The Season Ahead

There is always questions ahead of kick off each season. It’s not about who qualifies for European football. It’s not about which sides get relegated. There is only one issue in Spain. The perennial question that crops up every August revolves around which of the big two will win La Liga? Madrid have behaved like Madrid during pre-season and signed more stellar names whereas Barcelona have underwent something of a mini revolution with a host of new signings under the tutelage of new manager, Luis Enrique. So who will win La Liga?

Wait? It’s not a two horse race? It’s a three horse race again this season? :-

 

The Top Three - Season 13-14

The Top Three – Season 13-14

 

Sure, Atleti may have won the title last season but that was a complete fluke, wasn’t it? They can’t compete again, even Simeone has admitted this:-

“I don’t like to lie to people and one thing is clear: We can’t compete with Madrid or Barcelona. Our rivals are Sevilla, Valencia and Athletic and third is our objective”

Of course last season, Simeone repeatedly told anyone who would listen that Atleti couldn’t win La Liga but they did. They couldn’t do so again, could they?

 

Atleti – The Cycle Continues.

“Last year was no fluke, it was a consequence of what has been going on at the club”

Diego Simeone

Can lighting strike twice? Atleti once more start as distant third favourites in the eyes of the bookmakers for the title. Their title.

There have been goodbyes and very good buys at the Calderon during the summer. Courtois, Filipe Luis and Costa moved to Stamford Bridge with the latter pairing gaining substantial income for Atleti that has been wisely reinvested in the team. Did people really think Atleti were ready to rest on their achievements thus far, accept their place?

In Simeone, Atleti possess one of the most highly rated coaches in Europe. And as La Liga champions and a team that were moments away from winning the Champions League, convincing players to stay whilst attracting new players was always going to be much easier than many suggested. Whisper it but Atleti are arguably stronger now than they were last season. Further departures were confirmed in Adrian, David Villa and Guilavogui yet the reinforcements are very impressive.

Oblak, Siquiera, Mandzukic, Griezmann (offering a new dimension to Atleti’s attack), Correa, Jimenez, utility defender Ansaldi from Zenit could be very important and Saul after a year at Rayo and Atleti have greater all round strength than before. And Koke has signed a new contract too. So can they do the unthinkable and defend their title?

Simeone has urged caution and acknowledged that this is a new team with all of the changes that have occurred:-

“We are finishing the group. We have changed, especially in attack. I see it as a new beginning. The solid structure supporting the attack is maintained but we are looking for the style that best suits us. We must have patience.”

The issue is not the quality of the side individually but the ability for Atleti to continue the collective play and intensity of their game that Simeone demands after almost 3 years in control. Is the hunger still there within the players? Can they still give everything for the side week in, week out? Can el Cholo get the new players to integrate quickly and adapt to the high workrate and tempo that he demands? If he can then Atleti can once more mount a serious challenge for the league.

“The structure of the team is not going to change. Stability comes with maintaining the same ideas: intensity and aggressiveness will continue to be the basis,”

Simeone

And the players believe this too. Simeone’s on-field general, Gabi confirms as much:-

 “We have a clear idea of how we want to play,”

And that is the key.

For Simeone, this isn’t the end of the cycle:-

“First it was the Europa League, then the European Super Cup, Copa del Rey, third in the League and the following year the League title and the Champions League final. The team and the club have done great work to retain many players and try and continue a great cycle.”

Simone believed last season and many doubted him. Despite his words, he believes again this season. Who doubts Atleti now?

 

Barcelona

Martino failed didn’t he? After all, a trophyless season at a club like Barcelona is a failure no matter what the contextual narrative is. And the Argentinean has admitted that himself:-

“I’m completely dissatisfied with the year that has passed and I’m always thinking that I’m the man responsible”

Former player Luis Enrique returns to the Camp Nou to take control of a squad with new players but still needing further overhaul work. Short spells at Roma and Celta Vigo have identified the style of Enrique. Similarities with Guardiola exist but also key differences. Expect Barcelona to continue with the attractive style of play but contain a rougher edge to them. “Lucho” won’t expect his side to be bossed or bullied physically on the pitch. It won’t be more of the same but a gradual evolution of style. You don’t abandon your footballing principles die to one poor season. You adapt and you evolve making subtle tactical tweaks. An overhaul is not required. The death of tiki taka has been greatly exaggerated.

With numerous new arrivals but also departures, each area of the team needs work to fit together. Pre season friendlies have seen players from the B team step up and there will be spaces available for those who perform to complement the squad. The real focus has been on the final third with the arrival of Luis Suarez even allowing for his 4 month ban. How does the Uruguayan fit in with Messi and Neymar?

With Xavi likely to play a diminished role, the opportunity will exist for Messi to drop deeper than before and play as a genuine no10 with Suarez as a no9 ahead of him and Neymar on the left. It’s a trio brimming with potential but it also leads to questions. Do Barcelona continue with a 4-3-3 meaning the right side needs a younger version of Dani Alves to operate the full length of the pitch or does the side switch to something more akin to a 4-2-3-1. With Mascherano now back in defensive midfield and Busquets possibly playing a little higher up the pitch, options exist. Barcelona has consistently failed to plan or address what happens in a team without Xavi. That problem can no longer be avoided and will be dealt with one way or another this season. It’s exacerbated with the looming transfer ban. Pending an appeal to CAS, Barcelona may be unable to sign any more players once this window closes until January 2016. Further activity is therefore likely for a squad that isn’t strong enough to survive until January 2016 without further reinforcements. The problem for Barcelona is their recent appalling record in transfer dealings. The likes of Alex Song, not a player Barcelona needed but a player Barcelona could afford, is still to be offloaded. Can Barcelona really make enough acquisitions of the requisite quality?

Surprisingly, Deulofeu has been allowed to leave on loan although the spell with Sevilla could see him ready to return next season and claim a place but the prospect of a permanent departure increases now. With limited options in attack, the likes of Munir now have far greater opportunities to establish themselves as members of the first team squad.

It won’t be permitted but it does feel like a transitional season is beginning for Barcelona albeit one that certainly contains more possibilities for the team than most clubs can even dream about. Xavi has spoken about the harmony in the squad and the need to capture at least one trophy this season.

“We’ve signed very good players both on a football and personal level. The human relationships are the best there have been in recent years”

That could be crucial. Enrique building a close knit squad could see challenges sustained despite the relative lack of depth to the squad. A testing season lies ahead for Lucho.

 

Real Madrid – A Balancing Act

When the opportunity arises to sign a player of the calibre of Toni Kroos for around £20million, it’s not really a difficult decision to make. And when you’re the President of Real Madrid, you don’t really consider if the club need another elite level player. If one becomes available, you sign him. And in a World Cup year, who else can you sign other than the star player from that World Cup and golden boot winner, James Rodriguez of Columbia. It’s a policy that Florentino Perez adheres too. It’s not his problem how all of these star players integrate into the team. That’s a problem for the Coach to contend with.

A problem that has caused successive coaches of Real Madrid notable problems as Perez has tended to make at least one marquee signing each summer during his tenure as President. Fortunately, in Carlo Ancelotti, Perez now has a Coach in charge of Real Madrid who has repeatedly proven his ability to squeeze a multitude of star names into a starting line up without compromising the team balance as a consequence. Whether Carlo Ancelotti actually wanted Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez is immaterial. He’s got them now and fitting them into the side is his problem. This could be Ancelotti’s most difficult assignment yet.

Where should Rodriguez play? Can Kroos and Modric play against the very top teams with no defensive support? It’s all about balance for Ancelotti this season. With the departures of Khedira and Di Maria seeming likely and in the case of the diminutive Argentinean completely baffling, the base of midfield remains the issue that Ancelotti must focus on. A pairing of Kroos and Modric is very attractive but defensively unstable as witnessed in the UEFA Super Cup against Sevilla.

Could Kroos replace Alonso in the Madrid side? At 32 and with limited mobility, his time on the main stage could be drawing to a conclusion. Last season in La Liga, Alonso averaged 65 passes per game, the most of any Madrid player with Ramos on 61 and Modric on 58. When it comes to interceptions (1.5) and tackles (2.4), Alonso makes more per game of both than any other Madrid midfielder. Unsurprisingly, he also commits more fouls too. A product of his lack of mobility or due to him being swamped with too many team mates pushing on? His defensive contribution is key for Madrid. Alonso played 26 league games for Madrid last season with los blancos taking an average of 2.38 points per game. Without him they took 2.08 points per game.
Could Kroos fulfil this defensive role? Last season Kroos made an average of 75 passes per game but on the defensive side only averaged 0.5 interceptions per game and 1.8 tackles per game. Does that matter? Given Bayern’s complete dominance of the ball, these statistics will be heavily skewed. Simply put, it’s hard to defend when you always have the ball. And it’s hard to analyse the defensive output for Kroos as a consequence. There is still an important role for Alonso but the real beneficiary should be Illarramedi. The Basque must step forward this season and demonstrate why he gained so many plaudits at La Real.

If Di Maria does depart, more is likely to be asked of Bale to operate partly as a shuttling role between midfield and attack. As adaptable as Bale is and given his early career saw him positioned at full back, he will be able to cope. But can he deliver as well as Di Maria? I’m not certain he can make the difference to the same extent as Di Maria does.

Madrid begin the season as clear favourites for the title. Individually, the squad is packed with quality and is arguably the best squad in world football. How that translates onto the pitch collectively will be the dilemma for Ancelotti this season. Get it right and you could see Madrid dominate all the tournaments they enter. Get it wrong and…well, you know how Perez tends to operate.

It’s difficult to look beyond Madrid even with the balancing problems that exist. The depth of talent within the squad is unrivalled and even though seeing Atleti successfully defend their title would be unparalleled in the modern era of European football, I just cannot see it happening. Atleti will have the greatest success in cup competitions once more as normal service is resumed on the domestic front. Barcelona to finish runners up to Madrid. Even if the collective fails, individually they can still win games.

 

The Battle for Fourth

Away from the title race, the battle for fourth place, assuming that the big three (funny saying that now) secure the top three positions, and final Champions League position could see a genuine contest between five teams. Four of the contenders could be involved in European football this season. Will that have an effect? The graphic below shows the final positions from last season:-

 

The Race for 4th Place - Season 13-14

The Race for 4th Place – Season 13-14

 

Sevilla

Unai Emery likes to make changes. He changes this, he changes that. It’s what he does best along with managing to take one point from games in which his team should take three. He excelled at such a conservative approach at Valencia yet showed brief glimpses of shaking that image off a little at Sevilla as the Andalusians claimed the Europa League. Yet by narrowly missing out on 4th place with a typically cautious performance in a game they needed to win against Athletic Bilbao, Emery showed that streak remains within him.

It’s been another busy close season at the Sanchez Pizjuan for Monchi as he showed signs last season of getting back to his wheeling dealing best. Rakitic and Moreno depart for hefty fees but yet again it’s the players coming in that show real potential for the side. Iago Aspas arrives after a nightmare time at Liverpool to aid the attack but its the capture on loan of Gerard Deulofeu that could be really inspiring if the Barcelona youngster’s words are anything to go by:-

“My departure surprised me a bit, they made me come back from Everton and then later they told me I wouldn’t get minutes. But I don’t want to talk much about Barca, I want to talk about the year I am going to have here. I know that I am lacking some things from a defensive aspect and I will work to improve that. One of my aims is to show Luis Enrique he was wrong and above all show it to myself.”

And then the is arguably the signing of the summer. The sort of transfer that make you double check the fee involved because there had to be a typo in there surely? Ever Banega left Valencia to be reunited with his former manager for a paltry €2.5m. If Banega focuses on the football as he did during Valverde’s brief tenure at the Mestalla, Sevilla have a midfielder capable of dragging the team forward and one that will lessen the blow of losing last season’s talisman, Rakitic.

Emery showed last season that sometimes changes can be good as he juggled the squad on two fronts. If they can beat Athletic, Sevilla will finish 4th.

 

Athletic

There is something very reassuring about a side managed by Ernesto Valverde. You immediately know the type of football that you will see. His sides always display the same style and personality and Athletic are no different. The chaos of the Bielsa era was pushed aside as Valverde guided the Basques to 4th place last season and Champions League qualification. Subject to their game against Napoli, the possiblity of Champions League involvement or at the very least, Europa League football to contend with, it’s a season that will stretch the Athletic squad fully.

Borja Viguero arrives to strengthen the attack with Kike Sola recovering from injury but alongside Aduritz there is still a question mark over who will score the goals. None of the three are prolific. As usual there will be a reliance upon the midfield and the team in general to supplement the forwards and weigh in with a few goals.

Ander Herrara has departed but Benat should take his place in the side and hopefully rediscover Betis form. With a limited talent pool upon which to draw, Athletic are reliant upon their cantera for new talent. It’s tie for the likes of  of Laporte, Moran and Gomez to challenge for first team starting place on a regular basis Beyond that, will Iker Muniain consistently show his true capabilities rather than just fleeting moments?

 

Valencia

For the first time since season 2004/05, Valencia begin a season with no European football on the cards. What was perhaps viewed as a disappointment when last season ended, could become a blessing in disguise for the newly appointed inexperienced Portuguese manager Santo, who takes the helm backed by the finance of Peter Lim following his takeover of the club.

The loss of Bernat to Bayern Munich is considerable but the arrival of Mustafi, fresh from his involvement in Germany’s World Cup winning campaign, should offset that loss. Mathieu has also gone as a reshuffled backline will include the Argentinean Otamendi.

Last season, Jonas with a paltry 9 league goals was top scorer in league. It’s simply not good enough for a side with aspirations of qualifying for the Champions League. To remedy this, Rodrigo has joined from Benfica. Yet Valencia have sufficient creativity within their ranks to provide for the striker. Alcacer, Piatti and Parejo are all fine players meaning the loss of Banega should not be felt in the central midfield area.

Just how important free midweeks are will become apparent as the season wears on. With no distractions, Valencia will be able to mount a challenge in the league alone.  With a little luck, maybe the club will get through the entire season with the same manager?

 

Villarreal

Nobody expected Villarreal to perform as well as they did last season. And nobody will expect them to perform to quite the same level again but Marcelinho will need to continute the impressive form of the submarine. Again, another side who wil face the slog of Sunday, Thursday, Sunday football if a prolonged run in the Europa League takes hold and again, Villarreal has a squad that isn’t the strongest in terms of numbers.

Some good signings have arrived with Jonathan Dos Santos joining his brother at El Madrigal along with Rukavina and Cheryshev. Victor Ruiz comes in perhaps as a replacement for the departure of Mussachio. Whilst he has suffered in recent times since leaving Espanyol for Napoli, there is a good defender in Ruiz if Marcelinho can coax his best form again. The front end of the team has suffered with the loss of Perbet, Pereira and Aquino.

The Submarine will draw heavily upon the ability of Bruno, Trigueros, the aging limbs of Cani and the goals of Giovani Dos Santos if they are to replicate last season.

 

La Real

La Real could be the side to slip a little further down the pecking order this season. Whilst the loss of Bravo and Griezmann have been covered with Rulli and Finnbogason, you have to consider the drop in quality alongside the loss previously of Illarramendi. True, he has been replaced by Granero but the continued loss of such key performers to be replaced by quality but lesser quality as an effect. Arrasate can only do so much and with Xabi Prieto a little older and a little slower, much will depend upon the ability of Pardo. Can he confirm a place in the side and offer something different?

Much will also weigh heavily upon Vela this season. Finnbogason may have scored elsewhere but it’s a step up in quality for him this season. Vela will be the focal point for the attack now.

There’s always the nagging feeling with La Real that they are happy just to be there. That they lack the mentality to take the fight on that little bit further. A further slip down the league beckons for La Real.

 

 

And for the rest of La Liga, it’s the usual mix. Teams that will defy the odds and perform well whilst some other teams will go on prolonged runs of poor form and get dragged into the seemingly endless relegation mire that will go the final day of the season as is customary in Spain. And with the usual dozen or so permutations on who could be relegated due to the head to head ruling.

Unsurprisingly, the newly promoted minnows of Eibar and Cordoba are odds on favourites for a swift return to the Segunda. The third side to accompany them upwards into La Liga are also third favourites to return but things could look different up in Galicia this season. Deportivo have the ability to stay in the top flight.

 

Deportivo – Upsetting the Odds?

Last time around Depor didn’t have any problems creating and scoring goals but their leaky defence conceded 70, only fellow relegated side Real Mallorca conceded more than that. That problem was solved in the Segunda last season with the defence only conceding 36 goals but the trade off was an attack that hit just 48 goals in 42 games. Victor Fernandez favouring a more conservative style of play that gained the necessary points to get promotion. Don’t expect dramatic changes this season either. Grinding out points will be key to survival but more goals are still needed. To remedy this, the usual influx of players on loan have arrived at the Riazor. The revolving door policy doesn’t breed stability but such a term isn’t really understood at the financially stricken club.

One player who has joined permanently on a 12 month contract and who, with the greatest respect to Deportivo, should be playing at a higher level is Isaac Cuenca. If the former Barcelona winger can recapture his early career form before injury stalled his development, Depor will have a genuine creative force to supplement their attack. It won’t be a spectacular season but a finish outside the relegation zone is achievable and will be considered a success whilst confounding the bookies in the process.

 

The Boys from Vallecas – Rayo

If Atleti and their fans are wondering if lighting can strike twice, the fans of Rayo are pondering the unthinkable. Can it strike for the third time? Can Paco Jemez really lead Rayo Vallecano to safety for the third season in a row?

Sadly, I fear for Rayo this season. This may be just one step too far and the relative late season comfort they have enjoyed in the past two seasons may be missing this season.

“The team is under construction, but we’re slowly settling in.”

Paco Jémez

Construction is the apt word. For every season, Paco Jemez aided by Sportin Director Minambres set about rebuilding the foundations in Vallecas. This season, an astonishing 19 players departed leaving just eight first team players. So far, a further 12 players have joined. As normal, there seems to be an abundance of creativity with the likes of Jonathan Pereira, Aquino, Pozuelo and Kakuta but where will the goals come from? The loss of Larrivey could be significant as his replacement in Manucho doesn’t inspire confidence with just 14 goals in his 57 games for Vallodolid. And further back, the defence needs work. Rayo have conceded 146 goals in two seasons under Jemez in the top flight, a frightening amount.

With such a huge turnaround of players, an adaptation period would take time for any team. When you have a team with one of the smallest budgets in the league attempting to dominate possession and play one of the most expansive style of football in the league, that adaptation period is extended and mistakes will occur. For Rayo, this frequently ends in heavy defeats early in the season. Pressing opponents all over the pitch and playing a very high offside line is not something that comes naturally to all players. Positioning and coordination the team unit takes time.

The ability of players to adapt is essential. If not, Rayo will have serious problems hence the decision to allow new signing Boateng to depart just two months after arrival. The Ghanian unable to adjust to the demands of Jemez. Results may be unfavourable early on just like last season but don’t expect Paco Jemez to change. That won’t happen:-

“I’m not interested in just winning any old way… This is what we wanted. This is the way we are. This is what we are”

If it’s goals and excitement you want this season, Rayo Vallecano are the team for you. And with a little extra support, maybe, just maybe they can escape relegation.

Week 8 Observations

Some thoughts from week 8 of La Liga.

Whatever Happened to La Real?

The side that played with such verve and guile last season finds itself languishing in 15th position. The opening day victory over Getafe must seem like a long time ago. The home and away wins over Lyon in the Champions League that offered such cautious optimism for the European Campaign ahead must seem like a false dawn now with defeats from Shakhtar and Leverkusen leaving La Real at the bottom of their group.

Just four goals have been scored in the seven league games since defeating Getafe yet, excluding the four goals conceded against Barcelona in a heavy defeat, La Real have conceded only 5 goals in the other 6 league fixtures. The Basques are falling on the wrong side of fine margins.

La Real average 13 shots at goal per game but are conceding almost 14 per game. It’s only a small change from last season where they averaged 1.7 shots per game more and conceded 0.5 shots per game less. The side are playing well at times but they are too open. A slight deviation from last season’s formation has seen the side open up but the attacking talent on offer is not performing as well as they did last season. Vela struggles for goals and Griezmann only opened his league account against Sevilla last week.

Further back the loss of Illarramendi has affected the balance in midfield and new coach Arrasate has not yet addressed that issue. Do Sociedad become more adventurous or retain the more cautious style that has taken them this far?

It’s only October and Sociedad languished in 13th position at the International break last season with 3 home wins and 4 away defeats. Montannier then oversaw a fantastic run of form to propel them to the Champions League. La Real won’t struggle in the bottom half of the table and they will improve. Just don’t expect another run of form like last season.

A Triumph of the Individual over the Collective

And that neatly summarises the season thus far for Real Madrid. We all knew Ancelotti had significant work on his hands when he took the reins in the summer but the extent of the job is only now becoming completely apparent.

Ignore the late comeback against Levante. It’s simply placing some wallpaper over a large crack. Real Madrid will always have more talented players than a club like Levante. The teams are operating in a different league financially and that gulf in resources is transferred onto the pitch. That three points were gained is arguably the only positive from the game. What occurred on Saturday night was one side playing to their maximum as a team unit whilst the opposition struggled to perform and have any clear identity of what they were actually trying to achieve. Madrid was reliant upon individual moments to drag the team across the finish line.

How does Ancelotti deal with this?

The Italian has always been able to squeeze talented players into the starting eleven throughout his career. The problem at Madrid is two fold; the change in system and the skill sets of the players at his disposal. Can Madrid really change from a counter attacking side to one that builds and retains possession? How does he get players to complement each other? How can he squeeze Ronaldo and Bale into the team without both simply wanting to run with the ball into space? Maybe he already has the solution to both problems even if Xabi Alonso is still on the injury list.

This could be Ancelotti’s biggest challenge.

The Race for 4th

Did anyone see Villarreal beginning the season this well? Returning to the top flight after a one season absence, Marcelinho has the side playing a fluent brand of football that is almost synonymous with the yellow submarine. With a few slight differences.

This side are now a counter attacking team. A team that is content to allow the opponent to come forward before striking. The submarine average 46% possession per game as the opponent probes away before the submarine attacks with pace and mobility in wide forward areas with willing runners from the second line of attack. The middle of the park is ably marshalled by Bruno and Cani.

A trip to Bilbao and a home game against Valencia will test the character of the side later this month. Come through both unscathed and maybe people will seriously consider Villarreal as challengers for a European position.

Their opponents later this month, Athletic and Valencia, played out an average 1-1 draw at the new San Mames. The endeavour on display outweighed the quality significantly.  Meanwhile, Sevilla actually won a game and reclaimed some ground on most teams above. As Emery chops and changes his side, an element of consistency of selection has to emerge over the coming weeks. With a further two winnable games coming up against Valladolid and Osasuna, sides likely to be facing relegation battles later in the season, Emery and his side must take full advantage. The narrow and somewhat fortuitous home win over Almeria courtesy of a 92nd minute goal from Rakitic secured the first 3points of the month. The Croatian must be played further forward. His creativity is wasted in a deep lying role. A further minimum of 6 points needs to be gathered this month to drag Sevilla back into the race for 4th position.

Atleti vs Real – Tactical Analysis – The Real Deal?

And they march on, into 4th place in the league.

La Real have now won nine, drawn seven and lost just once in their last 17 league games (and they should have managed to avoid that defeat against 10 man Real Madrid) as they climb the league into a position entirely fitting for the quality within the squad.

Atleti began and ended the game in 3rd place following Madrid’s win and for the first time this season, they are below their rivals in the league. The last 100% home record in a major European league falls with Atleti suffering their first defeat at home since their cross town opponents arrived and departed with three points late last season.

Line Ups

Simeone reinstated Gabi to central midfield following his suspension to be joined by Koke with Mario missing the game due to suspension.

Courtois continued in goal with Abel Resino’s 20 year old Atleti domestic record for duration without conceding at home within touching distance. Coutois last conceded a league goal at home in October 2012. The record would eventually fall in the 34th minute and be extended by a further 33 minutes before Prieto struck.

Simeone went with a 4-4-2, Diego Costa supporting Falcao in attack.

Atleti vs Real Starting Line Ups

Atleti vs Real Starting Line Ups

Montanier moved Aggirexte to the bench including Zurutuza in an advanced midfield role. A move which could be construed as negative depending upon your perspective, Montanier would surely argue it provided the necessary base to begin the game against Atleti.

Vela and Griezmann would alternate positions during the game between left wing and striker.

Real started with eight players who had progressed to the first team via their cantera

Real Sociedad Shape

Atleti enjoyed better possession early in the game but too often it was in an area of the pitch which could not hurt Real. Aside from a few long range efforts which went wide, the only real threat in the opening stages arrived via the charging runs of Diego Costa, buoyed by his call up to the Brazil squad, moving into the left channel between Carlos Martinez and Mikel Gonzalez. One such run ended abruptly under the challenge of Gonzalez, earning the defender a yellow card.

Whilst Atleti would look to start the game strongly, they were able to enjoy possession by an opponent that was content to drop deep, concede possession and only press Atleti as they entered their half of the field. In the 10th minute, Vela, the most advanced Sociedad player, received the ball near the halfway line with no available team mates near him to pass to, eventually conceded a foul.

The graphic below shows the heat map for Real Sociedad throughout the entire game:-

Real Sociedad Shape

Real Sociedad Shape          http://www.squawka.com

This clearly illustrates just how deep Real sat and how little attacking threat they possessed.

It’s a dangerous game to defend so deeply whilst having such little impact on the break. Real possess players with the correct qualities to counter attack but last night was more of a team effort than a few individuals showcasing their ability. All players worked to earn the result.

As the first half progressed, Real became more comfortable and allowed their personality to show more, carefully avoiding Atleti pressing with short sharp passing enabling play to switch flanks and attacks to be built. There was still little attacking threat from the Basque’s but the side were moving higher up the pitch and enjoying more possession. They were of course, still wary of the quality of the Atleti counter attack.

Defensive Solidity

Part of the success of La Real has been the ability to retain their shape in the face of adversity this season. “To suffer” as Philippe Montanier states but to retain their resolve in such circumstances before triumphing.

The graphic below shows that Real won 21 tackles from an attempted 24 tackles during the course of the game but the location is important. Atleti were constantly forced wide during the game. Real defended compactly with Bergara and Illarramedi shielding their defence and avoiding space developing between the defensive and midfield line. With limited options centrally, Atleti were forced to attack via the flanks yet as they did so, they found Xabi Prieto and Antoine Griezmann tracking Filipe Luis and Juanfran preventing los rojiblancos from having two on one situations:-

Real Sociedad Tackles

Real Sociedad Tackles          http://www.squawka.com

Their defensive solidity was aided by a well organised offside trap, the line being held around the edge of the penalty area when required preventing Atleti from getting in behind them.

The concern for Montanier though was that given how deep Sociedad were defending, when they did get the ball, they were a considerable distance from Courtois and too many players had dropped back to defend. The opportunity for counters was not really in position.

Atleti Attack

The main problem for Atleti last night was their lack of guile and craft to break down an organised and structured defence. Much of the success of Atleti has come from their ability to absorb pressure and counter attack swiftly. A highly efficient reactive side that allows opponents to take the initiative. Last night, Atleti were undone by an opponent using their own game plan.

Atleti had numerous attempts at goal as the graphic below shows, but they were wayward and failed to test Claudio Bravo in the Sociedad goal. Only one scrambled save  in the second half presented any test for the Chilean goalkeeper:-

Atleti Shots

Atleti Shots                      http://www.squawka.com

The graphic also highlights the tendency for Atleti to focus their attacks from their left,  an area that will be explored.

Atleti Take Ons

Atleti began the second half with greater intensity to their play, moving the ball quicker and placed the Real defence under some early pressure. With a lack of creativity in the ranks, Atleti often attempted take ons against their opponents but this provided little success either. From 18 takes ons attempted, just six were successful.

The graphic below shows this in addition to identifying the location of the take ons:-

Atleti Take Ons

Atleti Take Ons           http://www.squawka.com

Too much of the Atleti attack focussed on the left wing with Diego Costa drifting across there and supported by Rodriguez in the first half. The same balance is not found on the right where Arda Turan drifts inward and adopts a central position leaving Juanfran alone on the right to offer width.

Although Xabi Prieto scored the solitary goal arriving on the Atleti left, the move began on the Atleti right with Griezmann releasing the pass to Prieto.

Real Sociedad always had options on their left, the Atleti right, during the game.

Simeone made a number of substitutions later on to try and forge a way back int the game but the moves gave Atleti a muddled look with an even greater imbalance on the left prevalent. Play was no longer constructed but revolved around a series of balls into the box or trying to take an opponent on. There was nobody orchestrating play from midfield forward. Nobody probing the Real defence.

Conclusions

Simeone will now gain a better understanding of the mental resilience of his players. Having led Madrid all season, they now find themselves playing catch up as the season moves into the final stretch.

It also provides glimpse into the future for Atleti under Simeone. Teams will increasingly defend deep against them and force Atleti to take the initiative. In such games, Simeone must develop alternative strategies in all likelihood aided by a more creative central player. Such a move may disrupt the double pivot which he favours but it could become an invaluable weapon in his arsenal.

Real Sociedad began this season with six defeats in their first ten league games but the defeat of Atleti marked their third away win in a row.

Montanier has struck the balance, the dividing line between being overly conservative during games and adopting a counter attacking strategy, one in which the players are able to express themselves and display their personality. The final Champions League place is now there for the taking, if La Real can prove they are the real deal.

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.

Barcelona vs Real Sociedad: Tactical Analysis

Montanier made the unusual choice of beginning the game with the club’s joint top scorers from last season both on the bench alongside him. Griezmann started in attack alongside Illarramendi with new signing Castro making his debut on the left wing.

Sociedad adopted a 4-4-2 formation at the outset of the game.

Real Sociedad Starting Line Up

Real Sociedad Approach

Whilst examining the Barcelona performance in closer detail, it must be remembered that this was a Sociedad side that were prepared to use two strikers and tried to attack. It’s doubtful if many opponents will arrive at the Camp Nou this season with such an outlook. The approach was tempered somewhat after the half time interval when Illarramendi dropped deeper to form a midfield five to stem the tide flowing towards the Sociedad goal. A 4-5-1 formation was utilised from this point onwards with Griezmann becoming isolated as the lone striker.

First Half

The game began in explosive fashion with four goals in the opening fifteen minutes. What was most interesting though was the intensity which Barcelona were displaying. The side appeared reinvigorated and pressed Sociedad as soon as possible, forcing the Basques onto the back foot. The passing was quick throughout as Barcelona seemed to rediscover the hunger and desire that had been lacking during parts of last season. Barcelona also sought to open up the play with crossfield diagonal passing occurring to both full backs and wingers, stretching their opponent and turning the Sociedad defence.

With a 4-1 half time lead, the second half revolved around retaining possession for Barcelona, mindful of the upcoming Super Cup fixture against Real Madrid. The final goal was scored by Villa who made his first competitive appearance since his injury in December 2011.

Given that this was as straight forward an opening fixture for Barcelona as you are likely to witness, it is worth considering a few key points which could be indicative of how Vilanova wants his Barcelona side to play. Clearly, these are early days in the Vilanova regime and we must not make any rash judgements nonetheless there are learning points here.

Tello

Speculation has surrounded Tello during the close season and he still retains a B team squad listing although he has been advised he will feature for the first team. Whilst his starting role may have surprised many, it was entirely justified following an excellent performance which witnessed two assists in the first half.

Making the breakthrough at the same time as his colleague Cuenca inevitably leads to comparisons despite both being very different players. Tello was able to thrive against Sociedad as the Basques were very attack minded which allowed Tello to use his pace to good effect. Holding a wide position, there was ample space behind the Sociedad back line for Tello to drive into. Against a deeper lying defence, Tello may find his pace is not as useful with limited space on offer. He provided snapshots of close control and played a lovely cross for Pedro’s goal. His decision making and final ball are two areas needing further development if he is to be considered as something other than just an extremely fast player. Last night suggested he may have a role to play in the longer term.

Full Backs

Both Dani Alves and Jordi Alba pushed high up the pitch and supported their respective winger especially Alba who impressed on his home debut and overlapped Tello on a few occasion when the opportunity arose.

Over the past few seasons we have become accustomed to witnessing Alves bomb forward on the right whilst Abidal adopted a more conservative position on the left alternating between holding the left back position around the halfway line or forming a defensive trio by slotting in as the left sided centre back. With Alba playing, this option of conservatism is removed.

Whether such an approach would be encouraged against higher quality opposition remains to be seen.

Sociedad scored the equalising goal when Castro moved in behind Alves, hitting the ball high into the roof of the net. The space existed not because Alves was caught high up the pitch but due to poor positional play. Alves moved infield, far too close to Puyol which provided Castro with the space to control the pass from Illarramedi before scoring.

Will the left flank of Barcelona prove to be stronger than the right flank this season? Given the role which Dani Alves has fulfilled over the past few seasons, it seems inconceivable but last night Alba provided evidence of his attacking ability allied to the defensive side of his game which he learned under Unai Emery.

Furthermore, can Barcelona really play with both full backs being so attack minded?

Will the midfield need to compensate?

Midfield

There were two interesting features in the Barcelona midfield. Firstly, Fabregas was in the team as a midfielder and in place of Iniesta. This required Fabregas to drop deeper on occasion which he did although he still linked with Messi when permitted. There appeared to be greater fluidity between the three midfielders.

This was aided as, secondly, Busquets played in a fairly high position on occasion especially during the first half when he pushed up to lend support to the trio of Xavi, Fabregas and Messi. Although still ostensibly the defensive midfielder in the team, there was greater movement between Busquets and the other two midfielders.

This increased movement was necessary as the duos of Alves and Alba and Pedro and Tello were holding very wide, high starting positions. Without Busquets pushing on, Barcelona would have been left numerically outnumbered in the centre of the pitch.

The impact of pushing Busquets further forward meant that Barcelona only had Maschearno and Puyol defending.

Are Barcelona going to play more aggressively this season?

Conclusions

There are relatively high hopes for Sociedad this season. Coach Philippe Montanier has a talented, if mainly youthful, squad at his disposal and coaxing the maximum from those at his disposal could reap rewards. The disappointing result from last night must not be allowed to adversely affect team morale.

The first step in the Vilanova era for Barcelona and one which hinted at some subtle alterations whilst demonstrating that the side has lost not of the hunger and desire which drove them to such success over the past few years. This was no tactical success in this game. Simply, Barcelona had vastly superior players to their opponent.

The upcoming Super Cup games against Real Madrid will provide a significantly sterner test of Vilanova’s tactical acumen.