia securing a much needed three points in his first match in charge of the Galicians. Having spent the bulk of his career in Portugal, his first managerial appointment in Spain has the bonus of being in charge of a squad with a considerable Portuguese contingent.

Paciencia utilised the same system as his predecessor Oltra with a 4-2-3-1 with one key difference. Juan Carlos Valeron was on the substitutes bench. Was this a tactical ploy or a technical reason?

At the age of 37, Valeron is very much in the twilight of his career. The mind and the skills are still as sharp as ever even if his legs began failing him a long time ago. Within a squad marked by limited quality, Valeron is still a standout. The statistics verify this. Valeron has the highest number of assists this season with four whilst he averages 2.1 key passes per game. In terms of the number of passes, he is second only to Aguillar.

Perhaps it’s what Valeron does not provide you with that Paciencia, a coach who believes in defensive solidity and hard work as a base, values. Valeron has made just one tackle and committed just one foul this season. Not attributes for a team fighting relegation. And then there’s Valeron’s weary limbs again.

True, Valeron has completed 90 minutes on just two occasions this season but a player of his quality cannot be overlooked.

Whatever the reason for his omission at the weekend, if Depor are to avoid relegation then a player of Valeron’s quality will have a role to play in that battle, even if it is only fleeting moments.

Real Madrid 4 Real Sociedad 3

Forget the inclusion of Adan in goal again for Real Madrid. Forget about his red card and the arrival, to rapturous applause, of Iker Casillas after just six minutes. Forget about the two Ronaldo goals.

Instead focus on one thing. The inability of Real Sociedad to take advantage of a a Real Madrid side lacking cohesion, reduced to 10 men for around 84 minutes of the game and with a makeshift defence.

This was a game marked by conflict within La Real. Arrive at the Santiago Bernabeu with little in the way of expectation or hope and concede a sloppy goal in the opening moments of the game. Yet after just six minutes you are presented with a glorious chance to equalise and then to seize the initiative in the game.

Hang on though. You would have gladly taken a point before your arrival. Now with an extra man, you could pretend you are still paying 11 men and just hold on for a point? And therein lay the problem. La Real failed to take the opportunity. Their desire to avoid defeat significantly outweighed their ambition to win.

Madrid retreated into a low defensive block after conceding the first equaliser yet Sociedad failed to retain a high tempo to their own game. Initailly playing with greater verve, they allowed the game to drift by. The game often had the feel of a training game with Madrid content to defend deep and strike during quick tranisitions.

Despite falling behind for a second time, Prieto once more drew Sociedad level and at half time, the onus was on Montanier to guide his troops towards a massive victory. The Basques could not take that next step. The choice between a more concerted attacking strategy possibly negated by the threat of Madrid on transitions.

“For me, this was a unique opportunity to achieve something here, but we did not deserve to because we played a bad game defensively. We have made many technical mistakes, we lost a lot of possession. We gave too many chances for Madrid to counter-attack”

And so Madrid secured the three points.

Mallorca 1 Atletico Madrid 1

No Falcao equals no three points for Atletico. Or is that simplifying matters too much?

A weakened Atleti team managed to control the game and create and spurn a number of chances before Raul Garcia prodded the ball home for the opening goal midway through the second half. At that stage, a second Atleti goal seemed the most likely outcome yet Caparros men struck back with Kevin scoring the equaliser in the 87th minute.

“El Cholo” Simeone was considerable in his praise for the side however, one more referring to the physical qualities which he spoke of when he took the hot seat at the Calderon back in December 2012:-

“The game is not won by just the football played, but for the attitude, the intensity, the game situations, I have nothing to say about the team because they played a complete game”

The game also demonstrated that Atleti have the skillset to control a game with possession and still create chances. Considered a counter attacking team, Atleti enjoyed 56% possession with 15 attempts at goal.

Atleti maintain a five point leads over Madrid but there has been a stutter in their recent form with two wins, two defeats and a draw now in their last five league games.

For Caparros, the rot appears to have stopped. After a horrendous run of form which has seen the Islanders collect just six points from their last 13 league games, they now have a win and draw in their last two games.

Key issues remain to be resolved. With 131 chances created from their opening 17 league games, Mallorca need to improve their attack and quickly. Only Levante has created less but their defence is not as porous. Shut the back door and Mallorca should survive. Leave it open and it could be a long end to the season.

Real Madrid vs Atletico Madrid – Tactical Analysis

After all the talking, after all the hype, after the 21,000 Atleti fans who turned up to watch their side’s final training session, after the Mourinho press conferences, this was it. The first derbi el madrileno of the season. Possibly one of the most important derby’s in some time. And one in which Atleti went, yet again, in search of that elusive victory against their more illustrious rivals.

Everyone knows the background to Atleti’s last derby win. It really was 1999 the last time Atleti were victorious and it really was Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink scoring in that game.

Atleti went into this game on form and with an eight point lead over Madrid in the table. And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Madrid took all three points in an awful game illuminated only by a few fleeting moments of magic from Ronaldo.

Line Ups

Mourinho named arguably his strongest starting line up for the game, retaining faith in the side that had lost 1-0 away to Real Betis the previous week.

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

Diego “El Cholo” Simeone’s plans were disrupted before kick off when Filipe Luis suffered an injury during the warm up. Although he declared himself fit, Simeone was unwilling to run the risk of a greater lay off as a consequence of his participation. Cata Diaz came in at left back.

Atleti Starting Line Up

Atleti Starting Line Up

The only other change for Simeone was the return of Mario following a suspension. Tiago dropped to the bench.

Atleti started with the same 4-4-2 formation which had comfortably seen off Sevilla 4-0 in their last league outing.

The Game

This was a game which was instantly forgettable in so many respects. A game that never developed with neither side showing any real guile or craft until the latter stages when Madrid led 2-0. With both sides noted for their counter attacking abilities and preference to allow their opponent to open up and attack them, the opening goal was always going to be crucial. Yet there were a few bright interludes amidst a scrappy, niggly game.

Atleti started brightly if not cohesively when in possession. Both Gabi and Mario were prepared to support their attackers and press Madrid in defence to try and create more of a long ball style game, something which would suit Atleti with a number of their players superior aerially. Too often they went direct seeking their strike pairing.

On the few occasions that Madrid had to defend free kicks towards their penalty area, they held a very high line to prevent Atleti players being able to head at goal. If they lost the initial header, Madrid would still be able to compete or the second ball.

Madrid were unable to get their forward players involved in the game. Ozil feeding Benzema after 28 minutes was one of the few occasions when they found space behind the Atleti pairing of Gabi and Mario.

The one moment which lit up a drab first half was the opening goal by Ronaldo. Arda Turan inexplicably handballed around 25 yards from goal in a central position enabling Ronaldo to strike a perfect free kick up and over the wall for the opening goal. The expression on Casillas face when the goal was scored said everything about it.

And the second half continued in a similar vein. Petulant fouls were the order of the day with both sides cancelling each other out. Atleti struggled to get support forward to Falcao and Costa whilst Madrid were unable to break Atleti down with space between Atleti’s compact lines at a premium.

The key point in the second half again involved Ronaldo. Miranda missed a header near the halfway line enabling Ronaldo to gather possession. The Portuguese initial pass to Benzema was blocked but he cleverly reversed the ball to Ozil who was free to score Madrid’s second goal. Although he had a relatively quiet night in terms of the quality of his overall performance, Ronaldo’s contribution was still pivotal.

The goal changed the dynamic of the game with Atleti having to open up more and chase the game. The player who benefited the most from this was the goalscorer himself, Ozil.

Ozil’s Involvement

With Atleti very compact, space between the lines was scarce in the first half of this game and consequently, Ozil toiled to gain a foothold in the game.

The graphics below show his first and second half passes:-

Mesut Ozil 2nd Half Passes

Mesut Ozil 2nd Half Passes                                         http://www.squawka.com

Mesut Ozil 1st Half Passes

Mesut Ozil 1st Half Passes                                            http://www.squawka.com

Ozil was forced to operate too deep in the first half, unable to break through Atleti’s lines and closely marked but in the second half with Atleti beginning to push forward more and with their players tiring, there was greater space available to move into. Ozil was now playing higher and making passes in the final third of the pitch. His perfectly weighted pass following a quick Madrid transition late in the game saw Ronaldo hit the post. It was one of the few counter attacks with real venom from either side.

Atleti Left

One of the key areas of the Atleti team is the left wing with the forward runs of Luis Filipe from left back. In league games, approximately 42% of all Atleti attacks originate on the left side.

Cata Diaz Heat Map vs Real Madrid

Cata Diaz Heat Map vs Real Madrid     http://www.squawka.com

The use of centre back Cata Diaz as a makeshift left back created an imbalance in the Atleti team. Cata Diaz seldom pushed into the Madrid half to support Arda and naturally, gravitated towards the centre of the defence leaving Atleti narrow on the left. Should Simeone have used Cisma at left back? He would have been a more natural fit for the side. The inclusion of Cata Diaz created a real problem for Arda Turan. He was forced to undertake greater defensive responsibilities and offered little in a attacking role.

Arda Turan Passes vs Real Madrid

Arda Turan Passes vs Real Madrid          http://www.squawka.com

In his 77 minutes on the pitch, Arda completed just 9 passes from an attempted 13. A brief switch to the right flank was marginally successful but left Koke with the same problem on the left.

It was somewhat fortunate that Atleti were facing Arbeloa, a conservative full back, and Di Maria, an inverted winger and the defensive duties of Arda and Cata Diaz were never stretched but it came at the price of attacking verve. And with Atleti playing a front two, there was nobody in midfield able to shuffle across and lend Arda some assistance.

With Arda pushed back, who would supply the front pairing?

Diego Costa

The inclusion of Diego Costa was something of a surprise move by Simone. His inclusion meant that Atleti moved to a more orthodox 4-4-2 as had been deployed against Sevilla the previous weekend. This is a departure from the tried and tested 4-2-3-1.

If Atleti were going to maximise the ability and potential of both Costa and Falcao, they needed to get the ball forward but too often Atleti resorted to long hopeful balls rather than moving the ball wide and delivering crosses into the box via Koke and Arda. Just as Atleti had failed to support Falcao in the 4-1 home defeat last season, they again failed to support Falcao and Costa with no service from the flanks. For a side that relies heavily upon crosses, averaging 25 per game, Atleti only attempted 11 crosses. With limited possession and poor passing (only 190 successful passes from 302 attempted) Falcao and Costa were left to forage upon meager scraps.

Last season, whilst on loan at Rayo Vallecano, Diego Costa had produced an excellent performance against Real Madrid causing their central defensive partnership numerous problems that evening despite Rayo losing 1-0.

It appears that El Cholo believed that Costa could replicate that performance again but it failed to arrive. Costa should have been removed at half time with Adrian or Emre introduced to gain a better balance in midfield with support for Arda. Instead, Diego Costa remained on the pitch with a performance that is best summarised by an ongoing display of petulance towards his opponent, participating in a number of petty feuds across the pitch with whoever would indulge him. Sadly, given the importance of the occasion, too many players on both sides were prepared to become pre-occupied with committing fouls.

Lack of Rhythm

Important games seldom begin fluently, rather they take time to develop with either side keen to test their adversary before finding a sense of rhythm and patterns of play developing. At the Bernabeu last night, this was lacking:-

Madrid vs Atleti - Fouls

Madrid vs Atleti – Fouls                                                  http://www.squawka.com

A total of 42 fouls were awarded during the game with the most surprising feature being the leniency shown by referee Undiano Mallenco. The game rarely developed beyond a few passes before any flow was disrupted.

Conclusions

Madrid secure a 2-0 victory but were the real winners Barcelona? They maintain their 11 point advantage over Madrid but now enjoy a more comfortable 6 point lead over Atleti in 2nd place.

In a game that was instantly forgettable except for the Ronaldo free kick, the victory was the only thing that mattered and Madrid secured this. Will any Madridista’s complain about the quality of the victory if this is the catalyst to push on in the pursuit of Barcelona? No, the pragmatic will realise this is another 3 points in the bank and an incredibly important 3 points at that.

And so the wait continues for Atleti. Another year passes without a win against their great rivals. And Simeone awaits his first taste of victory against Madrid. Having never beaten them during his time playing, he now has two defeats in his short time as Atleti manager. El Cholo must ensure there is no hangover from this defeat. They still enjoy a 5 point lead over Madrid and have enjoyed a superb 12 month period under the stewardship of the Argentinean. They must remain focused and continue to perform as they have done so far if they have any intention of disrupting the hegemony of the big two in Spain.

All statistics and graphics taken from http://www.squawka.com