That Was The Season, That Was.

And then the season was over.

Like that.

A football season that commenced in late August and concluded in early June. Vilanova won the title in his debut season as coach, a season punctuated by treatment for his cancer and despite Barcelona often not playing as fluently as they may like. Madrid continued to have the upper hand over Barcelona in clasico’s but seem to have forgotten how to approach games against more defensive teams. So Barcelona and Madrid finish in the top two. Same old, same old.

The real story in Spain, as ever, lay elsewhere. The battle for the European spots and the struggle to avoid relegation.

La Real enjoyed a superb second half of the season suffering just two defeats in the league to return to Champions League football for the first time in 10 seasons. Even a momentary lapse in form as the season concluded could not prevent them from pipping a Valencia side who were slumped in mid-table when Valverde replaced Pellegrino in December. Boardroom instability and financial problems reign supreme at the Mestalla once more. At least with the appointment of Djukic as Coach, Los Che have the chance to rebuild provided he is supported adequately.

When the Champions League campaign ended in controversial circumstances, the glue which Pellegrini had used to bind Malaga together began to peel away and the Andalusian’s form shaded. With an exodus likely and European football increasingly unlikely due to a UEFA penalty for financial irregularities, the side simply ran out of gas. Holding off Betis to finish in 6th place all things considered is still an achievement.

The entertaining Real Betis return to the European arena with Pepe Mel, so close to being sacked last year, still guiding them. How the squad copes over the close season will be crucial. Will Joel Campbell remain on loan? Will Benat stay at the club?

Subject to Rayo being excluded from European competition, again over financial irregularities (although given what Paco Jemez has achieved on a miniscule budget and the manner in which he has achieved it, exclusion is so harsh but could actually be a blessing) Sevilla take the final Europa League spot as Del Nido states that at least 30% of the first team should comprise cantera products in the future.

As some sides appear to be making tentative steps towards resolving financial problems, another three are plunged back into financial crisis.

Depor started the final day of the campaign in 17th position and with their fate i their own hands yet succumbed to a second relegation in three season as their Galician neighbors Celta, managed to avoid the drop under the gaze of coach Abel Resino who has since departed to be replaced by Luis Enrique.

Manolo Jimenez could not perform the same heroics he had done just last year and Real Zaragoza went down following a dreadful run of form in 2013 with two wins, six draws and 12 defeats sucking the Aragonese side down into la Segunda. Where they will be joined by Mallorca. It all seemed so far away for the Islanders when they briefly led the division before Caparros paid for the rapid decline with his job. Manzano could not stop the rot sufficiently either.

How all three cope off the pitch will be just as important as how they cope on it in over the next 12 months.

And so to the team of the season.

It’s important to note that my team of the season contains no Barcelona or Real Madrid players although given how some performed this season, maybe I should have allowed their selection purely to then not select them based upon their performances.

Instead, my team comprises players from others sides. This is, of course, an entirely subjective assessment. There will be some you agree with and some selections which you completely oppose. It’s players who have performed well within their team and who I enjoy watching. I also attempted to find players who would fit the preferred system. Therefore, with inverted wingers, I needed string overlapping full backs. The side will line up in the ubiquitous 4-2-3-1.

Goalkeeper

Courtois (Atleti)

It’s really a straight choice between Willy from Malaga and Courtois from Atleti with the Belgian getting the nod. Whereas Willy performed heroics at times, with Courtois you sense he is always capable of such feats. A dominant presence in goal for Atleti despite his young age. Atleti’s loss will be Chelsea’s gain in the longer term although in terms of his development, he is ready for first team action in London right now.

Right Back

Carlos Marinez (Real Sociedad)

A position where a player from the big two would have secured a starting berth via Dani Alves. This should not detract from the campaign that Martinez has enjoyed. Its demanding being a full back for La Real. You must provide the defensive solidity that Montanier required to use as a platform but equally, you must contribute to the attack with overlapping runs beyond an inverted winger, normally Vela. Martinez did both and not only that, he often excelled at both.

Left Back

Filipe Luis (Atleti)

Whilst Martinez’s team mate de la Bella had a great season, it was probably eclipsed by Luis Filipe from Atleti. Again, Atleti employ a system that requires the full backs to provide the width and Filipe is more than capable of providing such width. Not as attacking as the likes of Jordi Alba but substantially better defensively.

Centre Back

Demichellis (Malaga)

A defender who many will have thought had seen his best years. Never the quickest, his lack of pace could have been an issue instead his experience at the heart of the Malaga defence was one reason why the Andalusian’s gained such good results during the season. His ability to marshall the defence that maintained a disciplined, organsied offside line covered his main deficiency.

Centre Back

Inigo Martinez (Real Sociedad)

Currently starring for the U21’s in the European Championships in Israel, it seems only a matter of time before Martinez is plying his trade elsewhere. Another product of the La Real cantera, Martinez is composed on the ball but can also mix things up when needed. An excellent combination of skills to possess and the reason why he is so highly valued.

Defensive Midfield

Javi Fuego (Rayo Vallecano)

Javi who? Javi Fuego. Paying for Madrid’s 3rd or 4th team depending upon how you classify Getafe, Javi Fuego has gone under the radar of many now for some time but has just secured a well deserved transfer to Valencia. Occupying a deep midfield position, Fuego is a robust, combative figure unafraid to commit to the tackle. Yet that sells his game short. With a high interceptions rate showcasing his reading of the game, he is also a vital component for recycling the ball for a Rayo team that played neat, attractive football.

Defensive Midfield

Illarramendi (Real Sociedad)

Partnering Javi Fuego is Illarramendi from La Real. Like his team mate Inigo Martinez, Illarra is displaying his skills in Israel right now. String in the tackle, mobile, aggressive but capable of fine passing, he has been compared to Xabi Alonso who came through the La Real cantera too. Illarra offers greater defensive cover but lacks the same range of passing that Alonso possesses. Again, like his team mate Martinez, Illarra combines a range of desirable qualities and is possibly a more unique player in the Spanish game for that combination.

Left Wing

Jonas (Valencia)

The selection of Jonas ahead of the likes of Griezmann on the left may raise some eyebrows but the Brazilian had the unnerving habit of popping up in central areas with crucial goals for Valencia as the side made a surge for the final Champions League spot. His 13 goals and three assists helped maintain Valencia’s challenge through to the end of the season. What is key is his willingness to move centrally and support both the attacking midfielder and the striker.

Attacking Midfield

Banega (Valencia)

There are a plethora of players who could be utilsied in this position. The likes of Isco, Verdu, Xabi Prieto and even Leo Baptistao have all enjoyed fine seasons. My own selection goes to a player who has not always displayed the correct attitude towards his career or his club but who, when on form, is capable of producing moments of real quality. Step forward, Ever Banega, a man who helped drag Valencia forward when it looked as if they would remain in mid table. Freed from a deeper position, the advanced placement which Valverde offered him together with team mates ready to link, provided the key pass. The Argentinean weighed in with four goals and four assists from his 29 appearances

Right Wing

Vela (Real Sociedad)

Real Sociedad’s top goalscorer despite operating for much of the season as an inverted right winger. The position enable the Mexican to drift inward, often into space, and onto his favoured left foot. Vela had 14 goals and 9 assists for La Real and his versatility enables him to play across the front line including operating as the central striker, even during games too. He was most damaging though when moving at pace down the right.

Striker

Falcao (Atleti)

In his final season for Atleti prior to his move to AS Monaco, el tigre once again proved why he is one of the most feared strikers in the game. Scoring 28 goals in 34 appearances, other facets of Falcao’s play are sometimes overlooked. He has become much more rounded at Atleti and links with teams mates far better often moving wide to find space before moving centrally into the area. The assist he provided in the Copa del Rey Final for Diego Costa an exampled of this growing awareness in his game. He is becoming the complete striker.

Roll on season 2013/14.

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Real Sociedad vs Valencia – One small step, one giant leap.

Real Sociedad took a massive step towards securing Champions League football with an excellent victory over Valencia at Anoeta last night. Whilst the final scoreline of 4-2 may be slightly harsh on the visitors, they ultimately paid the price for their lack of a cutting edge in the final third of the pitch. Despite holding an advantage in possession, Valencia were unable to manufacture sufficient clear chances. La Real, meanwhile, displayed the sort of lethal finishing from transitions that has become the hallmark of their season.

Line Up

With Griezmann absent, Chory Castro was given a  place in the starting line up, a clear indication fo a more attack minded side from Montannier as opposed to the slightly more conservative Zurutuza.

Real Sociedad vs Valencia Starting Line Ups

Real Sociedad vs Valencia Starting Line Ups

Valverde opted for Cissokho in place of Guardado at left back following recent performances with Fehgouli recalled to the right side of midfield. Otherwise, Valencia were as expected.

The Game

With so much at stake, this game began brightly and continued in a similar vein, really opening up as it reached the end. Valencia prompted by Ever Banega were keen to test Bravo early on and enjoyed some decent possession but Sociedad gradually grew into the game and always looked dangerous on transitions but struggled to gain any meaningful possession with Valencia pressing aggressively. Twice in the opening 15 minutes Vela burst down the right and provided warnings to Valencia. A similar transition brought a yellow card to Cissokho when he tripped Prieto.

As the game was evening out, Valencia took the lead with Cissokho charging down the left and delivering a cross which Soldado scored after stealing a yard start on Inigo Martinez. The left back would become embroiled in a number of incidents leaving him fortunate to remain on the pitch and it reduced his effectiveness as he adopted a more low key approach.

Banega was drifting out of the game as Sociedad’s full backs pushed high and the home side exerted more influence on the game. Valencia had struggled to deal with a few crosses and Sociedad equalised when Vela and Prieto took a  short corner and delivered a ball to Martinez who was unmarked at the back post to volley home.

The second half saw both teams more stretched and the lack of width in Valencia’s play became more evident but Banega was once more instrumental in all positive play from Los Che.

The game hinged upon the ability of Sociedad to counter swiftly with slick, sharp passing. The second goal was superb with Castro breaking from his own half and linking with Aguirrexte before scoring. Two further goals followed both from Aguirretxe including the final goal being a wonderfully delicate chip over the stranded Alves. Such poise and guile was shown by the frontman when the game was still hanging in the balance.

In between Aguirrexte’s goals, Jonas offered Valencia some fleeting hope.

Full Backs

With both side using inverted wingers particularly Jonas from Valencia, the onus was always going to be on the full backs from both sides to provide width in this game.

Carlos Martinez completed three crosses from seven attempted as shown in the graphic below which included two key passes:-

Martinez Crosses

Martinez Crosses                          http://www.squawka.com

Martinez was the more adventurous ad productive full back over the 90 minutes. De La Bella on the Sociedad left also ventured forward and completed one cross from five attempted but with both Prieto and Vela leaving towards that side of the pitch, there was less onus on him to push high.

Yet with Jonas cutting inside at every opportunity and Fehgouli more inclined to stay wide but having a relatively quite game, Valencia’s full backs were unable to have any effect o the game. Cissokho threatened early on and managed to deliver one successful cross from four attempted but a caution soon left him more conservative, unwilling to venture forward for fear of being caught out on the counter. Pereira meanwhile offered nothing going forward and only attempted one cross all night.

Chory Castro

The former Mallorca front man was brought into the side with Griezmann out. That Montannier selected Castro ahead of Zurutuza was perhaps indicative that he wanted to be more aggressive in attack.

Castro had six attempts and goal and scored once with four efforts being blocked. Despite playing out wide in a counter attacking side, he made 18 passes form 30 attempted and people will judge him on his attacking contribution but Montannier will assess his full performance which includes the defensive effort he provided:-

Chory Castro Tackles

Chory Castro Tackles                        http://www.squawka.com

Castro made four successful tackles during the game as he supported De La Bella by tracking both Pereira and Fehgoiuli on the right. Yet he was still able to push forward and cause problems.

Valencia Attack

One of the key problems from a Valencia perspective was their inability to turn their possession and territorial dominance into clear cut chances. Despite enjoying a slight advantage in terms of possession, Valencia never used the ball well in the final third with Sociedad defending very well and the onus was placed upon the shoulders of Ever Banega to create once more.

The Argentine though is reliant upon his team mates to offer themselves and share the burden. With Soldado often isolated and marked out of the game, Jonas was deeper than Banega at times and Fehgouli too wide. Parejo infrequently broke forward from midfield. It left Banega making passes and recycling possession but not hurting Sociedad.

The graphic below shows Valencia’s key passes:-

VCF Key Passes

VCF Key Passes                            http://www.squawka.com

Too few of Valencia’s passes were hurting Sociedad. The key passes were deep against a side that was content to sit a little deeper when required to do so. Yet this contrasts very sharply with the key passes from La Real who made fewer passes overall but had far more key passes as they cut open the Valencia defence on numerous occasions:-

Sociedad Key Passes

Sociedad Key Passes                      http://www.squawka.com

Of course, when you are breaking into space as La Real frequently did, then it’s easier to play key passes from a two vs two situation. Yet Valencia knew this was how Sociedad would play. It’s how they have played for much of the season and on those terms, it was Valencia who failed to address the problems that the home side would cause. Was there an alternative to the aging Albelda in front of the defence? Should Cissokho have been withdrawn when his yellow card more of less left him unable to offer enough either defensively or pushing forward?

Conclusions

Two teams who both sustained poor starts to the season and languished in the wrong  half of the table early on but will both finish in the top six now.

With five games remaining and a five point lead over both Malaga and Valencia and a superior head to head record, La Real are very much in pole position to claim the final Champions League position. The San Sebastian team have built their season around a superb run of form which has seen them lose just one game since November 2012 and even then, they really should have avoided defeat to 1o man Madrid at the Bernabeu.

Qualification for European football’s premier tournament will be just reward for a richly talented squad that has grown, developed and entertained as the season has progressed.

For Valencia, the ramifications of defeat may very well stretch out beyond this season. With the loss of much needed Champions League revenue, additional departures may be likely to help balance the books. The poor early season form that saw the side collect just 11 points from their opening nine games combined with instability on and off the pitch has meant they have always been playing catch up and always almost getting there but never quite making it.

Espanyol vs Valencia – Another home game, another draw.

Espanyol served up another excellent high scoring draw at home following on the back of their recent 2-2 draw with Real Sociedad. On Saturday evening, the visitors were Valencia and an open and entertaining game burst into life in the final 10minutes with four goals.

Line Ups

Both sides lined up in broad 4-2-3-1 formations.

Espanyol vs Valencia Starting Line Ups

Espanyol vs Valencia Starting Line Ups

Espanyol opted to use Wakaso instead of Simao on the left wing, other than that, the line up was as expected.

Valverde continues to have problems in the centre of defence and the makeshift pairing for this game was Ricardo Costa and Mathieu. Guardado continues at left back and Jonas and Canales were favoured on the wings with Fehgouli remaining on the bench.

Overall

Despite dominating possession with 57% compared to the home sides’ 43%, Valencia were never really in control of this game. Espanyol were sharper in the first half with Valencia too slow in possession when constructing attacks. There was a lack of dynamism and Soldado never really entered the action as moves broke down in the final third. Espanyol were always able to regroup and regain their positions quickly whereas Valencia were slower to do so.

A key feature of this Espanyol side is their pressing. They drop off to the halfway line to regain their shape but they can, and do, press high on occasion when they see certain triggers. Dani Parejo was robbed of possession twice when he received the ball facing his own goal. Espanyol knew Valencia would always try to build from the back and targeted when to press for maximum impact.

Espanyol Asymmetric Approach

Espanyol have leaned heavily upon the attacking trio of Verdu, Garcia and Stuani for creativity and goals to push the side further up the table. It has led to a lop sided approach and this was noticeable on Saturday evening and can be seen in the graphic below:-

Espanyol Heat Map

Espanyol Heat Map           http://www.squawka.com

With Stuani being much more attack minded, Aguirre opted to go with the inconsistent but gifted Wakaso on the left. With a higher work ethic and a more industrious nature, Wakaso was able to offer greater security on the left defensively and an edge when attacking. From three attempted tackles, Wakaso was successful with two. This was necessary as Verdu and Garcia moved further to the right to link with Stuani.

Further evidence of Espanyol favouring the right can be seen by Valencia’s tackling statistics. In their own half of the field, Valencia only made one tackle on their right side but 11 tackles on the left:-

Valencia Tackles

Valencia Tackles                    http://www.squawka.com

Espanyol were very reliant upon one side of the pitch for creativity during the game yet their second goal arrived from a breakaway down the left with Wakaso leading the way. The chance appeared to have gone before Verdu volleyed the ball in off the ground.

The Problem with Inverted Wingers – Jonas Goncalves

In recent weeks, Jonas has been shifted from his preferred central berth to a wider starting position and operates more like an inverted winger now. Providing width during counter attacks to stretch the opponent, but moving inward when Valencia are building attacks, enabling the full back to move beyond him and provide the width at that point in the move.

The graphic below shows his passes:-

Jonas Passes

Jonas Passes                       http://www.squawka.com

Despite scoring a goal in the 86th minute, Jonas offered little in the final third with all of his crosses failing to find a team mate.  HIs tendency to drift inward also created a problem for Valencia on transitions which Espanyol were able to exploit with Wakaso scoring the opening goal.

When an inverted winger moves inward, there is immediately a problem if the move breaks down as the opposing full back or winger is able to progress without restriction.

In the 45th minute, Espanyol regained possession in their own half and Verdu released Garcia on the right. His surging run ended with a deep cross to the far post where Wakaso arrived at pace to head the opening goal. Ignoring the poor defending of Joao Pereira, Wakaso was not tracked. Jonas had been central when play broke down and stranded.

Valencia Positions – Banega and Ruiz

The positioning of several Valencia players has been a noticeable and intriguing feature of Ernesto Valverde’s time at the club. What may have arisen from emergency situations, appears to have potentially solved some positional concerns.

Ever Bangea has been utilised in an advanced central midfield position previously but he often seems uncomfortable there particularly if he is starved of possession. And Valencia can seem bereft of ideas when Banega is deployed so high. The solution has been to use Dani Parejo almost like a deep lying regista, knitting the play together, recycling possession.

With Parejo behind him and providing the ball, Banega can create more opportunities for his team mates as he did on Saturday evening.

The graphic below shows Banega’s passing:-

Banega Passes

Banega Passes      http://www.squawka.com

Although he started brightly, Banega was stifled during the first half and only began to have an impact on proceedings when he took up a more advanced position and with Tino Costa off the pitch, the three central midfielders for Valencia had clear duties. Albelda to sit, Parejo to circulate possession and Banega to create scoring chances.

Banega played further forward in the second half. More probing. Feeding balls through to the front players. Roberto Soldado became more involved as a result as the Argintenean played a number of slide passes through the Espanyol backline searching for runners coming from a wide to central position.

The equalising goal in the 52nd minute came from Baenga’s pass, Canales on an inward diagonal run collecting and dispatching the ball home. Soldado saw his 78th minute effort saved after receiving Banega’s through ball but Valencia’s top goalscorer was not to be denied and latched onto another pass from Banega in the 90th minute to give the away side a temporary lead. Again, the run from from a wide starting position into the channel between full back and centre back. An area Valencia sought to expose in the second half.

Whilst Banega represents a change at the front of the side, a change at the back has been equally good although on side evening, Victor Ruiz reverted to type. Ruiz returned to the first team following a month out trough injury when he was called into action following the removal of Ricardo Costa due to injury.

Following the arrival of Valverde and the poor form of Fernando Gago in the defensive midfield position, Ruiz was moved into a deep midfield slot as a temporary measure. It’s an area where he has shown a considerable improvement in his form and crucially, where any mistakes he makes are not subject to harsh punishment. Statistically, Ruiz performance was fine. He was not hitting stray passing, mistiming tackles, failing to win headers or conceding fouls. But it’s the things that cannot be measured that have caused Ruiz problems. The poor decision making and lapses in concentration.

On Saturday evening, the thought process behind Valverde’s decision was brought sharply into focus. Arriving as first half substitute, Ruiz somehow escaped the concession of a penalty from a reckless challenge on Sergio Garcia in the penalty area. It was a challenge that did not have to be made yet Ruiz launched himself into it.

And in the final minute of the game, Ruiz failed to deal with a ball headed into the penalty area. The defender tried to shepherd the ball back to Guaita in goal rather than undertake the basics. Your side is winning 3-2 away from home and the game is deep in injury time. Clear your lines. Conceded a throw in or a corner kick if necessary. Ruiz did neither and he was unsuccessful holding Garcia off and Espanyol promptly equalised.

Conclusions.

Javier Aguirre has led Espanyol to five home wins and four draws during his brief tenure at the club.

As well as Espanyol are doing, Aguirre must now let his focus shift to next season. Can Garcia continue to deliver as he enters the last few seasons of his career? And will Verdu still be at the club next season? These are the dilemmas which should now occupy the Mexican’s mind.

Given the run of form Espanyol are on, a point is a decent result for Valverde and his men. Until that is, La Real secured 3 points away to Rayo. It leaves the gap between La Real and Los Che at 4 points.

Valencia now face two games which could define their season. Malaga travel to the Mestalla this weekend followed by Los Che making the trip north to San Sebastian where La Real lie in wait.

Secure maximum points and the coveted 4th position will still be within touching distance.

 

Malaga vs Valencia – Tactical Analysis

The two sides that finished 3rd and 4th in La Liga last season met at La Roselada on Saturday evening. A close, edgy game was anticipated. Malaga had no wins in their last four games and had failed to record a victory in a league game following a midweek Champions League fixture. Their opponents, Valencia, were undefeated in six games across all competitions although that masked their inability to win a league match away from home since last March.

A tense game should have been the outcome. Two teams buoyed by qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League and contesting the final Champions League qualification spot. It may seem strange to state such a view so early in the season but given that Barcelona and Real Madrid will take the first two spots and Atleti appear to be on the way to 3rd, it leaves a clutch of teams contesting 4th place and the final spot.

Instead what we witnessed was a one-sided contest. Malaga started brightly, took an early lead and only poor finishing stopped this contest been over much earlier than it should have been.

Line Ups

Malaga Starting Line Up

Pellegrini named the same starting eleven that had faced Osasuna last weekend, drawing in the process. Qualification to the knockout stages of the Champions League enabled the Chilean to rotate his squad for the away game against Zenit enabling key players to get some much needed rest.

Valencia Starting Line Up

Pellegrino made a number of changes to the Valencia side following last week’s home win over Espanyol. Some were enforced whilst others were made for tactical or technical reasons.

Soldado was suspended and replaced by Valdez. Barragan continued to deputise for the injured Joao Perreira at right back. Ricardo Costa was recalled to central defence in place of Victor Ruiz whilst Guardado was pushed forward to left midfield and Cissokho came in at left back with Jonathan Veira dropping out. Veteran midfielder Albelda was replaced by Gago.

The final and most significant tactical change was the replacement of Jonas as the support striker by Banega.

Systems

Manuel Pellegrini favours his teams to be compact and dominate possession with short passing triangles always providing options to the player in possession. This Malaga side are not yet as fluent as his great Villarreal team but there are some key similarities.

Malaga set out as a 4-4-2 with both wide players comfortable cutting infield and the full backs overlapping to provide width. Indeed, Eliseu and Gamez both provided an assist in this game. The use of Joaquin as a central striker was very interesting. Although a right winger for much of his career, the ability of Joaquin to pull wide from a central starting position enables the “wingers” Isco and Portillo to drive diagonally inward to the space being vacated. It’s a system that Pellegrini used to great effect at Villarreal with Rossi and Nilmar providing mobility and width in the striking positions.

If Pellegrini and Malaga have a clear identity, Pellegrino and Valencia are still searching for their identity to a certain extent.

The key tactical move for Pellegrino was the replacement of Jonas with Banega. This was a clear attempt to gain more possession of the ball and retain it. It was a move that, whilst looking correct in theory, failed to pay off in practice. Valencia were not dominating possession, not controlling space and not counter attacking. It was a listless performance.

Despite the inability to demonstrate any clear personality during the game, Valencia recorded a high pass completion rate with 304 successful passes from 392 attempted. As ever with stats though, the context is important. Too often the passes were horizontal and in safe areas of the pitch. Malaga may have had a marginally lower pass completion rate of 75% with 315 successful passes from 422 attempted but often these were penetrative passes being attempted. Malaga were brave in their attacking play.

The contrasting fortunes of Banega and Isco, key attacking players for either side, are shown in the graphics below which detail the passes attempted by both players:-

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

Banega Passes vs Malaga                                              http://www.squawka.com

The number of successful passes in this issue is not as important as the location of the passes and direction. Isco starts on the left side of midfield but the location of passes demonstrates his movement across the pitch with the vast majority of passes being in the opponents half of the field and moving forward.

This contrasts sharply with Banega. Designed as the central point in the attacking trident behind Valdez, Banega constantly dropped deep searching for the ball, in the process isolating Valdez. Too few of his passes were vertical identifying the inability of Valencia getting players forward in support of the attack, with Guardado and Feghouli very quiet, and the inability to search out Valdez accurately.

One of Valdez’s key attributes is his aerial ability yet Valencia only attempted eight crosses in the entire game and only three of these were successful.

A criticism of Valencia in the past has been that the team are two disconnected units, the defence and the attack with Banega being the key to link these elements. At La Rosaleda, there did not seem to be any attack to speak of. Valencia had only one of their five attempts at goal on target.

Banega was supposed to help Valencia retain possession and hurt Malaga yet whilst he achieved the former he badly failed with the latter. Which this may sound harsh on the midfielder, his performance was not aided by the general poor play of Valencia with sloppy passing and positional errors compounded this. Perhaps to much weight was placed on the shoulders of the player?

The Opening Goal

Malaga started the game very brightly and immediately pushed Valencia back into their own half.

The opening goal arrived in the 7th minute when Barragan failed to clear a deep cross into the penalty area. Eliseu collected the loose ball on the left wing and passed to Portillo who was standing in space at the edge of the penalty area with time to curl the ball into the net.

Portillo had drifted into this position from the right yet nobody had picked him up. Tino Costa had dropped between the centre backs at this stage. Why he had moved so deep was odd given that Malaga had few players in the penalty area.

The lethargy which was engulfing Valencia continued. Following kick off, Portillo won the ball back almost immediately. There was no response from Valencia to going a goal behind.

Wasteful Malaga

One of Malaga’s biggest problems last night was the inability score the second goal and provide a degree of breathing space. Although Saviola scored the crucial second goal in the 74th minute, he had chances much earlier which he failed to convert.

Saviola Shots vs Valencia                                              http://www.squawka.com

Malaga were finding too much space between the Valencia lines but were unable to take any of the opportunities that arrived. Malaga had 22 attempts at goal but only six hit the target.

Is Saviola the right man to lead the Malaga attack? He is mobile and can move laterally so is a good fit for the system but his goals return is poor. El Conejo has never been the most prolific of strikers but he is Malaga’s top goalscorer with four league goal from his ten appearances.

If this season is going to be successful for Malaga, they need to continue to share the goalscoring burden across the entire front line whilst also hoping that the likes of Eliseu can also continue to weigh in with a goal or two.

Two late goals followed and provided a scoreline which was more reflective of the game. Santa Cruz poked the ball home from close range following Jesus Gamez’ deflected shot. Again, Santa Cruz was in space and unmarked.

The fourth and final goal was a 20 yard strike from Isco into the bottom corner. Gathering possession some 25 yards out, Isco had time and space, a constant and concerning theme from the Valencia perspective, to move forward, compose himself and shoot.

Valencia Defensive Issues

A former Valencia defender, Pellegrino will need to examine the shape of his defence positionally. This was from an early stage with Barragan continually moving too close to his central defenders and allowing Malaga freedom on the left.

This manifested itself in the 18th minute when the entire defence shuffled over and nobody was near Eliseu when Malaga switched play. The full back managed to have a shot at goal. Shortly afterwards, Barragan was caught upfield and Isco was able to counter in the available space.

Whilst Malaga were pressing their opponent intelligently when the opportunity arose to win the ball back and dropping off when Valencia had more controlled possession, the visitors seemed to lose all shape at times. Their pressing was erratic and too many players became involved leaving space and gaps elsewhere. The short passing movements from Malaga were neatly aligned with longer passing when appropriate. It enabled them to open up space.

Only the wasteful finishing from Malaga, highlighted above, prevented the visitors from conceding further before the interval.

Valencia made 31 successful tackles form an attempted 37. Fernando Gago had 100% success rate with his 10 tackles. The Argentinean made a significant contribution to his side defensively and in various positions but too few of his team mates matched his efforts either in determination and workrate or quality.

Gago Tackles vs Malaga                                                   http://www.squawka.com

That he made so many tackles all over the pitch highlights his workrate but he should not have been required to make so many tackles in all over the pitch. What were his team mates doing?

Conclusions

An emphatic victory for Malaga and a crucial one at that. With Atleti, Barcelona and Real Madrid seemingly securing the top three positions, the race for fourth involves a number of teams. Malaga have given themselves a four point lead over one of their main rivals and returned to winning ways after a relatively lean spell in the process.

Having gone six games undefeated in all competitions, the nature of the loss to Malaga will arguably concern Pellgrino more than the actual defeat itself. Valencia were extremely poor and offered no resistance to their opponents. The poor away form must be addressed. The Mestalla is becoming a fortress once more for Los Che and with La Real up next, a team with an almost equally poor away record, Valencia have the ideal opportunity to bounce back.

All graphics and statistics taken from www.squawka.com

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