Lessons to be Learned?

It’s not like sections of the media to overreact. Is it? Yet that’s precisely what happened recently following events in Brazil. The home side took the Confederations Cup on home soil with as comprehensive a competitive win over the Spanish as there has been for many years. It left del Bosque and La Furia Roja to admit that their period of domination was coming to an end. The Spanish have had a good run. Two European Championships and a World Cup yet the prize upon which you are now seemingly judged, the Confederations Cup, has escaped their clutches twice. Its now back to the drawing board for the Spanish. They must navigate the remainder of their qualifying campaign to claim a place in Brazil next summer but their powers are on the wane already.

Why bother though. The World Cup appears to be a foregone conclusion. Spain won’t win it and it seems a few semi decent performances from Brazil has secured their name upon the trophy. The Seleção have the better of their counterparts. It was a technical and tactical triumph overseen by Scolari.

Wasn’t it?

Brazil Press High And Go Direct

The final against Brazil was notable for two reasons. The style of game that Brazil used against their opponents and the manner in which certain aspects of the Spanish system, whether it be the system itself or components within that system, were problematic.

From the outset of this game, Brazil pressed and harassed Spain high up the pitch in an effort to disrupt their game and prevent them from settling down and finding any rhythm to dictate proceedings. This worked as Spain was slow to move the ball and find space, enabling Brazil to close them down and force misplaced passes.

The question that was apparent from midway through the first half was whether Brazil could sustain the same tempo and level of intensity in their play for the entire game. If the game had been played in the stifling heat and humidity of Fortaleza, this tactic would not have worked. In the cooler, fresher surroundings of Rio, this was an entirely viable tactic.

The pressing succeeded and once Brazil had taken the lead it enabled them to drop deeper on occasion to recover and counter attack Spain. It does highlight the changing face of the Brazilian team at international level. The days of open, flowing football are now long gone. A distant memory consigned to be shown as a montage containing the best World Cup goals ever scored, most probably on BBC3 or ITV2. Primarily a counter attacking team, Brazil struggled to break down opponents who sat deep themselves. Their tactical strategy appears to revolve around getting the ball to Neymar quickly and waiting for something to happen. The midfield lacks creativity and is purely functional, a consequence of the domestic games desire to produce functional defensive midfielders. It wielded a trophy though but Scolari will have taken notice of the stodgy performances that were produced in the process.

For Spain, is the loss important? Yes, if you want to win the Confederations Cup that continues to elude them. More importantly, it provides an opportunity for del Bosque to see what must happen on and off the pitch if Spain is to march to an unprecedented fourth successive international tournament win.

Issues to Confront

This tournament has provided a welcome jolt to remind del Bosque and his players of the challenges that lie ahead in trying to defend their crown in 2014. It’s not just about what happens on the pitch that will decide the World Cup next year but also how you prepare for the tournament itself and how you adapt to the diverse climatic conditions that exist in Brazil.

The tournament will be hosted by a vast country that experiences different conditions dependent upon where you play. The problem for the qualifying sides is the ability to control factors is only partial. Acclimatising to those conditions by arriving early and preparing is within your powers to an extent. Gaining a favourable draw to avoid extensive travelling around the country is not within your powers.

The Spanish must look at the system and the players who are chosen to enable that system to function. Have some vital parts become worn and need replacing?

Does The System Still Work?

Surprisingly, despite the loss to Brazil and the relatively poor performances against Nigeria and Italy, there has been no outbreak of Plan B syndrome in the media. No cries for the ball to be launched high into the air aimlessly. Perhaps after three tournament wins, people are a little more circumspect when considering Spain.

Spain was a little more direct in this tournament. The deployment of a traditional no9 for the games aided this process. Teams have adjusted once more against Spain and now use a mid level block against La Roja in recognition that the sit deep and hope tactic was futile. It provides space behind that Spain can attack but it hinders their build up play in the midfield area. Opponents can close them down quicker in a densely packed area. Spain needed to recycle possession faster and be more direct themselves. Look for the runs in behind the opposing defence but there was a lack of supporting runs from the midfield area during this tournament. The verticality and thrust that was needed never arrived.

There were reasons why it never worked. Fatigue was a constant issue for the side. Only against Uruguay in the opening 45minutes did Spain produce a level of football normally associated with them. Leaving that aside, Spain possesses players with the technical and tactical proficiency to ensure the system is a success.

It needs players to move quickly in midfield, recycling possession. The full backs must push high and offer themselves when the middle of the pitch becomes too congested and the attacking players must be prepared to drive in diagonally between opposing centre backs and full backs to offer the opportunity for through balls. There must be options from the second line of attack. The system is built upon control but that is precisely what Spain lacked. La Roja often looked unsure defensively and opponents able to attack their defence too easily in the central areas. The Spanish possess these qualities but failed to show them.

If the system does work, then it may be the components that need adjusting.

Succession PlanningLife After Xavi

Central to whatever del Bosque chooses will be how Spain adapt to life without Xavi. Its an issue that is vexing Barcelona right now and one to which they appear to have no credible answer.

Xavi is nearing the end of his career and if he continues to play over 60 games per season then the twilight of his career will fade quicker than necessary. Xavi can continue but only if he plays fewer games for club and country. Such a position is only a short-term solution however and Spain must look beyond Xavi and begin the process of reconstructing the midfield. As the lynchpin of the side ages and slows, his passing becomes more horizontal and safer. It lacks penetration and so opponents are safer. The runs into the opposition penalty area decrease. And his ability to track back and share defensive duties pushes his tired limbs too far. Xavi plays within the middle of the pitch. Unable to hurt opponents and unable to stop opponents hurting his team. It leaves Busquets overexposed at one of the pitch and Iniesta lacks someone to share the creative burden for the side. With Alonso to offer greater control, Spain were exposed in the central areas.

Can Xavi stay in the light?

Can Xavi stay in the light?

The maestro needs time to rest and recuperate. If he receives it, he still has a pivotal role to play for club and country. If he doesn’t then it becomes a real dilemma.

Indeed, when you consider that Iniesta is 29 and has suffered numerous injuries, Xabi Alonso is also the wrong side of 30 then Spain really need to find and identify who will step into the void for all three players. It’s not simply a case of saying “look at all the quality players Spain can choose from”. It’s identifying and saying that these are the players who can step up regularly and claim a starting berth.

Spain has extremely talented midfield players within their U21 squad. The next 12 months must see the process of integrating a few of these players into the senior side.

The Future of Spain's Midfield?

The Future of Spain’s Midfield?

The likes of Isco, Thaigo and Illarramendi must be called up to the senior squad and enjoy playing time. It will be difficult but crucial to aid their development and Spain’s during this transitional period.

Loyalty: How Far Should It Go?

How Far? One thing that del Bosque has shown time and time again is his loyalty to the players who have delivered for him previously. It could be suggested that the loyalty is partly a result of Spain lacking credible alternatives in a few key positions. The loyalty to Alvaro Arbeloa and Fernando Torres at both the World Cup and European Championships may be questioned but were there really credible alternatives at the previous tournaments?

Too loyal?

Too loyal?

Who could have replaced Arbeloa at the World Cup? Iraola would have been in the squad were it not for an unfortunate injury whilst Juanfran is more attack minded but lack defensive nous. And does Arbeloa’s more conservative nature not provide greater balance for the team? That was the argument before but the full back offered neither defensive nor attacking qualities in the final. The player’s international career should not hinge upon one poor game but his lack of technical quality on the ball is becoming an issue for Spain on the right. Too much of their thrust comes from the left and the attacking qualities are lop-sided. Is it time to remove Arbeloa from the squad? Azpilicueta is ready and what of Carlos Martinez at Real Sociedad or even Carvejal or Montoya as deputies? The options exist for a more balanced right full back who can attack whilst also providing the defensive solidity required.

At centre back, is it time to remove Raul Albiol from the squad and replace him with Inigo Martinez? The youngster from Sociedad is the future whilst Albiol seldom gets playing time. Make the change now and provide Martinez with 12months to bed in before the World Cup.

Despite the depth of quality within the Spanish ranks, they arguably lack a genuine goalscorer for the No9 jersey. Negredo has had opportunities and now Soldado has been deployed yet neither truly convinces and del Bosque returns to Torres on occasion. Will Torres get playing time at Chelsea under Mourinho?

Morata - A possible solution?

Morata – A possible solution?

Is the time right to experiment with an alternative? Could Morata be granted an opportunity if he secures playing time in Madrid? This may seem ludicrous to suggest that a player with such limited playing exposure at Madrid be given a call up to the senior squad but Morata possesses the qualities that the national side lack in attack. He is very direct and moves immediately towards goal. This vertical nature is what Spain needs allied to his aerial ability. He is not some form of panacea to their attacking problems as such but must be considered a real alternative now.

The Return to Brazil

There are flaws present both within the squad and within the system. To ignore these problems would be foolish but just as foolish would be to overestimate the damage they could cause and pretend they are insurmountable.

Vicente del Bosque cannot afford to be too loyal to some of the players who have brought them this far. All great teams enjoy a period of success before their cycle comes to an end. If Spain wishes to prolong their cycle of dominance, some hard choices face the coach. He must not shirk from these but equally he must not overreact. Addressing such matters will not guarantee success next summer but it will provide Spain with the optimum opportunity to succeed but so many other factors will come into play. The Confederations Cup highlighted just how important location will be in Brazil to avoid extremely hot and humid conditions. Arriving in time and acclimatising as well as can be expected will be important.

In 2009, Spain lost to USA 2-0 in South Africa. The European Champions were humbled and their credentials were questioned. Twelve months later they returned to South Africa and claimed the World Cup.

Would you really bet against lighting striking twice?

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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.

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?