Deportivo – Down and Out in La Coruna.

And so, as is customary in Spain, the final day of the season saw countless permutations existing for the three relegation positions with any of the bottom four teams capable of retaining their top flight status or taking the drop to La Segunda.

There were 81 different combinations of results possible to determine who was relegated and who secured the coveted fourth bottom spot. The balance of probability was tipped in Deportivo’s favour with a 55.6% chance of survival, while Celta had a 22.2% chance, Zaragoza 17.3%, and Mallorca had just 4.9%.  All four sides were at home but only Depor would meet an opponent with something still to play for in the shape of Real Sociedad.

Depor began the day safe. Their fate was entirely in their own hands. Win and they were safe no matter what else happened. The turnaround in fortunes since coach Fernando Vasquez took over after the short and somewhat ill fated reign of Pacienda was palpable. On Thursday, the coach had been carried out of the training ground on the shoulders of many, recognition for what had been achieved, the great escape remained possible.

They just had to beat Real Sociedad to complete the journey to safety.

Line Ups

Neither side had any key player missing through either suspension or injury for this game.

For the final game of the season, Fernando Vasquez went with arguably his strongest line up in their usual 4-2-3-1 with Valeron tasked with providing the creativity from a central attacking midfield position.

Deportivo vs Real Sociedad Starting Line Ups

Deportivo vs Real Sociedad Starting Line Ups

Similarly, Montanier in his final game with the San Sebastian side named his strongest line up with the potent front four of Agirrexte, Vela, Griezmann and Prieto in place for this crucial encounter.

Deportivo Fail to Create

This was a game that both sides needed to win yet Deportivo just never developed any sense of impetus or drive. After a brief flurry ain the opening period, the game settled and Depor lacked guile and creativity.

The player influence map is shown below:

Depor vs Real Player Influence

Depor vs Real Player Influence

Everything was clogged into the centre of the pitch when Depor had possession, only the full backs from both sides enjoyed any real space. Surprisingly, the veteran Manual Pablo produced a rousing performance which belied both his age and his general lack of pace.

The problem for Depor was the movement of the Sociedad front four. Both Griezmann and Vela come in off the flanks particularly the Frenchman. The full backs may be free then but the central area is overloaded. Their pace and running caused Depor all sorts of problems early on and the home side never really recovered from the damage, both psychological and renewal, that was inflicted.

Cutting Edge

The contrast in how both teams entered the final third of the pitch was stark. Whereas Deportivo continued to build from the back and try to construct attacks moving up the pitch as a unit, Sociedad were happy for the back six to absorb pressure and then let their four main creative outlets strike on transitions.

The graphic below shows the final third passes of both sides:-

Depor vs Real Final Third Passes

Depor vs Real Final Third Passes

As they have done for much of the season, Sociedad were happy to build play when the opportunity required it but were equally content to go direct if that option existed too. With Deportivo frequently lacking defensive midfield cover, this was always an option for the away side to exploit.

The only goal of the game came after a long ball down the Sociedad left. Once Manuel Pablo had slipped, Depor were in trouble and although Agirretxe’s shot was pushed wide, Griezmann arrived unmarked from the right flank, despite being positioned on the left, to score. Silvio was too close to his centre backs.

Deportivo has plenty possession as they moved forward but were unable to translate that possession into the creation of clear cut chances. When they entered into the Sociedad half of the pitch, their ideas ran out and they found themsleves under pressure as their opponents pressed them. Poor play and sloppy passing enable the away side to counter swiftly.

Depor were failing to create at one end whilst aiding their opponents at the other.

No Happy Ending

Juan Carlos Valeron announced his retirement after the game:-

“My cycle in la Coruna is finished. I’m saddened by the situation, but its a decision taken weeks ago”

At the age of 37 years old, Valeron still possesses the guile and creativity allied to the eye for a pass that he always enjoyed. He still glides around the pitch effortlessly but age has wearied him and although never blessed with great pace, the increased physicality of the game has squeezed him.

He still provided numerous highlights in his swansong season for Depor such as the deft chipped pass to Riki for the opening goal in the final Galician derby of the season. A game that reignited the sense of belief in Depor.

Here, against Sociedad, Valeron was too deep to influence play effectively and then, when he did have the ball, Depor were too slow to commit men into the penalty area. The graphic below shows his passes during the game:-

Valeron Passes

Valeron Passes

His deeper positioined allied to the inability of players to get into the penalty area rendered Depor ineffective in attack. Indeed, the home side’s best opportunities arose after Monatanier withdrew Vela for Zurutuza. The more defensive substitution allowed Deopr to take the intiative as Sociedad retreated somewhat towards a much deeper block allowing Depor to advance. Some half chances were created by Bravo was never seriously tested, his biggest difficulty being his own nerves for a brief spell.

Ineffective Attack and Effective Defence

As outlined, Depor did not struggle for possession in this game with 60% but they could not convert that possession into goals or even clear chances. Part of the problem must reside with their reluctance to commit men forward for fear of being caught out on quick transitions from Sociedad as evidenced by the opening goal and a handful of other chances in the first half that really should have seen the away side clear by half time.

Depor attempted an incredible 42 crossed into the SDociedad penalty arae but theese were often poorly delivered or there were no players in attacking position to take advantage:-

Depor vs Real Crosses

Depor vs Real Crosses

And yet Sociedad were relatively content to allow Depor to come forward, confident that their back 6 unit would be able to repel attacks and make the necessary clearances which they comfortably did for much of the game only really toiling for that brief spell when Montanier inexplicably handed the initiative to Depor:-

Depor vs Real Clearances

Depor vs Real Clearances

A pattern of play developed whereby a cross was delivered into the box, cleared and loose possession collected by a Depor player who would attempt another cross etc etc.  Everything was happening in front of the Sociedad defence. By striking first, Sociedad were in the perfect position to utilise their skill set, defend, absorb pressure and strike on counters.

Return to La Segunda

Depor return to the lower tier after just one season back in the top flight. The sad truth is they were simply not good enough to sustain themselevs no matter how much they fought. Their final seven leagues witnessed a return of just six points.

Their Galician neighbours Celta Vigo meanwhile, somehow avoid the drop. Despite being without their best player, Iago Aspas, for five weeks due to suspension after he inexplicably headbutted an opponent in the Galician derby, they survive.

Deportivo find themselves saddled with a debt estimated at €156m. Despite the advert of parachute payments, the drop will herald a new era for the club once called Super Depor. A side built upon youth team members will emerge with the likes of Valeron retiring whilst others depart for pastures new.

Return to the Champions League

The final word must go to Real Sociedad and the job Montanier has delivered. Following a comfortable if underwhelming mid table finish last season, the side have grown this season expressing their personality. With just two defeats in their final 21 league games, Sociedad deserve the final Champions League position.

And after a 10 year absence, Real Sociedad have the opportunity to return to the Champions League should they successfully qualify through the final preliminary round. They will do so with a new coach at the helm but if the squad remains intact and can be strengthened a little, they should be able to cope with the demands that European football will place on them.

 

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Deportivo vs Real Zaragoza – The Great Escape Part 1?

At some point of every season there are the inevitable discussions over which major European league is considered the best although what the best actually comprises is seldom accurately defined. In recent times, the argument has centered around the Bundesliga, La Liga and Premiership and is often inextricably linked to the performance of teams in the Champions League even if this offers no clear assessment of the depth of quality within a league as a whole. The Bundesliga appears to be a recent discovery for many and so some plaudits are thrown in the direction of Germany before the debate moves forward. Spain’s La Liga is the most technical, they claim, but the game is too slow, it revolves around a tiki-taka style of play and lacks excitement. Observers, either ignoring or completely oblivious to their own bias, will thereafter state that the Premiership provides the greatest entertainment which therefore makes it the best.

Perhaps those who would attack La Liga as being boring or too tactical should have been at the Riazor last night and witnessed a superb encounter between two teams fighting to secure their future in the top league, and in the case of Depor, possibly their future existence. Two teams who simply went at each other for the full duration of the game with neither overly concerned about shape or discipline as the game progressed, just about getting goals and securing at least a point but always with an intention to construct play from the back in a positive fashion.

Shape

Both sides lined up with broadly 4-2-3-1 formations as outlined below:-

Deportivo vs Real Zaragoza - Starting Line Ups

Deportivo vs Real Zaragoza – Starting Line Ups

The one interesting point was the use of Bruno Gama on the left and Pizzi on the right. Otherwise, it was fairly expected line ups from both sides.

The Depor Right

Deportivo’s attacking intentions were clear from the outset. They were going to attack down their right hand side. In the opening 6 minutes, three attacks all came down the right side with Roberto saving well from Riki’s shot during these early exchanges.

The reason for the reliance upon the right was the deployment of Pizzi here rather than Bruno Gama as normal. Pizzi would cut inward onto his stronger left foot whilst Rikki drifts outwards to the right. Their combination play coupled with the prompting of Valeron gave Deportivo a strength on this side that Zaragoza never really came to grips with or managed to quell.

The graphic below clearly illustrates how Depor attacked:-

Deportivo Heat Map

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

The opening goal in the 10th minute began when Pizzi robbed Romaric deep in the Depor half. Depor broke on the right before cutting infield with Valeron providing a perfectly weighted pass for the onrushing Bruno Gama, cutting in from the left, to fire beyond Roberto.

The second Depor goal, and the equaliser, resulted following Abraham conceding a cheap free kick wide on the right. The delivery was good but Zaragoza partially cleared the ball only for Aguilar to head the ball back towards the goal and Marchena scored with a low strike. Zaragoza tried to push out too quickly and failed to mark players moving back into the penalty area. They had received an earlier warning when an excellent Depor set piece in the 22nd minute saw a header back across goal before the unmarked Aguilar scooped the ball over. If you were being hyper critical, the finger of blame could be pointed at Romatic who was closest to Marchena and did nothing. Zaragoza were too intent on playing a crude offside trap. The warning was not heeded and Aguilar was able to help Depor take advantage.

Abel Aguilar

Zaragoza attempted to squeeze and press Aguilar and early on it worked to an extent but the Colombian would still find the space that enabled him to dictate much of the game. Short, simple passes that kept Depor ticking over and built the play:-

Abel Aguilar Passes

Abel Aguilar Passes                      http://www.squawka.com

The graphic above provides further evidence of the strength of Depor on the right.

With the second most touches in the game (75) behind Manuel Pablo (77), Aguilar had a calming influence on Depor yet was able to repeatedly unnerve Zaragoza most notably at set pieces though not through delivery. Aguilar won a number of headers including one that set up Marchena for the equaliser.

In the second half, his aerial presence set up Aythami who failed to score but moments later his presence unsettled the Zaragoza backline at a corner and the ball ricocheted off the unfortunate Abraham for an own goal. This would turn out to be the winning goal.

Zaragoza Defence and Attack

Defensively, Zaragoza failed to adequately deal with Deportivo particularly at set pieces when they seemed incapable of marking properly or clearing their lines adequately. The game was a personal nightmare for Abraham at left back. Aside from Deportivo relentlessly attacking his area, the full back conceded the free kick which led to the opening goal, scored the own goal which turned out to be the winning goal and, finally, was sent off for a second caution late in the game.

Yet if Zaragoza failed to impress defensively, in attack they were just as limited despite scoring two goals. Both of the Zaragoza goals arose from defensive mistakes from Depor.

Postiga scored Zaragoza’s first goal from the penalty spot after Aythami inexplicably handled the ball in the area. Although the Portuguese striker was behind Aythami, it would still have required a tremendous effort to score. As it was, Postiga was presented with a much easier opportunity to level the scoring.

Zaragoza failed to take full advantage of Montanes pace against the veteran Manuel Pablo even if the young winger robbing the full back earned Zaragoza’s second goal. Manuel Pablo was dispossessed at the halfway line and the Depor backline was spread across the pitch as they were building play. Postiga and Movilla combined to release Montanes who easily outstripped the Depor defence and flicked the ball beyond Aranzubia to give Zaragoza the lead.

Apart from these two goals, Zaragoza only mustered one other attempt on target, a long range effort from outside the box as shown below:-

Real Zaragoza Shots

Real Zaragoza Shots            http://www.squawka.com

This was the problem for Zaragoza. When they had possession, they had no cutting edge. Just 26 league goals in 29 league games before this meeting outlines the problem. Zaragoza would have decent possession and look to build attacks although they were a little more direct than Depor but they simply had nothing within the final third. Montanes looked lively but beyond that, there is not enough quality.

Can Lighting Strike Twice for Jimenez?

Manolo Jimenez somehow managed to drag Real Zaragoza from the relegation mire last season when it seemed inevitable that they would be relegated. Nine wins in their final 14 league games completed a remarkable turnaround in fortunes which continued into the early part of this season. At the mid-way point of the season, Zaragoza sat in 13th position but the rot had already set in.

And now it shows no sign of stopping. Forget about Barcelona at home next week, the real test for Jimenez and Zaragoza arrives in the following weeks when they face Celta Vigo and Mallorca back to back. These are the games which could define their season.

El Flaco

No discussion of a Deportivo game would be complete without at least a passing mention of Juan Carlos Valeron. As the veteran midfielder enjoys one final hurrah in La Liga, he still possesses the class and ability to glide effortlessly around the pitch in slow motion amidst the whirling maelstrom that surrounds him. Valeron still plays with a style and swagger that few can offer.

His pass provided the assist for the opening goal, a lovely weighted pass that ran straight into Bruno Gama’s path. In total, Valeron completed 45 of his 60 attempted passes and although he did become less of an influence as the game progressed and became more open and stretched, if Depor do pull off the great escape, it’s certain to involve him along the way.

Open Ending

With the final goal being scored in the 55th minute, both teams still pushed forward. Zaragoza to grab the equaliser for a second time in the game and maintain a gap of 4 points over Depor. For the Galicians, another goal was needed to overturn Zaragoza’s advantage in the head to head record. It made for a thrilling ending to a superb game and demonstrates the quality that exists at both ends of the La Liga table. Unfortunately, financial mismanagement over a prolonged period is now severely curtailing the ability of clubs such as these to progress beyond a hand to mouth existence. But on nights like these, the quality remains on viewing for all to see.

In terms of this game however, Depor may very well come to rue the missed chances at the end of the season.

Conclusion

Real Zaragoza are in trouble and Jimenez must be feeling the strain. With just five draws and eight defeats from the past 13 league games, Zaragoza represent that team which the media love so much when they talk of a relegation fight. The team that nobody expects to become involved in the relegation struggle but that somehow gets dragged into it. Perhaps there is a degree of truth given their present run of form but what is also undeniably correct is that Zaragoza don’t have a lot of quality within their squad. And early season form helped flatter to deceive.

The Great Escape from relegation remains a distinct possibility for Deportivo La Coruna. After 10 weeks in the bottom spot, three wins on the bounce have given Depor a sense of hope. From his seven league games in charge, Fernando Vasquez has secured 10 points. And the men from Galicia now have the opportunity to remain in the top flight. The job is not yet over but they have successfully completed part one and ensured that there will be a part two.

Week 18 Observations

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

Deportivo 1 Malaga 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Madrid 4 Real Sociedad 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so Madrid secured the three points.

Mallorca 1 Atletico Madrid 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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