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.

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Barcelona vs AC Milan – Answers, answers, answers

Barcelona create history by overturning a 2-0 deficit from the first leg and, in doing so, handed Milan one of their heaviest ever defeats in European competition.

The first leg at the San Siro had witnessed a superb Milan performance epitomised by defensive discipline and control complemented by a willingness to alter their defensive line during the course of the game to support the attack when possible. A review of the first game can be found here

It seemed certain that Milan would seek to replicate that performance as far as possible. The question revolved around Barcelona and their inability in recent games to move beyond sterile domination of the midfield area with a lack of movement and options in the final third.

Last night saw a return to the kind of game which Barcelona produced during the Guardiola era and which they have done so sporadically this season. It’s not a style of play they have ever abandoned but they have become lackadaisical with specific facets of it most notably the aggressive pressing and off the ball movement. By doing so they also demonstrated the fallacy of the overly discussed Plan B approach particularly when the implementation of Plan A is this good.

 

Barcelona Set Up

On paper what appeared to be the customary 4-3-3 was in fact considerably different in application:-

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Firstly, the defence composed Pique, Mascherano and Alba with the left back playing a much more conservative role but not quite the left sided centre back in a trio. Pique was the furthest to the right leaving Alves to start high on the right and operate that entire side alone.

Pedro stayed high on the left providing the width and enabling Alba to remain deep. With Cesc on the bench, Iniesta was able to perform his favoured central midfield role but he offered so much more. This was arguably one of his best defensive performances despite being so advanced.

The positioning of Messi and Villa was central to the game. This diagram from whoscored.com shows their positions being virtually the same. Villa was operating as a no9 with Messi occupying the space directly behind him as a no10. With Villa positioned between Mexes and Zapata, neither defender could step out to close Messi down for fear of leaving Villa in space.  Milan’s ability to crowd out Messi with defenders and midfielders form the first leg was subsequently reduced. El Guaje justified his selection with the pivotal third goal combined with a performance of chasing opponents and opening up space with darting runs for team mates.

 

Milan – Right then Wrong?

From the Milan perspective, the area to be addressed is the starting positions as detailed in the graphic below:-

AC Milan Starting Line Up

AC Milan Starting Line Up

Did Allegri set the side out to defend as deep as they did or were they simply pushed back by the ferocity of Barcelona in the opening period? Allegri and Milan had decided an effective strategy for defeating Barcelona in the first leg. Did Allegri really choose to abandon this with a conservative approach, inviting trouble from the beginning? Or were Barcelona more adventurous and more like the side of a few season ago?

I doubt he wanted to be so deep but for the first twenty minutes of the game, his side were encamped around their penalty area, pushed back by Barcelona attacks built upon fast passing, movement and an eagerness to retrieve possession.  Milan were left to hang onto the game especially after the concession of the opening goal after four minutes.

The graphic below details where Milan were making interceptions last night:-

Milan Interceptions

Milan Interceptions

Compare the position of the interceptions last night with how Milan defended in the first game as shown here

Barcelona were getting further upfield before Milan were intercepting. They were also able to hit a number of long range efforts as there was space between the lines. Ambrosini, so instrumental in the first leg, was ineffective in a constructive sense completing just 14 from 25 passes attempted whilst defensively he made only one successful tackle from four attempted. The midfield general was robbed of the ball for Iniesta midway inside his own half which led to the second goal by Messi. This is not an attack on Ambrosini just one of the clearest examples of how a player who was pivotal in the first leg was now slept away with his side.

The defence was deeper aware of Villa positioning, Barcelona were moving quicker and circulating the ball faster leaving Milan to chase shadows.

For all of their problems, Milan settled after around 20 minutes and began to offer something better in attack as Barcelona eased off form their initial press. Overall, Milan also proved that Barcelona still have issues to address. Despite having just two shots on target from their ten attempts at goal, eight of these were from inside the penalty area. Milan had opportunities not least the effort from Niang which struck the post.

This Barcelona side still provide you with hope.

Jordi Roura was clear in his understanding of the game:-

“but I would not talk about things that Milan did wrong; I would talk about the attitude of Barcelona, about how they pressured and worked. They made it look like Milan did things wrong but it was more that we did things right”

What Barcelona did right were the basic elements that’s made them so successful. They press you high quickly up the park to win back position and offer off the ball movement for team mates combined with recycling the ball at high speed.

 

Barcelona Positioning – Busquets

The revised formation from Barcelona was central to creating space with the play of Sergio Busquets instrumental. This was possibly the most advanced positional performance from a defensive midfielder you will see.

The heat map below shows Busquets positioning during the game:-

Busquets Heat Map

Busquets Heat Map

Nominally the deepest midfielder, Busquets was aggressive in his play last night stepping forward to defend high up the pitch. In doing so, he prevented Milan from even constructing attacks as he swept up behind Xavi and Iniesta whilst also launching a number of attacks.

Busquets completed 103 passes from 112 attempted, the bulk of which were in the Milan half of the pitch. His ability to play first time vertical passes presented a constant problem even if they did not always hit their target. That Pedro and Villa were such willing runners offered an additional threat to Milan, stretching the defence behind the midfield and creating the opportunities for Busquets to pass. The off the ball movement was another ingredient that has been missing in recent months.

Busquets also completed his defensive responsibilities well. He completed three tackles from three attempted including two on the right hand side covering for Dani Alves and made two interceptions both in the Milan half of the pitch.

 

Barcelona Press High

The second element in Barcelona’s play was the intensity shown in pressing and tackling their opponents. The location of their interceptions is shown below:-

FCB Interceptions

FCB Interceptions

Niang commented afterwards:-

“Barça were impressive. It was as if they were playing with 22 players. In first half, we were running around like madmen”

The Blaugrana began to exert significant pressure on their opponents high up the pitch. Pedro, so often the player who sets the tempo, chased and harried and was joined by team mates. The weakness of the defence was under less scrutiny as Milan were unable to build any attacks without being pressed.

The interceptions were aided by tackling:-

FCB Tackles

FCB Tackles

Barcelona were tackling higher too.  Ten of their successful tackles were in the Milan half of the pitch. The Rossonieri were being suffocated in the opening stages of the game.

Sometimes it’s easy to forgot just how much of the less glamourous side of the game certain footballers perform. Such as Andres Iniesta. The little creative midfielder made five successful tackles, the joint highest along with Mascherano of anyone on the pitch. His tackle on Ambrosini led to the second goal and his controlled pas to Xavi helped set up the third for Villa. People will recall his deft flicks or little passes but his team mates will remember his graft and determination allied to his undoubted intelligence to draw the Milan defence forward before attacking them.

 

Lower Tempo & Milan Higher

When the tempo inevitably dropped with pressing less intensive and movement off the ball falling, Milan were able to begin passing and move higher upfield. The problems reappeared for Barcelona offering optimism for Milan. Only a superb block by Jordi Alba prevented Robinho for scoring the elusive away goal for Milan which would surely have sent the Rossonieri through.

The side became static again, understandable to a degree given their huge effort early in the game. It’s a part of their game that should improve as they reach their peak physical condition as April approaches.

Jordi Roura

The game was also important in the development of Jordi Roura. Thrown into a job that he neither wanted or is seemingly enjoying, he has often displayed the look of a frustrated man, unable to make the necessary changes from the sidelines. Last night saw a change. The withdrawal of Pedro for Adriano recognised the increased threat of Abate on the Barcelona left. The introduction of the Brazilian strengthened that area and enabled Alba to push forward in the knowledge that Adriano could defend behind him.

Likewise, the withdrawal of a tiring Villa to be replaced by Sanchez offered vitality to the attack but also covering pace for the defensive phase too, aiding Alves on the right.

Conclusions

Reports of the demise of Barcelona have been greatly exaggerated. Or have they?

There can be no doubt that many of the qualities which made Barcelona such a dominant force over the past five seasons were in evidence last night. Equally, some of the negative traits that have weakened the side particularly during the last month or so were also visible.

The challenge facing Roura and Vilanova upon his return is to maintain the level of intensity shown by the side last night whilst also ensuring the players return to peak physical condition. This also means rotation in league games. Xavi must be rested and Puyol needs to be nursed to full fitness.

This is just one hurdle overcome. To successfully reclaim the Champions League there are other opponents who can ask similar demanding questions of Barcelona including a Madrid side focused entirely upon their main objective.

Last night the standard was set once more. Maintaining it again is the hard part.

Real Madrid vs Barcelona – Tactical Analysis – Deja Vu

After Madrid’s convincing win over their rivals in the Copa del Rey fixture midweek, the clubs renewed hostilities in the league albeit with little at stake due to Barcelona’s 16 point lead. Both sides minds were firmly fixed on forthcoming Champions League games.

And it appeared to be a serous case of Deja Vu. It was as if the midweek clash in the Copa del Rey had never occurred. Barcelona changed a couple of players yet set about their task with the exact same game plan which played perfectly into the hands of a mainly fringe Real Madrid side.

Line Ups

As expected, both sides made a number of changes to their respective starting line ups for this game but the extent to which Mouirnho made changes surprised many observers.

Madrid chose to rest Alonso completely as he continues to nurse a minor injury whilst Arbeloa, Khedira, Di Maria, Higuain, Ozil and Ronaldo all began life on the bench

Essien moved in at right back with Pepe in a defensive midfield role.

Real Madrid vs Barcelona Starting Line Up

Real Madrid vs Barcelona Starting Line Up

Roura brought Mascherano and Thiago into the side for the injured duo of Puyol and Xavi. Villa started with Cesc on the bench.

For Madrid, this game, as important as a clasico is, was entirely secondary to Tuesday night in Manchester. Whilst Barcelona needed a performance more than anything in this game following recent disappointments.

Possession, Possession, Possession

Once more in a clasico, Barcelona dominate possession but Real Madrid possess a much greater attacking threat. The possession stats look anomalous. Barcelona made 631 passes from 701 attempted as they gained 63% possession they they scarcely looked like scoring aside from their one goal. Madrid meanwhile, only made 186 successful passes but carried a real attacking threat borne out by their 14 attempts at goal. Strangely, all of their attempts came from the left to centre positions. No shots originated from the right.

David Villa started but is becoming increasingly marginalised and wasted in a wide left position. This may offer Barcelona tactical width but Madrid were unconcerned by him and retained their defensive shape. The lack of a central reference point, somebody who can make runs and occupy and stretch opposing central defenders is a major obstacle now.

The inability or reluctance to to shoot at goal is becoming something of an issue for Barcelona. The graphic below shows their shots at goal in this game:-

Barcelona Shots

Barcelona Shots                       http://www.squawka.com

Barcelona managed five attempts in 90 minutes yet Ronaldo could muster six attempts in a brief 32 minute cameo.

Quite simply, Barcelona appear to be content with possession for possession’s sake but there must be an end product. There is no point in passing the ball. The 30th minute summed up Barcelona’s approach. Messi and Iniesta exchanged a series of passes about 10 yards inside the Madrid half under no pressure. Why should Madrid charge in and press their opponent thus opening up space?

Apart from Messi’s goal, the only other shot on target from Barcelona arrived due to an error by Madrid.

The heat map below is further evidence of Barcelona’s inability to enter the opposition penalty area. Barcelona dominate the middle of the pitch:-

Barcelona Heat Map

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

There are two issues for Barcelona to address.

1. If Barcelona are intent on continuing such an approach then they must tempt the opponent out by building play deeper. They force the opponent deep and contribute to their own downfall. Construct play deeper and allow the opponent to move forward. It carries risks but also rewards.

2. Barcelona must develop a greater sense of dynamism and verticality to their game. Too often the movement is lateral. They need to adopt a little of what makes Real Madrid so good; the explosive pace and movement on counter attacks. Barcelona will not counter like Madrid with the players they presently possess but they can increase the tempo and counter. Forgo the control for that riskier pass every now and then. Take the chance.

Work Ethic

Real Madrid set up with a broadly similar set up to that which worked against Barcelona midweek. The main difference this time being that whereas Ronaldo and Higuain were less inclined to track back, Morata and Benzema recovered position quickly and dropped deep.

The performance of Callejon was one of complete discipline and intelligence. The forward sacrificed himself for the team, undertaking his defensive tasks with diligence and completely nullifying Alba in the process. Callejon made two successful tackles in the game, both occurring deep within his own half.

The heat map below shows his time more or less split between both halfs:-

Callejon Heat Map

Callejon Heat Map

There was something almost Saachian about this Real Madrid performance today. So often the side was very compact with the whole team being within about 25 meters from defence to attack. Lines were compact and the team defended as one unit before bursting forward when they became more open.

The graphic below shows the Real Madrid side in position when Barcelona have possession at the halfway line:-

Real Madrid Defensive Positions

Real Madrid Defensive Positions

To retain discipline and organisation for the full 90 minutes requires a superb collective effort from all the players. And yet again, a Madrid side prevented Barcelona from creating many genuine opportunities. This was not a park the bus performance, it was a Rolls Royce performance.

The Goals

Madrid opened the scoring after just five minutes. Ramos intercepted a Thiago pass near the halfway line and released Morata who making his clasico debut. The young forward beat Alves far too easily on the left and whipped in a cross to the far post where Benzema had run off Mascherano and knocked the ball home. Alba was five or six yards further back when he should have been much closer to his central defender. It is a goal so typical of Madrid. Gain possession and swiftly attack before the opponent can regain shape. It’s the exact sort of goal that Barcelona seldom score.

Too often recently Barcelona have lacked penetration with no player making runs in behind an opponent to stretch their defence. David Villa provided this to an extent against Sevilla even though he spent considerable time on the left. The equalising goal arrived when Messi made a surging run forward and latched onto Alves through ball. Cutting to the inside of Ramos, Messi beat Lopez at his near post far too easily. The keeper really should have saved the effort.

Messi becomes the first player to score in 16 consecutive Liga games and also equalled Di Stefano’s record of 18 goals in the clasico. It was the one bright spot for Barcelona.

Sergio Ramos scored the winning goal. For the third clasico in a row, Barcelona concede a goal via a header. The ease with which Ramos beat Pique in the air was considerable,demonstrating a gap in the physique and power between the sides.

Where Now?

With two wins in a row under their belts, Madrid can head to Manchester in fine fettle for the real game that matters to them against Man Utd in the Champions League. Having said that, it will be a strong boost that a team containing to many squad players, albeit hugely talented squad players, can see off Barcelona without any real examination.

For Barcelona, a period of greater introspection is needed.

The illness of Vilanova had pushed Jordi Roura into the limelight. Clearly uncomfortable with the role and now clearly struggling in the role, the primary concern Barcelona face is overcoming Milan in the Champions League. To do so though, requires recognition of the issues facing the side and an ability to make key alterations mid-game. Thus far, Roura has not demonstrated either skill.

At this precise moment, decisions that Barcelona take off the park could prove to be as important as decisions they make on it.

Conclusions

For such a meaningless game, as if any clasico could ever be completely meaningless, there are significant ramifications for each partner.

Despite being a game with lower than normal intensity, a win is still important. The 16 point gap between the sides being narrowed to just 13 points will have no bearing on the title but this game, and midweek, is further confirmation, if it were needed, that there is no inferiority complex from this Madrid side when the face Barcelona. It is now Barcelona who are left to wonder how they will defeat their rivals from the capital.

Fehgouli’s Scream?

Fehgouli Scores Against Bayern.

Reach for the Sky

Alves Celebrates Scoring against Spartak

Celtic vs Barcelona

We seen this film before, haven’t we?

We know every single exact little detail. The script has been written then read and re-read time and time again. Barcelona come up against a team who are very defensive, hold a line at the edge of the penalty area, congest the centre, counter attack and they struggle to break the opponent down.

“We did what we needed to do in these types of games, we’ve seen this on other occasions”

Vilanova

There are lies, damned lies and statistics – Barcelona “enjoyed” 84% possession, 91% pass completion, 25 shot at goal and 8 shots on target. Final score Celtic 2 Barcelona 1. Vilanova’s assessment is correct.

To the names of Inter and Chelsea, Celtic can now be added. The only consolation for Vilanova and his players is that this defeat has arisen in the group stage and not later on in the competition. There is time left to address the issues which this game has raised.

To Be Direct or Not Be Direct – Pass, Pass, Pass

There is a general view that Barcelona has become slightly more direct this season under Vilanova with the dichotomy of Xavi or Cesc being the crux of this issue.

Xavi guarantees game control via ball retention whereas Cesc, his style of play greatly influenced by both La Masia and the Premiership, plays further forward with less emphasis upon control and a focus upon creating more goal scoring opportunities.

Is it a straight choice between the styles? Which style is best?

Last night, Barcelona produced their least direct performance of the season and in doing so overwhelmingly dominated possession enjoying 84%. Their hosts, Celtic, set a new Champions League record for winning a game with the least amount of possession standing at just 16%.

As is so often the case, Barcelona continually passed the ball but against such a deep lying defence and midfield, they found openings extremely difficult to create.

A further problem for Barcelona was their lack of presence within the penalty area. There was no central focal point.

The lack of a reference point in attack is exacerbated when the players play cross balls into the box. Alves made 18 crosses into the penalty area whilst Alba made just 5. This highlighted the reliance upon the right-wing for attacking by Barcelona. Alves was also the third highest passer in the team with 122 attempted passes (93% completion rate).

The reason for this is probably due to Messi moving to the right as the game progressed to find space. From there however, Messi frequently moved inward towards the congestion.

Barcelona only made two through balls in the entire game, both from Messi. If he drops deep, somebody has to move into a central position but until Villa and Cesc arrived, this was not really happening. Sanchez tried this, but he lacks confidence at the moment and is off form.

Celtic Approach

As highlighted, the problem for Barcelona was that Celtic were so deep that there was no space behind their defence to run. All the play occurred in front of Celtic who held the defensive line around the edge of the penalty area with the midfield sitting just ahead.

Having said that, Samaras remained high up the field and was supported by Miku who dropped to the left when Celtic lost possession. Celtic were defensive, but they were also forced back but attempted to retain an attacking dimension to their game.

Both full backs and wide midfielders tucked in narrowly too, moving towards their respective opponents in wide positions when the ball was played there. Pedro, Alves and Alba were positioned very wide and always had space until they received the ball.

Barcelona needed to draw Celtic forward but instead suffocated them which ultimately hindered Barcelona. The first goal in this contest would prove to be pivotal.

Critics of the zonal marking system will attack Barcelona’s concession of the opening goal. This ignores two key points.

Firstly, the delivery of the corner kick from Mulgrew was excellent. The ball was whipped in with pace. Secondly, Wanyama attacked the ball from just beyond the back post. Given the lack of height in the Barcelona team, who would have man marked Wanyama and then would they have been able to prevent him scoring? The first goal was simply Celtic using their superior physical strength over the Barcelona team. Sometimes, good goals should just be enjoyed rather than seeking defensive inadequacies.

With the opening goal going to Celtic, the rest of the game became more straightforward from a tactical perspective, and almost like a training game. Celtic simply asked Barcelona the question, can you break us down?

Despite the superiority of possession, Barcelona were unable to do so until they trailed by two goals.

Celtic were never going to compete with Barcelona in terms of possession so they attempted to control space and did so extremely effectively. Wanyama was central to Celtic’s performance. Despite making just 16 passes, he made 6 tackles and performed an essential job in the heart of midfield, closing down and disrupting the likes of Xavi. His performances will not go unnoticed either and it seems likely he will depart Celtic Park shortly for a higher profile league.

Without sounding clichéd, the Celtic players displayed the sort of characteristics which the British game is well known for. This was a performance of character, determination and strength. But add to the mix the mental qualities to complement the physical attributes. A high degree of intelligence and discipline was shown as Celtic conceded just 11 fouls.

The second goal was a simple kick out from Forster which inexplicably evaded Xavi when he had a fresh air swipe at the ball allowing it to run through to Watt who finished with aplomb.

How Important is Busquets?

Was the defining moment of this game actually the dismissal of Busquets in the 88th minute against Benfica?

The subsequent two match ban saw him miss both games against Celtic

It’s widely accepted that Messi is central to the functioning of this Barcelona team. Xavi and Iniesta are essential components too.

Why does nobody ever highlight just how effective Busquets is? Yet how can a defensive midfielder be so central to the team?

Busquets contributes defensively and offensively from his deep midfield position. His positional sense enables team mates to find him when in trouble and keep play flowing whilst his quick one touch passing allows him to recycle possession quickly. Song is adapting to life at the Camp Nou but he’s not yet at the level Barcelona require. That much was evident tonight when he somehow evaded a second yellow card and remained on the pitch for a few additional moments before Vilanova withdrew him.

Song is given a fairly restricted role in the side. He switched places with Mascherano to allow the Argentinean to bring the ball out of defence but Song so far has not pushed forward to offer anything resembling his Arsenal form in an attacking sense.

The statistics suggest that Song performed well with a 95% completion rate from his 62 attempted passes. Song also played six long balls, all of which were accurate. This was a key aspect of his play whilst at Arsenal and he should have used this more often last night. Too often the long balls were lateral rather than vertical. The real cause for concern though is the concession of three fouls.

Xavi never broke forward into the penalty area and Iniesta was also very conservative. Was this due to having Song behind them? Were there concerns over the lack of security Song offers compared to Busquets?

 

The win should secure Celtic’s place in the knockout stages which probably surpasses their initial expectations in the group.

This game will give renewed hope to those teams who advocate adopting an ultra defensive approach against the Catalans but it must be remembered that when such a gameplan succeeds, it is the exception and not the rule.

Barcelona will still qualify as group winners for the knockout stage but it’s a timely reminder to Vilanova that when teams “park the bus” Barcelona are vulnerable especially when too many of their players have a drop in their level of performance.