The Year of Los Merengues?

It’s time for that split decision again. Sometimes you would be as well just flipping a coin to decide as the difference is minimal. Despite having 20 teams, La Liga will be won by either Barcelona or Real Madrid this season. Again. The remaining 18 teams are simply competing for positions 3 – 20. Atleti may harbour ambitions of breaking this duopoly but their squad is still someway short of a successful season long challenge. With regard to the remaining teams, there is no credible challenger in sight.

So pick up that coin and flip it. Or are things not quite as tight between the big two as some would have you believe? Is there actually a gap developing between the sides? And one that becomes more apparent as the clock ticks down to the start of the season? If I were a betting man, my money this season would be on Real Madrid to reclaim the La Liga title. Why?

Here are five reasons why los blancos will recapture the title from their rivals and win La Liga this season:-

Carlo Ancelotti – A Unifying Force

Stepping into the managerial cauldron that is the Santiago Bernabeu is Carlo Ancelotti. Whilst replacing Mourinho has proven to be a tough challenge elsewhere, the limited success that the Portuguese enjoyed in Madrid coupled with the fractious nature of his final season means the Italian may find a hospitable reception awaits him. Combine this with his much easier going demeanour and the dressing room wounds of last season are likely to heal over quickly.

A key attribute of Ancelotti has always been his ability to squeeze major players into his starting line up often in an effort to satisfy the demands of overbearing Presidents. At Milan, Chelsea and PSG, Ancelotti has succeeded in shoe horning a number of seemingly incompatible players into his starting eleven. To accomplish this successfully, altering his tactical set up has become a necessity. The Italian has used the 4-3-2-1, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 although interestingly, he has seldom used the 4-2-3-1 which was the default starting line up for Madrid under Mourinho. More of the same or a departure for Ancelotti?

Pragmatism and the lack of adherence to a particular system are his strengths. He will assess the players at his disposal and design a system around their skills. In that respect, Ancelotti is not your typical Italian coach who is married to one system. His versatility and flexibility will aid a Madrid side that became increasingly one-dimensional last season. Opponents knew how to close Madrid off. They were a reactive, counter attacking side. In truth, not that dissimilar to the PSG side that Ancelotti was building. At Madrid though with greater resources at his disposal, Ancelotti will construct wisely.

With league titles from Italy, England and France, who would bet against Ancelotti adding Spain to that list?

Tactical Options

This brings us to how Ancelotti will shape Madrid up this coming season. Ancelotti has utilised the 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation in pre season and is known to favour this formation but his versatility has enabled him to deploy various formations over the years to maximise the players at his disposal. Assuming that Ancelotti does decide to primarily use the 4-3-2-1 formation, one of the key questions would appear to be the deployment of Ronaldo. If Madrid acquires Gareth Bale, it wouldn’t be to play him at left back which would mean a position behind the sole striker. This would surely mean Ronaldo as the no9 to avoid conflict between the two. Even if Bale does not arrive, serious consideration must be given to Ronaldo being the striker.

Carlo Ancelotti - Reassuringly unimpressed

Carlo Ancelotti – Reassuringly unimpressed

Alternatives at the moment for the striking role remain Benzema, Morata and Jese should he be elevated from the B team. Yet given his goal scoring ability in Madrid with 201 goals in just 199 appearances, it makes sense from an attacking perspective to place Ronaldo at the tip of the tree. Could Ronaldo outscore Messi if he is given the opportunity of being the central attacking player? It also makes sense from a defensive perspective too with Ronaldo frequently failing to undertake defensive duties and leaving his left back exposed when he has been deployed on the wide left position, a matter that has been capitalised upon by opponents most notably Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League semi final in April.

Further back, the midfield trio can incorporate two holders and a more creative force. The burden upon Xabi Alonso to build and create from deep should be eased and Madrid can become a more fluid side as a consequence. Width can be provided by Di Maria operating from a deeper starting position or by the full backs safe in the knowledge that there is a strong platform behind them to compensate when they push forward.

The basis for the greater tactical options now open to Madrid is also partly attributable to the quality and depth of the squad.

Quality and Quantity

The squad has seen the departures of Callejon, Albiol and Higuain. The loss of Albiol and Callejon who both had very limited playing time last season will not be missed but both the goals and assists that Higuain provided could be more of an issue particularly as it leaves just three players for the striking role in Benzema, Ronaldo and Morata. The squad is strong and could become even more so if the proposed acquisition of Gareth Bale proceeds as Madrid clearly want it to. It’s not a necessary signing though. Even without Bale, Madrid is strong throughout their squad.

Cast your eyes across the squad and you see position after position has quality and alternative options available. Who will start the season in goal, Casillas or Diego Lopez? There is Carvajal or Arbeloa for right back whilst Marcelo and Coentrao will do battle for the left back slot. Only really in central defence could there be a slight weakness with perhaps one more centre back being required to provide cover for Ramos, Varane and Pepe.

In midfield there is Alonso, Khedira, Modric, Ozil, Isco, Illarramendi and Di Maria all challenging for positions. The strong has genuine quality throughout and gradually now shows a stronger Spanish core too. Quality and identity now exists.

Spanish Acquisitions

In a surprising turn of events, Madrid is the side showing foresight and vision in their transfer policy with the acquisition of Carvajal, Isco and Illarramendi. Three members of the Spanish U21 side that just defended their European crown and potentially members of the Spain squad that travels to Brazil next year have joined their ranks. That three young Spanish players have been acquired signals an intent by Madrid to secure a core set of Spanish players over the longer term. A set of players who will form the heart of both Madrid and potentially the Spanish national side for years to come. It’s also about buying players who shone for the respective clubs last season within a system. Madrid has been a club that relies upon individual talent over the team but these signings indicate a tempering of that philosophy.

Isco - The Future Part 1?

Isco – The Future Part 1?

The fourth member of that victorious U21 side is already in the first team squad. Alvaro Morata continues to impress and will surely be granted valuable playing time this season to hone his skills. Will the names of Carvajal, Illarramendi, Isco and Morata soon be known for their exploits with both los blancos and la roja? This optimism should be considered cautiously though. It wasn’t that long ago that Madrid were signing the likes of Canales only to use him sparingly and effectively stall the players career during a key development phase. The same mistakes must not be repeated.

Illarramendi - The Future Part 2?

Illarramendi – The Future Part 2?

Barcelona’s Structural Problems

And this brings us neatly to the problems facing Barcelona. Whilst Madrid strengthens, their rivals appear to be caught in the headlights. They have already sold David Villa and Thiago and speculation continues to surround Fabregas. Somebody, somewhere in the whole Fabregas scenario is not telling the whole truth and the debacle rumbles on. Meanwhile, the circus of their failure to strengthen their defensive position continues. It’s unlikely that Puyol will last another full season without either succumbing to another injury or substantial rest and rotation. Bartra has been given limited first team exposure to date and add to this the departure of Abidal and the defensive fragility becomes clear.

The arrival of Gerardo Martino as coach should see a strengthening of the defensive unit but reinforcements are a necessity and not a luxury. It’s not just one centre back Barcelona needs, it’s two. Martino must also address the structural problems that Barcelona experienced last season. The player who could enable Xavi to rest has been sold to Bayern Munich.  Barcelona has to regain that freshness, the intensity to their game that has faded and gain a greater element of thrust and verticality to their attacking play.

The acquisition of Neymar could prove to be an excellent signing but it was in an area of the team not needing surgery. Are Barcelona falling victim to the cult of the galactico as Madrid demonstrate a commitment to younger players.

Whilst Barcelona sits and fails to resolve problems, Madrid strengthens. The negativity that engulfed Madrid as the Mourinho era came to a close will be eradicated with the arrival of Ancelotti at the helm. Harmony and balance can be restored both on and off the pitch. The balance of power is shifting once more. The title is heading back to Madrid.

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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?

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.

Malaga vs Real Madrid – Tactical Analysis

Falling 16 Points behind Barcelona or dropping Iker Casillas for “technical” reasons. What was the bigger story for Real Madrid from La Liga at the weekend?

The game against Malaga became something of a distraction when the news broke over the inclusion of Adan ahead of Casillas. Mourinho would have faced questions even with a win but the defeat simply intensifies the pressure.

Line Ups

There were three changes to the Malaga team that won the Andalusian derby against Sevilla.

Weligton, Iturra and Santa Cruz were replaced by Sanchez, Portillo and Saviola.

Pellegrini opted to line up in a 4-3-1-2 formation which could equally adapt to a diamond in midfield with Isco at the point and Camacho at the base. Eliseu and Portillo moved wide.

 

Malaga Starting Line Up

Malaga Starting Line Up

Mourinho made four changes to the side which could only draw at home to Espanyol.

The main change was, of course, the replacement of Casillas in goal by Adan. Arbeloa moved to left back replacing Coentrao allowing Essien to come back in at right back. Modric and Callejon dropped out with Di Maria and Benzema coming back into the side.

It was the customary 4-2-3-1 formation from Madrid.

 

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

Real Madrid Starting Line Up

Malaga started this game well before Madrid provided more of a threat as the half wore on. Both Ronaldo and Di Maria spurned excellent chances for the visitors in the first half which they would later regret.

Malaga took control of the game early in the second half. With clever movement combined with passing, Malaga always had a man available to pass to whilst Madrid became increasingly disjointed as the match wore on with some strange substitutions.

The game demonstrated how Malaga have developed as a team under Pellegrini this season with defensive solidity and attacking creativity. Madrid, meanwhile, appear to have regressed under Mourinho this season looking increasingly like the side during his first season in charge when individual brilliance significantly outweighed the collective whole.

 

Demichellis

Malaga goalkeeper Willy Cabellero is amongst the candidates for the Zamora goalkeeping award in La Liga this season. In addition to making a couple of excellent saves during the game, one of the reasons why he is in contention for the award is the form of the defence in front of him and Martin Demichelis.

The Argentinean central defender was a key element in his side’s success against Madrid. Despite lacking pace, Demichelis reads the game well enabling him to make a number of key interceptions during the game as detailed below:-

Demichelis Tackles vs Real Madrid

Demichelis Interceptions vs Real Madrid    http://www.squawka.com

In addition to this, Demichelis was successful with both of his tackles and only one of his nine attempted clearances failed during the game. Pellegrini favours his side to hold a high defensive line and Demichelis leadership skills assist with this greatly.

The only blot on an otherwise excellent defensive performance for Malaga was the two Madrid goals they conceded. The first goal was a bizarre own goal when Benzema clipped the ball off Sanchez foot. The second Madrid goal would have been equally disappointing when Camacho was dispossessed by Ozil who quickly chipped the ball to the Frenchman to score his side’s second goal.

Malaga Attack – Movement of Isco

One of the reasons why Malaga enjoyed such a positive start to the second half and were the more dominant team throughout this period was the manner in which they attacked. With Eliseu on the left, Portillo on the right and Saviola as the central striker this enabled Joaquin to move across the pitch. Similarly, Isco also enjoyed the ability to move laterally across the pitch linking with both Eliseu and Portillo and creating problems for the Madrid midfield pairing of Khedira and particularly Alonso.

Isco Heat Map vs Real Madrid

Isco Heat Map vs Real Madrid                        http://www.squawka.com

Xabi Alonso is not the most mobile of players and does not want to be pulled wide. With clever movement, Isco was able to continually find space between Madrid’s lines.

Isco made 49 successful passes from his 59 attempted and scored the opening goal of the game from his one shot on target. Initially marked by Pepe when a cross was delivered, Isco moved back out to the edge of the penalty area and collected Joaquin’s cut back before firing the ball low past Adan for the opener.

The ease with which he found space was typical of his performance on the night.

Real Madrid Changes

Mourinho made three substitutions in the second half.

Trailing 1-0, Mourinho withdrew Arbeloa and introduced Callejon in the 58th minute. Just five minutes later, Di Maria was replaced by Kaka.

The shape of the Madrid side was deteriorating as the second half progressed and these two changes created further problems.

The final substitution saw Xabi Alonso leave the pitch to be replaced by Luka Modric in the 76th minute. At this stage it was now clear that Madrid  would simply go long from back to front with nothing in the way of creative play. A move confirmed when Sergio Ramos went up front as an auxiliary striker from the 85th minute onwards.

As the game drew to a conclusion, the TV cameras caught Casillas, Arbeloa and Alonso all sitting side by side on the bench. There is already speculation over why the latter two players were withdrawn. Whilst the removal of Alonso was surprising, given the effort he had already given in the game and the first part of the season, it’s perhaps not that unexpected.

The replacement of Arbeloa by Callejon was the most baffling substitution. Whilst being designed for Callejon to push forward on the left, he was back by Malaga ’s attacks with Gamez moving forward and Joaquin drifting across to the right. Malaga took the lead from this area of the pitch.

Meanwhile, Essien remained on the pitch and offered little. Why not switch Arbeloa to the right and withdraw Essien?

Sergio Ramos – Good Egg?

Mourinho recently commented to a member of the Madrid press that there were “three bad eggs” in the squad. Two of these “eggs” would be Casillas and Ramos. With Casillas dropped, Ramos took over the captain’s armband for the game.

Over the past season or so, Ramos has shown time and time again exactly why he is now rightfully considered a top class international defender. Against Malaga he attempted six tackles and was successful with each of them:-

Ramos Tackles vs Malaga

Ramos Tackles vs Malaga                                              http://www.squawka.com

All the tackles came on the left side of defence. It’s worth noting that in the 58 minutes that Arbeloa was on the pitch, Ramos made two tackles in the left back area. When Callejon entered the game for the remaining 32 minutes, Ramos was increasingly called into action on the left and successfully made another four tackles.

Sometimes though, it’s the stats that cannot be measured which are so important. The drive and determination shown by Ramos has been essential to his side. If Madrid are going to get back on form this season and challenge for the Copa del Rey or Champions League, the form of Ramos will  be crucial.

Santa Cruz Goals

The Paraguayan’s first goal came via the right wing with Callejon badly exposed. Jesus Gamez had time and space to measure a low cross into the penalty area with Callejon slow to close him down and then standing off Gamez and allowing the cross. There had already been a warning over Callejon’s deployment at left back with Joaquin beating the makeshift defender with ease.

Gamez delivered a low cross which Joaquin flicked goal ward for Roque Santa Cruz to tap in unmarked at the back post.

Santa Cruz scored his second to give Malaga a two goal lead after 75minutes. Isco initiated a counter attack by playing a lofted pass to Joaquin on the halfway line. The winger progressed down the left, cutting inward before a deft pass released Santa Cruz  on a cross over run and his low shot found a gap at the near post.

 

Malaga Changes 

By sharp contrast to Mourinho, Pellegrini made three clever substitutions.

Leading 1-0, Saviola was withdrawn for Santa Cruz . The Argentinean had provided effort but little in the way of a cutting edge but his workrate had been valuable.

Following the Madrid equaliser, and in a moment when Madrid threatened to take the lead and were in the ascendency, Pellegrini introduced the combative Iturra for the more attack minded Portillo to strengthen the central area of the team.

Finally, with time running out, Seba Fernandez took the place of the tiring Joaquin. A move which helped eat up some previous seconds with the score at 3-2 and also enabled Malaga to have fresh legs to chase any long passes for the remaining few minutes.

 

Casillas Dropped

It’s difficult to examine the game without comment on the decision to start with Adan in goal.

Leaving aside Mourniho’s comments that Casillas was dropped for technical reasons and that on current form, Adan is performing better. The question which must be asked why Mourinho would choose to replace Casillas in such a significant game for a relative rookie at this level? Despite Adan being 25 years old, this was just his 15th top team appearance for Real Madrid.

There have been problems with Madrid defending set pieces this season with the accusation that Casillas stays on his line and fails to command his box. Whilst that may be true to a certain extent, a team defends a set piece as a unit. Teams may be scoring against Madrid but when the ball is delivered into the penalty area, it should be cleared. And with the number of goals that Madrid are conceding, Mourinho should be addressing these problems on the training pitch.

The answer against Malaga was to pull every player back to defend corner kicks. This is not an efficient use of resources and also weakens one of Madrid’s key strengths; their superb counter attack. When a ball is cleared from the corner, there was no Madrid player waiting 30 or so yards from goal to collect the ball and instigate a quick transition. Instead, Malaga regained possession.

 

Conclusions

The miracle of Malaga under Pellegrini continues. Despite losing key players in the summer and the ongoing financial problems which present obstacles to European football next season, the team march on.

Whilst the defeat was another significant blow to the team, the challenge to retain their La Liga crown was not lost at La Rosaleda on Saturday evening. The title was lost on earlier trips to Andalusia this season with defeats at Sevilla and Real Betis.

With the departure of Mourinho at the end of the season inevitable, this defeat will add weight to those who claim he is prepared to drag others down with him. The decision to drop Casillas over a personal dispute

 

 

Malaga vs Valencia – Tactical Analysis

The two sides that finished 3rd and 4th in La Liga last season met at La Roselada on Saturday evening. A close, edgy game was anticipated. Malaga had no wins in their last four games and had failed to record a victory in a league game following a midweek Champions League fixture. Their opponents, Valencia, were undefeated in six games across all competitions although that masked their inability to win a league match away from home since last March.

A tense game should have been the outcome. Two teams buoyed by qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League and contesting the final Champions League qualification spot. It may seem strange to state such a view so early in the season but given that Barcelona and Real Madrid will take the first two spots and Atleti appear to be on the way to 3rd, it leaves a clutch of teams contesting 4th place and the final spot.

Instead what we witnessed was a one-sided contest. Malaga started brightly, took an early lead and only poor finishing stopped this contest been over much earlier than it should have been.

Line Ups

Malaga Starting Line Up

Pellegrini named the same starting eleven that had faced Osasuna last weekend, drawing in the process. Qualification to the knockout stages of the Champions League enabled the Chilean to rotate his squad for the away game against Zenit enabling key players to get some much needed rest.

Valencia Starting Line Up

Pellegrino made a number of changes to the Valencia side following last week’s home win over Espanyol. Some were enforced whilst others were made for tactical or technical reasons.

Soldado was suspended and replaced by Valdez. Barragan continued to deputise for the injured Joao Perreira at right back. Ricardo Costa was recalled to central defence in place of Victor Ruiz whilst Guardado was pushed forward to left midfield and Cissokho came in at left back with Jonathan Veira dropping out. Veteran midfielder Albelda was replaced by Gago.

The final and most significant tactical change was the replacement of Jonas as the support striker by Banega.

Systems

Manuel Pellegrini favours his teams to be compact and dominate possession with short passing triangles always providing options to the player in possession. This Malaga side are not yet as fluent as his great Villarreal team but there are some key similarities.

Malaga set out as a 4-4-2 with both wide players comfortable cutting infield and the full backs overlapping to provide width. Indeed, Eliseu and Gamez both provided an assist in this game. The use of Joaquin as a central striker was very interesting. Although a right winger for much of his career, the ability of Joaquin to pull wide from a central starting position enables the “wingers” Isco and Portillo to drive diagonally inward to the space being vacated. It’s a system that Pellegrini used to great effect at Villarreal with Rossi and Nilmar providing mobility and width in the striking positions.

If Pellegrini and Malaga have a clear identity, Pellegrino and Valencia are still searching for their identity to a certain extent.

The key tactical move for Pellegrino was the replacement of Jonas with Banega. This was a clear attempt to gain more possession of the ball and retain it. It was a move that, whilst looking correct in theory, failed to pay off in practice. Valencia were not dominating possession, not controlling space and not counter attacking. It was a listless performance.

Despite the inability to demonstrate any clear personality during the game, Valencia recorded a high pass completion rate with 304 successful passes from 392 attempted. As ever with stats though, the context is important. Too often the passes were horizontal and in safe areas of the pitch. Malaga may have had a marginally lower pass completion rate of 75% with 315 successful passes from 422 attempted but often these were penetrative passes being attempted. Malaga were brave in their attacking play.

The contrasting fortunes of Banega and Isco, key attacking players for either side, are shown in the graphics below which detail the passes attempted by both players:-

Isco Passes vs Valencia                                          http://www.squawka.com

Banega Passes vs Malaga                                              http://www.squawka.com

The number of successful passes in this issue is not as important as the location of the passes and direction. Isco starts on the left side of midfield but the location of passes demonstrates his movement across the pitch with the vast majority of passes being in the opponents half of the field and moving forward.

This contrasts sharply with Banega. Designed as the central point in the attacking trident behind Valdez, Banega constantly dropped deep searching for the ball, in the process isolating Valdez. Too few of his passes were vertical identifying the inability of Valencia getting players forward in support of the attack, with Guardado and Feghouli very quiet, and the inability to search out Valdez accurately.

One of Valdez’s key attributes is his aerial ability yet Valencia only attempted eight crosses in the entire game and only three of these were successful.

A criticism of Valencia in the past has been that the team are two disconnected units, the defence and the attack with Banega being the key to link these elements. At La Rosaleda, there did not seem to be any attack to speak of. Valencia had only one of their five attempts at goal on target.

Banega was supposed to help Valencia retain possession and hurt Malaga yet whilst he achieved the former he badly failed with the latter. Which this may sound harsh on the midfielder, his performance was not aided by the general poor play of Valencia with sloppy passing and positional errors compounded this. Perhaps to much weight was placed on the shoulders of the player?

The Opening Goal

Malaga started the game very brightly and immediately pushed Valencia back into their own half.

The opening goal arrived in the 7th minute when Barragan failed to clear a deep cross into the penalty area. Eliseu collected the loose ball on the left wing and passed to Portillo who was standing in space at the edge of the penalty area with time to curl the ball into the net.

Portillo had drifted into this position from the right yet nobody had picked him up. Tino Costa had dropped between the centre backs at this stage. Why he had moved so deep was odd given that Malaga had few players in the penalty area.

The lethargy which was engulfing Valencia continued. Following kick off, Portillo won the ball back almost immediately. There was no response from Valencia to going a goal behind.

Wasteful Malaga

One of Malaga’s biggest problems last night was the inability score the second goal and provide a degree of breathing space. Although Saviola scored the crucial second goal in the 74th minute, he had chances much earlier which he failed to convert.

Saviola Shots vs Valencia                                              http://www.squawka.com

Malaga were finding too much space between the Valencia lines but were unable to take any of the opportunities that arrived. Malaga had 22 attempts at goal but only six hit the target.

Is Saviola the right man to lead the Malaga attack? He is mobile and can move laterally so is a good fit for the system but his goals return is poor. El Conejo has never been the most prolific of strikers but he is Malaga’s top goalscorer with four league goal from his ten appearances.

If this season is going to be successful for Malaga, they need to continue to share the goalscoring burden across the entire front line whilst also hoping that the likes of Eliseu can also continue to weigh in with a goal or two.

Two late goals followed and provided a scoreline which was more reflective of the game. Santa Cruz poked the ball home from close range following Jesus Gamez’ deflected shot. Again, Santa Cruz was in space and unmarked.

The fourth and final goal was a 20 yard strike from Isco into the bottom corner. Gathering possession some 25 yards out, Isco had time and space, a constant and concerning theme from the Valencia perspective, to move forward, compose himself and shoot.

Valencia Defensive Issues

A former Valencia defender, Pellegrino will need to examine the shape of his defence positionally. This was from an early stage with Barragan continually moving too close to his central defenders and allowing Malaga freedom on the left.

This manifested itself in the 18th minute when the entire defence shuffled over and nobody was near Eliseu when Malaga switched play. The full back managed to have a shot at goal. Shortly afterwards, Barragan was caught upfield and Isco was able to counter in the available space.

Whilst Malaga were pressing their opponent intelligently when the opportunity arose to win the ball back and dropping off when Valencia had more controlled possession, the visitors seemed to lose all shape at times. Their pressing was erratic and too many players became involved leaving space and gaps elsewhere. The short passing movements from Malaga were neatly aligned with longer passing when appropriate. It enabled them to open up space.

Only the wasteful finishing from Malaga, highlighted above, prevented the visitors from conceding further before the interval.

Valencia made 31 successful tackles form an attempted 37. Fernando Gago had 100% success rate with his 10 tackles. The Argentinean made a significant contribution to his side defensively and in various positions but too few of his team mates matched his efforts either in determination and workrate or quality.

Gago Tackles vs Malaga                                                   http://www.squawka.com

That he made so many tackles all over the pitch highlights his workrate but he should not have been required to make so many tackles in all over the pitch. What were his team mates doing?

Conclusions

An emphatic victory for Malaga and a crucial one at that. With Atleti, Barcelona and Real Madrid seemingly securing the top three positions, the race for fourth involves a number of teams. Malaga have given themselves a four point lead over one of their main rivals and returned to winning ways after a relatively lean spell in the process.

Having gone six games undefeated in all competitions, the nature of the loss to Malaga will arguably concern Pellgrino more than the actual defeat itself. Valencia were extremely poor and offered no resistance to their opponents. The poor away form must be addressed. The Mestalla is becoming a fortress once more for Los Che and with La Real up next, a team with an almost equally poor away record, Valencia have the ideal opportunity to bounce back.

All graphics and statistics taken from www.squawka.com