That Was The Season, That Was.

And then the season was over.

Like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so to the team of the season.

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

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

Goalkeeper

Courtois (Atleti)

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

Right Back

Carlos Marinez (Real Sociedad)

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

Left Back

Filipe Luis (Atleti)

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

Centre Back

Demichellis (Malaga)

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

Centre Back

Inigo Martinez (Real Sociedad)

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

Defensive Midfield

Javi Fuego (Rayo Vallecano)

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

Defensive Midfield

Illarramendi (Real Sociedad)

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

Left Wing

Jonas (Valencia)

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

Attacking Midfield

Banega (Valencia)

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

Right Wing

Vela (Real Sociedad)

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

Striker

Falcao (Atleti)

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

Roll on season 2013/14.

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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.

Atletico Madrid vs Athletic Bilbao – Tactical Analysis

Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao met at the Vicente Calderon for the first time last night since that evening in May when Atleti won the Europa League crushing Athletic Bilbao in the process.

There were a number of key tactical issues during that game which can be reviewed here.

And, as inconceivable as it may seem, judging by last night’s performance, Bielsa and Athletic failed to learn anything from that defeat. The same mistakes were evident again as Atleti delivered a performance of incisive play and quality surpassing their display  in Bucharest and epitomised throughout by the superb Falcao.

Line Ups

Atletico made four changes from the side which drew 1-1 away to Levante on the opening day. Silvio, Cata Diaz, Adrian and Tiago all dropped to the bench to be replaced by Koke, Suarez, Luis Filipe and Juanfran.

Atleti Starting Line Up

Atleti change their system also, moving away from their opening day 5-4-1 to their usual 4-2-3-1. It appears likely that Simone will adopt a more cautious approach for away games this season whilst being more attack minded at home.

Bielsa made just one change to Athletic with Aduriz replacing Toquero as the striker but there were a number of positional changes within the system. Inigo Perez switched places with De Marcos moving from midfield back to left back.

Athletic Starting Line Up

In central defence, San Jose and Gurpegi also switched positions in central defence with San Jose moving back to the left side.

Despite the various alterations to the line up and within the line up, Athletic utilised their normal 4-3-3 variation at the Vicente Calderon.

The Stats

Athletic dominated possession yet failed to muster a single shot on target. The failings of last season returned with a vengeance for Athletic. More possession, more passes but ultimately less penetration as the opponent has more shots and wins the game.

First Half

Atleti began the first half pressing their opponents quickly with both Filipe and Juanfran pushing forward from their full back positions when the opportunity arose. This is important to note. Atleti are content to defend but will commit men forward when the opportunity presents itself.

In the defensive phase, Atleti would fall back to a fairly deep 4-1-4-1 with Falcao being their only  player remaining in the opponents half. With Falcao on such devastating form, it is easy for Atleti to retreat and Falcao to remain the reference point in attack.

The first warning for Athletic arrived in the 14th minute when Falcao collected a long pass and spun past two opponents before Gurpegi cynically blocked him. The resulting yellow card prevented Gurpegi from competing effectively for the remainder of the game, fearful of a second caution and the resulting red card.

The opening goal arrived via some woeful defending by Athletic combined with some lovely play by Falcao. A long throw in found Falcao. MIkel San Jose, who was now man marking Falcao, was turned far too easily before Falcao scooped the ball over Iraizoz.

Athletic gradually settled after this but offered little of an attacking threat. Despite the importance of Iraola and Susaeta last season, neither offered much in an attacking sense. It was on the left with Inigo Perez supporting Isma Lopez where Athletic offered patches of decent play. It was also the Athletic left which Atleti deliberately chose to attack down with Arda presenting numerous problems to Inigo Perez. In the absence of Aurtenexte, Simeone may have pinpointed Inigo Perez as a weak point. Despite the number of attacks in this area, Perez successfully won a number of tackles in the left back area as key battle developed between him and Arda:-

Atleti Dribbles vs Athletic

However, Inigo Perez was cautioned in the 35th minute for tripping Arda.

Throughout the first half, Los Colchoneros pressed their opponent in a highly structured and coordinated fashion. There was seldom any aimless pressing by just one player and when required, everyone dropped deep. With less possession, Atleti were much more vertical with an emphasis upon moving forward quickly but by interplay and surging runs rather than long passes.

Athletic by contrast to their hosts, played numerous passes but failed to turn their possession into territorial dominance or chance creation. Their first meaningful attack materialised in the 14th minute.

Defensively, following Gurpegi’s caution, San Jose man marked Falcao whilst Inigo Perez man marked Arda. This led to the bizarre scenario of Inigo Perez trailing Arda over to the opposite flank on one occasion in the first half, leaving the left flank completely exposed.

Atleti scored their second goal shortly before half time. Although well finished by Falcao, Godin was offside in the build up. A corner was cleared and when the ball was returned, Godin opportunistically hooked the ball across the face of goal and Falcao scored from an acute angle.

 

Second Half

Athletic made two changes at half time with Susaeta and San Jose being replaced by Ibai and Muniain. This resulted in yet more shuffles of the team with De Marcos moving to left back, Inigo Perez going to midfield, Iturraspe moving to central defence (where he partnered Gurpegi, another central midfielder), Ibai on the right wing and Muniain supporting the anonymous Aduriz.

The changes had no effect upon the game failing to stem the tide which flowed towards Iraizoz. Ibai, as ever, looked lively when he arrived but with little meaningful possession his impact was limited.

In the 57th minute Gurpegi was penalised for handball, and judging by some earlier decisions, he was lucky to avoid a second yellow and remain on the pitch. Falcao scored the resulting penalty. Yet the penalty all stemmed from Atheltic’s inability to clear their lines following a throw in. Athletic had three separate opportunities to clear the ball and failed on each occasion.

There then followed a succession of chances for Atletico with a number originating down the Athletic right with Iraola caught extremely high on each occasion. Chances arrived in the 61st, 65th and 68th minutes all from the right.

The fourth goal was another example of poor defensive play from Athletic. The Atleti substitute Diego Costa ran across the edge of the penalty area evading pitiful attempted tackles by Gurpegi and Inigo Perez. Costa’s shot was eventually blocked with the resulting loose ball slammed into the net from twenty five yards by Tiago.

Falcao

Its difficult analysis this game without some reference to the Europa League final given the striking similarities between both games. There were many differences that night but the performance of Falcao. Again, Falcao had a massive impact upon this game.

His ability to collect the ball and move into the channels whilst support arrives is invaluable to a team that wants to defend deep and with numbers.

Prior to the season commencing, Falcao was asked whether he could compete for the “Pichichi” this season:-

“Pichichi’? Why not?”

The heat map bellows shows where Falcao operates. He receives the ball just wide of either central defender outside of the penalty are. Then, when inside the penalty area, he is positioned centrally.

Falcao Heat Map vs Athletic Bilbao

Falcao collects the ball just inside the opponents half of the pitch and distributes to team mates running off him, quite often on the flanks before making a run towards the penalty area. From his 23 passes, only 4 passes were either into or inside the penalty area:-

Falcao Passes vs Athletic Bilbao

Almost all of Falcao’s passes are outside of the box yet all of his shots, with the exception of two, are from inside the box.

Falcao Shots vs Athletic Bilbao

There were suggestions when he arrived that Falcao would not contribute outside of the penalty area and the key issue for Atleti was developing a system which maximises his strengths and links the team to him. Simeon appears to have struck this balance perfectly.

With the likes of Arda, Adrian, Rodrigues and Koke running off him, Falcao has plenty of options and an excellent supply line.

Athletic Structure

Athletic were missing five key players against Athletic but the manner of their performance suggested something much worse than just missing players, however important those players may be.

The changes made in the second half were strange, bordering on the bizarre at times. Constant reshuffles must have a detrimental effect upon players at some point, when instructions stop making any sense through a confused haze.

The withdrawal of San Jose , who was not enjoying a good game, can be debated but why replace him with Iturraspe in defence? You then have two central midfielders operating in defence whilst Ekiza remains on the bench. What made this worse was positioning Inigo Perez at the base of midfield when he had already been cautioned. In a role which requires tackling, Inigo Perez was not going to be able to cope fully.

As the second half progressed, Athletic lost all sense of structure and became a collection of individuals on the pitch. Iraola was posted missing on a number of occasions, allowing Rodriguez to break into acres of space. Aduriz appeared totally isolated throughout with barely any combination play involving him and any other Athletic player. On the one occasion when he linked up, Muniain threaded a pass through and Aduriz moved behind the Atleti defence but his shot was blocked.

Athletic spent the entire game playing in front of Atleti but lacked the creativity and guile to unlock a defence. This was not the only quality which was absent from their game.

Muniain can be a spiky character when things are not going well for him on the pitch but there was little aggression from him. There was a general sense of inevitability about Athletic from the moment the opening goal went in. The team lacked any sort of desire or mental strength.

Conclusion

Atleti can look forward to the European Super Cup game against Chelsea with confidence. The team is playing well and there are ample solutions on the bench which now contains real quality. The final scoreline probably flattered Athletic Bilbao a little and there will be real optimism within Atleti that under Simeone, this can be the season when they secure Champions League football once more.

The optimism and jot which engulfed Athletic last season is now all but gone. The performance was insipid and represents the low point of Bielsa’s reign in Bilbao. Bielsa recognises this:-

“At no time were we in this match. They were more powerful than us in most aspects of the game… we were impotent in the face of the dimension of our opponent”

And yet with the loss of Llorente and Martinez all but guaranteed, the solution for Athletic would be to sign quality replacements such as Benat but Bielsa, as ever, defies conventional wisdom:-

“For a team that is in the cycle we are, it is impossible not to be generate concerned. I have no expectations to resolve this through the arrival of signings.”

Unlike last season when Bielsa arrived and the team struggled at the start of the season, there was always hope that the season would improve. It looks like hope has all but drained from Athletic now.

Atletico Madrid vs Athletic Bilbao – Tactical Analysis

Atletico vs Athletic: Tactical Analysis

Atletico Madrid reclaimed the Europa League trophy they last won in 2010 when they defeated Athletic Bilbao 3-0 last night.

It’s often a cliché in football that any key game, such as a final, requires an early goal. The belief being that it provides the platform for an open and attacking game to develop with both teams freed from their nervous, shackled approach. The fear of conceding an early goal and falling behind is instantly removed.

Yet the reverse can equally be true.

An early goal can close the game down. One team is content to sit deep and counter attack. An opponent forced to answer the question of whether they can unlock the defence.

Atletico demonstrated such an approach last night.

Yet this was a highly entertaining game which witnessed a superb display of attacking prowess from Falcao combined with an excellent defensive performance from Atletico to stifle Athletic.

Atleti Fans Orgullosos – “Proud”

Line Ups

With only Tiago suspended, Simeone went with his expected line up in the usual 4-2-3-1 shape.

Meanwhile for Athletic, Amorebieta passed a late fitness test allowing Bielsa to select his strongest line up also. Athletic adopted a 4-3-3 shape.

Atletico vs Athletic – Starting Line Ups

The Opening Exchanges

For such an important game, the first few minutes were surprisingly open, both teams attempting to establish themselves although Atletico were clearly quicker to settle. Athletic were misplacing passes, a sign of what lay ahead for them.

Athletic had an early warning with Adrian’s header going wide. Arda crossed from the left, the Turkish international getting in behind Iraola.

Athletic have adopted a different style this season under Bielsa as outlined here with a key feature being the presence of Javi Martinez bringing the ball out from defence. Atletico recognised this and attempted to close him down and force Athletic to go long from the back.

Yet this initial approach was largely abandoned by Atletico and the structure of the game changed in the 9th minute when they took the lead.

Defensive Weakness Part 1: Falcao vs Martinez and Amorebieta

After scoring the winner in last year’s final, Falcao again delivered this year with two goals to finish the competition’s top goalscorer.

His excellent movement and workrate throughout the night continually caused the Athletic centre back pairing of Martinez and Amorebieta problems.

Falcao looked to pull the defensive pairing around the pitch, prepared to drop deep and hold the ball up before laying it off to a team mate or he would run onto forward passes always seeking to exploit the space between the Athletic centre back and his respective full back.

The opening goal was a clear example of this.

A loose ball was collected in midfield by Diego who released Falcao, who had pulled wide of Amorebieta. Aurtenexte was stranded in an advanced position and unable to provide any cover.

Once inside the penalty area, the Venezuelan International failed to close Falcao down sufficiently and allowed him to get his shot away which curled into the top corner.

In the 44th minute and 79th minute there were similar opportunities for Falcao, on both instances dragging Martinez wide before beating his opponent and creating chances for himself.

Falcao – Super Fun Slide Time

Changing Structure

The opening goal allowed Atletico to sit deeper and counter attack. Gabi and Suarez, in particular who had a very good game, operated just in front of the back four. Adrian and Arda offered support to their full backs yet always looked to move forward in support of Falcao. Diego remained central behind Falcao.

Atletico dropped off into their own half, only pressing Athletic when they crossed the halfway line. In the 24th minute during an Athletic attack, only Iraizoz was within the Athletic half. The closest Athletic player being Martinez on the halfway line.

Athletic Response

The response from Athletic failed to materialise in the first half. There was energy and workrate but it lacked focus and direction. The shape and balance of the team was wrong.

Muniain performed his normal role, initially starting on the left and drifting laterally but he increasingly took up a central position. When he did this, on occasion De Marcos or Herrara broke left but not consistently. As a result, the centre became clogged. There were too many players from both sides. As Atletico sat deep, there was no space behind the defence either.

De Marcos and Herrara were far too direct, immediately moving forward at pace and offering nothing between the lines, admittedly there was little space to enter given how compact Atletico were.

Susaeta strangely moved inside to a central position also. One of the successes of Athletic this season has been the strength of the right flank with Susaeta moving outside, pulling the full back across and Iraola or De Marcos bursting into the space created between the full back and centre back. Yet this rarely happened. Neither Aurtenexte or Iraola moved forward and linked with their respective wingers to any notable effect.

Llorente offered little movement but given the congested nature of the area in which he operated, the only space was to move deep and seek possession. A tactic which Muniain adopted as the half wore on.

Athletic lacked poise as everything became frantic, which was only heightened after the second goal was conceeded.

Defensive Weakness Part 2: Caught in Possession

On certain occasions when Atletico broke forward in the first half, they did press Athletic if there was sufficient presence in that area of the pitch and if the opportunity arose to press without compromising themselves to a counter attack.

One such occasion was in the 29th minute.

Amorebieta failed to clear the ball when he had the opportunity at the edge of the penalty area, preferring to look for a pass. Previously, under Caparros, at this juncture the ball would have been launched forward but with the new style of play under Bielsa, a pass is sought. Suarez closed him down, won the ball and released Arda who cut the ball back from the goal line and Falcao scored after executing a lovely drag back to wrong foot Aurtenexte.

Athletic Changes

Trailing 2-0 at half time, Bielsa responded with two substitutions. Inigo Perez replaced Aurtenexte and Ibai replaced Iturraspe.

Athletic retained their 4-3-3 shape with De Marcos moving to left back. Inigo Perez became the midfield sitter replacing the disappointing Iturraspe. Finally, Ibai took up the left wing berth which allowed Muniain to be stationed in a central attacking midfield position.

The start of the second half was disrupted by a number of fouls. Given their tendency to push players forward, Athletic are prone to being caught out by the counter attack. However the majority of the fouls were conceded by Atletico. No Athletic player conceded more than two fouls in the entire game but they still accumulated four cautions with three of these resulting from late tackles in dangerous areas as Atletico attacked.

Atletico conceded twenty five fouls during the game with Falcao responsible for seven. If the final was a showcase of his attacking abilities, it also provided ample evidence of his workrate for the team, something which had been questioned in some quarters previously.

The substitute, Ibai, offered more width on the left and a willingness to run at opponents but the overall passing of Athletic remained too slow.

Torqero was brought on in the 62nd minute as Herrera, already cautioned, and becoming increasingly frustrated, was removed.

This necessitated another alteration to the system. Muniain dropped deeper again which offered him the opportunity to run with the ball towards the Atletico defence.

There were now two strikers ahead of him but Atletico countered this with Suarez dropping between the centre backs when required to do so, providing three centre backs against the two strikers, always keeping a spare man at the back.

There were fleeting glimpses of Athletic’s ability now as the tempo increased and there were a number of scoring opportunities yet the threat of the counter attack was never sufficiently dealt with.

Adrian tripped by the backtracking Inigo Perez.

The Final Goal

The third goal for Atletico started as a counter attack initiated by Diego in his own half. Yet Diego collected the ball just inside the Athletic half and moved unchallenged towards the box where he moved past a cumbersome Amorebieta and scored the final goal.

The only challenge Diego had to evade en route was from the rapidly backtracking Torqero. The space in front of the centre backs, normally patrolled by Iturraspe had been vacated by Inigo Perez.

Overall

For Athletic, the same failings that have existed all season remain in position.

The space behind the full backs, who push so high, was exploited by Atletico throughout with diagonal balls being played to the flanks where Arda and, Adrian especially, offered an attacking threat. The centre backs when pulled wide to cover for the full backs, struggle one on one.

The vertical movement of Iturraspe between defence and midfield did not produce any positive outcomes with his passing weak throughout. Yet when replaced with Inigo Perez, who did provide more vertical movement, the gap in front of the centre backs became apparent. Perez received a caution for his late challenge as Atletico broke through the centre in the 75th minute. The warning was not heeded and 9 minutes later, Diego scored.

And finally, the real issue facing Athletic. How do they convert their possession into chance creation and ultimately, goals. Yet again, Athletic dominate an opponent in terms of possession, enjoying 69%, and have a territorial advantage and yet again, the opponent has more attempts at goal and walks away with victory.

Athletic and Bielsa must rectify this issue.

On a wider level, it raises the same issues which adversely affect all of Belsa’s teams to a certain degree. The lack of defensive stability and the issue of fatigue at key points in the season. A number of Athletic players appeared to be carrying niggling injuries or simlpy cannot raise the level of their performance to that which is required.

Athletic now have two weeks to recover before the Copa del Rey final. Assured of Europea League football next season, the opportunity to rest key players for their final league fixture this season is a welcome respite.

Bielsa & Simeone – Bielsa gave Simeone 30 Argentina caps.

For Atletico and Simeone, the season is already a huge success folliowing the brief, failed tenure of Manzano. There is one more game to navigate with the prize of champions League qualification at stake before the real work begins ahead of next season. When Simeone attempts to install some consistency into this talented side.