Keep Pressing Forward

Southampton found themselves in 15th place and three points above the relegation zone when Maurcicio Pochettino was hired on the 18th January 2013. The Saints would eventually end the season in 14th position and five points clear of the final relegation position, securing their berth in the Premiership for a second successive season.

From his 16 games in charge, Pochettino won four, drew seven and lost five producing an average of 1.18 points per game, a slight increase on the 1 point per game collected by his predecessor, Nigel Adkins. Were such a points per game ratio to be maintained over an entire season, the Saints would have finished in 11th position last season with a slightly healthier total of 45 points.

In a results driven business, there will be those of an opportunistic nature who seek to denigrate the relatively low level of points returned during the Argentineans brief tenure thus far. Why change a manger in the middle of the season? Particularly to a manager with no experience of the English game joining a club fighting relegation in mid-season and with limited English.  That such problems were of Southampton’s making by sacking Adkins is also true but the brief glimpses of the football that Pochettino’s side have served should be more than enough to quell those who are quick to criticise the Argentinean for the poor handling of the situation by the Southampton Board.

“But in the second half Southampton put in the best performance anyone has here this season.”

Sir Alex Ferguson

That’s the problem when you unveil a long term plan. People are quick to accuse you of creating a plan to remove the present managerial incumbent. The plan justifies the action taken.  If the plan is quickly aborted thereafter, those same forces will be present to revel in its downfall. If the plan succeeds, well it’s maybe four or five years later and nobody can be bothered to recall what was said all those years ago. Either way, you’ll be criticised.

With a modestly impressive start offering optimism for the future, what should Southampton fans expect from the side under their new coach? And what has the Argentinean tactician changed during his brief spell in charge to date?

Influences

Pochettino is heavily influenced by the philosophies of Marcelo Bielsa, a coach who has retained total faith in his system and who returned to vogue in the last two seasons with his swashbuckling Athletic Club side. A side that showcased the two extremes of such an approach. The young central defender Mauricio Pochettino arrived in the first team at Newell’s Old Boys when Bielsa was coach and subsequently earned a number of his international caps under his former club manager.

“He’s like a second father to me. I don’t know if he’s a crazy football coach, but he’s very methodical, and always faithful to his ideas.”

Whilst Bielsa is a fundamentalist, a man so defined by his beliefs that he would rather fail than change his methods, Pochettino must be careful to avoid becoming so ideologically driven. Indeed, if he is to succeed at the top-level of coaching, he cannot afford to be like his mentor. He must carefully assemble the components which has enable Bielsa to succeed whilst sidestepping the pitfalls which repeatedly traps his mentor.

The Espanyol Legend

Pochettino took charge at Espanyol in the middle of the 2008-09 season. In doing so, he became the club’s 13th coach in 11 years under President Daniel Sánchez Llibre, a revolving door policy operating in the Montjuic area of Barcelona. A club legend, the aggressive central defender played more games for the club than any other foreigner.

The tactician won just one of his first nine matches with Espanyol failing to keep a single clean sheet in the process. Bottom of the table and facing a return to la Segunda after 17 seasons in the top flight, Pochettino sought divine intervention, making a pilgrimage by foot to a nearby religious site. And he received it. Espanyol won eight of their final ten games and finished in the top half of the table.

Under his leadership, los pericos finished 11th, 8th and then 14th in the following seasons. The statistics below show how the side developed under him, as his determination to impose his style of play and system took hold:-

Espanyol Stats Under Pochettino                      http://www.whoscored.com

Espanyol increased their average possession under Pochettino and their pass success rate despite offloading their best players each season to ease their financial burdens. As the players understanding of the system increased, tackles and interceptions increased along with yellow cards. Part of the reason for the continuing success was the ability to work and influence the youth set up. Players being promoted from la cantera bought into the Argentinian’s values and ideals.

“There are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you; Espanyol look for you. I feel very close to their style of football”

Pep Guardiola

And this is where some of his most impressive work at Espanyol occurred. Working closely with the youth coaches, redesigning the youth setup, laying down tactical guidelines to be followed throughout the club and insisting on making each team play in an age group above, to increase their competitiveness and accelerate their development. It was not just an ideal though, it was a financial necessity. Espanyol cannot afford significant transfer fees and need to raise income from selling players. Promotion of youth team players under Pochettino increased with many players making their first-team début. The Espanyol squad retained a high number of home-grown players only Athletic, Barcelona and Real Sociedad having a higher number. It also speaks volumes about the philosophy of the club:-

“We’re not interested in our youth teams winning games; we’re interested in them developing players for the first team.”

Upon departing Espanyol, Pochettino’s time in charge will be interpreted differently dependent entirely upon what you perceive as success. With a win percentage of 33%, during his 161 games in charge Espanyol won 53, drew 38 and lost 70 games. Leaving Espanyol in November by mutual consent and not having been sacked as widely reported previously, the club were bottom of the league and had won only twice in 14 games. Having been at the club almost four years, Pochettino became the fourth longest-serving manager in Espanyol’s history.

Pochettino’s Style

As you would expect from a devout follower of Bielsa, Pochettino likes his teams to be play sharp passing football combined with a steely edge. Play should be built from the back, moving forward slowly if necessary, before the tempo increases as the ball enters the opponents’ territory and passing becomes more one touch. The high technical demands that this places upon the players can lead to a repeated loss of possession. And it can be frustrating to witness at times.

“I like football to be played well from the back, to have movement both in and out of possession, to pressure high up the pitch, and to be attacking”

The defensive phase begins as soon as possession is lost and the team are responsible. The team attempt to press their opponents as high up the pitch as possible. To do so, a high defensive line is held and an aggressive offside trap is pursued. It’s a strategy that will produce high quality attacking football with the odd defensive disaster. If one part of the team fails to press coherently, the system begins to crack and the opponent has time to exploit the space behind the high defensive line.

There is also another price to pay; Disciplinary sanctions. Espanyol had one of the worst disciplinary records in La Liga. If you press high and hound your opponent, you will inevitably concede fouls. Whether this approach will be more suited to the Premiership than La Liga, where minor contact often results in fouls, remains to be seen. It’s an area that must be addressed if a relatively small squad is not be over stretched.

The key was all the work we put in over the past few weeks. The victory only comes if you believe you can get the victory and today we believed we could win and that is the way we should continue. It happened as we hoped, planned and wanted. Many times you can imagine and it is difficult to make it happen but today it went to plan.

Pochettino is a devout believer in the triumph of the system. The above quote taken after the impressive win over ManchesterCity provides clear evidence of that. The work put in on the training pitch, the planning that is needed to achieve your goal at the end of the week. It’s not luck. It’s hard work, discipline, organisation and belief.

Southampton Beginnings

With 16 games under his belt at St Mary’s, it’s important to tread cautiously when examining the impact that Pochettino has had to date. It must be remembered that predecessor Adkins was enjoying a fine run of form when he was sacked. With just two defeats in the previous twelve games, Pochettino was inheriting a squad that had adjusted to life in the Premiership and contained much better morale than earlier in the season. That may have aided the adjustment initially.

Pochettino sought to impose his style quickly at Southampton taking advantage of free weekends to work with his new players on the training pitch. Double sessions have been commonplace but then, the players should have expected this. Pablo Osvaldo played under Pochettino before moving to AS Roma in Serie A:-

“He makes you work like a dog. Sometimes, you feel like killing him but it works”

Much of the focus in training will shift to ensuring the team is a coherent unit; that the system works as outlined above.

“It may seem like we are running more but really we are just running in a more organised way”

More organised and more compact and closer to the opponent’s goal. What is happening on the pitch is that Southampton are playing higher up the pitch both with and without the ball. It may sound revolutionary, but it’s quite simple really.

Our style of play is to win back the ball as soon as possible and then play it. We moved forward our lines and play more up field. When we lose the ball we must have the mentality of winning it back as soon as possible”

Why run up the pitch, lose possession and then retreat back into your starting position? You’re expending energy moving up and down the pitch and when you recover possession, you are starting 60 or 70 yards away from the opponent’s goal again. Instead, when you lose possession in your opponents half of the pitch, try to regain possession immediately. You don’t expend energy retreating and when you recover possession, you are maybe only 30 yards from their goal.

Rewards and Risks

The rewards from playing high up the pitch are obvious. In order to press effectively, the lines must be tight together in a coherent fashion. It requires the defensive line to be very high. You squeeze your opponent and only technically superior teams will be able to evade a well organised press.

Or teams that play long ball.

Which may present some issues for Southampton given the necessity to play a high line; the abundance of space in behind them for quick forwards to exploit. It requires Boruc or whoever plays in goal for Southampton to operate as a “sweeper keeper” If Southampton don’t press properly it provides the opponent with time and space to pick out a pass that could go long for a willing runner to pursue. Away to Newcastle late on last season is one example of this.  Newcastle are a fairly direct side under Pardew and possess forwards who will work the channels such as Cisse. The Saints faced a side that would go long at every opportunity, working the channels and getting success as a consequence. Would Southampton really play as high and as openly against the likes of Theo Walcott?

Southampton must address this problem to prevent it becoming the ubiquitous tactic to defeat them.

Easy Adaptation?

Upon taking control at Espanyol, Pochettino won just once in his opening nine games for the club as los pericos fell to bottom spot with relegation to la segunda, a very real possibility. Bielsa also experienced similar problems adjusting at Athletic Club, failing to register a win in his opening five league games, the club’s worst start to a league campaign in some thirty years.

The way Southampton appear to have adapted to Pochettino’s methods, although it is still very early days, differs vastly from his initial games at Espanyol. There were, and still are, concerns over a bumpy transition as the side adapt to the Argentinean’s preferred style but thus far, things are probably going as well as could be expected.

Given the performances of the team during this transitional phase, it inevitably begs the question of whether the demands of Pochettino are more compatible with the style of play within the British Isles. Whilst the technical requirements may be beyond that which have been demanded from the Southampton players to date, an emphasis upon quick one touch passing, the physical demands are not that different. Individually, the components are prevalent in British football, the pressing and the offside line. The difference is the coherent fashion which Pochettino demands. Frequently, we see un-coordinated pressing from a team with strikers closing down opposition defenders but the midfield has dropped off. The aim of Pochettino at Southampton is for the team to work as one coherent unit.

Could this be the reason for the smooth adaptation? Are British players more suited to the style Pochettino demands? If so, why did Andre Villa-Boas struggle so badly at Chelsea? Villa-Boas utilises a different formation but there are broad similarities; the pressing, the high line, the direct style of play.

There are many factors to consider. Pochettino has a dressing room with a number of young players who he can shape and mould similar to Bielsa with both Chile and Athletic Club.

The Future

Pochettino has found himself in the unusual position of having cash to spend to improve the team during the close season. A novel experience for a man used to watching assets departing Espanyol to be increasingly replaced with youth team players or veterans on free transfers. He has stated that he would not raid his former club and has thus far remained true to his word. The speculation surrounding a possible move for Verdu was just that; speculation.  Forays into the Spanish market seemed likely but thus far the two purchases have arrived via Lyon (Dejan Lovren) and Celtic (Victor Wanyama).

Both fit the Pochettino prototype. Young, hungry and crucially, easy to mould and adapt to the system that is being utilised. Both also arrive with hefty price tags for a club of Southampton’s stature at £8.5m and £12.5m respectively. A considerable outlay.

Having avoided relegation, the focus will shift towards securing a higher finishing position as the club look to progress. Despite the good start to his career on the South coast, expect blips as the season progresses. With such demanding tactics both physically and mentally, with the rewards come the risks and a few heavy defeats are not out of the equation.

They survived the drop, and just as he expects his teams to do, Pochettino will keep pressing forward at Southampton.

Espanyol vs Barcelona – 100 not out?

Another Catalan derby and another Barcelona victory but this one was different.

Sure, Espanyol have lost to their city rivals before, and by much greater margins, but they have always done so on their own terms. Prepared to have a go at the opposition especially under Pochettino. This was all a little too tame.

Line Ups

Aguirre named his usual starting line up for Espanyol with one slight alteration. The normal 4-2-3-1 was abandoned for something more along with line of a 4-4-1-1 with Verdu playing behind lone striker Sergio Garcia.

Espanyol vs Barcelona Starting Line Ups

Espanyol vs Barcelona Starting Line Ups

There were a few changes in the Barcelona side with Thiago and Song starting in midfield whilst the forward line was Villa, Fabregas and Sanchez.

The game delivered very little except a comfortable Barcelona victory. Espanyol were too meek against their more illustrious opponents. There was an edge lacking from the home side’s play. The side with the worst disciplinary record in La Liga never showed that aggressive side and when Wakaso did, it was for complaining to the referee resulting in his second caution. From the 38 tackles that Espanyol attempted in the game, 23 of these occurred in the first half. As the game progressed, Espanyol fell off the pace. Barcelona coasted to victory without any requiring to hit a high level of form.

Espanyol Submit

Despite a very bright opening in which the home side pressed and harassed their rivals, Espanyol soon dropped off. In the 2nd minute, Espanyol pushed very high forcing Valdes to kick long from a goal kick. The hosts pushed high as a unit with their midfield four working very hard to close their opponents down and prevent them from having time and space on the ball to build. Despite the tactic showing positive signs, it was not maintained.

The high press never continued. Espanyol dropped off and suffered the consequences with the Blaugrana taking control both in terms of possession and territory. The graphic below shows player influence during the game:-

Espanyol vs Barcelona Player Influence

Espanyol vs Barcelona Player Influence

Dani Alves is alone on the right side and yet manages to subdue both Capdevila and Wakaso for the majority of the game. This was partly due to Espanyol deliberately conceding space on the flanks to stay narrow and compact centrally. The problem was, the defence and midfield were compact but Verdu and Garcia are left higher up and disconnected. Sergio Garcia is isolated and was left to chase lost causes on a frustrating night for the striker.

The home side moved too deep, too quickly and with nothing to hold on to.

Espanyol Stay Too Deep

This was the  main issue for Espanyol. Moving too deep so early on. Despite losing the opening goal to Alexis Sanchez in the 13th minute, Espanyol never altered this approach. The goal itself owes much to the individual skill and determination of Sanchez. In what has been a very poor season for the forward, his goal in the 13th minute was a timely reminder of what he can produce. Espanyol had an abundance of bodies around the forward yet he still evaded tackles and managed to curl his shot into the far corner.

The graphic below captures how Espanyol were playing by considering their interceptions:-

Espanyol vs Barcelona Player Interceptions

Espanyol vs Barcelona Player Interceptions

From 20 interceptions, 15 were made in their own half as the side dropped off Barcelona. Beyond that however, 10 interceptions were made in the congested central area some 25 yards from goal where Espanyol were packing bodies. The side remained defensive. Barcelona had space on the flanks from where Sanchez instigated and scored the opening goal.

It does lead to questions. Espanyol are safe from relegation but kept a disciplined, conservative approach throughout. Should they have offered more? Should Aguirre have let the side open up? It may have led to a defeat but at least it would have been a defeat on their own terms as opposed to a defeat from a Barcelona side that bossed the game and were seldom placed upon any great pressure. At the very least, the side should have pushed higher up the pitch to offer support to Verdu and Garcia but they never did.

The Heir to Xavi?

The game provided Thiago Alcantara with a rare starting appearance with Xavi on the bench. As the lynchpin of the Barcelona side gets older and as injuries take their toll, Thiago should see more game time to both aid his development and offer Xavi suitable recuperation time.

It has not always been like that this season. Xavi has played too often, to both his detriment and that of Thiago to the extent whereby there are now transfers rumours linking the young midfielder with a move elsewhere. Patience, it seems, is not his greatest quality.

The graphic below shows Thaigo’s passes during the game:-

Thiago Passes

Thiago Passes

Let’s be clear from the outset, Thiago is not a natural replacement for Xavi. The young midfielder brings different qualities to the game. More prepared to attack opponents with surging runs forward, he offers a greater vertical threat and less overall game control than Xavi.

There is still a slackness to his play at time though. A general lackadaisical attitude when making some passes in non-dangerous areas of the pitch. When you enter the final third, passes will always go astray but in safe areas, this issue must be worked upon. This can be seen with the location of misplaced passes detailed above.

The Final Game

The dream, however far fetched it may have seemed given their early season predicament, of European football has ended for Espanyol. In truth, their recent form suggest that once los pericos were safe from relegation, the players switched off. Four defeats and just one draw in their last five games provides evidence of that. The exertions of avoiding relegation appearing to have taken their toll on the side.

For Barcelona, there is one game left at home to Malaga in what is likely to be Pellegrini’s final game in charge. Win and Barcelona reach 100 points in a season, breaking their own club record of 99 points and equaling the league record set by Real Madrid just last season.

But Pellegrini has spoiled a potential party at the Camp Nou before when his Villarreal side held Barcelona to a 3-3 draw and prevented them winning the title on home soil. And earlier this season, Malaga gained a 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey.

Could the Chilean mastermind another performance at the Camp Nou for his last hurrah with Malaga?

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.

 

Espanyol vs Real Sociedad – Some Thoughts

Espanyol and Real Sociedad fought out a highly entertaining 2-2 draw at the Cornella el Prat on Sunday evening. Aguirre has performed well to date, lifting Espanyol from bottom to mid-table safety even at this stage of the season but their recent form has tailed off slightly. They entered this game with just one win in their previous four games. This contrasted sharply with a Sociedad side that now harbours prospects of Champions League football next season at the Anoeta.

With Carlos Vela missing, Montannier opted to bring Zurutuza into the side in midfield.

The graphic below shows the team’s starting line up:-

Espanyol vs Real Sociedad Starting Line Ups

Espanyol vs Real Sociedad Starting Line Ups

Whilst Espanyol chose a 4-2-3-1, La Real were more like a 4-1-4-1 although the wide pairing of Griezmann and Prieto pushed higher than the midfield duo or Zurutuza and Illarramendi.

Real started the game better, more aggressive than their opponents but they were caught out after just eight minutes when Sergio Garcia opened the scoring. The attack began on the right but quickly shifted to the left with Xabi Prieto flighting a ball for Simao to collect. It meant Sociedad were turning and backpeddling towards their own goal rather than have the opponent face them. Simao’s low cross was deftly slotted home by Garcia who had run beyond both De La Bella and Inigo Martinez to get to the ball first. The early goal allowed Espanyol to counter and forced Sociedad to take the initiative.

Espanyol Attacking

The graphic below shows all of the attempted crosses undertaken by Espanyol during the game. There was a clear bias, especially in the first half for attacks to come down the Real Sociedad right with as shown below:-

Espanyol Crosses

Espanyol Crosses                    http://www.squawka.com

Of the 16 crosses attempted, only two found an Espanyol player and both resulted in goals during the first half. A number of crosses were blocked but with less cover in the Sociedad midfield, it was easier for Espanyol to create the openings by spreading the play with crossfield passes. It meant Sociedad were more exposed and in less control than they like to be. And Espanyol were able to profit with the assistance of their striker, Sergio Garcia.

Sergio Garcia

He may not be everybody’s favourite striker and he may not be the most prolific goalscorer either but last night Sergio Garcia produced the sort of display that has always been capable of delivering even if he was often frustratingly inconsistent.

The graphic below shows the heat map for his performance:-

Sergio Garcia Heat Map

Sergio Garcia Heat Map                       http://www.squawka.com

Statistically, his performance was not that impressive. Just one shot at goal albeit with which he scored. Only one successful take on against eight attempted. Garcia lost out on his two aerial duels as well.  But he completed 26 out of his 37 attempted passes. He is not disconnected form the team. Always available to take a pass and link play. The key to his performance was his movement, intelligence and ability to link up with the remainder of his team particularly Verdu who roamed behind him. Their combination led to Espanyol’s second goal, Garcia playing a tidy one-two with his captain before Stuani converted the cross.

Real Sociedad Set Up

In their recent away game at Atleti, La Real were very conservative from the outset of the game, playing a highly cautious counter attacking style. Although that is their preference, they were more aggressive here perhaps sensing this as an ideal opportunity to claim all three points.

The most noticeable difference from recent away games was Illarramendi being pushed higher not and not being used as part of a double pivot alongside Bergara. The higher position uses Illarramendi’s qualities in a better fashion. His more direct passing can aid the team and led to the equalising goal.

Prieto made a diagonal run from left to centre and Illarramendi lofted a pass through to him. Casilla cleared the ball which fell to Zurutuza around 25 yards out and his first time lobbed finish found the net. The finish was one of the highest technique but in the process the pass and run which led to the goal were overlooked.

The graphic below shows Illarramendi’s passing:-

Illarramendi Passes

Illarramendi Passes                      http://www.squawka.com

Although a different player from Xabi Alonso, the fact that both began their careers with La Real will lead to comparisons especially when there is something of the Alonso about the passing of Illarramendi on occasion. The misplaced passes above all tended to be longer, flighted passes searching out runners in behind the Espanyol defence. One led to the first goal and in the 55th minute a similar ball found Aggirexte but Casilla saved the resulting shot.

As it was, Illarramendi was withdrawn for the gifted Pardo in 62minutes. And the youngster lofted another ball over the Espanyol defence for the timed run of Griezmann. Despite miscontrolling the ball, it ricocheted off Lopez into the bottom corner to provide Sociedad with the equaliser. The goal came following a period of Sociedad pressure. The attacking talent of Verdu, Garcia and Stuani were curtailed as the game had wore on and Sociedad were able to exert more authority on proceedings as a consequence.

Conclusions

Javier Aguirre has guided Espanyol from the bottom of the table to mid-table security, a tremendous achievement given how he found the club when he took over. As ever though, how he builds from here for next season is key. Verdu is out of contract in the summer and is not the type of player that Espanyol can afford to lose especially as they will receive no fee.

It’s now just one defeat in 19 games for La Real, a very impressive run of form that sees them maintain interest in the Champions League place. They remain on course to record their best league finish since their great side of 2002/03 which narrowly missed out on the title. The number of recent draws though, could cost them. That is four draws in their last seven league games. Even if they do not secure Champions League football, under Montanier they have developed a clear style of play which is highly enjoyable to watch with a number of excellent young prospects. This time last season, if you had to choose a Basque side that would be challenging for Champions League football just now, how many people would have chosen La Real over Bielsa’s Athletic?

Week 23 Observations

Some thoughts on three key games played this weekend in La Liga:-

Levante 1 Malaga 2

Despite both being considered as prime candidates to secure European berths, Europa League and Champions League respectively, both sides recent form was more akin to that of relegation candidates.

Levante began this weekend in ninth place with Malaga in fourth but both sides have lost momentum recently. Levante have lost five of their last seven games whilst Malaga have just one league win in 2013. Indeed, Malaga’s form becomes even more sketchy when you consider they have collected just six wins in their last 21 leagues games. Their Champions League form vastly overshadowing performances on the domestic front.

Yet, as with recent seasons, the fight for European spots is increasingly turbulent with positions changing frequently.

With the financial problems at Malaga and the loss of another key performer in Monreal, the sight of Baptista making his first start in 16 months offered encouragement. In attack, Malaga have no concerns over options. It’s defensively where there are frailties. Sergio Sanchez was forced to start in central defence with Lugano not fit and Weligton not in the squad. Antunes was used at left back. Yet this makeshift defence coped and helped Malaga to a valuable win.

The standout performer was, yet again, Francisco Alcoron a.k.a Isco with his two goals being enough for the visitors to take the three points home.

Isco Shots vs Levante

Isco Shots vs Levante                                        http://www.squawka.com

The graphic above shows Isco’s shots at goal. All are taken centrally and all are around the edge of the penalty area. Despite making passes across the entire width of the pitch, Isco’s awareness to pick out a team mate in better positions prevents him taking speculative shots from around the box.

Athletic 0 Espanyol 4

A recent improvement in performances coupled with two positive results led some to believe that reports of Athletics decline under Bielsa had been greatly exaggerated.

The 3-0 home win over Atletico were the Basques produced their best display of the season was followed by a strong comeback away to Valladolid to recover from two goals down and claim a draw. Unfortunately, the Basques resorted to type this season with a capitulation at home to los pericos.

Athletic dominated possession as per usual with a staggering 70% but were repeatedly cut open by Espanyol on the break during a dreadful second half performance. A failure by Athletic to create clear openings and poor finishing left them goalless.

The visitors recorded just five shots on target but scored with four of them. Verdu’s penalty save by Iraizoz being the one shot on target which they did not score with although the midfielder slotted home the rebound.

Espanyol Shots vs Athletic

Espanyol Shots vs Athletic                             http://www.squawka.com

The graphic above shows the shots on target. All were central and extremely close to the goal. When Espanyol counter attacked, it was too easy for them to create an opening against a stretched Athletic defence.

Javier Aguirre’s record at Espanyol since taking over from Pochettino is  very impressive five wins, four draws and one defeat from his ten games in charge, lifting Espanyol from bottom position and leapfrogging their hosts into 13th place.

Rayo Vallecano 2 Atletico 1

There is something wonderfully refreshing about Rayo Vallecano. Their small, ramshackle ground with three stands and neighbouring tower blocks overlooking the pitch. The fact their fans are some of the most fervent in the division but probably because they deliver a brand of high energy football with a mixture of journeyman players and youngsters full of potential on the smallest budget in the league.

Rayo now have six wins in their last eight games and only a 94th minute strike from Falcao stopped them from securing their sixth clean sheet of the league season. It’s a fantastic achievement and one which has taken them to the brink of a European place but fans will recall last season when a dreadful run of form saw them far too close to relegation on the final day. That should not be replicated.

The graphic below shows Baptistao’s passes against Atleti. With repeated rumours that he will join Atleti in the summer, what better way to showcase his talents? His movement around the pitch created problems for Atleti and enable Rayo to overload Atleti in midfield.

Baptistao Passes vs Atleti

Baptistao Passes vs Atleti                          http://www.squawka.com

Despite trailing 2-0  following goals from Lass and Baptistao, Atleti did not change their outlook during the first half. Their conservative position remained the same and only began to alter after half time. Is Simeone adopting too conservative an approach in away games? Does el Cholo fail to react to falling behind?

Atleti’s fifth away defeat of the campaign and their lead over neighbours Madrid has been cut to just four points. What must be concerning Simeone is that Atleti have not won on the road since an away win over Granada on the 18th November 2012. Since that win they have played five away games and only collected a solitary point away at Mallorca. Their second place in the table has been built upon their tremendous home form at the Calderon.

Barcelona vs Espanyol – Tactical Analysis

Barcelona turned in a rampant first half display, during which time they battered Espanyol and had the game wrapped up by half time courtesy of a four goal lead.

This was a game in which Barcelona produced a performance of considerable quality even if their opponents were sufficiently lacklustre.

Line Ups

Tito Vilanova returned to the dugout having missed just one league game through illness. He named what is arguably his strongest eleven.

Barcelona Starting Line Up vs Espanyol

Barcelona Starting Line Up vs Espanyol

Taking charge of Espanyol for the fifth time, Javier Aguirre set his Espanyol side out in a 4-5-1 formation with ex Barcelona player Sergio Garcia as the lone striker:-

Espanyol Starting Line Up vs Barcelona

Espanyol Starting Line Up vs Barcelona

Overall

With Barcelona already 4-0 ahead at half time, the game was over as a contest. The key aspects from a tactical perspective arrived mainly during the first half of real quality and verve from Barcelona. There were still a number of points during the second period but Espanyol were soundly beaten by that point and Barcelona were already very comfortable.

Sergio Busquets

Sergio Busquets is well known for his positional ability sitting in front of the defence and recycling possession quickly and accurately but this game illustrates that Busquets possesses other qualities too. The midfielder completed more passes than anyone else on the pitch, even Xavi, with 121 passes completed from 137 attempted.

Critics of Busquets will claim his passing is always short ignoring his ability to play rapid first time passes. Against Espanyol, he was able to showcase his range of passing.

Busquets Passes vs Espanyol

Busquets Passes vs Espanyol                 http://www.squawka.com

Busquets provided the assist for Barcelona’s third goal in the 26th minute. By this point Busquets had already played a number of diagonal crossfield passes changing the angle of Barcelona’s attacks and forcing Espanyol to shuffle back and forth across the pitch. His forward pass through the centre of the defence was read perfectly by Pedro who accelerated beyond Moreno and clipped the ball over the advancing Casilla. Espanyol failed to press Busquets in the midfield.

The warning sign was not heeded and in the 42nd minute, Busquets played another through ball which narrowly evaded the forward running Cesc Fabregas.

Two passes of real quality and vision displaying the awareness and technique of Busquets combined with the forward runs from his team mates.

Iniesta and Cesc – Sharing The Left

The arrival of Cesc Fabregas and his subsequent integration into the side has provoked much debate. Initially positioned on the left side of attack, his form fluctuated. Now however, Vilanova appears to be about to reap the rewards from Guardiola’a tactical tinkering.

Fabregas is now positioned in the midfield with license to break forward whilst Iniesta, although he confirms it’s not his favourite position, situated on the left of attack. The positions are nominal only due to the movement of both players. Their relationship has developed to the point whereby they now combine and interchange frequently both safe in the knowledge that the real width will be provided by the marauding Jordi Alba from left back.

The graphic below shows Iniesta’s heat map:-

Iniesta Heat Map vs Espanyol

Iniesta Heat Map vs Espanyol

The heat map for Cesc Fabregas is remarkably similar. Both players prepared to move to the left when required and equally drop into the centre as need be. It enables Cesc to burst forward into the penalty area to receive the kind of passes that Busquets was making. It’s this fluidity of movement which makes it so difficult for opponents to stop even if they employ a low defensive block.

And it’s not just in the midfield area where the movement and interchanging is occurring.

Pedro Rodriguez

Following an injury hit season, Pedro Rodriguez has returned to full fitness this season but the goals have not yet arrived. Going into this game, he had scored just one league goal.

Deployed on the right wing, Pedro seldom stayed there during this game as the graphic below highlights:-

Pedro Action Areas vs Espanyol

Pedro Action Areas vs Espanyol

The forward from Tenerife frequently made diagonal runs to a central position seeking through passes as Messi dropped deep and to the right. For a period of the game, Pedro operated as the No9 with Messi wide.

His first goal perhaps carried an element of luck but Pedro was still in the right position to take advantage of that luck. His second goal was a classic run off the shoulder of the last defender.

Pedro scored two further goals which were ruled offside. On both occasions he was the main striker breaking into the box at speed with Messi much deeper.

Pedro’s positioning was possible because Dani Alves produced his best performance of a below par season. Quite often Alves was alone on the right flank as he moved up and down offering tactical width to the side.

Barcelona Fluidity

And the constituent parts highlighted above provided Barcelona with a display arguably on a par with anything produced during the Guardiola era.

The fluidity of movement and the interchanging of position is something which has to be developed on a training ground over a number of years. It’s not a style of play can be perfected quickly.

The real issue for Barcelona now is can this level of performance be sustained for the remainder of the campaign both at home and abroad and can it be produced against higher quality opponents?

Espanyol – Where Did It Go Wrong?

Still, it’s difficult to completely ignore the assertion that Espanyol contributed to their own downfall with a woefully inadequate performance.

“You can lose face, but you have to give more,”

Capdevila summed up the issue for Espanyol perfectly.

The loss of the early goal would have been a considerable loss to Espanyol, but they appeared to be devoid of motivation or aggression for the majority of the game. Barcelona enjoyed far too much freedom and time on the ball.

The graphic below highlights where Espanyol made tackles:-

Espanyol Tackles vs Barcelona

Espanyol Tackles vs Barcelona

Espanyol were not stopping Barcelona further up the field. They retreated to the edge of their penalty area and tried to hold Barcelona off at the point by defending in a compact and narrow format. Previously the template for halting Barcelona but last night it never looked like being successful. The loss of the first goal so early made that approach futile and it developed into something resembling damage limitation thereafter.

Espanyol should have been able to compete, to press and harass Barcelona and make them work harder for their victory. It was too nice. Espanyol never disturbed Barcelona. This is not a suggestion that Espanyol simply kick their opponents but the team with the worst disciplinary record in La Liga this season was surprisingly disciplined and meek.

Conclusions

Barcelona produced a brilliant first half performance but the inherent poverty of Espanyol’s play leaves you wondering if they could have produced the same level against a more competitive opponent. They will get that opportunity next week when they visit La Rosaleda.

Aguirre will have arrived at the Camp Nou expecting nothing and received precisely that. The fans will expect a response next week in a far more meaningful match whet they entertain Celta Vigo. A similarly apathetic approach will not be tolerated.